In the tribal dominated Kolhan (which means people like coal) region, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was not able to win even a single seat, indicating how emotive land issues may have contributed to the decimation of the party in southern part of Jharkhand.
In 2014, the BJP-All Jharkhand Students Union combine won five of the 14 seats in the region and chief minister Rabhubar Das, whose constituency Jamshedpur East falls in Kolhan, tried to make inroads through a series of development projects.
But the strategy ran into a series of agitations, including the Pathalgadi movement in 2016 and 2017, against the government’s move to amend the two British-era tenancy laws — Chotanagpur and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts — that gives absolute land rights to tribals.
The stringent provisions of the laws restrict transfer of land belonging to scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and other backward classes. Even a tribal person can’t sell his/her land to another tribal person living outside the limits of the police station in which the land is located.
Jharkhand Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) member Ratan Tirkey said the BJP government’s attempt to amend the two tenancy laws triggered a tribal unrest in the state and it was most visible in the region, which was the epicentre of the protests in 2015 and 2016.
“The tribal had decided to teach BJP a lesson and there was good voter turnout in tribal dominated villages, clearly indicating their anger,” said Ramesh Jiraj of the Bhumi Bachao Samanaya Manch, a group of organisations in the Kolhan region fighting for land rights.
What may have added fuel to fire was enactment of the controversial Jharkhand Religious Freedom Act, 2017, which the government claimed was aimed at checking religious conversion of tribals through allurements, superstition and money. The region has a sizeable population of tribals of Christian faith, who also spearheaded the anti-land acquisition agitations.
“The government’s crackdown on missionary institutions didn’t go down well. The Christian population in the state sided with the opposition parties which championed their causes,” said a senior BJP leader, who was not willing to be named.
Rajendra Bharti, professor of political science in ABM College in Jamshedpur, said the impact of economic slowdown in the industrial and mining belts of the region also had an impact. “The government failed to deal with rising unemployment and closure of companies in the CM’s home constituency and neighbouring Adityapur industrial belt, which created a negative sentiment for the BJP,” he said.
And, its impact was clearly visible in Jamshedpur, where the party lost both seats, for the first time since 1995. Das lost to minister in his cabinet Saryu Roy from Jamshedpur East and his handpicked candidate and district BJP president, Devendra Singh, lost from Jamshedpur West.
.Among other BJP stalwarts who lost were state BJP president Laxman Gilua from Chakradharpur, Laxman Tudu from Ghatsila and Menaka Sardar in Potka. The water resources minister Ramchandra Sahis of AJSU lost from Jugsalai seat. Kunal Sarangi, inducted into the BJP from Jharkhand Mukti Morcha by Das just ahead of elections, lost to JMM’s Samir Mohanty, who came from BJP, in Baharagora seat.