An eastern Indian folk tale goes like this: on a new moon night, some thieves entered a priest's house. His wife tried to raise an alarm, but the priest warned her to lie quietly as the thieves ransacked the house.
"The stars were not aligned tonight," said the priest, when his wife asked him why he had refrained from raising an alarm.
Then, on the next full moon night, the priest started shouting "Thieves! Thieves!" Villagers wondered where the thieves were, but the priest told the bewildered crowd, "They were here on the new moon night but the time was not auspicious then."
Something similar went down in Jharkhand's Santhal Pargana region in September and October.
On 16 October, around 25,000 Adivasis from seven states gathered at Bhognadih village, to 'purify' the statues of tribal icons Sido Murmu and Kanhu Murmu. Bhognadih is the native village of these freedom fighters, who had led native rebellion against the British and the corrupt upper caste zamindari system in 1855-56.
But according to the available information, it all began on 15 September when somebody spat on the statues of Sido and Kanhu. Soon, the outrage took an ugly turn as the descendants of the tribal icons clashed with the persons of a particular community. Over half-a-dozen people from Sido-Kanhu's lineage were reported injured in the violence.
The local police responded by registering cases against one Mahbul Ansari and his brothers. While Mahbul was later arrested and sent to jail, the incident triggered rumours in the area that the statues had been razed.
The sequence of events that followed culminated in the form of the 16 October rally, organised by several tribal organisations including the All India Manjhi Pargana Organisation, Disom Manjhi Than and Jaher Than Samiti.
When hordes of Adivasis started pouring into the venue with traditional weapons, the local administration imposed Section 144 in the Barhet Police Station area. The entire area was barricaded and the main organisers, Ramakrishna Soren, Joseph Soren, Neelu Soren, Sarkar Hasda and Gamaliel Hasda, were detained.
But these measures could not prevent the function from going ahead. The Adivasis ignored Section 144 and broke the barricades. The statues of Sido and Kanhu were eventually 'purified'.
Local authorities were not only forced to release the detained leaders, but also escort them to the stage, where they made fiery speeches.
Several resolutions were passed during the programme, including a ban on the hoisting of flags belonging to any party political party in and around Bhognadih village. The organisers demanded sedition cases and death sentences for people who had insulted the descendants of Sido and Kanhu.
One of the resolutions passed at the rally called for a ban on marrying Adivasi women to non-Adivasi men. Another one barred Adivasis from voting for a leader who had married into another caste. Tribal leaders also resolved to conduct a meeting before the next elections, and vote en masse based on the consensus emerging out of the meeting.
They also wanted the government to abolish the Panchayati Raj system in tribal-dominated areas, and appealed to the President of India to quash the proposed amendments in the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT).
Rumours and sabotage
The agenda of the gathering clearly turned out to be political.
"Sido-Kanhu are like gods to us. We will not tolerate any disrespect to them. Bhognadih is our holy place. Anybody compromising its sanctity must be ostracised," said Sanam Murmu, the man who led the rituals to 'purify' the statues.
Ramakrishna Soren, one of the main organisers, alleged, "The government wants to suppress the voice of the Adivasis. The administration tried to scuttle the event by detaining us through deception. But, their attempts were foiled."
The convenor of the Visthapan Virodhi Ekta Manch (Anti-Displacement Unity Forum), Nirmal Tudu, blamed Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leaders Hemant Soren and Vijay Hasda for using the state machinery to sabotage the rally.
Meanwhile, the local officials, as well as politicians, refrained from commenting on the matter. And, they have good reason to maintain silence, as the 15 September incident has already snowballed into a contentious issue.
At a time when Adivasis were congregating for the 'purification' rituals, the news of the defacement of a religious place belonging to a minority community spread in the area like wildfire. The administration lost no time in getting the damaged dome of the building repaired. However, several men from the community were reported missing, raising fears of an impending unrest.
"What happened in Bhognadih on 16 October is significant. But, the larger question is: why did the administration fail to talk to the tribals of the village amidst the rumour-mongering following the spitting incident on 15 September?" wondered Professor Ranjit, who teaches history at a college in the nearby Sahibganj.
"It is strange that the local intelligence units had no idea about the gathering of Adivasis from seven states. Later, it acted in haste by imposing Section 144 in Bhognadih and detaining the tribal leaders," he added.
Asked whether the administration was complicit in these developments, he replied, "It is difficult to ascertain who was behind the unrest. However, there is no doubt that the local authorities showed laxity in responding to the situation."
Local journalist Pallav said politics was behind the entire episode. The battle for political dominance in the tribal-dominated Santhal Pargana has intensified among various political parties in recent times. The JMM and the BJP are the main political players in the region, but, Babulal Marandi is also trying to get a foothold for his party among the crucial tribal electorate. Former Deputy Chief Minister and All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) leader Sudesh Mahto is trying to woo the non-Adivasi population of Santhal Pargana.
There are a total of 18 Assembly constituencies in Santhal Pargana. Out of these, BJP won five. The party also holds one out of the three Parliamentary seats in the region. This is not a mean achievement for the saffron party, which had struggled to win even a single seat in the Santhal Pargana region not long ago.
Keeping its support base intact among the tribals of Santhal Pargana is also essential for the JMM. The party has invested great efforts to ensure this. Sudesh Mahto recently accompanied one of the descendants of Sido-Kanhu, who had completed his engineering studies, to Bhognadih. Asking the people of Pargana to bless the student, Mahto claimed credit for helping him become an engineer.
Chief Minister Raghubar Das had also visited Bhognadih a few months ago. He returned after making a series of announcements for the welfare of the local population. The BJP chose Tala Marandi, a tribal from Santhal Pargana, as state chief. There is speculation that Das might soon visit the region within a week or so.
Babulal Marandi is organising a demonstration on 26 October. He has invited Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as a participant.
What is the state govt playing at?
Political pundits are wondering how such a large crowd of Adivasis was mobilised without the active participation of any prominent political party.
A senior government official responded: "It is not hard to understand that the Adivasi event had the tacit backing of the state government. The leniency shown by the administration towards the Adivasi leaders and ignoring the build up to the event is a case in point.
"The government facilitated the Adivasi rally, as it was against the minority community. The developments in the Gumla district on the following day put the government's intentions in proper perspective," he said.
The official was referring to the Sarna-Sanatan Mahasammelan organised by the Hindu Jagran Manch in Gumla's Param Vir Albert Ekka Stadium on 17 October. It was attended by senior RSS leader Indresh Kumar, among other prominent figures.
Addressing the Adivasis gathered for the event, Indresh Kumar claimed that the Sanatan and the Sarna religions were one, and those who argued otherwise were conspiring to divide the people.
Indresh Kumar also mentioned the surgical strikes across the LoC, while underlining the "need for a collective effort to wage a similar surgical strike against religious conversions in the region."
Clearly, something is simmering beneath the political surface in Jharkhand - from Gumla to Santhal Pargana. It would be premature to predict its fallout.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma