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The state of Jharkhand, formerly part of the Indian state of Bihar, came into being on November 15, 2000. The movement for statehood was a culmination of a long battle led by adivasis (1) in the region. Since the colonial period, adivasis have been demanding autonomy and land rights in the wake of increasing appropriation of cultivable lands, first by landlords, then by the British, then by the Indian state. While the movement for a separate Jharkhand state was brutally repressed for many years, the region was granted statehood in a politically tactful move in 2000.
The movement took on a mass form in the 1970s. However, it did not begin with the issue of autonomy alone but was born out of different local struggles. This period saw a wide upsurge of land-based movements, including forest movements reclaiming land and anti-displacement movements. While these land-related movements were largely led by adivasis, this period also saw the birth of a militant labour movement under the leadership of A.K. Roy. This was rooted in Jharkhand’s mining belt and saw large-scale participation of non-adivasi migrant labourers, thus giving rise to a broader notion of the ‘Jharkhandi’. Uniting these movements was the opposition to perpetrators of exploitation.
This article records a history of martyrdom in Jharkhand. It is based on fieldwork done in nine districts of Jharkhand during a period of nine weeks spread across ten months in 2008-09. Martyrdom has been a significant part of the struggle in Jharkhand, which has evolved a culture of remembering its martyrs in various ways, such as marking their death anniversary and building structures to commemorate their struggles. Such practices keep alive the spirit of resistance. This article limits itself to a time period of 1973 to 1985. I chose this period partly because of information collected during fieldwork and partly because of the importance of this period, which goes largely undocumented. The article is not exhaustive, but hopes to serve as a reflection of the period.
Movements and Martyrs
The early seventies saw the coming together of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) (2), an adivasi land and forest rights movement, and the Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BCKU), a workers’ movement led by A.K. Roy. In order to pursue the demand for regional autonomy, Roy formed a regional Marxist political party, the Marxist Coordination Centre (MCC) (3), and a short-lived, but radical and militant alliance was forged between the MCC and JMM. Such an alliance led to the articulation of a demand for not just a separate state, but one that was based on equity, justice and freedom from exploitation.
Meanwhile mining and timber mafias, assisted by the Bihar Military Police and other State armed forces, brutally repressed any opposition that arose. On May 23, 1975 there was a large meeting under the leadership of Shakti Nath Mahto, then secretary of BCKU. Such a show of strength threatened the powers-that-be and subsequently 3 people – Birju Mahto, Haripad Mahto and Birbal Mahto – were picked up from their homes and killed at a nearby temple, echoing the animal sacrifices performed at the temple. On November 28, 1978 Shakti Nath Mahto himself was killed. The next year, Rasik Hansda, a BCKU leader who was organizing the struggle against forcible land acquisition by Bharat Coking Coal Limited for construction of its factory as well as a football field, was killed after being surrounded by the management, district administration and the CISF (Central Industrial Security Force).
The list of killings is endless. Trade-union leader Sadanand Jha in the early seventies. The East Vasuria Colliery police firing killing Thami Mandal, Jagdish Mandal and Qadir Mian on April 2, 1973. Sarveshwar Majhi of Govindpur, Dhanbad the same year. Sushant Chandra in Nirsa in 1978. Surender Mahto. Lalchand Bhar and Gopal Bawari in Nirsa. Nepal Rewani on 25 November 1990 in Godhar.
While the labour movement was taking off (and being brutalized) in the coal belt, the adivasi forest and land movement began in the Santhal Parganas and Singhbhum regions in the form of the dhan katao andolan (forcible harvesting movement) and reoccupation of forest lands. This reoccupation challenged the Forest Department’s claims of ownership over the forests, something that began with the British and continued under the Indian State.
On 25 November 1978, in Siringda village in West Singhbhum, a meeting was called to discuss two matters. The first was the implications of a new forestry policy adopted by the Government of Bihar, which promoted plantation of profitable teak over the sal tree, which was abundant, ecologically suitable and culturally significant. The second was the displacement of large numbers of people from forests in accordance with the colonial Forest Act, 1927. At the meeting, people demanded that their lands be returned to them and rejected the plantation of teak trees. In response, the State imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prevents the gathering of four or more persons for a political meeting. As a result, Somnath Lomga, who was organizing people in the village, was arrested. Immediately people gathered to demand the release of Lomga. John Bhuinyan, who was once head of the Panchayat (local governing body) (4) narrates, “Thinking we had reached an agreement and that they were going to release him, the public got upset when the forces began to return without releasing him. We then gheraoed [surrounded] the jeep and demanded that Lomga be released. Some of our people started throwing stones at the police. To save themselves the police air-fired one round, and then began firing at the people directly.” Three people were killed that day, including Somnath Lomga. The two others were Dubiya Honhaga and Lupa Burh.
In the seventies and eighties, West Singhbhum was particularly active politically and hence, repression was pervasive. The infamous Gua firing reflects the brutalization these movements were put through. On 8 September 1980, an extraordinarily large meeting was to be held in Gua. The mood was tense, Section 144 had been imposed, trains and buses had been stopped to prevent people from attending the meeting, and yet, as many narrated, people walked long distances to attend. During the meeting, the police open fired without provocation, killing 3 and injuring several others. However, the adivasis who had come with their traditional bows and arrows as a show of solidarity also used them as a means of self-defence, killing 2 policemen. Such an act of defiance was not to be tolerated. While the injured were being taken to the hospital, the police waited for them with guns. Nine people were lined up and shot dead. The act had a pointed message – a message of terror where even the injured were not to be spared.
Protesting Dam Projects
In the fifties, large-scale development projects, including dams, were introduced as part of post-Independence nation-building. In the seventies, there was increased resistance to such projects, as village after village was displaced with nothing given in return. One such project was the Subarnarekha Multipurpose Project. Three dams were proposed on the Subarnarekha River, which originates in present-day Jharkhand. The largest dam required the displacement of 84 villages. Protestors argued that this dam should not take place at all; however, if the project had to be introduced, a comprehensive relief and rehabilitation policy should be formulated. However, even such a demand was not heeded, and brute force was used to crush the resistance. On April 20, 1978, a large number of people were sitting on hunger strike at the dam site. The Central Reserve Force along with the Bihar Military Police arrived, “took their positions and fired at us,” according to an activist who was present. Two people, Bhandu Mahto and Pahadu Mahto, were killed and many more injured. The dam was built, machinery bought, canals built and an inauguration ceremony was organized after the formation of Jharkhand by its then (and now) Chief Minister, Arjun Munda. However, in the words of Ashok Mahto, “Nothing happens there.” No electricity is produced, the gates rot in the water, the canals lie dry, while the machinery, what’s left of it, rusts in the sun. His wife chips in, “Now it has become a picnic spot…People have opened their tea shops over there and have good business”.
The movement against another of the three Subarnarekha dams was led by one Gangaram Kalundia. The dam was introduced by the State in local communities as a ‘large talab’ (tank) that would provide water for their assistance. However, when Kalundia returned home after retiring from the army, with the knowledge of what a dam really is (!), he began mobilising opposition. As people realized that the dam would not give them water but instead drown about 125 villages, opposition began. On April 4, 1982, a demonstration was held at the dam site, with protestors holding bows and arrows. In the words of the munda (5) of the village, Sadhu Purti, “there was no violence but it was a very powerful demonstration and with some great speeches.” That same night at 3 a.m., about 14 battalions came to Tuibana village where Kalundia lived. That night there was chaos, with people running helter skelter and the police advancing. The police apparently carried a list of people to target and Kalundia’s name was on it. They fired at him and shot him in the leg, after which he was picked up by the police. That night, as was narrated to me, he was tortured in a police jeep that was driven through surrounding villages so that his screams could be heard by all those present. When his body was finally recovered, he had a stone stuffed in his mouth, 14-15 bullet wounds and rods shoved in his entire body. The message was a familiar one in Jharkand. Terror.
However, the dam was never built owing to the strong resistance. The demands of the people were minimal. They did not want to give their lands, and according to law their consent was necessary in acquiring their land. They were only asking for the law to be followed.
The stories go on. Maheshwar Jamuda shot on November 6, 1978. Ajit and Dhananjay Mahto, student activists demanding an end to unemployment, killed on October 31, 1983. Diun Koda shot in the head point blank while lying on the ground in Bila on March 27, 1985 during the movement to reoccupy forest lands. Bishun Mahto, killed in May 1985 during elections for fear of him gaining political power in light of the formidable challenge he posed to feudal structures. Gurudas Chatterjee, the Trade Unionist and 3-time Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Nirsa, Dhanbad, shot on 14 April 2000.
After the formation of a separate state, the people’s initial optimism soon came under question. The first police firing took place in February 2001, killing eight. On January 16, 2005, Comrade Mahendra Singh of Bagodar, Giridih, was killed. On December 6, 2008, a police firing in Kathikund, Dumka killed two in the constituency of ruling Chief Minister and long-time leader of the Jharkhand Movement, Shibhu Soren.
However, while the dominant continue to take lives, the oppressed continue their struggles with renewed vigour. Ironically, this article is meant to depict not a pessimism vis-a-vis struggles in Jharkhand, but their resilience. In a sad yet inspiring way, continuing death is not only a sign of continued repression but also of continued resistance. Jharkhand’s legacy of resistance serves as a powerful resource for present struggles to draw on, the scattered memorials of martyrs a constant reminder.
This article is available in French: Histoires de martyre : résistance et répression au Jharkhand, en Inde de 1973 à 1985
I am extremely grateful to Jonko Da, Pahalwan Gagaria, Rajesh Ji and Samar Da who accompanied me on the interviews. I am also grateful to Sanjay Da and the JJBA team for hosting me in Jharkhand and assisting me throughout my fieldwork.