Demise of a lonely distance runner
Posted October 6, 2010on:
Jamuna Devi, who died on September 24 in an Indore hospital after a prolonged illness, was one of the tallest leaders of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and, many feel, deserved greater recognition. She obviously suffered from two major handicaps: she was not born in a family of the Brahmans and Thakurs who have dominated the organisation all along and, secondly, she could never compromise on the basic issues. For all practical purposes, she was an odd (wo)man out in the present crowd of Congress leaders in the State.
Before the 2008 Assembly election, the Congress decided to issue a charge-sheet against the BJP government. Jamuna Devi, as the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, was made chairperson of the committee constituted to prepare the charge-sheet. However, this stubborn lady refused to associate herself with the release of the charge-sheet for which PCC president Suresh Pachauri held a function at the party office. She was upset as the entries regarding corruption charges against some ministers and bureaucrats were mysteriously deleted at the time of printing of the charge-sheet.
Born in a tribal family in a village of the backward Dhar district in western Madhya Pradesh over 80 years ago, Jamuna Devi had the first-hand knowledge of the pathetic living conditions of the tribals and other poorer sections. It must have made a deep impression on her psyche because even as a minister in the nineties she had occasionally given vent to her anguish at the continuing neglect of the tribals—- to the chagrin of chief minister Digvijay Singh. She was not able to do much for her people. The Collector and other officials in Dhar district listened to the BJP’s Vikram Verma (who also hails from Dhar) rather than Jamuna Devi. She had lamented it publicly many a time. Vikram Verma, as the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, was virtually working as Digvijay Singh’s henchman.
Though not educated much, she must have shown promise even in her early years. She had barely reached the mandatory age when she was picked up to contest from the reserved Kukshi constituency of Dhar district for the Madhya Bharat Assembly in 1952, the first ever elections held after Independence. She has since been mostly in the Assembly, with occasional stints in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
Like most of the political leaders of her generation, politics was for her only the means to serve the people. Her interests encompassed almost all sections of the society. She was president of All India Railway Clerks and Yard Masters’ Association and had been associated in different capacities with several organisations like Central Advisory Board for Tribals, Central Social Welfare Board, All-India Adim Jati Seva Sangh, Bhil Seva Sangh, All-India Adim Jati Mahila Sevak Sangh and the Adivasi and Harijan Cell of All-India Congress Committee (AICC).
In spite of her dedication and experience, Jamuna Devi was asked to be content with the membership of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee and the AICC. The highest position she was allowed in the organisation was the general secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Mahila Congress (1989-90). She was included in the government for the first time in 1985 when she was nearly 60 — as a Minister of State. She was made a cabinet minister from the Shyama Charan Shukla quota in 1993 when the Congress came to power in Madhya Pradesh.
A divided Congress
The period before the 1993 Assembly election presented an interesting spectacle. The Congress was divided in several groups – all vibrant and determined to annihilate each other rather than take on the BJP (the Congress organisation was not comatose as now). Motilal Vora and Madhavrao Scindia, with the active cooperation of AICC treasurer Sitaram Kesri, tried hard to assemble all the Congress chieftains at Dabra in Gwalior district and make them resolve that they would not try to defeat the Congress candidates, supporters of their rival leaders in the party. The Congress was able to defeat the BJP and gain power with a comfortable majority.
Arjun Singh’s was by far the largest group. Subhash Yadav, an OBC and an ardent loyalist of Arjun Singh, was confident of becoming the chief minister in view of Arjun Singh’s public postures that those belonging to the ST, SC and OBC should be given the chance. However, at the eleventh hour the Thakur of Churhat retired to his Kerva Kothi after performing a melodrama and allowing his loyalists to support his fellow Thakur Digvijay Singh who had till a day earlier been declaring publicly that he was not in the race for the post of chief minister. Digvijay Singh, then a member of Lok Sabha and PCC president, had not contested the Assembly election.
To assuage the hurt of Subhash Yadav, he was accommodated as deputy chief minister from the Arjun Singh quota. Pyarelal Kanwar, a tribal from Bilaspur district in the Chhattisgarh region, was made deputy chief minister from the Shyama Charan Shukla camp in order to maintain the balance. The council of ministers was formed with the supporters of various chieftains, roughly according to their strength in the Assembly. Jamuna Devi was inducted as a cabinet minister from the Shyama Charan Shukla quota.
The situation had changed by 1998 when the Congress returned to power for the second time. Digvijay Singh had by then in control of the party apparatus. He, however, could not ignore Subhash Yadav and had to reappoint him as deputy chief minister. As Pyarelal Kanwar had succumbed to Digvijay Singh’s machinations because of his over-enthusiasm for land reforms, Jamuna Devi was appointed the other deputy chief minister from the Shyama Charan Shukla camp.
Jamuna Devi was quite outspoken and had frequently criticised her own government for ignoring the interests of the tribals. She was said to have put her foot down at a cabinet meeting where Digvijay Singh had brought a proposal to fill the government posts reserved for Scheduled Tribes with the members of the Scheduled Castes if the suitable ST candidates were not available. Once at a women’s conference at Petlavad in Jhabua district, she had appealed to the people to come out on the streets to protest against the “misrule” of Digvijay Singh: she had gone to the extent of describing Digvijay Singh as a big hoax leading a band of corrupt people. She further alleged that the government machinery was put to use by the district collectors to make money for the ministers while the interests of the Adivasis and the poor had been completely sidelined.
When the Congress strength in the Assembly was reduced to a paltry 38 after the 2003 elections, Jamuna Devi became Leader of Opposition almost by default. As the State Congress leaders could not resolve among themselves, they passed a one-line resolution authorising party chief Sonia Gandhi to nominate the CLP leader. What seemed to have tilted the balance in favour of tribal Jamuna Devi was the fact that the BJP was making much of having made an OBC (Uma Bharati) as the chief minister of the State. She had the natural claim to the post after yet another failure of the Congress to wrest power in 2008.
As Leader of Opposition, Jamuna Devi had relentlessly fought against the BJP “misrule”. It had been almost a lonely fight without support from the party organisation. The party stalwarts either ridiculed her or sympathised with her in view of her old age but never supported her in her fight against the corruption and misgovernance of Chauhan.
The following instance will illustrate how the Congress leaders had been ignoring Jamuna Devi. Her petition to the Madhya Pradesh Lokayukta alleges that chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan was instrumental in granting, “illegally”, mining leases to the JP Associates and the JP Associates had gifted dumpers to Chauhan’s wife Sadhna Singh after getting those dumpers registered in Sadhna Singh’s name in a dubious manner. In the process, she had claimed, the State government had arbitrarily cancelled the mining lease of M/S Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Ltd, Delhi and issued the lease for these mines in favour of the JP Associates. The Central government quashed the Madhya Pradesh government notification. The JP Associates challenged the Centre’s order in the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
The High Court, on April 26 (2008), upheld the Centre’s order and came down heavily on the State government for its arbitrary action. This, to some extent, confirmed Jamuna Devi’s charges of corruption against Chauhan and should have exhilarated the Congress leaders. But no Congress leader took notice of it. When Jamuna Devi, who was at the time on a tour of her constituency in Dhar district, returned to Bhopal, she procured a copy of the High Court judgement from Jabalpur and briefed the media about it only on May 3.