Reservation policies were originally meant to help socially and economically disadvantaged groups of people; but politicians distorted them into vote-bank politics. The Jharkhand government’s domicile policy is no exception. In the name of protecting the interests of the native population, it has created deep fissures within the new state’s multi-ethnic society. The state-wide bandh observed by the Jharkhand Disom Party was the latest in a series of political confrontations over the issue. That the bandh passed off peacefully may have come as a relief to the chief minister, Mr Babulal Marandi. But it is hardly any cause for comfort insofar as the larger issue is concerned. Nobody can dispute Mr Marandi’s case for giving certain benefits to the native population in government jobs and educational institutions. After all, the state was carved out of Bihar to protect the identity and interests of its tribal majority. But, like the country at large, each state in India is a mosaic of different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. It would be a recipe for social turmoil if official policies favour one group to the exclusion or neglect of others. Mr Marandi will be unleashing divisive forces if he seeks to exploit the domicile policy, as has been suggested by his critics, to expand the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sphere of influence in the state.
Mr Marandi cannot pretend to wash his hands of the issue on the ground that the Jharkhand high court has quashed his domicile policy. Despite its legal implications, it remains primarily a political impasse that calls for a political resolution. But the government’s approach to it has to be political, and not partisan. Mr Marandi needs to bring about a consensus among political and social organizations as to how best to protect the interests of the tribal majority without alienating the non-tribal community. Obviously, there are other parties such as the All Jharkhand Students’ Union which will be competing with Mr Marandi for the same tribal constituency. Events over the past few months show that competitive militancy by supporters and opponents of the policy have only made things worse. What the chief minister probably needs is a reservation — and not a domicile — policy. And it has to be a policy that will work.