Two years ago, the Bihar Foundation Day was celebrated for the first time to commemorate the state’s separation from Bengal. Official buildings in capital Patna were lit up and rich tributes were paid to the leaders who were instrumental in the state’s formation. But social worker and Jharkhand reporter Srinivas found something amiss.
“The occasion was to commemorate Bihar’s heroes, yet there was no one to represent the state’s tribal culture during the festivities,” he says. “No tribute was paid to tribal heroes such as Birsa Munda or Tilka Manjhi, who even has a university in Bhagalpur named after him.”
According to Srinivas, one of the reasons cited by the Bihar government while demanding a special status from the Centre is its tribal population. So, why are the tribals of Bihar feeling left out?
“It is true that tribals form a much smaller part of Bihar’s population than they did before Jharkhand was carved out of the state,” says Srinivas. “But it is the state government’s responsibility to take care of the few tribals remaining in the state, preserve their culture and protect their honour.”
Indeed, Srinivas has a point. After the formation of Jharkhand in 2000, the political class neglected the tribals who stayed back in Bihar. There are many reasons for it. The main one was the sudden decline in the tribal population. Politicians speak of the most downtrodden OBCs , Dalits and Muslims but never of tribals. The parties are willing to play politics in the name of caste, sub-caste and gotras but the tribals are never the focus.
According to the 2013 census, there are 13.36 lakh tribals in Bihar, which amounts to 1.3 percent of the total population. Before the partition of Bihar, tribals enjoyed 10 percent reservation in the state. In 2002, when the RJD ’s Rabri Devi was the chief minister, reservation for tribals was reduced to 1 percent. For many years, the tribals have been fighting to get it raised to 5 percent. But there is little chance that the demand will be met.
After delimitation, two seats were reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the Bihar Assembly. Currently, one of these seats is held by the JD(U) and the other by the BJP. Both legislators feel that they have been made MLAs just for the sake of formality. They have no say within their own parties.
“There is no sensitisation about tribal issues in Bihar’s political circles,” says Sonelal Hembram, the BJP MLA from Katoria. “Reservation for tribals had already been reduced to 1 percent and now tribal heritage is being exploited. Tea-garden owners have annexed tribal land. To establish the new branch of the Aligarh Muslim University, they have taken over tribal land. In Purnea district too, tribals are fighting for their land. The state government has set up a Mahadalit Mission and Tola Samiti for Mahadalits, but they have done nothing significant for tribals. A Scheduled Tribe Commission has been set up, but it is only a formality.”
Until June, the BJP was an alliance partner of the ruling JD(U). So, why didn’t Hembram fight for tribal rights? “We have continuously fought for it,” he says. “But what matters is how many votes you can mobilise. And tribals are not so important. Look at the government schemes. Tribals receive funds from only two schemes run by the Central government, which is sometimes diverted too.”
Manohar Prasad Singh, the JD(U) MLA from Manihari, has a similar story to tell. “Tribals are no longer politically strong. They are not seen as an important group. The problem is that they are not united,” he says. “The Tharus of Champaran, the tribals of Purnea, and the Gauds, who recently got ST status, are different from each other. That’s why tribals don’t have a united voice.”
The attitude of the mainstream parties towards tribals is evidence enough of their plight and suffering. Forget the major parties such as the JD(U), BJP or RJD , even civil society organisations don’t have tribals on their priority list either. Had it been so, the state would have witnessed widespread unrest after the murder of three tribals in Purnea last year or the killing of tribals in Jamui.
In another incident, the police shot dead six tribals, including three children, in Champaran’s Bagha-Katarwa on 24 June, but hardly a voice was raised demanding justice. NGOs that are ready to criticise the government over a trifle held no protest marches after these incidents.
Apart from the Left parties, Shashank, a social worker from Bettiah, is among the handful fighting for tribal rights. “After the formation of Jharkhand, the tribals remaining in Bihar have become a joke,” says Shashank. “Tharus may have got ST status but they have not been able to reap any benefits. In the Bagha incident, the families of those killed were given 5 lakh, the injured Rs 50,000 and the affected Rs 25,000 each. But what did the government do after that? The injured are unable to get proper medical treatment. The Bihar government has written to the Central government that the tribals are misusing the Forest Rights Act. It’s a lie.”
Although, both the BJP and JD(U) are trying to prove their concern for the tribal community by organising public meetings and rallies, the social, economic and political status of tribals in the state conbihar tinues to be deplorable.
So, why has the government neglected the tribals? “The Nitish Kumar government has done some work for the tribals but the officials neglect them,” says Pramod, a leading member of the Bihar Tribal Rights Forum.
Constant pressure from the forum has yielded some response from the government, he says. “In Champaran’s Harnatand, the tribals had donated money and land to set up a girls’ school two decades ago. The government is now going to take over and run it. Two more schools will be recognised by the government,” he reveals. “There is a proposal to set up an ITI in Champaran. In the election of Prathmik Krishi Sahkari Samiti, a provision has been made that one out of every 11 members has to be a tribal. If there is no tribal, the seat is offered to a Mahadalit.”
It is believed that there were 12 lakh tribals in Bihar at the time of delimitation in 2007, which entitled them to four Assembly seats and one in the Lok Sabha.
“According to a circular of the Central government, irrespective of the tribal population, 5 percent of government jobs should be reserved for sts,” says Pramod. “But during Rabri Devi’s term, it was reduced to 1 percent. We have started a movement to get back the 5 percent reservation. Also, at least one Lok Sabha seat should be reserved for tribals.”
“It is a major political issue. But you will be surprised to know that there are scams even in the census of the tribal population. For instance, the tribal population of Siwan was shown to be 13,122 in the 2001 census, while 29,000 tribal students were enrolled in the district schools at that time. They were also receiving stipends. By 2011, the population had risen to 87,000. Similarly, in Gopalganj, the tribal population was registered as 26,000, which shot up to 62,000 in 2011. Such scams can be found in other districts too.”
People such as Pramod have many such grievances to share. However, the politicians are either ignorant of the plight of tribals or not interested in hearing about it.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman