Jharkhand has contributed some very famous, proud sons to India. Birsa Munda’s anti-British struggle is chronicled in history. The other great leader of the Jharkhandis was Jaipal Munda. Shibu Soren, or Guruji’ as he is known, inherited Munda’s legacy as an indefatigable fighter for the tribesmen after Munda died.
Soren’s idea of Jharkhand was fashioned by an agitation against the diku’ (outsider). The three hated figures in Jharkhand when it was part of undivided Bihar were the Chhota (the Sikh transporters who attempted to colonise’ the region); the Sota (the strongmen of Eastern Uttar Pradesh who flowed into Jharkhand believing they could hold sway over an unlettered cowering mass of tribes) and the Lota, the Marwari trader. Soren in his younger days was a Scarlet Pimpernal kind of character for the tribes.
This is why in the Jharkhand tribal mind, no matter how outrageous his antics — whether allegation of bribery’ levelled against the P V Narasimha Rao regime to which the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs were party, or sundry ongoing murder cases —, Shibu Soren is blameless. It doesn’t matter that Jharkhand has some of the lowest Human Development Index indicators and tribes continue to be at the receiving end of both the Naxalites and the state, even while JMM has been and continues to be part of the government. In the eyes of his followers, Soren is responsible for none of it.
In his heyday, Soren’s support in Jharkhand had to be seen to be believed. But like West Bengal or Nagaland, there was no political strategy in what he or his colleagues did. In the undivided Bihar Assembly, JMM always had 40 or 50 MLAs at any given time.
They were the currency of the ruling regime in Patna. Indeed, Lalu Prasad has had dealings with JMM which have saved his government at least once, if not on more occasions.
However, like all big leaders, Soren found it impossible to make way for a new leadership which led to rebellion against him.
Several younger tribal leaders saw merit in doing deals with the Church, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Seva Bharati and other Hindu tribal outfits. The slogan was now not “against the diku” but “with the diku”.
It was this utilitarian view of politics that has brought JMM to what it is today, with leaders like Karia Munda, Arjun Munda and Babulal Marandi becoming challengers to Soren and leading to the current round of unrest with Arjun Munda turning against Soren. The problem is that Soren — like other tribal leaders — has never leveraged his leadership; he has leveraged only his numerical strength in his politics.
And his leadership, if only he would develop it for his people, does count for something. Soren is a Santhali. Because of urbanisation, tribal society is acquiring many less than wholesome social features of the plains. Dowry is now not unheard of. Alcoholism is widespread. Soren has led several movements for social reform: both against dowry and drinking. But when it comes to governance, he needs to be led.
What the future holds for Jharkhand under President’s Rule remains to be seen. It is distressing to see the Tiger of Santhal having to wait for many hours before being ushered in to meet Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Bear in mind that not only does Jharkhand have the distinction of seeing a former chief minister incarcerated for several months (Madhu Koda), it has also seen a graft case investigated against a former governor. Jharkhand needs protection from itself. But in any case, tribals are the ones who are going to lose.