While AAP candidates in most parts of the country are battling sweltering heat and lack of volunteers or funds while campaigning, one candidate has been up against big guns. Literally. Dayamani Barla, a prominent tribal rights activist from Jharkhand, who is contesting for the Khunti seat, had to risk her life every time she went to the villages for campaigning. The People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a local extortionist militant outfit, attacked her campaign team twice over the past two weeks and threatened at least 30 of her party’s volunteers.
Barla, who was at the forefront of two formidable anti-displacement movements in the state — one against the Koel Karo dam and another against an ArcelorMittal steel plant — had joined AAP in March.
The first incident occurred on 7 April, when members of Barla’s campaign team were accosted by goons armed with revolvers at Birbanki village, which comes under the jurisdiction of Arki police station in Khunti district. The goons, suspected to be armed cadres of the PLFI, surrounded Barla’s team and snatched their mobile phones. The campaigners were searched, questioned and not allowed to leave for several hours.
Three days later, the AAP team was in for a worse encounter with the extortionists in Karra village. Armed men, allegedly belonging to the PLFI, thrashed Javed Ansari, a jeep driver, when he was waiting for the volunteers of Adivasi Moolvasi Astitva Raksha Manch — Barla’s core team — to return to Karra after campaigning in nearby villages. When the campaign team reached the spot, some of them were beaten up with rifle butts.
“They even took pictures of our volunteers,” says Faisal Anurag, a senior journalist based in state capital Ranchi and a member of Barla’s campaign team. “Their message was clear. They did not want anyone to campaign in the area. They threatened to burn the driver alive along with his jeep if he entered Khunti with Barla again.”
According to Anurag, the PLFI had been threatening the AAP team ever since they began their campaign. He accuses Kolebira MLA Enos Ekka of the Jharkhand Party, of being behind the attacks. “Ekka has paid these militants to attack us. We have named him in the FIR,” says Anurag. “Locals told us that Rajkamal Gope, who is close to PLFI leader Dinesh Gope, visited several villages along with Ekka and warned people against voting for Barla.”
The allegation is corroborated by the state police, which has filed another case against Ekka for harbouring criminals. A former minister in the Jharkhand government, Ekka has several cases against him, including money laundering and rioting with deadly weapons.
Speaking to TEHELKA, Ekka denied the allegations made by Barla’s team and said, “On 17 April (election day), the people of Khunti will give a fitting reply to all those who oppose us.”
Barla’s is probably one of the most economical campaign this election season, with an expenditure of just Rs 5.26 lakh. “I was shocked when I heard that members of my team were being intimidated. The PLFI threatened to burn down every village where I had campaigned,” says Barla. “Yet the people have stood by me, as I have always stood by them. The villagers provided us with ration every day. We still have four quintals of rice left over at our office.”
“Our fight is for Jal, Jangal and Jameen (water, forests and land). The villagers have kept their faith in me and will support me even if they have to face violence,” she adds.
In a show of resistance, Barla’s campaign team also went to Dinesh Gope’s village and distributed pamphlets. “The youth were agitated as they had to bear the brunt of violence by the armed outfit led by Gope. We are followers of Birsa Munda, but have always adhered to the path of non-violence,” says Anurag. “Barla has diabetes. But that did not stop her from being out in the villages from dawn to dusk every day. She has already spent time in jail. Threats from militants was just another hurdle she had to cross.”
With seven-time MP Karia Munda from the BJP and Ekka in the fray, Khunti is seeing a three-cornered fight. However, Barla’s supporters are confident that she will win in case “the polling percentage in the rural areas exceeds 50 percent”.