By: Frank Huzur
Hemant Soren became the natural heir apparent of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the leading party of Jharkhand Movement, by accident of fate as his elder brother Durga Soren, a young Turk of JMM, passed away prematurely. He could be hailed as a progressive young face of JMM today as he has achieved his long desirable goal of removing the venomous BJP from power at the turn of New Year 2020. An engineer by educational qualification, Hemant has lived up to the soaring expectations of tribal community by his zealous politics of socialist and secular credentials. He was born in Nemara of Ramgarh district on 10 August 1975 to Roopi and Shibu Soren.
After defeating much maligned Raghubar Das-led BJP regime, he has emerged as a shining bright face of Jharkhand politics. His image of a ‘son of the soil’ received a tremendous fillip as Das was labeled an outsider in the stormy campaign.
It would be no exaggeration to assert that his swearing in as a Chief Minister of Jharkhand second time on 29 December 2019 has established him as one of the ‘Young Turk’ of Indian political landscape. He has become 11th chief minister of Jharkhand.
A bespectacled, smiling Soren is also the president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, a party synonymous with the struggle for separate statehood. For the first time, he was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Jharkhand on 15 July 2013 with support of the Congress Party and the RJD after President’s rule was removed from the state. Hemant has had his tryst with power in 2010 when he was sworn in as deputy chief minister in the Arjun Munda-led BJP government. He demonstrated political sagacity in his stint and toppled the BJP government in January 2013. His path to power was, thus, cleared.
In the winter of discontent when the entire country was up in arms over the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP/NDA government’s controversial passage of Citizenship Amendment Bill, people of Jharkhand crowned Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand Mukti Morch-Congress-RJD alliance with absolute power. JMM-INC-RJD was a pre-election alliance as it won 47 seats compared to just 25 of the BJP. Hemant won both assembly seats he contested as he defeated Lois Marandi of the BJP in Dumka constituency. He secured 80,589 votes against his nearest rival’s 67,571.
Hemant had also debuted from Dumka, a family pocketborough since Shibu Soren’s hey days. However, he had lost the seat in 2014 Assembly poll. Hemant also won the Barhait Assembly seat as he trounced the BJP candidate Simon Malto by over 25,000 votes. Hemant’s political star was in the ascendant when he valiantly fought the legal battle for his beleaguered father Shibu Soren in 2004. Shibu Soren was at the time Coal Minister in Manmohan Singh’s UPA I government but an arrest warrant was issued against him in a three-decade old case. After the resignation of Shibu Soren, Hemant ran from pillar to post to ensure timely acquittal of his father.
Hemant has two brothers and a sister. His educational qualification is Intermediate from Patna High School, Patna. As per affidavit filed before Election Commission, Hemant enrolled in BIT Mesra, Ranchi in Mechanical Engineering, but failed to complete the course.
He was a member of Rajya Sabha from 24 June 2009 to 4 January 2010. He started his political career as Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) on 23rd December 2009. Later on, he became Jharkhand deputy CM on 11th September 2010 till 8th January 2013.
Hemant’s political graph began soaring when the BJP government of Raghuvar tried amending the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, two sacred Act dealing with the ownership of Aboriginal tribals. The amendment was in gross violation of the basic tenets upon which Jharkhand state was founded. The new Act was allowing owners and tenants of Adivasi land to use it for non-agricultural purposes and also the possibility of transfer of Adivasi land for building roads, canals, educational institutions, hospitals, and other “government purposes”. Hemant like his father’s agitationist politics, seized the nettle and began to lead a series of huge protests in the state. He termed the Amendment in Tenancy Act as betrayal of Adivasis’s soul. His stand struck instant chord. Over the next couple of years, Junior Soren would become the face of Jharkhand ‘son of soil’ movement. His rise into power was a matter of next elections.
In an interesting repartee once in 2017 to then CM Raghubar Das when he had invited Hemant to the Global Investors Summit, Hemant had called the summit a “Maha Chintan Shivir of land grabbers” and claimed that it was being organised to loot the land of Adivasis, Moolnivasis and the farmers of the state.
In the same year of 2017, he displayed his acute concern for hunger and starvation deaths when he demanded a CBI inquiry into the death of 11-year-old girl Santoshi Kumari who died of starvation in Simdega. Santoshi’s death created a national and global stir and raised a question mark over the sensitivity of BJP regime. The minor girl’s family was not given ration just because her Aadhaar Card number was not linked to the bank account. Hemant also had demanded action against Chief Secretary Rajbala Verma, who, he claimed in a vocal way, had passed an order through video conferencing to remove the names of the families having not linked their Ration Cards with their Aadhaar number.
Hemant had been vociferously opposed to the Direct Benefit Transfer in PDS as the schemehas caused tremendous suffering and injustice to poor tribal population.
In April 2018, a JMM delegation led by Hemant Soren and his father Shibu Soren met the Hon’ble President Ramnath Kovind registering a strong protest on the dilution of the SC/ST by the Supreme Court and proposed amendments to the LARR Bill by the Jharkhand government.
In March 2018, Hemant Soren met Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao regarding a possible non-Congress and non-BJP front should be formed in the country. However, he also attended a dinner hosted by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi where the agenda was to discuss a broader front against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ahead of the 2019 general elections.
He supports the call for banning liquor in Jharkhand on the lines of Bihar. Raghubar Das’s government played havoc with state education system. It was accused of opening liquor shops like tea kiosks in streets and squares of town while shutting down government schools in thousands.
In one press interaction when he was asked about the entry of liquor retail outlets in the state, JMM President had said “Now government will open liquor outlets in villages, which will ultimately impact the lives of poor tribals in Jharkhand. I appeal to the rural residents of the state to not allow liquor outlets in their villages. Women’ss organizations would have to come forward to launch a struggle against government’s liquor campaign.” Education with equality in opportunity is the central motif of his political movement. Just after expanding his cabinet, he also had a meeting with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to understand his educational model to improve the conditions of government schools in Jharkhand.
Hemant Soren was awarded Champions of Change Award for his exceptional work for Dumka and Barhait constituency. The award was conferred by ex-President Pranab Mukherjee at Vigyan Bhavan New Delhi on 20 January 2020.
Hemant Soren is married to Kalpana and has two sons. He has a younger brother, Basant, and a sister, Anjali. He is ardent follower of Birsa Munda, the nineteenth century tribal warrior and takes inspiration from his courage and valour, in addition to emulating his warrior father, Shibu Soren.
However, the opposition parties in Jharkhand are finding fault with him on certain scores. Especially, the BJP is calling him a ‘Puppet CM’ as the former ruling party mocks the Chief Minister Soren as a handmaiden of the Congress Party. In a space of four weeks, Hemant had to dash to national capital Delhi five times before before he could resolve the allocation of portfolio to his council of ministers. Even when the cabinet became functional, ally RJD struck a discordant note over its sole ministry of labour and employment. Of course, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Tejashvi Yadav-led RJD was offered a small slice of the cake, and the Congress Party with mere 16 seats walked away with the lion’s share and powerful departments, such as finance, commercial tax, agriculture, health, and rural department. Hemant, however, prevailed with the Congress shenanigans to keep the Home department.
The Jharkhand result has come as a morale-booster for the opposition after the BJP-AJSU Party tie-up swept the state in the Lok Sabha poll, winning 12 of the 14 seats. Soren played a key role in keeping the opposition alliance intact and seized the opportunity when the BJP and AJSU Party parted ways before the assembly election. At Soren’s swearing-in, the presence of a galaxy of opposition leaders, who joined hands in a show of strength, suggests that the Jharkhand victory may have provided the opposition more than a reason to stay united at the national level.
If AJSU couldn’t agree to arm-twisting of Amit Shah and went separate ways, one veteran soldier of Sudesh Mahto-led AJSU deserves due credit. His name is Sarjit Mirdha who have seen through the choppy waters of Jharkhand politics since early days of violent 90s when agitation for creation of separate state was in sharp swing. Sarjit at the time was an influential member of JMM but he had to part ways in 2017 and he joined AJSU. It was Sarjit Mirdha who convinced Sudesh Mahto against pre-poll alliance with the BJP. The strategy was aimed at ensuring the defeat of the BJP regime, which had been malfunctioning on all fronts, including communal harmony of the state. It is noteworthy that Jharkhand has acquired notoriety as ‘Lynchistan’ for a series of over a dozen lynching of innocent Muslim youths in name of cow smuggling. AJSU performed exceptionally well in dividing the votes, thereby, cutting through the prospect of the BJP’s candidates. It won, however, only two seats but it was second on 13 seats and third and fourth on over 17 seats.
In Jharkhand, Glitches in Land Records Are Spooking People
Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist, writing on politics, gender, development, migration and the intersections between them. He is an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Tribals constitute 26.3% of the state’s population of 32.9 million. Half of them, 50.4%, depend on agriculture. Jharkhand’s land is also rich in mineral resources–40% of India’s mineral deposits, from coal to bauxite and graphite, are in this state, according to Jharkhand State Mineral Development Corporation data. “The exploration and exploitation of gold, silver, base metals, precious stones, etc. are the potential areas of futures.
In its first cabinet decision, the Hemant Soren government after swearing in on 30 December 2019 initiated action to withdraw all cases registered against tribals involved in Pathalgarhi movement and those who took part in protests after the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act were amended.
The Raghubar Das government had hit on the sentiments of the tribals when it amended two land acts – Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) and Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) – in 2016.
The amendments were passed in the Assembly apparently without discussion amid uproar by the opposition parties, following which several memorandums were submitted to the governor to not sign the amendments.
In January 2016, the state government inaugurated a ‘land bank’ portal, listing district-wise information about land that could be used for industry and non-agricultural purposes. Many tribal groups protested this, saying their common lands as well as historically cultivated farmland had been included in this land bank. A verification exercise by civil rights groups in Khunti district revealed that tribal religious and burial spaces had been included in this land bank.
Later that year, in November 2016, Das’ government proposed the amendment of two laws–the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Act of 1949, which tribal activists and leaders believe had served as a safeguard against displacement for the state’s tribals. Both these laws protect land belonging to Scheduled Tribes (STs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from being transferred to persons not belonging to those categories.
Das had said that the amendment would allow the government to use these lands for non-agricultural purposes such as setting up of industries as well as public facilities. There was immediate backlash within the Jharkhand Assembly, and across the state. Tribal groups protested and threatened to continue their stir until the amendments were withdrawn. The state’s governor, Droupadi Murmu, refused to sign the amendments and returned them to the government, forcing it to withdraw the two bills in August 2017.
Against this backdrop, the entire exercise of digitisation of land records is viewed by many as an extension of the government’s policies on land matters, which had demonstrated little regard for the rights of tribals and marginalised stakeholders.
Soren withdrew a case under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that he had lodged against former chief minister and rival Raghubar Das of the BJP. Soren had filed a complaint on 19 December 2019 over an objectionable comment made by Das.
Soren appears to have opted for a more conciliatory approach in his new innings, unlike his first stint as state chief minister from July 2013 to December 2014, when many considered him headstrong. Despite his government’s wafer-thin majority, he had fired three ministers from his cabinet.
The Soren government has also decided to drop sedition charges slapped on several tribal activists of the Pathalgadi movement, which had rocked the state’s Khunti district, adjoining Ranchi, and its bordering areas and turned violent in 2017-2018.
The two decisions will likely reassure the state’s tribal community which makes up 26.3 per cent of the electorate and is the JMM’s core base as well as send a signal that the Soren government does not intend to be confrontational or vindictive.
The state also saw an armed exclusionary movement taking shape last year in the form of Pathalgarhi movement, where thousands of villages were turned into an autonomous region. Some called it ‘adivasi corridor’, others called it ‘Adivasistan’.
The region was declared autonomy from India by placing a special stone outside villages. These villages ran their own schools where children, forced out of government schools, were being fed propaganda.
Most tribal communities are not digitally-literate, and so there was widespread ignorance about digital procedures, said tribal rights activist Sunil Kerketta. “As a result, there is a fear that the land digitisation programme is just an extension of the government’s attempts to take over tribal land and use it for industrial purposes.
Kerketta has been helping tribal communities across Gumla district, southwest of Ranchi, to determine the status of their lands. “Discrepancies are commonplace in digital records,” Kerketta said. “We’ve seen hundreds of cases [in Gumla alone] wherein people’s lands have either been transferred to a different owner or the land size is incorrectly listed. You will find such cases in every village in Jharkhand.
Pathalgardi groups have been active across four districts of Jharkhand – Khunti, Gumla, Simdega and West Singhbhum. All are Maoist-infested districts.
Pathalgadi simply translates into the planting a stone order. Stone plaques and signboards have come up in over 200 villages of Jharkhand in recent months. These stone orders dismiss the authority of the central or the state governments on their villages. Usually placed at the entry points of tribal villages, these stone plaques have provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA written on them. These are meant to serve as warnings to the outsiders. The stone plaques and signboards also contain “orders” prohibiting outsiders from entering the tribal village.
They proclaim allegiance to the Constitution but reject any authority except their gram sabhas (village assemblies). They claim to be the real “Bharat Sarkar” (the government of India). Their fight is aimed to reclaim their rights over “jal, jangal and zameen (water, forest and land)”.
Pathalgadis have their presence in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and parts of West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
Birsa Munda Connection
The Pathalgadis are most active in Khunti, the district where tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda was born and took on the British might in 19th century. The Pathalgadis held their biggest ceremony on February 25 this year at Kochang in the district.
The participants were armed with rifles including AK-47. Curiously, the police did not prevent the meeting despite having intelligence inputs.
The Pathalgadis endorsed what was achieved by the Birsa Munda movement – the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) in 1908. This law prohibited the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals while favouring community ownership. The Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPT) of 1949 maintained the same position.
The Pathalgadis have accused the Raghubar Das government of snatching away the rights of the tribal people of Jharkhand.
But the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (Jharkhand Amendment) Bill was subsequently brought up by the government and passed by Jharkhand Assembly leading to fresh wave of protests. What are specific demands of Pathalgadis?
The leaders of Pathalgadi movement prepared an 11-point charter of demands that they sent to various authorities including President Kovind on January 16 this year. The demands of the Pathalgadis can be summarized as:
The gram sabhas should get all the funds earmarked for the tribal sub-plan.
The tribal people should not be branded as naxals and sent to jail.
Changes in the land acquisition laws should be revoked.
All police and paramilitary forces should be withdrawn from the Scheduled Areas and their camps dismantled.
A separate education board – Adivasi Board – with distinct syllabus should be created for tribal students.
The Opium Angle
Jharkhand has emerged as one of the big centres of illegal opium cultivation in India. The police have attributed the recent challenge to law and order by Pathalgadi supporters to a bunch of opium cultivators.
According to police, the opium cultivators are instigating disillusioned tribal youths to use them as a shield for their opium cultivation. Jharkhand police have launched a drive to destroy opium crops in the state.
The police have said that around 23,000 acres of opium cultivation have been destroyed this year. Nearly 50 cases have been registered in this connection.
Security agencies say that the Maoists force tribal villagers to do opium cultivation to raise funds. Opium cultivation and trade are illegal in India except under certain conditions. But the contraband has a big international market and the Maoists, security agencies say, fund their operations through illegal trade of opium.
The Pathalgadis call themselves the followers of Sati Pati cult of Gujarat. Sati refers to mother and Pati to father.
The cult claims that the tribals were given rights over rivers, forest land and forest produce by Queen Victoria.
Kunwar Keshri Sinh, the former leader of the Sati Pati cult, gathered a huge number of followers.
His son, Kunwar Ravindra Sinh is the current leader of the cult that is hugely popular in and around Tapi district of Gujarat.
The Pathalgadis have been distributing the copies of Heaven’s Light Our Guide, a publication associated with the Order of the Star of India.
It is an order of chivalry of the British empire that was founded by Queen Victoria in 1861.