The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Trial by fire

Rebellion, according to Albert Camus, is born of a spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition. The week-long saga of violence in Jharkhand over the recruitment test for primary teachers reflects this spectacle of irrationality. The trouble reached a flashpoint on May 27 and 28 with the death of a 10-year-old schoolboy and a teenaged college student in police firing. The indigenous people’s groups, opposing the test on the ground that it was held without framing a domicile policy in order to “favour non-ethnic groups and outsiders”, clashed with the police in their bid to stall the tests. The force clamped the writ of the gun as the protesters went on a rampage.

Normal life in the state virtually came to a standstill with a 72-hour bandh. Thousands of examinees from Bihar, Orissa and even Chhattisgarh, who had come to try their “job-luck” braved bombs, bullets, batons and even physical assault by the protesters, not to mention the strict rules at the examination centres for over 24 hours. The level of insecurity among the candidates can be gauged from the comment of one of them at Ranchi’s J.N. College, which was mobbed by the anti-test brigade: “I don’t want to stay here a minute more after the test. I don’t want to risk my life.”

The backdrop of this “irrationality” lies in the state government’s move — considered unjust by the indigenous population of the state — to open the gates of the job market to outsiders without framing a definite domicile policy to safeguard the interests of the local people.

The chief minister, Arjun Munda, who came to power after a coup by dissidents within the Bharatiya Janata Party ended the chief ministership of Babulal Marandi, had announced soon after he assumed office that he would appoint 10,000 primary teachers by June 30. For Munda, who wanted to rid the state of the stigma of non-performance and indecisiveness, the announcement was a personal challenge and the test, however bloody it might have been, a political triumph.

Marandi, who had set a domicile agenda envisaging 73 per cent reservation for the indigenous inhabitants, received a jolt when the Jharkhand high court capped the quota at 50 per cent. In the process, the tribals were just left with 22 per cent share in government jobs. The high court order passed in November 2002 set aside the domicile policy suggested by Marandi and advocated a more “broad-based” concept of a local resident. Marandi subsequently constituted an experts’ sub-committee to go into the details on the basis of the court directives and guidelines. But nothing concrete came of it.

However, he managed to win over the ethnic groups with his announcement. Ironically, Munda blundered where Marandi had tried to score and allowed the issue to be hijacked by the opposition.

The chief minister played into the hands of the sangh parivar in his zeal to outshine Marandi. Had he defined the “local resident” status before conducting the test, instead of adopting a pan-regional stand that “we are but of one domicile — Indian”, he would have breached the ethnic divide and dispelled the sense of alienation among the indigenous groups. The common assumption that Jharkhand is a colony of Hindi-speaking settlers from Bihar and other heartland states would not have had such a violent expression, reaping a rich political harvest for the opposition.

The warring opposition parties are gradually arriving at a consensus over the issue. According to a section of leaders, even the Naxalite outfits, which recently decided to come into mainstream politics at a conclave in Giridih, might pitch in their lot.

Almost every state has its own parameters to define a local resident. Even Bihar, during the Jagannath Mishra regime, framed a rather loose domicile policy to give preference to local people in Class III and IV jobs in the mid-Eighties. According to experts, primary schoolteachers fall into the same category.

In neighbouring West Bengal, primary education is controlled by the Communist Party of India-led Left Front government. Most of the teachers in the village schools are local residents, familiar with the socio-economic milieu, dialect and lifestyle of the students.

Says Calcutta-based Pashupati P. Mahato of the Jharkhand Budhijeevi Manch: “The primary teachers are the Left Front’s most loyal workers. It is through them that the government wields control over the grassroots education system, indoctrinates children in the party’s philosophy and in the process builds an army of cadre.” During elections, primary teachers run the bulk of electoral errands. To retain its sway over the teaching fraternity, the West Bengal government had even hiked the salaries of teachers a couple of years ago, though it was a different matter that the cash-strapped government was unable to pay them.

Is the BJP trying to do the same in Jharkhand' With the Lok Sabha poll barely a year away and the assembly election soon after, the popular perception is that the sangh parivar is trying to cobble up cadre strength, which will mobilize voters at the grassroots level, influence the education system and serve as the party’s poll machinery.

Traditionally, the BJP, and its ideological allies like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have always been viewed as “outsiders” in tribal Jharkhand despite having ruled the state for two-and-a-half years. The tribals fear that the sangh, with its overtly Hindu agenda is out to “sanskritize an essentially indigenous culture by imposing an alien language and education. Or else, how can one justify that a teacher from Bihar or Orissa will teach in primary schools of the state where majority of the students either speak Santhali, Mundari, Ho or other tribal dialects'

Primary schools, 40 per cent of which are located in villages, are attended by children from the marginalized sections of the society, for whom a sense of identification with the teacher is important to facilitate communication. The sense of betrayal hangs heavy. The local people feel that the first major job opportunity for thousands of educated unemployed young people in Jharkhand has been usurped by outsiders. “The government has no jobs for its youth, only bullets,’’ lamented the opposition leader, Stephen Marandi.

The opposition sees a complex design in the BJP’s scheme of things. According to the opposition leaders, since the BJP could not make inroads into Bihar, it bifurcated the state to foist its own agenda on Jharkhand, cashing in on the poverty and ignorance of the indigenous inhabitants and the rural-urban divide. “The sangh parivar wants to perpetuate the tribal-non tribal chasm to extract political mileage. If the communities close rank, the votes will sway in favour of one particular party creating the scope for a single largest majority. Moreover, it is also a diversionary tactic. The NDA wants to divert the attention of the masses from its failures,’’ said a veteran Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader.

Besides, it is also a war by proxy on the church which has been covertly supporting the domicile issue. The Christian missionaries have been spearheading education for over a century in the tribal heartland, and any move to confine the teaching jobs at the grassroots to the local people would indirectly lead to the consolidation of the church which the government wants to avoid at any cost.

Perhaps the solution lies in the Jharkhand Front’s prediction of snap polls towards the end of the year. The present crop of leaders has inherited the state from Bihar as a legacy. It is therefore easy for them to set a unilateral agenda without taking the popular sentiments into account. Only a fresh mandate can decide whether Jharkhand is ready for Arjun Munda and his grandiose development plans, even at the cost of a cultural genocide.

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