Festering sore: new domicile policy turns Jharkhand into a tinderbox
On 14 May, Ranchi was gripped by fear. Shops were shut and traffic was thin; horse-mounted police patrolled the streets and drones watched down from the sky.
The scenes brought back memories from over a decade ago when mayhem reigned and at least half a dozen people were killed. The trigger then as now was the domicile policy, which has divided the people of a state created on the promise of development between "Jharkhandis" and "outsiders".
So, when the opposition parties, led by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, called a shutdown on 14 May to protest the government's new domicile policy, people feared the worst. Luckily, such fears didn't come true. Save for stray incidents of violence in Jamshedpur and Bokaro, the bandh passed off peacefully, due in large measure to the detention of over 8,000 protestors. The tension though is still palpable.
Since the domicile policy was announced by Chief Minister Raghubar Das, political parties have struggled to articulate their stand. They seem to have been stumped by the nuances of the policy. The JMM had tried to organise a bandh soon after the announcement but it did not evoke much response from the people, not least because of the unprecedented security arrangements put in place by the government.
What's the policy all about?
The new policy has fixed six parameters to decide the domicile status of a resident. Only one, however, is contentious: 1985 as the base year. That is, the policy effectively lays down that any person residing in the state since 1985 is a "Jharkhandi".
The JMM, on the other hand, has demanded that domicile be decided on the basis of Khatiyan, or land records, of 1932. But why 1932? The party hasn't come out with a convincing argument.
"JMM or the other parties will never openly spell out the reasons for this demand. That is because they need the votes of 'outsiders'," says the author Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, who is an expert on Adivasi affairs. "But the people know why Khatiyan of 1932 should be part of the essential domicile criteria."
Pankaj explains: "Everybody knows the influx of outsiders in Jharkhand began after the nationalisation of coal mines in the 1960s. Major industries like Ranchi's Heavy Engineering Corporation and steel plants in Bokaro were established during this period. It was the beginning of the divide between the 'moolnivasis' and the 'outsiders'."
The migrants, Pankaj claims, have not integrated into the local culture. They are still more attached to their native places and have their own cultures. "For them, Jharkhand is just a place to earn money," he says, adding that "native people fear that the new policy will make the migrants 'Jharkhandis', to the detriment of the former.
Why is it controversial?
JMM leader and former Chief Minister Hemant Soren has vowed to oppose the implementation of the policy as "it's against the interests of Jharkhandis". He has even threatened to use sticks and arrows to drive out the "outsiders".
Soren is, of course, pandering to his core vote bank of Adivasis. To blunt his rhetoric, Raghubar Das has pointed out that Soren never tried to sort the issue out while he was chief minister. JMM does not seem to have any convincing counter to this argument.
The other opposition parties - the Congress, JD(U), RJD - have not openly opposed the policy lest they alienate the vote banks among "migrants", and, more important, harm their prospects in the neighboring states, where a large number of the "migrants" are from.
BJP's ally All Jharkhand Students Union is in a bind. It claims to represent the local ethnic population but can't take a stand that benefits its direct rival JMM. Besides, the party has a significant non-Adivasi vote bank of its own to keep in good humour.
Babulal Marandi of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha seems inclined to oppose the policy, but he is being silenced by the same arguments the BJP is using against Soren. BJP leaders don't tire pointing out that Marandi was the first one to rake up this issue in 2002, yet did nothing to resolve it when he was chief minister.
Does it benefit the BJP?
Not that the BJP itself is united behind this policy. In fact, Raghubar Das was compelled to announce the policy - a campaign promise of the BJP - after 28 of the ruling party's MLAs sent him a letter in this regard. This has provided Das' chief rival within the party, Arjun Munda, an opening to sound the bugle of revolt, with the former chief minister describing the move as being against the interests of Jharkhand. This has confirmed Das' suspicion that Munda was behind the letter sent by the 28 MLAs.
To Das' great relief, BJP's central leaders have taken notice of the situation, and is expected to silence Munda, at least for now. They believe Das has only strengthened the BJP through this policy. The argument goes thus: as a vote bank, the "outsiders" were divided among various parties, but now they will see the BJP as their sole champion.
To ensure "moolnivasi" votes are not lost as a result, the party is planning to appease them with the claim the new policy would open up opportunities for them in Grade III and Grade IV government jobs. As the minister CP Singh puts it, "We never stopped any party from making a domicile policy. But no party was ready to bite the bullet. Now, when we have taken the step, they are unnecessarily crying foul. Our motive is to benefit the local population by giving them job benefits."
Still, the policy may come back to haunt the BJP. Adivasi activist Vandana Tete argues that it's not merely a matter of state jobs but also of the pride of Jharkhand. "BJP may seem to have brightened its future through this move but the future of Jharkhand has become uncertain," she says. "The people of Jharkhand take time to wake up. But they will give a befitting reply to this government. All the natives know that their silence would result in complete domination by the outside population. For this policy could even take away our cultural freedom."
Vandana continues: "This spark could turn into a wildfire. The people of Jharkhand will fight against this injustice. It will have short-term gains for the BJP. But it will have to forget Jharkhand in the longer run. The party won't find a single Adivasi leader to join its ranks."
Translated by Deepak Sharma
Edited by Mehraj D Lone