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Proposed amendments to Adivasi land rights put Jharkhand on the boil

Nirala Bidesiya | Updated on: 23 November 2016, 18:08 IST

On 22 November, the Jharkhand Assembly celebrated the state's foundation day. The occasion was marked by a ceremony attended by all the major leaders of the state.

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MLA and former Deputy CM Stephen Marandi was scheduled to be honoured with the Excellent MLA award for the current year during the programme, which was attended by the Chief Minister Raghubar Das and the Leader of the Opposition Hemant Soren, among others.

However, the atmosphere of euphoria changed into one of tension when the Das and Soren chose to take potshots at each other. Referring to the Opposition protest over the amendment of the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Acts, Soren stated: "Nobody knows what will happen on 23 November. But, the government is not going to find any solution through confrontation."

To this, the CM replied: "We will table the CNT-SPT Amendment Act under any circumstances. Opposition members are welcome to debate and discuss the act. The government cannot accommodate everybody's viewpoint. We want to simplify the law. You would also have done the same in power."

Eventually, the ceremony ended with palpable restiveness between the government and the Opposition.

What do the amendments entail?

The amendments would enable the Adivasis to use their land for non-agricultural purposes without any change in ownership. They would also pave the way for the acquisition of tribal land for infrastructure projects. The proposed Bill suggests the return of the land if no project is set up within a five-year time span, but the landowners would not be able to claim any compensation.

Some of the other changes in the law are likely to have far-reaching effects on the state.

First, the government tried to bring in the amendments through an ordinance, which was approved by Governor Draupadi Murmu four months ago.

It then went to the President of India, who sent it to the Union government for final consideration. However, the Union Ministry for Tribal Affairs raised its objection to the proposed amendments, stating that the region of Jharkhand comes under the fifth schedule of the Constitution.

Even eminent Constitutional experts like Subhash Kashyap had questioned the rationale of the amendments. As a result of the impasse, the President of India turned down the ordinance.

Now, the state government is trying to take the Vidhan Sabha route to carry forward its decision.

Stiff opposition from within and without

Photo: Nirala Bidesiya/Catch News

However, the job is far from done, considering the stiff opposition the government is facing.

The showdown on 22 November was only an extension of the prevailing situation in the Assembly. The house had to be adjourned after nine minutes of action on 22 November. The controversial issue had spilled onto the streets of Ranchi and other cities by the evening.

The JMM carried out a massive protest in the state capital. A large number of Adivasis marched with party activists with white and black roosters (the Adivasis believe that making a white fowl walk can treat a person who has lost his mind, while making a black fowl march can spell disaster for a person who has willingly committed a sin).

The JMM protest was only a precursor to the statewide agitation on 23 November. The CPI (ML) organised a separate protest on the same issue on 22 November. Party activists burnt the copies of the Bill.

Photo: Nirala Bidesiya/Catch News

In Jamshedpur, tribal organisations conducted a meeting on the issue, and announced that any Adivasi MLA supporting the Bill would be socially boycotted. The impact of this declaration was swift, as two tribal MLAs resigned from the Tribal Advisory Council.

The JMM has geared itself for protests all over the state on 23 November too. Meanwhile, Babulal Marandi's Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) has chalked out a strategy to corner the government in the Vidhan Sabha. It has also found the support of the CPI (ML).

The Chief Minister can afford to overlook the stand taken by the Opposition parties in the wake of the majority he enjoys. But, even his alliance partner, the All Jharkhand Students' Union (AJSU), is not ready to support him on this count. Furthermore, several Adivasi MLAs in the BJP's own camp are reportedly against the Bill.

And yet, the government is in no mood to budge. It has made clear that the Bill would be tabled despite all the opposition. Government strategists are hoping for a debate on 23 and 24 November. Security has been tightened in Ranchi.

Photo: Nirala Bidesiya/Catch News

What are the real intentions?

Political analysts doubt the real intentions of both the government and the Opposition. Questions are being raised as to whether the government really intends to see a change in CNT-SPT Acts, considering its belligerence.

The motive of the Opposition parties is also under the scanner, since they have shied from coming together under the same banner, despite unequivocally opposing the Bill.

Future in the air

Jharkhand's politics are known to be strange. Those in power are either completely carefree, as if assured that nothing is ever going to challenge their position, or paranoid of even the slightest change in the political arena.

The JMM and the JVM - two of the major Opposition parties in the state - were never on good terms till some time ago. The latter had openly accused the JMM of colluding with the government at its rally in Dumka about two weeks ago. Slogans were raised from the stage shaming the JMM leadership.

JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya has vowed to continue his party's agitation, even as the JVM has prepared its own strategy. The JVM's appeal of support to JMM leaders in ensuring a successful gherao of the Assembly has gone unheeded.

Ironically, a divided opposition is in no position to resist the government's decision.

JVM leader Bandhu Tirkey wants the government to follow Parliamentary traditions.

"There is no point in pushing the Bill when the house is not in order. The government wants to pass the Bill to give land to the big corporate houses for free. We will not allow this to happen, no matter how many pamphlets the government air drops through helicopters," Tirkey said, referring to the distribution of pamphlets by the government in some tribal areas.

Tirkey's sentiment is echoed by several other Opposition leaders.

The BJP has its own counter-arguments. "Why is the Opposition creating mayhem on the streets? They should debate the issue in the Assembly. Both Babulal Marandi and Hemant Soren had suggested changes in the CNT-SPT Amendment Act to make it relevant to the changing times. Now, they have backtracked," claimed BJP leader Praveen Prabhakar.

Prabhakar has a point, as Marandi and Soren had indeed pitched for changes in the existing law. They have failed to explain the change in their stand.

"Leaders like Babulal and Hemant fear their shop would shut with the passage of the Bill. We are going to ensure that Adivasis never lose their ownership of the land. The Opposition is afraid that it would lose an opportunity to do politics," the Chief Minister alleged.

The deadlock continues amid these claims and counter-claims. Nobody knows what the final outcome would be. But, it is clear that the government has more to fear from its supporters than the Opposition.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 23 November 2016, 18:08 IST