Rajiv Singh | Ulihatu, Jharkhand
In early June, the Jharkhand government decided to `free’ Birsa Munda by replac ing busts and statues of the tribal freedom fighter in handcuffs across the state with ones without fetters. The move to un chain Munda, who fought the Britishers and the landed aristocracy to protect the tribal land, should have evoked wide spread adulation among the tribals. How ever, the tribals in Munda’s village of birth, who worship him as Birsa Bhagwan, are unimpressed.“It’s a symbolic gesture. His statue might be free, but his tribal land is still under threat,“ says Soma Munda, a local Munda chieftain in Ulihatu, some 65 km from the state capital of Ranchi. “Abhi bhi zameen ki ladai hai (Still, it’s a fight for land).“ While earlier the exploiters were Britishers, he says, now it’s the state and the fight is to protect jal, jangal and zameen (water, for est and land).
Situated deep inside the Naxal district of Khunti, Ulihatu retains its rustic charm, but by default and neglect. Most of the houses are made of stone and are in dire need of repair; electric poles are present but electricity is conspicuously absent; a medical dispensary can be located but not the doctor; a government residential school runs out of a dilapidated building but classes are mostly empty; a Central Bank of India signboard can be seen in the village, but the branch functions from a dingy grocery shop that re mains closed most of the time; solar water pumps are installed across the village but they don’t work when it rains. And it does rain heavily during the three mon soon months.
Undercurrent of Unrest
Most of the villagers are farmers and are tied to their land. The promise of developing fish and chicken farms on a large scale remains elusive. The only redeeming feature about the village is a smooth concrete road under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana that connects the decrepit hamlet with the state capital.
“This is what freedom means to tribals after 70 years of Independence,“ says an anguished Soma, who runs a school for the tribal kids in Khunti, 40 minutes from Ulihatu. Soma says the village is still in the stone age, with big tribal leaders of the state coming once in a year to garland the stone bust of Birsa Munda on his birth an niversary on November 15.
Roxlem Purti, a 22-year old villager, blames the trib al leaders for letting down the villagers. Purti, who fin ished her higher secondary education against all odds and secured a high first di vision, could not continue her studies. “My parents didn’t have money to sup port me,“ says Purti, who helps them in the fields.
The state, she adds, was created for tribals. “But the tribal dream has died a slow death over the last 70 years,“ she laments.
Karma Oraon, professor of anthropology at Ranchi University and a tribal social activist, who has also been spearheading a movement to fight against the amendments in the tribal land laws -Chotanagpur Tenancy and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts -reckons that the tangible benefits of Independence have yet to percolate down to the tribal community. “The benefits have been cornered by a creamy layer of tribals but, for the majority, August 15 means nothing much,“ he says.
There’s an undercurrent of unrest among the tribals, reckons Oraon, against the exploitation and underdevelopment.Chandra Mohan Munda agrees. The 24-year-old graduate who now works in the fields is disenchanted with the “hype“ around Independence Day celebrations.“What’s there to celebrate?“ he asks, seething with anger, when tribals are still fighting for basic amenities.
On August 15, when citizens across towns and cities pay tribute to the freedom fighters, villagers in Ulihatu will be busy at a meeting organised by Soma Munda to sensitise them on the need to be politically and economically emancipated.
Dinesh Oraon, a former deputy superintendent of police, is lending a hand to Soma in his effort to galvanise the locals.“Ulihatu should have been transformed into a model village but it lies in a shambles,“ says Oraon, who has now turned social activist. “The village and the villagers need deliverance.“