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INDIA: Arrest of Ex-Minister Highlights Plight of Tribals

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Aug 4 2004 (IPS) - The arrest this week of Shibu Soren, a tribal leader and till recently union minister for coal and mines, is only the latest episode in a saga stretching back to the last century in which the indigenous people of east and central India have been steadily dispossessed of their mineral-rich lands.

Soren, a legendary figure in tribal dominated central Jharkhand state, evaded arrest for two weeks after charges against him for leading a 1975 tribal rally targeting money lenders were revived – – forcing him to resign from the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The ex-minister leads the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Jharkhand Freedom Movement) or JMM political party which spearheaded decades of struggle to carve out a separate Jharkhand state in 2000. The JMM is a close regional ally of the Congress party and an important component of the ruling coalition in New Delhi.

At least 10 people were killed near the town of Jamtara in the violence but Soren was finally served with an arrest warrant 29 years later on Jul. 17, at the instigation of the right-wing, industry- friendly, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules Jharkhand.

Before he gave himself up Soren said he had fallen victim to India’s notorious ”coal mafia” which operates in a region spanning from the east to the central part of the country.

But it is not just Jharkhand’s vast coal deposits that are at stake. The state is India’s leading producer of mineral wealth and has vast untapped deposits of copper, iron, bauxite and uranium deposits that are newly being opened up to private exploitation.

Under the BJP state government run by Chief Minister Arjun Munda, Jharkhand has opened the doors wide open to private investment that has been welcomed by industrialists and traders from other parts of India. As a result of this, the tribals were beginning to feel marginalised in their own land.

Munda’s policy, allows industrialists to buy five-acre plots (2.02 hectares) of land as part of ‘single-window’ clearance scheme. But this is against protective laws introduced by the British colonials as far back as 1908 that prohibits the sale or transfer of tribal land to non-tribals.

The six years of BJP rule at the center between 1998 and May that openly pandered to India’s consumerist middle class located largely in the urban centers, was seen to be unsympathetic to the increasing impoverishment of Jharkhand’s tribals.

Tribal insecurity, resulting from the recent changes, is said to have been mainly responsible for the JMM’s victory in the April to May parliamentary elections and may again work against Munda’s BJP government when the state elects a new assembly next year.

In spite of its mineral riches, Jharkhand’s tribals have remained at the bottom of India’s development ladder. Many who have not been able to land jobs in the mines are forced to migrate to the cities to find work either as labourers or sex workers.

”Our girls are forced to work as housemaids in the homes of the rich in large cities and fall victims to all manner of exploitation,” Sugita Naek told IPS.

Naek, housemaid herself, is also an activist for the ”Jumao Manch” a forum that works with girls from Jharkhand living in Delhi.

The forum’s activities includes organising street plays to sensitise people to the plight of tribal girls lured to the cities with promises of handsome salaries only to end up being exploited and often sexually abused.

Well before the national elections Soren, and his supporters had been active in the capital and publicised the worsening situation of the tribals in spite of the creation of a separate Jharkhand state.

Explaining the plight of the Jharkhandis, Walter Fernandes an academic who specialises on the problems of tribals and indigenous people in India said in recent times aboriginal people seem to have lost the sympathy of the country’s middle class as a result of rising Hindu fundamentalism.

”The same middle class that lives by consumerist values is also the main base of the fundamentalist forces,” said Fernandes, former director of the Indian Social Instiute, in an interview.

To that Fernandes adds increasing demand by trans-national corporations for the natural resources that served as part of the support system of tribal populations in their homeland.

Finally as the impoverishment of the tribals increases so do levels of repression unleashed on them to prevent them from protesting against their own marginalisation, Fernandes said.

Indeed, the bulk of the 2,000-odd people arrested by the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act introduced by the just defeated BJP government and repealed by the successor Congress party were tribals from Jharkhand.

”The proportion of tribals living below the poverty line is increasing and it is bound to get worse with the new economic policy – the main thrust of which is mechanisation and job reduction,” said Fernandes. ”Few tribals, among the mostly illiterate group, have the skills needed for the new jobs that are being created in coal mines and steel factories.”

 
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