One April morning, tribals of the Munda community held an emergency gram sabha meeting at Ghaghra village in Khunti district of Jharkhand. After a few hours, they arrived at a decision: they would boycott the coming election. After all, said one of those who turned up at the meeting, “All these years we have voted and only been exploited in return”.
Ghaghra is one of 100-odd villages in Khunti that were part of the Pathalgadi movement in 2017-18, when stone plaques had come up outside villages, declaring the gram sabha as the only sovereign authority.
Over the next couple of years, following a crackdown and the arrest of top Pathalgadi leaders, the movement has largely petered out. Yet, the fault lines have persisted. Now, with days left for May 6, when the Khunti Lok Sabha seat votes, the bitterness following the crackdown on the movement has resurfaced.
Numbers low but anger counts
The Pathalgadi movement saw widespread protest in Adivasi areas. Although the number of voters is significantly less vis-à-vis the total number of electors in Khunti, the simmering anger over State ‘repression’ is a poll issue
The BJP has not given a ticket to incumbent MP Kariya Munda and instead fielded Arjun Munda, who has been thrice Jharkhand CM and who will take on mahagathbandhan candidate, Kalicharan Munda of the Congress.
Activist Kalyan Nag, who works for tribal rights in Khunti, says parties must take note of their anger. “We can debate the correctness of the boycott, but if people start rejecting candidates because they think that they will be exploited, it’s not healthy for democracy.”
The rival parties, however, said they were confident people would turn out to vote. “It is a shame for the government if some people are not voting. We are sure that our candidate will respect them,” said Jharkhand Congress spokesperson Rajesh Thakur.
BJP spokesperson Pradeep Sinha dismissed the boycott call, saying, “People who are boycotting anyway don’t support the BJP, so there is nothing to lose… The BJP’s vote bank in Khunti will not be affected.”
In 2014, the Khunti Lok Sabha constituency, with 11.1 lakh electors, had recorded a turnout of 66.34 per cent. In 2018, the Pathalgadi movement had taken its first violent turn in Ghaghra village. On June 26 that year, angry over police raids against one of their leaders, Pathalgadi supporters in Ghaghra and neighbouring areas had held a protest. Police had detained a few, following which Pathalgadi supporters abducted three guards and a policeman from the residence of Kariya Munda in Anigara. When talks failed, police had cracked down, resulting in the death of one person.
Following the incident, cases had been registered against several villagers. With its men, including the sarpanch, still in jail, Ghaghra remains wary of the administration and its representatives.
Talking of why they decided to boycott the election, a villager said: “They want to force development on us, but we want to be consulted first. The government says we are deshdrohis (anti-nationals), then why should we vote? If we say that the district administration should not enter without our permission, it is because we have been exploited enough.”
Asked of their expectations from the government, the villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Pehle hamare logon ko jail se riha kare, phir baat karenge (First they should get our people out of jail, then we will talk).”
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