The term Pathalgadi Movement has been swept into discourse to describe one type of powerful assertion by tribals which has been sweeping through Jharkhand, adjoining districts of Chhattisgarh and Odisha – essentially moving down the Munda tribal belt. To put this movement and its tremendous potential in perspective, it is necessary to begin with the provisions which already exist in the Constitution of this country.
Schedule 5 of the Constitution covers the areas where the tribal population is more than 50% and which are not in the 4 north eastern states of Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya where Schedule 6 applies. Schedule 5 guarantees them protection of tribal life and areas in every way, making the Governors of the states where these areas are situated and the President of India the custodians for protecting the same. The Governor has the right to adapt applicability of laws passed by the state govt. in accordance with the interests of these areas and to restrict it. It is the only area in the Constitution where the President has been accorded direct power and can even change the size of the area declared as scheduled. The difference between the schedule 5 and 6 is that in the former Tribal Advisory Councils can be constituted whereas in the latter Tribal Autonomous Districts can be constituted where the powers of both Governors and state govts are curtailed. In 1996 was enacted PESA- the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act- which spoke of ensuring self rule to the tribals through their Gram Sabhas in schedule 5 areas. This legislation was intended to give the tribal gram sabhas the last word over utilization of forest resources and land in scheduled areas. After this came the Forest Rights Act which sought to ensure rights of the tribals over their traditional land. The spirit of Schedule 5 and these legislations is to view the tribals as the keepers of the forest wealth and with traditional rights over them. It needs very little imagination to appreciate that neither law would have been enacted if tribals had not waged sharp struggles and if it was not thought necessary to wean away the tribals from the communist revolutionary movement by assuring them of their rights over the forests. Needless to add that the ruling polity representing the ruling classes of India never had intent to implement them. For instance, a member of the Ranchi based Adivasi Buddhijeevi Manch, who does not agree with the Pathalgadi movement has still said successive governments are responsible for the unrest. He points out that Jharkhand is a scheduled area but rather than gram sabhas there still was “a three tier panchayat system” (Indian Express, 8th July 2018).
The Pathalgadi movement should be viewed in this background. In the same context should be assessed the claims of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh police as also of the Ministers of these two RSS-BJP ruled states which variously attribute the movement to Christian missionaries, Naxalites, opium growers (Jharkhand police says they are synonymous with the PLFI, a break away group of CPI-Maoist) who have been nipped in the bud by the alert police, etc. The Chhattisgarh Chief Minister has also labelled it a conversion movement. Any or all these factors may or may not be present; the problem is that none of authorities are asserting that the Constitutional rights of the tribals, the PESA, are being enforced and that the assertion of self rule by the tribals is uncalled for. Tribals are 26.2% of the population in Jharkhand, 31% in Chhattisgarh and 23% in Odisha.
In November 1996, the Jharkhand Govt. brought two amendments, one each to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parghanas Tenancy Act. The amendments sought to do away with existing restrictions on sale and transfer of tribal land to non tribals. The Pathalgadi movement began in its wake, while the storm of protests ensured that the Governor was forced to return the bills. However this did not dilute the intensions of the state Govt. which then brought amendments to the Land Acquisition Act 2013 in the 2017 monsoon session of the state assembly. These sought to do away with the clause for consent of 70% of landowners before land acquisition and also the clause to assess social impact of land acquisition. All this, of course, was to promote development or so said the Chief Minister.
Contours of the Pathalgadi Movement
The movement draws its name from imitating the tribal custom of erecting huge stones to mark ancestral land or to honour the dead or to engrave instructions for the tribals on stone plaques. It consists of holding mass meetings or gram sabhas in the tribal villages and then installing ‘pathals’ or stones carrying plaques at the entrance of the village marking the rule of gram sabhas or self rule. The plaques being installed are green in colour. Some plaques carry the provisions of PESA. Bandi Oraon (90 years)- member Bhuria Commission to frame PESA, former IPS officer, ex MLA from Sisai constituency of Gumla and member of Bharat Jan Andolan, has been quoted as saying that the members of the Jan Andolan used the same tradition of inscribed stone plaques to make the clauses of PESA known to the tribals. Today the pathals are being used to assert the self rule in the name of the Constitution and the Act which assures the same.
In 2017, Joseph Purti (also named as Yusuf Purty),Vijay Kujur, Krishna Hansda, Babita Kachyap and Tuti Powell became leaders of the Adivasi Mahasabha formed to establish the supremacy of the gram sabhas. Vijay Kujur was formerly General Manager of Shipping Corporation of India in Kolkata. Krishna was a Reader in a Court. The movement spread over 100 villages in the districts of Khunti (the birthplace of Birsa Munda), Simdega Gumla, Jharle (Hindustan Times 27th June 2018) and also Dist Saraikela Kharsawan and abutting areas of Chhattisgarh, i.e. eastern areas of Surajpur Dist. and Dist. Jashpur. It is also present with great energy in the Sundergarh district of Odisha. Over 70 villages of Khunti are part of this movement. In these villages, gram meetings are held and the pathals installed outside the village. They proclaim self rule and in some places writings on the plaque and in other places police say speeches of leaders prohibit outsiders from entering the areas of the gram sabha rule and this latter assertion has been highlighted as highly unconstitutional by the Govts and the Police officers of the two BJP-RSS ruled states. The tribals are asserting that no govt. schemes should proceed in the area and all schemes should be routed through the gram sabhas, in some villages the tribal masses block the entry of administration and police asserting the rule of the Gram sabhas, they have armed presence chiefly with bows and arrows though there are photographs in the bourgeois press of some tribals with other weapons. They guard the entrance to the villages and also some of their leaders and the chief method of resistance to both police and administration entry is mass resistance supported by tribals armed with traditional weapons. They raise the demand that the President of India should come to the area and clarify their rights. There has been a move in Jharkhand area to run a tribal bank and passbooks have reportedly been issued to over 100 tribals, they are trying to run their own schools, tribals are called upon to discard their voter cards and aadhar cards as proofs of identity as they are enablers of access to the govt. schemes. In a state where starvation deaths have been reported due to denial of rations as the aadhar link up failed, calling for refusal to be part of the schemes is considered highly objectionable by the police. A report in Hindu in April 2018 said that many tribals showed old copies of the citation of the British Victoria Cross awarded in colonial times and said ‘heaven’s light our guide’. Others say they believe in the sati pati cult of Gujarat (sati pati is mother and father) and hold that Queen Victoria had gifted the jungles and rivers to the tribals much before India got independence.
On the 24th of August 2017 (IE 8th July 2018), villagers detained a team of policemen who had gone to Kanki Sriladon village of Khunti Dist. There was no stone plaque outside this village but barricades had been installed indicating the extent of rule of gram sabha. Since the 15 cases have been lodged in Jharkhand and 20 ‘’main’’ leaders of the movement arrested. On 25th February 2018, a large ceremony was held in Kochang village situated on the border of Khunti and West Singhbhum and police have said that here a call was given to not observe 26th January and 15th August. In response, Vijay Kujur was arrested in March 2018 and the DGP of Jharkhand has stated he is the main leader. Krishna was arrested in May 2018.
Repression Against The Movement
Against this backdrop, came allegation of a gang rape on June 19th 2018. This has provided the administration with a reason to go all out against the movement though the basis for this is totally muddled. On the 19th of June, a group of 5 women and two male members of an NGO went to a church run school in Kochang to perform a play against human trafficking. The women have alleged that they were gangraped and thereafter the Principal of the school, Fr. Alfonso Aien and two nuns asked them to keep quiet about the incident. The police have said that the Pathalgadi movement leaders are responsible for ordering and executing the gang rape, have arrested the Principal and the two nuns as complicit and this is being used to prove that the Church is behind the Pathalgadi movement. Subsequently two tribals have been arrested as the guilty and are said to have stated that they were instructed by two leaders of the movement, Joseph Purti and John Jonas Tidu (both from Udburu village of Khunti) to gangrape the women. Anyway, the police had begun a manhunt for these two leaders even before the arrests. It is totally unclear whether the women named the leaders, or recognized the rapists or identified them subsequently. What is a fact is that several Pathalgadi villages denied the charge and offered to help to identify the guilty and Tidu has been quoted in India Today as saying that this was a conspiracy to defame a movement uniting the tribals and that the movement was looking for the real culprits and would punish them. The police, in turn, call him the mastermind of the gang rape without specifying the basis for saying this or explaining how this gang rape would help the movement. It has so far really helped the Jharkhand Govt and police to launch severe repression in the area as the following description amply bears out.
On 26th June 2018, police went to Udburu village to arrest Purti and Tidu. According to the police (HT, 27th June) when the 500 strong contingent of police and CRPF reached the village, 2000 villagers including women and children blocked their way. By the time they entered, the two leaders had been warned away but they managed to seal their properties. They maliciously propagated that while Purti asked tribals not to use Aadhar, his own was in his home, thus insinuating that he was using the same. When police forced entry into this village, in Chandidah village 300 tribals forced their way into the ancestral house of BJP MP Karia Munda and abducted three security guards from here. The obvious intent was to bargain for the release of their own leaders, whom they feared had been arrested. Next day a big meeting was held in Ghagra village (also in Khunti). Police waited outside the village on 26th night thinking the guards had been brought here and would be released, but later the next day (27th June 2018) they tried to force their way in. Forces from Bokaro, Simdega, Chaibasa and other districts and RAF and SSB (which mans borders and is the Special Security Branch) were brought here (IE 28th June 2018 page 10). HT of 28th June 2018 quotes the police as saying that 5000 tribals including women and children along with many tribals armed with bows and arrows and sitting on tree tops, blocked their way. They stated the ‘clash’ lasted two hours and that tear gas shells were lobbed (IE, 28th June), rubber bullets fired (HT 28th June) and later police had to fire in the air. One person was killed and police stated he was ‘unidentified’ but had a bow and arrows, so it is quite clear he was a tribal killed by the police. Subsequently they forcibly conducted house to house search and Munda’s relative told IE that this was done following a cane charge on the tribals.. The guards had been moved out of the village by the tribals through the forest, but their three SLRs were recovered by the police from here. HT reported that 200 people were injured that day. Next day the abducted personell- three guards and one policeman whom the police did not know was abducted- were released by the tribals and walked to the nearest police post. They had only been told to leave their jobs and not harmed- the security guards were Subodh Kujur, Vinod Kerketta and Suyon Sureen and the policeman was Nagendra Singh. The newspapers wrote that the stone plaque near Ghagra carried messages invoking the Constitution of India and said the ‘prakritik gram sabha’ was ‘sarvasampan’ and it should rule. In subsequent days, both the tribal leaders have been arrested.
Chhattisgarh and Odisha
In Chhattisgarh, on April 2018 three villages in Jashpur district held Pathalgadi programmes. Some incident occurred in village Kaliya and the Govt of the state accused the movement of taking hostages and arrested Herman Kindo (retired IAS officer) and Joseph Tigga (former ONGC official) on 1st May 2018.The Chief minister labels the movement as a conversion programme which is contested by the President of the Sarv Adivasi Samaj in Chhattisgarh, Shri BPS Netam (retired IAS officer) who says his organization is going to extend the movement.
In Odisha too, the movement flared in 2018 in several villages in the Sundergarh area adjoining Jharkhand. In one village a person attempting to uproot the stone with the plaque died after being beaten up. A policeman who entered the village was also taken hostage and released after prolonged negotiations. This forced the Dist officials to convene a meeting to discuss the issues.
In Jharkhand, as the movement continues to spread, a bandh was held on 18th June spearheaded by the Jharkhand Disom party and the sister Adivasi Senegal Abhiyan (40 tribal outfits are part). Another all party bandh was held on 4th July against the repression and the amendments proposed to LAAR 2013.
In Jharkhand in Godda district a protest is on against a power plant of Adani. Elsewhere in the country too, tribals are rising in struggles and essentially the issue is the same- attempts to displace them and use the rich forests and the minerals under it for the superprofits of imperialists and their Indian cahoots, the compradors. This is of course all in the name of development. Recently the santhals have held a massive meeting in Bengal. Tribals in Maharashtra are demanding implementation of Forest Rights Act (India Today says 50,000 applications are pending before the Govt of the state), are refusing to give land for the Bullet Train project. The Mumbai march of AIKS consisted overwhelmingly of these tribals asking for forest rights. In Telengana there is a move to drive them from the forests in the name of saving the forests and hundreds of cases have been foisted on tribals defending podu land pattas allotted to them in Kothagudem dist. it is in this context that CPIML(ND) state leader Com. Madhu was arrested alongwith two other comrades and UAPA was thrust on the, other leading comrades were arrested and now Com Madhu has been abducted by the police from Hyderabad and rearrested to quash the tribal movement. For the first time in this state, 4 tribals from this area attempted suicide, as the Telengana Govt born of the Telengana Movement for separate state drove JCBs over their cultivated podu lands. Tribals are nto struggles in Madhya Pradesh against forcible land acquisitions.
The tribal experience in India continuing since 1947 is of displacement and take over of their lands in the name of ‘development’. They were displaced thus under the Nehru Govt in the name of dams and heavy industry. Post the new economic policies the move was forced for land acquisitions for even corporate. In Jharkhand itself, the reserved forests have been infiltrated by illegal miners of iron ore- all corporate houses named by Srikrishna Commission to detect illegal mining. Captive Coal blocks are being handed over to private companies and open cast mining is ruining ecological conditions. Tribals challenged their displacement and the development model by resisting land acquisitions through glorious struggles in Kaliganagar and Nyamgiri in Odisha and this form was rapidly taken up by the peasantry. Yet in Chhattisgarh terrible violence was let loose in the name of the state sponsored Salwa Judum to displace them forcibly. Meanwhile Bakkarwals in J&K are demanding extension of FRA to their state.
The mood in the tribals of India today is of resisting forcible displacement- ‘we will not give our land, we will not give our village. We will not leave our land, we will not leave the struggle’. The policy of displacement is continually being pushed by various state govts as well as the govt at the Centre.