As the thunderous beats of traditional mandar drums filled Ranchi’s Prabhat Tara ground on Sunday, homemaker Rina Singh explained why she and her husband had travelled 125 km from Jamshedpur to attend the Opposition INDIA bloc’s Ulgulan Nyay Maharally.

“The Opposition parties in the country have been facing severe injustice at the hands of the ruling government,” she said.

Singh was referring to the arrests of several key Opposition leaders in recent months. Among them is Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. He was taken into custody on January 31, hours after he resigned as Jharkhand’s chief minister. He has been accused of money laundering.

Looking around the ground on a day of scorching temperatures, Singh added, “Most people gathered here are Adivasis and other oppressed groups, and the BJP government has done nothing for them in the past ten years.”

Large sections of the crowd wore green stoles emblazoned with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s bow and arrow logo and an image of its party leader Shibu Soren. He is the father of Hemant Soren and is remembered for the part he played in the agitation that led to Jharkhand being carved out of Bihar in 2000.

Rina Singh and husband at the INDIA Bloc rally in Ranchi on Sunday. Credit: Nolina Minj

Singh’s sentiments were echoed by 27-year-old Adivasi woman labourer from Ranchi who did not want to be identified. “I can’t know the truth from where I am, but Soren’s arrest didn’t feel right,” she said. “I feel if our own people remain in power then we will have better rights.”

Advasis constitute around 26% of Jharkhand’s population. The name given to the INDIA bloc rally, Ulgulan Nyay Maharally, was an acknowledgement of their significant role in state politics. While “nyay” means justice in Hindi, the word “ulgulan’’ means revolution in the Mundari language. It is usually associated with Adivasi leader Birsa Munda’s anti-colonial revolt in 1900.

On stage, at the rally organised by 28 Opposition parties, there were two empty chairs adorned with the names of two jailed Opposition leaders: Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi chief minister who is in custody along with other senior members of his Aam Aadmi Party in a case related to alleged corruption in the formulation of a liquor policy.

Their wives, Kalpana Soren and Sunita Kejriwal, were among those who addressed the crowd. The election in the state will take place in four phases, starting on May 13. Of Jharkhand’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance won 12 in the 2019 election.

Hemant Soren is not popular only among Adivasis. “I felt sad learning about Soren’s arrest, he is a leader of the poor,” said Shivshankar Thakur, a 58-year-old security guard from Ranchi.

Thakur said that his wages had been more or less stagnant for almost a decade. “If the Congress comes to power they have promised Rs 1 lakh to the poor,” he said.

Birju Soren, a 24-year-old daily wage labourer, said he put his hope in Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. “The Modi government only works for the rich,” he said. “If the alliance comes to power then the poor can have some hope.”

Some who attended Sunday’s rally said they were motivated not much by a desire to support the INDIA bloc alliance as to demonstrate their disapproval of the policies of the ruling BJP.

“We will be destroyed if the Modi government returns to power,” said a teacher from Khunti who did not want to be identified. “They only bring Hindu-Muslim conflict in the limelight. In Jharkhand too they have started conflict between Sarna and Christian Adivasis.”

The Sarna faith is the traditional faith of the key Adivasi communities of Jharkhand. The state also has a significant population of Christian Adivasis.

“Religion is something that binds people together,” said Father Bisu, a Catholic priest from Khunti. “But in the last ten years, in my small village alone I have seen the Sarna Adivasis, the Christian Adivasis, the Muslims and the Rajputs all turn away from each other because of the ruling government.”

Voters also expressed concern about the possibility of electronic voting machines being manipulated.

“They use paper ballots in the panchayat elections, why can’t they do the same for the Lok Sabha elections?” asked Birju, the daily wage labourer.

Bisu, the priest, said that discussions about electronic voting machines has made voters mistrustful. If paper ballots are used, the public would gain more confidence, he said.

Birju Soren (right) at the INDIA Bloc rally in Ranchi on Sunday. Credit: Nolina Minj