Apart from his identity card and Aadhaar card, Bhikhari Mahto has another identity, that of token number 476. This new identity given to him is like a punishment for him. Before understanding as to who gave him this identity and why did he get this identity, one must look at his village and its ongoing politics.
At the Kokar Chowk of Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi, merely at a distance of 5 kilometers on the eastern direction, lies the Sugnu village, which has around 500 houses. The village is surrounded by a camp of the Indian Army, formally called the Dipatoli Military Station. Notably, the road through which the village meets its needs comes within the ambit of the camp. For long, the villagers have been asking to get this area out of the ambit of the camp. Bhikhari Mahto belongs to this village and has to travel to Ranchi town for work as a daily wage earner.
Does he face difficulty in commuting? If any relative wants to visit their village, they have to carry their Aadhar cards. There is another requirement as well — a token number assigned to every person in the village. It is not enough for the villagers to carry their Aadhar cards and receive the relatives. They have to remember their numbers.
“When we show our Aadhaar cards and forget to mention the token numbers, the Army personnel tell us that if we do not forget to eat, we should not forget our token number too. This looks like a jail. It feels like we are living in a jail under the British regime,” says Mahato.
Like Mahto, middle-aged Rajkumar Hajam and student Ravi Mahto too believe that absence of a separate road has been a major problem of the village. As they mentioned their token numbers 450 and 229 respectively, two people standing nearby also joined in uttering their assigned numbers.
Just like inmates of jail, says Mahato.
Sugnu village of Dumardaga Panchayat comes under the Kanke assembly constituency. Dipatoli Military Station is next to the National Highway 33 that stretches from Ranchi to Hazaribagh. The walls of the station surround Sugnu village. According to the villagers, due to the road issue, several other problems have cropped up. Children’s education and marriages have to suffer a great deal.
Bigan Devi, 48, feels that she has been caged. She angrily says that her parents are unable to come to her in-laws’ place where she currently stays. They have to suffer a lot of difficulty. Army personnel ask for Aadhaar card. Once they show their Aadhaar cards, the Army asks them to show their Sugnu village Aadhaar cards. Since they belong to some other village, they do not have Sugnu village Aadhaar card with them. Likewise, children who go to schools have to produce their Aadhaar card innumerable times.
“My husband works as a porter. He is sometimes made to sit for an hour even after he has shown his Aadhaar card,” she adds.
Mother of four children, Bigan Devi had come to this village after marriage when she was 15-years-old. Bilaso Devi, 40, who is sitting next to Bigan Devi, informs that the marketplaces towards Ranchi can only be reached by crossing the river. One needs to cover a distance of 10 kms by walking.
She says, “We do not visit markets. When a seller visits our village, we buy something from him. Sometimes, there is nothing to eat at our homes. We have a great difficulty in marriages. People do not want either their sons or daughters to get married in this village. The marriage cards have to be published as per the dates provided by the Army.”
There is only one government middle school there. For further studies, one has to go to Ranchi. A woman from the village on condition of anonymity says, “My daughter got married a year ago. With great difficulty, she had completed her graduation studies. Sometimes, when she forgot to carry her Aadhaar card, the Army personnel did not allow her to go to the college.”
During her marriage ceremony, the road created lots of problem. Her father-in-law did not want to come to Sugnu village in search of a bride for his son. The road has always been a big issue here.
She says, “We had to convince our daughter’s father-in-law. We told him that soon there will be a separate road. All the girls of the village face the same problem. We had to face the same problem in both our daughters’ marriages. We get good marriage proposals. However, people hesitate to get their children married in the village because of the road.”
Fifty metres away from her house lies the house of Solo Devi. Sixty-years-old Solo Devi says in a stern way, “Within a few days, the Army personnel will not allow us to move anywhere. This road belongs to our ancestors. Army tells us that our ancestors had sold this road to them and as such they are the owners of this road now. You tell me, who is more important — people living here or the Army? If they had taken so much of our land, why don’t they give us the road?”
The present Sarpanch of the village, Jugnu Munda, says that the road used by the people of Sugnu village —which is controlled by the Army— was part of the village map of 1932. According to him, in 1972-73, the Army occupied their roads for building a military camp. Till 2010, people never had any difficulty in commuting through this road.
However, a member of Dumardaga Panchayat Samiti, Aditya Narayan Sahu, says the villagers started getting stopped from using this road after 1995-96. He says, “Though I have never ever been to Kashmir, it feels like I am in a cage here. After making several visits, we have been assured by the state government that we would be provided with a permanent road. There have also been talks with the Ministry of Defence on this issue. Army and Ministry of Defence are of the opinion that villagers are never stopped from using the road. They only have to produce their Aadhar card or some other I card when asked for.”
In 1995, the Army demolished 35 houses of the village for asserting the claim on the land. A water tank was about to be constructed for children studying in the middle school. But it was even stopped midway, laments Sahu.
“Army personnel stop the villagers in the middle of the road. Civil policemen are called for checking. Challan is imposed. Villagers are made to sit for hours in the name of checking. When we ask them to leave us as get late, they give a one-line answer that it is being done for security purpose,” he adds.
If the villagers call the police, they are told that it is a matter of Army and is beyond their capacity to intervene.
Almost 80-90 per cent of the villagers are daily wage earners. They mostly travel to Ranchi for work. During the official visits of Army officers, these labourers are made to wait for two hours and more and their works get affected.
The Army camp is spread in an area of 7 kilometers square. It is surrounded by Buti More market, Khel gaon, along with many schools and localities of the city. Villagers used to have two roads for their movement. However, one has been closed by the Army since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Villagers inform that they had boycotted the 2009 elections as they had demanded a separate road. There were also clashes reported between police and the villagers, leading to two injuries in police firing.
Five time-Member of Parliament from Ranchi Ramtahal Chowdhary’s in-laws live in this village. He too believes that the attitude of the Army is not conducive towards the villagers. He says that he has raised this human rights issue several times in the Lok Sabha. It was due to his efforts that the villagers have started constructing new houses in the village. Earlier, he adds that the Army did not allow the construction of houses there.
When the Chief Minister had visited the village for the first time, the villagers were very vocal and had raised the issue of road. In April 2019, just before the general elections, the erstwhile Chief Minister Raghuvar Das had visited the village and had requested the villagers to vote for BJP MP Sanjay Seth.
Sanjay Seth had raised this issue in the Parliament after becoming an MP. Talking to Outlook, he says, “We had raised this issue. A month before, the foundation of a bridge of Rs. 12 crores had been laid at Sugnu village. The issue of road in the village will also get resolved. We have to take everything into consideration. This is Army cantonment area and it is quite sensitive. Let the bridge get constructed first. The road will follow soon.”
There are many military camps in Ranchi. These are at Dipatoli, Buti More, Namkum, Karam toli, and Ranchi Airport. Out of these places, people have been demanding a separate road for their villages in Dipatoli and Airport camps. Reports indicate that several clashes have happened between Army and the villagers.
According to the Army, the road belongs to the Army camp. As per an Army officer, the process of checking is very normal and is done for both the civilians and Army officers and adds that civilians have never ever been stopped.
When Outlook tried to contact the Army camp, it was informed that the concerned officer was on leave for quite some time.
(translated by Kaveri Mishra)