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Where Do Muslims, Urdu, Owaisi and Tribes Figure in Jharkhand Polls?

Once, Jharkhand politics transcended class and religion. Things have changed.
Jharkhand Polls

The creation of a province of Jharkhand was an effort bid to empower tribal people. Until 2000, the elites of Bihar treated the region like an internal colony, subjecting the tribes of Chhotanagpur and Santhal Pargana to exploitation and marginalising them. In the late-19th century Birsa Munda, the tribal hero who valiantly fought the British and much later, the hockey legend Jaipal Singh Munda, who died in 1970, launched campaigns for a separate province. 

The ruling Congress party co-opted Jaipal Singh and the tribal movement kept passing through ups and downs. Once, in 1946-47, the Muslim League proposed it should align with them, if it was serious about gaining power. But that was only an electoral gimmick, lacking any ideological conviction to empower the marginalised and oppressed. After all, the state of Pakistan espoused a kind of exclusionary nationalism and did nothing to accommodate legitimate aspirations of its own heterogeneities. This should not come as a surprise, for no homogenising, exclusionary or divisive political ideology can make space for diversities. 

Tribal movements for a separate Jharkhand also saw many leaders dwindle and degenerate. Saffron proselytising made inroads into the region, to counter the Christian missionaries. As of now, besides the Muslims, members of tribes who hold Christian beliefs are also the target of cow-protection lynch mobs. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offshoots pit the Sarna tribes, whom they consider backward Hindus, against the tribes that hold Christian beliefs. This is how the politics of religious polarisation plays out among the tribes.

Not just academic studies of politics and anthropology, this degeneration in tribal relations has been captured in Urdu short stories such as, Tom Jefferson Ke Pinjray by Ilyas Ahmad Gaddi, the 20th-century writer, or his brother Ghayas Ahmad Gaddi’s Parinda Pakarhney Waali Gaarhi. The Gaddi brothers were noted writers from Jharia near Dhanbad in Jharkhand, a region known for coal mines, and for the town sitting on, and sinking into, the underground flames in them. Ilyas’s award-winning Urdu novel, Fire Area, published in 1994, powerfully brings out the chilling adversities of the common people and mine-workers, and the intrigues of the state, in this region. 

Perhaps the communist activist and writer, Ali Amjad (1924-2005), wrote the only—and best—account exposing the role of the right-wing faction of the ruling Congress party in the area. He writes about how the party pitted the tribes against the Muslims, thereby creating a communal division within the working class. His Urdu novel, Kaali Maati, which means black soil, published in 1999, dwells on a village that the Tatas developed, in early 20th century, into the planned city of Jamshedpur, also known as Tatanagar. This work is less a novel, more fact-based reportage, in lucid Urdu prose. It is best to read it alongside his memoir, also in Urdu, Shaakh-e-Nehaal-e-Gham, published posthumously in 2006.

The Congress party’s communal politics resulted in the communal violence of Jamshedpur in 1964, which, according to Amjad’s account, was a design to snuff out the working-class movements which had gathered momentum by the sixties. 

During the late-colonial era, it is Hazaribagh that was more prone to communal violence. This remains so till now, particularly after the late 1980s. However, ever since Yashwant Sinha joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and cultivated the region as his pocket borough, it became a perpetual communal cauldron. Sinha’s son Jayant, a Harvard-educated former Union minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has only become more brazenly communal

In Ranchi, once the summer capital of Bihar, and now the capital of Jharkhand, a major communal violence took place in early August 1967. This was against demands to make Urdu the second official language of Bihar. The Raghubar Dayal Commission Report clearly indicted the Saffron brigades in this violence. 

A significant irony of this communal violence is the fact that Urdu, and its Muslim writers, always articulated tribal issues and concerns in Jharkhand.  

The communal violence of April 1979 in Jamshedpur was possibly the worst ever. This and the 1964 violence gave rise to two major Muslim ghettos in the city, namely, Azad Basti, near the Maango area, and Bari Nagar, near the Telco Township, which is on the south-eastern edge of Jamshedpur city.

According to the news reports, the prominent accused of the April 1979 violence of Jamshedpur was Dinanath Pandey, a sitting Member of Legislative Assembly from the ruling Janata Party of the time. Soon after this violence, the government led by Karpoori Thakur fell. Pandey was elected successively another three times from a seat in Jamshedpur in 1977 (Janata Party), in 1980, 1985, 1990 (BJP). Raghubar Das, the incumbent BJP chief minister of Jharkhand, succeeded Pandey in the Assembly elections of 1995. 

Jamshedpur is perhaps the most communalised city of Jharkhand. This city also happens to be the site of Titanic clashes and the location from which the BJP’s chief ministerial-category of leaders emerge: Arjun Munda, a former chief minister and presently co-opted as Union minister, Das himself, and his intra-party bête noire, Saryu Rai, who is contesting as a rebel against him, hail from the region. Rai gained prominence by chastising former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav during the fodder scam in the 1990s. He also exposed the mining scam of then chief minister Madhu Koda.  

The anti-Muslim communalisation manifested itself more clearly in 1946-47. In the wake of Partition, there were attempts to throw out some Muslim workers of TISCO. In a letter written on 4 November 1947) to Jawaharlal Nehru, JRD Tata said, “Truth be told, there were chauvinists within the ruling Congress itself; men who were not completely convinced of the loyalty of Muslims to the new nation.... The governor of Bihar warned the owners of the great steel mill in Jamshedpur that their Muslim employees would leave for Pakistan, but destroy the machinery before going. There were other such rumours floating around the town, but the factory owners stayed steadfast, issuing a notice that they had no intention of dismissing their Muslim employees or of promoting communal disunity among the workforce.”

The 1964 riots, according to Ali Amjad, were to weaken the working class movement by sowing dissension between Hindus and Muslims and also between the Muslims and the tribes; for the workers the Tatas wanted to throw out were Muslim. These humble Muslim workers settled down in a basti, Barinagar, which they named after the labour activist and freedom fighter Abdul Bari, who died in 1947. 

They also set up the Telco Urdu School in Barinagar. More important than this, the Karimiya Trust has been running high quality schools and colleges since the 1960s. This is one of the best Muslim-managed educational setup in the country. Significantly, the affluent Karimiya family of entrepreneurs, despite wielding considerable influence, has never shown any political aspiration. The Jamshedpur Muslims have set up and run a few more schools. 

The second and third generation of these Muslim workers have acquired some skills and education, and took up jobs in the Gulf countries. This newfound affluence of Muslims and the resultant emergence of a small middle class among them have become an eye sore to the saffron forces. In the retail trade of Jamshedpur as well, the Muslim’s hold is not insignificant. All these economic rivalries and competitions carry the potential to degenerate into communal conflicts. In a communalised atmosphere, more so in the era of “everyday communalism”, even lumpens and hoodlums play out their religious identity in some ways.

For instance, in July 2015, a gang-rivalry between two Muslim criminals, named Waris and Shibu, aka Asif, degenerated into Hindu-Muslim “tensions”. Chunu Pandey and Munu Pandey of the Asif gang had suffered knife injuries. The clash was over extorting the stall operators at the Eid fair at Maango’s Gandhi Maidan in Jamshedpur. These gangs were apparently patronised by the two rival factions—Saryu Rai and Raghubar Das—of the ruling BJP. 

A few months later, on the other side of the city in Barinagar, there was communal tension on Muharram day. Here too, local informants said that some Muslim lumpens and fixers, patronised by BJP stalwarts including two former chief ministers, were acting as the agent provocateurs. Civil society interventions saw through this design and resolved the crisis.

Be that as it may, in recent years it is Jharkhand’s Muslims—mostly the poor and those who belong to non-elite castes and from its rural areas—were more frequent victims of lynch mobs. Most chilling was that of Tabrez Ansari, who died in police custody in June 2019. The saffron outfits came out to defend the lynchers and justify the lynching on frivolous and baseless pretexts, and blamed the victim. 

The police investigation—or lack of it—turned out to be brazenly helpful to the accused. The non-BJP (or anti-BJP) “secular” political parties, the first claimants of Muslim votes, remained almost mute. Though some civil society groups waged the judicial battle and extended financial help to the survivors of the victim, it is only All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Musilmeen or AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi who emerged as the sole politician to speak out vociferously against these atrocities on Muslims, both inside the and outside Parliament. 

This should explain why Owaisi felt confident enough to field his party’s candidates from twenty seats in the ongoing Jharkhand polls. Of course, not all his 20 candidates are Muslims. On expected lines, the seats chosen by him are those with sizeable Muslim populations, such as Bokaro, Hazaribagh, Jamtara, Lohardagga, Madhupur, Godda, Garhwa, Mandu, Bishrampur, Sarath. In a small Legislative Assembly of 81 seats, even if the AIMIM emerges as the spoiler, this will be a severe blow to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress-Rashtriya Janta Dal led grand alliance or mahagathbandhan. Jharkhand’s industrial cities have sizeable populations from Bihar, where the RJD, under the leadership of Tejashwi Yadav, has been almost completely silent even on lynching of Muslims. Misa Yadav barely speaks in the Rajya Sabha on any issue.

Here lies the importance of Owaisi. If at all he succeeds in weaning a chunk of Muslim votes away from the mahagathbandhan, an altogether new scenario will unfold in the electoral history of India, in which the “secular” political parties and coalitions shall have to compete for Hindu votes with the BJP. 

The AIMIM, in all likelihood, will also field candidates in parts of Bihar, when it will go to the polls in 2020 and in West Bengal, during the 2021 polls. 

As of now, Owaisi seems to be realistic enough to state that he only needs one or two MLAs in each Assembly to intervene and articulate the atrocities against, and grievances of, Muslims, who are political orphans in the face of unprecedented anti-Muslim Hindu consolidation since 2014.       

In short, if Owaisi rises, it may raise alarm bells among the so-called secular parties, who have been getting Muslim votes without doing anything concrete for them on the education, healthcare, basic infrastructure, electricity, governance, and municipal amenity fronts. They will have to devise new strategies, new issues, new slogans and new programmes to wean Hindu votes away from the BJP. Only that will redefine and re-script India’s future political history. 


Mohammad Sajjad teaches history and Zeeshan Ahmad is a law student at AMU. The views are personal. 

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