Solomon David, a Jesuit priest who works among the adivasis of Santhal Pargana, recounts an incident from 2008. “We were at a meeting in a village,” he said. “An old man, possibly drunk, stood up and shouted in Santhali, ‘We will take back, we will take back! We will take back Jharkhand!’” The cry dates back to the Jharkhand movement.
Jharkhand’s creation in 2000 had passed by that old villager. That moment signified the failure of a political party that came to embody the demand for Jharkhand. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which once stood for an ideal, has shrunk, now confined to a corner of its leader’s family. Tainted and shorn of ideas and leaders, it now faces an old challenger in its bastion, someone who knows that defeating its leader can effectively end the JMM.
“Let them talk. People will always talk. Who can stop them?” said the 70-year-old Shibu Soren. He was referring to the fight fellow Santhal and former chief minister Babulal Marandi, who now heads the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik), was giving him in Dumka. Though Marandi himself would not admit it, his supporters say he wants his party to replace the JMM. Neither can survive a scrap: they are after the same votes in the region — those of the Muslims and the Santhals, the largest tribal group with 34 per cent of the 26.2 per cent adivasis.
This is the fourth time Soren and Marandi, outgoing MPs from Dumka and Koderma, will go up against each other. Having won in 1991and 1996, Soren lost to then BJP member Marandi in 1998. Marandi evened his score against the Soren family in 1999, when he defeated Soren’s wife Rupi Kisku.
However, JMM will feel inadequate going into this fight. It has lost its tallest leaders in the Santhal Paragana to its fiercest rivals: Stephen Marandi is with Babulal Marandi; Hemlal Murmu has joined the BJP; Simon Marandi, minister in the Hemant Soren government, is not campaigning for Soren after his son was denied the Rajmahal ticket.
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“JMM as an idea went to the coffin a long time ago. It is a party of opportunists now,” said Sanjay Basu Mallick, forest rights campaigner who has worked with the leaders of the Jharkhand movement. The perception that JMM is a party of the Santhals shattered in Dumka, the party stronghold. The only adivasi leader of note is Shiba Baskey, constituency representative of Hemant Soren.
Mallick says the tribal middle class has captured the party. “His sidekicks talk more than Shibu. They need Shibu and Hemant only to pull tribal votes,” he said. For the same reason, Mallick believes the JMM will survive if Soren is not active in politics anymore. “It will be a difficult existence but this middle class will continue to speak to Hemant,” he said, adding that Hemant does not have a “tribal flavour in him”.
This time, the party looks weak across the board. Its best Mahato leaders are dead. In places like Jamshedpur, the Muslims voted strategically to attempt to defeat the BJP. The Majhi (Santhal) vote will also go to Marandi as well as the BJP.
But the party would have you believe that all is well and rumours of its demise are exaggerated. “It all starts here; it ends here. It does not matter if others leave,” said general secretary Binod Pandey.
A senior BJP leader who has worked closely with Soren believes he will have to make a comeback: “Hemant will prove to be incapable soon. Guruji wanted to be CM when they pulled down the Munda government last year; he will have to take charge again to energise the party.”
The question of JMM with Shibu Soren receding into the background may be an irrelevant one. “Shibu has not been in control for the last 10 years. First, Durga (eldest son, now deceased) ran the party. Now, Hemant,” said the member of a major NGO in the region.