A fresh controversy is threatening to divide political parties in Jharkhand along ethnic lines. In the eye of the storm is a controversial clause in the state’s Panchayat Act, under the provisions of which 12 of the state’s 22 districts are designated “scheduled areas” where all posts in local bodies have been reserved for scheduled tribes. While the adivasi leaders of the Bhara-tiya Janata Party and the Congress support the provision, their non-adivasi colleagues do not. The Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United), which are part of the BJP-led coalition government, also oppose it. This issue has become important since the panchayat elections in the state are scheduled for this year-end.
The act stipulates that all key posts like that of the mukhia, pramukh and zilla parishad chairman and vice-chairman, must be reserved for STs in the scheduled area. Opponents of the provision argue that adivasis are in majority in only three districts and it is unfair to extend the reservation to 12 districts. Its supporters argue that adivasis have a substantial presence in all the districts, and are in a majority in the villages. Moreover, they contend, positive discrimination is essential to bring the oppressed and exploited tribals to the political forefront.
Although officially the panchayat elections will be on a non-party basis, all the influential political parties will put up candidates. Shibu Shoren, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief and the most charismatic adivasi leader of the region, predicts that these election will be an acid test for the Babulal Marandi government. The JMM, for its part, is suspicious of the reservation clause which it fears will create divisions between the adivasis and non-adivasis, who had struggled together for a separate state.
The reactions of the political parties of course varies according to the social composition of their leadership and mass base. The Samata Party and JD(U), whose spheres of influence is largely among non-tribals, are against the reservation provision. Among the opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, with a support base comprising the Dalits and other backward classes, also opposes the clause.
While the JMM is wary of the provision, the Congress has adopted a cautious stance. Tribal leaders in the party openly support the reservation, although the party as a whole is yet to approve it. Though the BJP, as the leading party in the ruling coalition, is formally committed to the reservation clause, some of its non-tribal leaders express misgivings about it, albeit, in private. In its defence, the state government says that the panchayat reservation policy was formulated according to the recommendations of the Bhuria commission, which was set up to go into the question.
The debate over this reservation provision resurrects the old debate about who are the real Jharkhandis. The leaders of the Jharkhand movement had agreed to consider all original inhabitants, tribal or non-tribal, as the real Jharkhandis, and declared that they constituted about 85 per cent of the population. The STs, on the other hand, constitute only 27 per cent. This unresolved question appears to have resurfaced in Jharkhand with a vengeance.
It was only in July that Jharkhand was engulfed by violence over Marandi’s domicile policy. At that time, the state’s population got divided between the original inhabitants (moolvasis) and aliens (dikus). This time a division has occurred among the original inhabitants. The moolvasis, supposedly the original inhabitants of the state, are now split into tribals, supporting the reservation, and non-tribals, opposing it. Unless this dispute is settled in good time, fresh disturbances may break out in the state.
Both the domicile policy and reservation policy of the Marandi government have been challenged in the Ranchi high court, which has clubbed the two issues together and is expected to pass an order soon. Thus the ball is now in the judiciary’s court.