The CAA “can certainly be challenged” in Jharkhand: JMM working president Hemant Soren

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20 December, 2019

A five-phase assembly election is currently underway in the BJP-ruled state of Jharkhand. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Congress, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are fighting the assembly polls in alliance and have formed a mahagatbandhan, or grand alliance. Hemant Soren is the chief ministerial candidate of the alliance. The son of the former Jharkhand chief minister, Shibu Soren, Hemant is also the working president of the JMM, the principal opposition party in the 81-seat state assembly.

On the evening of 12 December, Amit Bhardwaj, an independent journalist, spoke to Hemant at his residence in Jharkhand’s Dumka district. They discussed the JMM’s stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, the future of the country’s federal structure and the party’s response to the Adivasi community’s Pathalgadi movement demanding the right to autonomous governance. Hemant also discussed the JMM’s strategy in the on-going elections. “There is a deliberate attempt to create a sense of fear in Muslims,” he said. “But this country and its democracy are too big. The present government talks about Gandhi’s ideas and they behave like Hitler.”

Amit Bhardwaj: Muslims form 14 percent of the Jharkhand electorate. They seem angry and anxious over the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act. What is Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s stand on the act? Will its passage polarise the minority vote against the BJP and in your favour?
Hemant Soren: The bill has been passed. Now it has taken shape of an act and will go to the respective states. It is up to the state governments how and whether it acts on the CAA. If we are elected to power, we will read, analyse and review the CAA to find out whether it is in benefit of the state or not. We were not in a position to do much earlier, but the act can certainly be challenged in the state.

AB: Do you think the National Register for Citizens is triggering fear among the minority voters in Jharkhand?
HS: There is a deliberate attempt to create a sense of fear in Muslims. But this country and its democracy are too big. The present government talks about Gandhi’s ideas and they behave like [Adolf] Hitler. This double standard cannot work for long. Right now, the northeast is burning. Food prices there have skyrocketed. The BJP has no regards for the Constitution and Indian democracy. Look at the trend, how they formed government in Maharashtra when the entire world was asleep. From day one, since 2014, they have backtracked from all developmental issues and are working on their own ideological agenda.

AB: Will your party, if elected to power, try to block the NRC in Jharkhand? The West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has already assured that she will block it in her state.
HS: As I said, the state governments must take decisions as per the interests of their electorate. The central government cannot impose laws on the states. The BJP is carrying out an organised attacked on the federal structure of the country. And a befitting answer to their attempts to weaken the democracy will come only through the democratic processes. The rate of their decline and being thrown out of power will be faster than their electoral growth.

AB: Tribal voters form the core constituency of the JMM. Why did the JMM maintain silence when the Pathalgadi movement supporters were being targeted and dubbed as “anti-nationals”?
HS: The JMM and its leaders were actively defending the Pathalgadi movement. But we couldn’t afford to stick to just one issue, as in the past five years, the chief minister Raghubar Das has created a mess out of the state. During these five years, the CM has forced people to protest over Pathalgadi and the amendment in CNT-SPT act. [The Chottanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act make land non-saleable in these administrative divisions. The law was meant to protect land rights of tribal communities. In 2016, the BJP state government proposed amendments to these acts that would enable land acquisition for private business and development work in the state.] They tried to bulldoze changes in the Forest Rights Act, domicile policy and land acquisition for private companies. Not only the political class but even the common masses are angry with Raghubar Das. The business class is being targeted, ransomed and murdered.

AB: How do you view the law and order situation in the state?
HS: There is no rule of law in Jharkhand. It’s jungle raj. I think Jharkhand is a state without a CM, Raghubar Das is a mere rubber stamp. I call him a photocopy machine. He has no vision, no ideas.

AB: Can you speak about your core constituency—the tribal communities. Have you started taking them for granted just as the BJP has been accused of taking the Hindu vote bank for granted?
HS: I don’t agree with you. The JMM’s political background is completely different from that of the BJP. We are political warriors and not leaders. It was due to our fight that Jharkhand was formed. If you look at Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand, they don’t have such a long history of political struggle for the formation of a separate state.

AB: The JMM has traditionally represented tribal politics in the state. But in this election, you are making a conscious attempt to woo non-tribal voters as well. And there is an identity conflict between the two groups. The tribal community members refer to non-tribals as “diku,” or outsiders. How are you reconciling this?
HS: You are misinterpreting the word diku. Back in the day, diku used to be a popular word among the political leaders of the region. In Jharkhand, someone who irritates a lot we call them diku. Also, the BJP and its ideologues have created terms such as mulvasi [native] and are juxtaposing it against Adivasi. Terms like that didn’t even exist before the formation of the state. They play with words to create a difference between communities. On the other hand, we want to cultivate a Jharkhandi sentiment. When the entire nation can be mobilised in name of “Hindu,” then why won’t Jharkhandis stand together in name of Jharkhand?

AB: What exactly do you mean by Jharkhandi?
HS: When I talk of Jharkhandi, I am referring to both Adivasis and non-Adivasis. Even today, JMM gets immense love and support from Jharkhandis. Let me share with you a very personal and emotional moment that happened during the election campaign in Poreyahat assembly constituency. I was greeted with garlands made of leaves and Rs 2 and Rs 5 notes by tribal women. You can’t buy these garlands in the market. As I was walking to board the chopper, a lady, tearing between the crowd, approached me. She held my hand and said “Keep this, I am poor and I can contribute only this much.” When I opened my palm, it was a note of Rs 10. It’s still in my pocket. She didn’t even have slippers on her feet. This contribution is the strength of the ‘Jharkhandi’ sentiment; she is our strength.

AB: Are you are trying to expand beyond your tribal voter base. Is there a deliberate change in stance and strategy?
HS: JMM was formed for the creation of a separate state and now we are doing politics to win power. We want to come to power not for one community or a group, rather to serve all. Politics of satta [power] is done to represent all communities. Moreover, the BJP accuses that JMM is doing to politics to get satta. If BJP is not interested in staying in power, why is it contesting elections? They can do social service by running an NGO. Whoever fights elections, it means they want to win elections and stay in power.

AB: The BJP has alleged that if JMM returns to power, the Naxal problem will return to the state. How do you respond?
HS: They are the ones who create Naxals by keeping the masses unemployed. The BJP is very smart when it comes to wordplay. They will keep coining terms—Naxal, Urban Naxal, Rural Naxal. Only they know what’s next.

AB: The top leaders of the BJP, including the BJP working president, JP Nadda, have accused the JMM of being a dynastic party. They claim that if the grand alliance returns to power it will bring “loot and corruption” to the state.
HS: Sher ka baccha sher hi na paida hoga, kutta thodi paida hoga. [A lion’s son will be a lion, not a dog.] My only response to BJP is that it’s not our mistake that Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t have a child. And as far as JP Nadda and CM Das are concerned, they don’t even know which game [the cricketer MS] Dhoni plays. That exposes their understanding of Jharkhand. I am not afraid of their leaders.

I am giving an open challenge to the BJP—let’s have a direct debate between Raghubar Das and me. I will expose him layer by layer like one takes out layers of an onion. The BJP is the epitome of corruption and they accuse us of wrongdoings. It’s the BJP that has bought land in all 731 districts of the country and now they are building lavish party offices on these sites. The BJP, which was a party of Rs 50 crore, has now become a party of Rs 2,000 crores.

AB: You are considered a close friend of the former Congress president Rahul Gandhi. What’s your advice to him in these current times when the Congress party is going through a difficult phase?
HS: (laughs) I addressed a joint meeting with Rahulji [on December 12.] I don’t think there is a need to do so. Leaders of his stature have their own set-up and mechanism to get feedback.

AB: What do you expect from the poll results? How many seats will JMM win?
HS: That’s an interesting question and I will have to give you a figure now. But honestly, this language of claiming 65 paar, 70 paar, 300 paar” is of the BJP. And we don’t do such politics.

AB: Give me a number?
HS: As I had said earlier, we are political warriors. We understand only two terms—victory or defeat.

AB: You have given 31 seats to Congress as part of the alliance. What’s your expectation from the Congress?
HS: I don’t run a survey agency. But I can assure you that JMM, Congress, and RJD are going to win the elections.

AB: Many poll pundits are saying that the JMM committed a political blunder by giving 31 seats to the Congress.
HS: See, as far as Congress’ numbers are concerned, you should approach them. Now we have passed the stage of discussing about seat-sharing. But I can assure you, they will perform well.

AB: There has been speculation about internal family disputes and differences in the Soren family. Can you comment on this?
HS: See, we don’t run just a party but a political family. Any family and every family have internal disputes and we are no different. Once we keep things in a systematic order and try to resolve internal problems, things fall in their place.

AB: Can you promise the voters that you will not enter into a post-poll alliance with the BJP?
HS: I would say, in politics, one cannot respond to hypothetical questions. There is only one possibility after the results—the grand alliance is forming the government in Jharkhand.

AB: With how many seats?
HS: With a full majority. We will win 50 plus seats.

This interview has been edited and condensed.