Will withdraw Pathalgadi sedition cases if elected to power: JMM president Shibu Soren

12 December, 2019

On 30 November, Jharkhand went to the polls for the first of five phases of an assembly election. The Bharatiya Janata Party currently rules the state, with Raghubar Das as the chief minister. On the morning of 11 December, Shibu Soren, a three-time Jharkhand chief minister and the president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, sat in the balcony of his two-floor house in Dumka, a city in Jharkhand, reading the newspapers. The JMM is the principal opposition party in Jharkhand, with 19 seats in the 81-seat assembly. Every now and then, JMM workers and officials handed him small slips of paper—perhaps messages from party officials. Many of Shibu’s supporters, who hail largely from the tribal communities, reach out to him at his Dumka residence. Party members popularly refer to him to as Guruji. A close party-aide told me, “In winters, Guruji spends his noon like this in the balcony. Anyone can walk in and meet him.” The house serves as the party’s headquarters for Jharkhand’s Santhal Pargana division.

Shibu is also an eight-time member of parliament from the state’s Dumka Lok Sabha constituency. However, he lost the 2019 general election from Dumka by a margin of over 47,000 votes. The BJP’s Sunil Soren won the seat. Shibu has not formally interacted with the national media since his defeat in the Lok Sabha elections and has limited his public appearances.

Once considered Shibu’s citadel, the BJP is now challenging the JMM in Dumka. Consequently, this assembly election is being viewed as critical for the JMM's future. In the on-going Jharkhand elections, the BJP has lined up a long queue of star campaigners including the prime minister Narendra Modi, the home minister Amit Shah and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath. On the other hand, Shibu’s son and the party’s working president Hemant Soren is the lone high-profile campaigner for the JMM. Hemant is contesting from the Dumka assembly constituency. He is pitted against the BJP’s Louis Marandi, who currently holds the seat.

To help the JMM at this juncture, Shibu has started attending a limited number of election rallies despite health concerns. He has also been holding a series of closed-door meetings with Adivasi community leaders. At the moment, he is travelling between assembly constituencies only by air and uses a helicopter for this purpose. The JMM knows its chief has limited physical strength and they aim to use it wisely. “Even if he waves his hands during an election rally in a tribal belt, it creates excitement among the tribal voters,” a senior JMM leader told me. “But his speeches are limited to a few lines during these rallies.”

At his Dumka residence, I waited nearly for five hours to meet Shibu and hoped that he might break his media silence. After several attempts, he eventually agreed to an interview. We discussed the assembly elections, the BJP’s allegations against the JMM, and the Pathalgadi movement in Jharkhand.

Pathalgadi is an Adivasi movement for self-rule. Between 2017 and 2018, several Adivasi villages in Jharkhand put up stone plaques declaring their gram sabha as the sovereign governing authority. The plaques were engraved with provisions of the Indian Constitution and highlighted the special autonomy granted to Adivasi areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Subsequently, the police cracked down on the movement, charged thousands of Adivasis with sedition and described them as anti-national.

In the interview, Shibu defended the Pathalgadi movement and its supporters. “Pathalgadi is a tradition of Adivasis. Tribals have their own traditions,” he said. “And no government has any right to interfere on such issues. The new government must withdraw these sedition cases.” The results of the assembly elections will be declared on 23 December.

Amit Bhardwaj: The Jharkhand assembly poll is underway and your party is contesting the election in alliance with the Congress. But, who is leading the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha ?
Shibu Soren: The election is being fought under a leader who is working hard and leaving his mark on the voters. This election is being fought under Hemant Soren, not because he is my son but because he understands the voter. Irrespective of whether it’s me or Hemant, only the leader who is popular amongst the voters will continue to lead the election campaign.

AB: The BJP has dubbed the JMM as “the family is the party” and asked the people not to vote for a dynastic party. What is your response to these allegations?
SS: The BJP has zero understanding of political affairs [in Jharkhand]. My son is leading the party because he is working hard and has earned his position in the party. Who has stopped them [the BJP] from doing so? Because the BJP has fallen short of electoral issues, they are making such allegations.

AB: Since its creation in 2000, do you think that a Jharkhand of your dreams has been built in the last 19 years?
SS: The situation and needs of any state keep on changing with changing times. What was the Jharkhand of my dreams when I was fighting for the formation of the state, that chapter is over now. Now, we have to make plans and policies as per the needs and aspirations of today’s Jharkhand and its youth.

AB: Do you believe that those involved in the Pathalgadi movement were anti-nationals? And if not, then why did the JMM not openly defend the protesters when they were being labelled as anti-nationals by the government?
SS: Pathalgadi is a tradition of Adivasis. Tribals have their own traditions. And no government has any right to interfere on such issues. It’s a matter of their cultural tradition and identity. Moreover, the BJP does not care about any community and their traditions. It brews trouble among different communities for its own electoral benefits.

AB: If elected to power, will the JMM withdraw sedition cases filed against the Pathalgadi supporters?
SS: Yes, we will withdraw such cases. The new government must withdraw these sedition cases.

This interview has been edited and condensed.