The Jharkhand Movement

Submitted by Django on July 31, 2011

The state Jharkhand was formed in November 2000, before that the mining areas of Dhanbad-Jharia and the steel manufacturing regions around Bokaro and Jamshedpur were situated in the southern part of Bihar. A regionalist ‘Jharkhand Movement’ emerged in the 1920s, but only gained significant influence with the constitution of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Jharkhand Liberation Front, JMM) in 1972 by Shibu Soren.

There was a material base for this regionalist tendency, in the sense of ‘regional bourgeois interests’ and the possibility to link this interest to populist politics able to mobilise a significant share of the local proletarian / small peasantry population. The main factor in terms of regional bourgeois interest is the concentration of Bihar’s mineral wealth in its southern part and the concentration of the subsequent industrial investments. The initial stages of the regionalist movement can be explained as a clash between the interests of industrial capital in the south with the mainly agrarian ruling class in wider Bihar.

The formation of a ‘regionalist’ popular identity, like the formation of most identities, was an effort ‘in hindsight’. Initially the historical-cultural justification for the constitution of an ‘independent’ Jharkhand was based on the ‘adivasi’ (indigenous/tribal) identity of a significant amount of the local population, an “ethnic differences between the people of Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas and the people of north Bihar”. The category ‘adivasi’ is mainly a product of colonial population management, summarising various regional, tribal and caste formations. ‘Left-wing’ identitarian ideology became part of the tool-box for regionalist liberation movements, e.g. the ‘adivasis’ were portrayed as a ‘rebellious’ and ‘egalitarian’ community. “Tribal revolts like the Kol Rebellion, the Santhal Rebellion or the Birsa Movement are well known. The famous Santhal insurrection of 1855 was against the introduction of the British administration and land tenure systems.” “Their societies are community-based with land owned communally. Community life is cooperative and based on sharing, with decisions taken jointly through consensus. They consider their societies classless, egalitarian and close to nature.” [12] This left-wing community-building leaves out that amongst the ‘adivasis’ there were tribes worshipping kings who, by birth-right, owned half of the village land. It also leaves out that before the ‘adivasi’-identity became a promising ticket in southern Bihar, many ‘tribals’ were eager to integrate themselves into the higher-up caste hierarchy, e.g. the ‘tribal’ Mahatos (settled in Jharkhand, but originally from Bengal) were recognised as caste Kurmis by 1929 and claimed caste kinship with Marathas or Patidars far away from Bihar.

Due to the mining work related labour migration starting from the late 19th century the ‘tribal’ population became minoritarian and marginalised in the region of south Bihar – the mine owners replaced the local village workers increasingly with migrant workers. The ‘regional bourgeoisie’, too, was actually formed by ‘outsiders’ who came to the region around the turn of the last century. Therefore the Jharkhand Liberation Movement had to extend their cultural regional identity to a wider identity: the Jharkhandis, a category even blurrier than the tribal category. With such a recent history of migration it became difficult to define who is an ‘outsider’ and who is a Jharkhandi. Schools tried to elaborate on the ‘Jharkhandi dialect from the 1970s onwards, but the main help in this difficult task of self-identification was given by yet another shift of local class composition during nationalisation 1971 – 73 and during Emergency 1975, when thousands of ‘local’ mining workers (allegedly mainly adivasis and dalits) were replaced by new batches of migrant workers. The ‘rural poor’ in the region had suffered varies similar blows in recent history, e.g. during the first three Five Year Plans of the 1950s and 1960s, more than 50,000 ‘scheduled tribe’ families and 10,000 ‘scheduled caste’ families in the region were uprooted from their homes to make land available for the construction of public sector industrial projects. The total number of displaced families would higher if we consider the private sector industries and remember that coal mines, at that time, were in the private sector. The fact that ‘local’ people have been displaced during the 1950s and 1960s and the fact that they now lost jobs in the 1970s opened space for ‘regionalist ideologies’ within the local proletariat.

The emergence of the Maoist-influenced union movement in the late 1960s gave the regionalist tendencies more credibility amongst the lower section of the working class. Being under full-attack from management, state, main trade unions and mafia, the Maoist-influenced union movement tried to widen and strengthen their struggle amongst the ‘most down-trodden’ by appealing to regionalist forces. The fact that initially the Jharkhand liberation movement got engaged in campaigns against ‘outside’ moneylenders appealed to the Maoists. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was formed together with the MCC in 1972. Instead of tackling the question of divisions within the working class in terms of ‘class composition’, the Maoist ideology of peasant-workers alliance was re-shaped in regionalist terms: the ‘peasantry’ was turned into the ‘Jharkhandi rural population’. This was later to be repeated, e.g. by the People’s War Group (PWG) in their support for regionalist movements in Andhra Pradesh. At the time the Maoist ideologues expressed this political decision as follows: “The Jharkhand struggle, apart from being directed against the real exploiters and oppressors, is also directed against another oppressed class – the working class. In a sense the situation is similar to the relations between the privileged working class in the imperialist countries and the peasants in colonies.” They described the situation of the ‘privileged’ permanent mining workers from ‘outside’ as follows: “Under the peculiar situation of class struggles in Jharkhand they have two options open to them – either to rally with their hated caste brothers in the name of ethnic solidarity [outside bourgeoisie], or to oppose them and uphold the point of class-solidarity with the downtrodden Jharkhandis. But they do neither and, as a result, there is complete confusion about their role vis-a-vis Jharkhand movement.” [13]

The MCC initial alliance with the ‘regional bourgeoisie’ would not only create confusion within the working class, it also turned against the Maoists movement itself – although the current ‘insurrectionist’ Maoist guerrilla can not be equated with the MCC as such. As early as 1975 the ‘liberation movement’ started to intensify the tension between different ‘proletarian sections’, leading to, e.g. the Chirudih massacre which left eleven ‘outsiders’ dead. During the 1980s the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha found followers amongst the big land-owners, for example the zamindar Basant Narayan Singh, amongst big industrialist – and last, but not least amongst the ‘mafia’. In November 2000 Jharkhand became an independent state. From 2002 onwards the Jharkhand state started to mobilise para-military troops, for example in form of the Nagrik Suraksha Samiti (NSS), against the armed Maoists movement operating in Jharkhand. Ironically enough the ‘Red Army war-fare’ of the Maoists led to an increasing ‘Mafia-isation’ of the Maoists themselves. In order to finance their ‘people’s army’ they have to raise ‘taxes’ from small coal mines, timber and tendu leaf contractors, petrol pumps – allegedly they also get involved in poppy plantations and other lucrative business. By 2006 the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha ‘tribal’ leader Shibu Soren had become Indian Minister for Coal – in November of the same year he was charged with involvement in bribe-related murder. In 2010 the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha started closer collaboration with the Hindu-nationalist BJP. In general we cannot say that the new Jharkhandi state treats the ‘Jharkhandis’ with much more respect that its predecessor: in April 2011 the state forces killed a dozen people protesting against displacement. The current displacement drive in the Dhanbad-Jharia region threatens around half a million people.