Updated: January 28, 2018 7:11:36 pm
Item No. 14 had caught everyone’s attention. “Dular Chok (a loving embrace),” read the handbill, in Devnagiri script, listing out programmes to be held at an annual tribal fair in Jharkhand’s Pakur district. But when the event was finally held on December 8, on the first day of the two-day fair, the BJP cried foul: the ‘embrace’ had ended up being a lip-lock competition that, the party alleged, had “maligned tribal culture” and “lowered the dignity of Santhali women”.
At least 18 tribal couples participated in the competition held at Dumaria village in Littipara block of the district. The couple who kissed the longest walked home with Rs 900; the runner-up Rs 700 and the third Rs 500.
The fair, organised by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Littipara MLA Simon Marandi, who is from Dumaria village, is considered a major event here, with programmes on Santhali culture and traditions drawing tribals from villages as far as 40 km away. Named after tribal icons Siddo Murmu and Kanu Murmu, the fair used to be organised by then Congress leader Thomas Hansda at Tal Pahari, a village neighbouring Dumaria. As Marandi grew politically, about 10 years ago, the fair moved to his native village.
While Kapur Chandra Saha, one of the key members of the organising committee, says he is “unsure” if this was the first time a kissing competition was held as part of the fair — “I think earlier fairs too had it” — locals and the administration say it was a first.
News of the kissing competition spread soon, first with the local press highlighting it and later, with the BJP officially condemning it. “It is an attempt to lower the dignity of tribal women and harm their traditions,” BJP vice-president Hemlal Murmu said at a press conference on December 11. The party, which has been looking to make inroads in the Santhal-Paragana region, a traditional JMM stronghold, even blamed Christian missionaries for encouraging the event.
The district administration ordered an inquiry, which recommended registration of an FIR for “indecent act in a public place”. But no FIR has been filed so far. Pakur Sub-Divisional Officer Jitendra Kumar Deo says, “Our inquiry revealed that nearly 18 couples participated. Prima facie, we concluded that it was an act of indecency in public.” Asked why the administration had ordered an inquiry when they knew of the event in advance, Deo says, “The organisers had not explained to us the nature of the event.” Saha, the organising committee member, dismisses the controversy. “We had distributed the handbills more than 45 days before the event and advertised in Pakur and neighbouring districts. We had informed the administration. We weren’t hiding anything. Anyway, if it was so bad, why would so many people come?,” he says.
Bhim Marandi, a Santhali youth who was also among the organisers, says, “Santhals don’t have an issue. Just because (MLA Simon) Marandi is now in the JMM and not the BJP, the BJP is raising objections.” He adds, “Maharaj, hum log ke yahaan to ladki pasand aati hai, to uska ghar se le ke aate hain; yahaan aap kiss ka baat kar rahen hain (Sir, if we Santhals fall in love with a girl, we simply go to her house and bring her; and here you are fussing over a kiss). I married the same way. I brought home the girl I liked; her parents did not object. Live-in relationships are very common. In fact, in some cases, people get married after their kids get married.”
The BJP disagrees. Daniyal Kisku, a member of the state ST cell of the BJP and a local, says, “To say that Santhals are by and large liberal about love and marriage is one thing, but crass public exhibition is another thing. People lead their lives as per traditions. They fall in love and marry, but there is an entire system in place to deal with such things.” He alleges that MLA Marandi is an “old hand at introducing such concepts — he once held a beauty pageant of Santhali women”. On the BJP’s charge that Christian missionaries were involved, Kisku says, “Maybe. What we know for sure is that what happened was wrong and the elders of the Santhal community are angry.”
Marandi has since tried to distance himself from the event, saying “local boys” organise the fair and he only lends his name to it. However, he sticks to his defence of the event as an idea to save Santhal marriages. “Divorce rate is high in the Santhal community. Only married couples participated in the event. The idea was to get married couples to bond better. What does the BJP know about Santhal traditions?”
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