It is brother versus brother at the Khunti Assembly seat. BJP’s Kariya Munda, a former parliamentarian from the seat, has two sons – Jagarnath and Amarnath. While Jagarnath, the elder brother, has continued with his father’s party and is canvassing for BJP candidate Nilkanth Singh Munda, younger brother Amarnath has switched loyalties and has been campaigning for JMM’s Sushil Pahan.
Khunti is scheduled to go to polls in Phase II of Jharkhand’s Assembly elections on December 7.
A BJP’s bastion in the Assembly polls, Nilkanth Munda, the incumbent, is seeking a fourth term as an MLA from Khunti. At an rally at Sasodih village, Jagarnath says, “The BJP has worked for the people and the party will win.”
At nearby Anigara village, around 2 km from Khunti town, Amarnath stands amidst a gathering propagating the “misgovernance of (Chief Minister) Raghubar Das”. “Look at what has happened during the BJP government. There are problems of electricity, water, ration. People want change, but the voices fade,” Amarnath says. With a JMM flag on his vehicle, he rushed to a different village.
Villagers of the area have dubbed the election a contest of bada bhai and chhota bhai (elder brother and younger brother), and claim they have not made up their minds about who to vote for.
Also in the fray is tribal journalist and activist Dayamani Barla on a JVM-P ticket. In several villages, this has divided the anti-BJP votes. In Ghahgra village, a villagers who wished anonymity said: “We will vote this time and we will decide in the gram sabha.”
In Khunti town, sentiments are ripe in favour of BJP. At a tea stall, a local trader says that the people would vote in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “There are lot of problems: there no local industries or railway stations, or a good hospital. For every essential service, we have to rush to Ranchi. We will vote for Modi ji and hope for some development,” he says.
However, the Pathalgadi movement also looms large over the area. It began in 2017-18, when giant stone plaques had come up outside villages in the district, declaring the gram sabha as the only sovereign authority. The plaques had inscriptions from the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled areas) Act or PESA, which the tribals quoted to claim their independence from the state and assert their rights and culture.
While the movement has petered out, villagers have not forgotten what they call “police brutality” and “state’s repression”. A total of 19 cases of sedition have been invoked against 172 people.
Around 100 villages with a combined population of around 20,000 had pledged to boycott the general elections in May. And the result was palpable: Arjun Munda, who would go on to become the Union Minister for Tribal Affairs, won by a thin margin of just 1,445 votes.
However, in the Assembly elections, residents say the anti-BJP sentiment in the Pathalgadi areas may make a difference for the winning candidate.