In the heartland of India – the abode of the adivasis and moolvasis – a fire, called the Pathalgadi movement, is spreading rapidly. Started in 2016 with few villagers in Khunti district in the state of Jharkhand, it has now reached a massive proportion. It is the movement of the tribals for reclamation of their rights over their ‘jal-jangal-zameen’ (water, forest and land). They declared their villages and their forests as their own asset. The movement is characterized by placing stone slabs with provisions of Indian constitution engraved on them along with warnings for outsiders, mainly the government officials, prohibiting them from entering the village without the permission of the Gram Sabha. Pathalgadi have now been put up in over 300 villages across five districts in Jharkhand – Khunti, Gumla, Saraikela-Kharsawan, West Singhbhum and East Singhbhum . The government, however, is trying to project the movement as a protective cover of the Maoists and criminals involved in cultivating opium in those remote tribal areas. The movement, though, has something deeper than this superficial advertisement of the state.
The origin of the movement
The tribals in this area are mainly followers of the Sati Pati cult, one of the many such messianic cults in adivasi areas, especially in South Gujarat . The Sati Pati movement, started in Gujarat, believes that adivasis are owners of the land, and was recognized by Queen Victoria. Pathalgadi, in the local Mundari language, means “erecting a stone”. It has been a tradition with the Mundas of Jharkhand for hundreds of years. In the tradition, pathar or stones are erected to notify, mark or demarcate important spots such as boundaries, homes, land, forests, and graveyards. The Adivasi community also erects similar stone slabs in honour of their dead. Actually, it is a recent version of the age-old Sasandari tribal ritual, practiced by various tribes, particularly those belonging to the Austro-Asiatic group . Sasandari is the act of placing a stone at the tomb of a deceased person during the burial. It is believed that a Munda is born from the earth, and when she dies and is buried, a stone is placed on her head so that she rests in peace within the earth. After the Provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Area) Act (PESA Act) came into existence in the year 1996, two former bureaucrats, IAS officer B.D. Sharma and IPS officer Bandi Oraon, initiated the practice of placing stone slabs inscribed with rules and provisions of the PESA Act to raise awareness among the tribals about their rights. It also helped in strengthening democracy at the grass-root level. Since then, the term Pathalgadi gained popularity, eventually replacing the old term Sasandari. Twenty years later, in 2016, the tribals of Khunti district of Jharkhand, which happens to be the birth place of great tribal leaders like Birsa Munda, resurrected the movement with a new vigour. For the last two years, the villagers started performing Pathalgadi by detailing on stones the powers of the Gram Sabha and other provisions in the Fifth Schedule of Indian constitution.
The Pathalgadi, though, varies from place to place. In some places, the villagers write the provisions of the PESA Act on the slabs. In other places, as in the Mundari Khuntkatti areas of Jharkhand, the emphasis is on those features of the constitution which give force to the existence of a special law like the Mundari Khuntkatti tenure . The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT Act), 1908 recognizes the Mundari Khuntkattidars’ special collective ownership of the land. The tribal people of the region have been alleging for years that successive State Governments have not been following the special provisions created for them by means of law. Discontent slowly built up and it eventually took the shape of the recent Pathalgadi tribal agitation.
Legal aspects: Indian Constitution and PESA Act
India has a population of over 10 crore tribals who are protected by the Fifth Schedule and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. While the Fifth Schedule covers Adivasis in nine states of Indian heartland, the Sixth Schedule is applicable to the North Eastern states. These are tribal areas of the country, which during the British rule, were declared excluded areas as the Colonial rulers could not occupy these lands. After Independence, Indian Constitution gave special protection to these “scheduled” lands and tribals who live there. This schedules along with Article 13 (3) states that there is primacy of non-legislative sources of law, i.e. custom or usage, having the force of law, which gives the tribals the right to self-rule. Theoretically, no development activity can be taken up in the Fifth Schedule areas without the approval of local tribal bodies. Similarly, another law meant to benefit Adivasis – the PESA Act, 1996 – encouraged local self-government in Fifth Schedule Areas to ensure that the tribals plan their own development. The PESA act says: “…every village shall have a Gram Sabha consisting of persons whose names are included in the electoral rolls for the Panchayat at the village level; (d) every Gram Sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution; (e) every Gram Sabha shall – i. approve of the plans, programmes and projects for social and economic development before such plans, programmes and projects are taken up for implementation by the Panchayat at the village level; ii. be responsible for the identification or selection of persons as beneficiaries under the poverty alleviation and other programmes” . This act recognises the Gram Sabha’s supremacy over the jal-jangal-zameen in Scheduled Areas and extended the provisions of Part IX of the Constitution to these areas. It also decrees that “the Gram Sabha or the Panchayats at the appropriate level shall be consulted before acquisition of land… and before re-settling or rehabilitating people aﬀected by such projects in the Scheduled Areas” . The act gives the Gram Sabha the power “to prevent alienation of land in the Scheduled Areas, and to take appropriate action to restore any unlawfully alienated land of a Scheduled Tribe.” Articles 13 (3), 19 (5) (6) and Article 244 (1) – which are inscribed on the Pathalgadi slabs collectively reinforce the rights of the tribals over the natural resources in those areas .
Distortion and violation of law by the state
The legal provisions have never been enacted sincerely by the Indian governments. Rather, there have been attempts to distort the laws and amend them to serve the purpose of the corporates. On 4th June 2005, the Indian Farmers Fertilisers Cooperative (IFFCO) Limited and the Chhattisgarh government in Raipur signed an agreement to set up a 1320 MW power plant in the Premnagar Gram Panchayat area of Sarguja district at a cost of about 4,000 crore rupees . The project required 728.41 hectares of land spread over five revenue villages and would affect 1,386 families. But as Premnagar Gram Panchayat was a Fifth Schedule area, the Chhattisgarh government organised a Gram Sabha in Premnagar under the PESA Act in 2005. However, the Panchayat voted against the power plant. The state government, however, organised 14 Gram Sabhas for setting up the power plant between 2005 and 2009; but every time the proposal was rejected. Thereafter, in March 2010, the government issued a notification and converted Premnagar from a Gram Panchayat to a Nagar Panchayat (City Council), which meant the PESA Act would no longer be applicable there. So, the plant came up. In the last few years, the government has converted almost 70 Gram Panchayats into Nagar Panchayats to bypass the approval of the Gram Sabhas . Similarly, for the steel plant in Dholali-Bhansi of Dantewada and Lohandiguda of Bastar, the government arbitrarily sidelined the Gram Sabha in the presence of hundreds of cops. The government also never listens to the Gram Panchayats in matters related to the allocation of coal mines. Even the quarries of Coal India undertaking South Eastern Coalfields Ltd have been operating by sidestepping the provisions of the PESA Act; though, Coal India said it does not follow PESA act as “Coal India acquires the land under the Coal Bearing Act, 1957” .
What triggered the recent movement seems to be the amendments to the two Acts passed by the BJP government in November 2016, namely, Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and Santhal Parganas Tenancy (SPT) Act. While the CNT Act governs Scheduled Areas in the Chotanagpur plateau in Jharkhand’s western region, the SPT Act, enacted by the British after the Santhal Adivasi rebellion of 1855, governs Scheduled Areas in the Santhal Pargana in Jharkhand’s eastern region. Both laws restrict the sale and transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis. Through the amendments, the government tried to enable the acquisition of tribal land for the so called ‘development’. However, after several protests from the tribal communities, the bills were withdrawn. Subsequently, the government came up with the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (Jharkhand Amendment) Bill which is likely to have more adverse consequences than the previous ones with respect to the land rights of the tribal people . Although, the bill was passed in the State Assembly, the approval of the Governor and the President is awaited.
The ‘deep’ reason
There has been constant infringement to the Adivasi rights by the modern Indian state. Forceful acquisition of land for mining and industry has pushed indigenous communities to the margins in their own land. The Raghubar Das government’s bid to amend CNT and SPT Acts is directed at facilitating the transfer of tribal land to the non-tribal community and the creation of a ‘land bank’ for its ambitious Momentum Jharkhand project [7,8]. The government is going to provide single-window and simplified land clearances for industry and mining projects. However, these lands are the only source of livelihood for those villagers. And it is not only about their livelihood; their culture and identity are also linked to the land. The Gram Sabhas, however, were not consulted before putting those lands in the ‘bank’ for acquisition.
The BJP governments in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand along with the other states have signed multiple Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) with big mining and industrial corporations, mostly owned by big foreign monopoly and finance capital or their Indian comprador lackeys. In February 2017, the BJP government of Jharkhand signed MoUs worth 3,000 billion rupees with different industries other than mining; and in November 2017, the Raghubar Das-led government signed MoU with the notorious British mining giant Vedanta Corporation . The Vedanta group is going to set up a steel plant in the state. One of Narendra Modi’s principal fundraisers – Adani Group – is also investing nearly 200 billion rupees in the state for its different mining projects . Adani Group is notorious for its anti-environmental mining practices that cause severe environmental pollution and affect the lives and livelihood of people. These MoUs will allow the multinational corporations to plunder the mineral resources beneath the soil of these states and grab the land. It was not very difficult for the tribals to comprehend the real intention of the government. They are rising up in protest against it.
Lack of justice and state repression
The tribals have always protected the forests as their gods and have a tremendous amount of respect for the environment. Their local politics and tradition have always been centred around nature and its resources. Although, theoretically, no development activity can be taken up in the tribal areas without the approval of local tribal bodies, but, in reality, these areas have witnessed rampant mining and industrial activities since Independence, in blatant violation of laws. This has pushed the tribals to the margins of society. One local villager alleged that: “It is 70 years after Independence and we have no electricity — there is a pole, wires fixed but no connection. We have no drinking water, no healthcare and our local school has no teacher. If the teacher comes, he spends his day filing reports on mid-day meals. Our children get no education” . There is large scale corruption too, as one tribal leader claimed: “Out of the budget of Rs 12,000 for a Swachh Bharat toilet, government officials and contractors eat up more than a half. Out of the budget of Rs 1.30 lakh for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, the beneficiary finally gets less than Rs 1 lakh” . Moreover, it is not only about development, but also justice, as one pointed out: “The courts have so many pending cases, but our Gram Sabhas do not have even one pending case. The judicial system only grinds people down, it does not deliver justice” .
The narratives are also corroborated by statistics. Following are some selected data taken from the latest economic survey of Jharkhand and corresponds to the Khunti district – the epicenter of the movement :
- It falls in the least developed category of the state.
- 67% of its population belongs to the Schedule Tribe (ST) category.
- It lacks quality health services.
- The percentage of the chronically wasted children is highest here.
- More than 92% of rural ST households in the district have monthly income less than Rs. 5000.
- Only 12.44% of its population has access to improved sanitation.
- The schools have severe shortages of teachers and other staff members.
To suppress the movement, Jharkhand Police filed sedition cases against 20 people, including Jesuit priest Stan Swami and former Congress MLA Theodore Kiro. The first information report accused the Adivasi leaders of ‘trying to create communal tension, causing law and order problems and misleading people with respect to the Indian constitution’ . The state police also tried to malign the movement by falsely associating its leaders with the gang rape of five NGO workers in June. However, one of the survivors of the gang rape, said that she never mentioned any of the Pathalgadi leaders whose names subsequently figured in the police account of the crime . The tribals, in fact, condemned the gangrape and demanded prosecution of the real accused, who, according to the local people are part of the RSS’ militia that works with the police . The government is trying to subjugate tribals by hook or by crook.
Protests by the Adivasis
Adivasis in Jharkhand have seen their powers and rights shrink since the establishment of the British Raj and even after the formation of the modern Indian state in 1947 – from around 60% in 1911, they made up 28% of Jharkhand in 1991 . Their lands have been encroached and exploited by outsiders. In this constant violence, the Pathalgadi movement is unique in that the protesting Adivasis are using the shield given to them by the Indian Constitution. Their battle is aimed to reclaim their local control over resources protected by the constitution. They argue that the tribal region is a separate ‘Dishum’ (Country) and banned the Government and outsiders (Dikus) from entering into their ‘Dishum’ without permission from the Gram Sabha. They want the government to route funds through Gram Sabha and want to manage their development themselves. They rely more on the Gram Sabha than Indian government as one villager pointed out: “it is also a fact that decisions taken in the open — with consultation of all in the villagers — will be less corrupt. Today, we have to pay money to local officials for all development schemes that come to the village. And even after bribing, there is no work or shoddy work. We will push our leaders to work for us, as they will be accountable to us” .
The education system of Indian government is unsuitable as they are forced to compete in an alien language and, therefore, destined to fail. So, they are now turning to the local Mundari language and planning to form their own education board so that they get jobs. As a part of the movement, they have already established a parallel supportive governance system in the tribal locality by means of opening tribal bank, establishing tribal schools, formulating own security force, issuing separate identity cards through Gram Sabha etc . However, one may wonder whether it is possible for them to survive for an extended period without government welfare assistance. But an Adivasi woman had a ready reply: “We survived even when there was no government scheme” .
The Patalgadis are not violent. Their demands and practices do not challenge the constitution of India, rather it strengthens it. Then, why is the government so desperately trying to suppress it? Why is the government projecting it as a threat to national integrity? Why is the demand for an equitable resource distribution problematic? The tribals are essentially upholding their freedom of expression and the right to demand justice, which are necessary to any democracy. If the government is trying to suppress it, then we are surely moving towards a fascist state power.
Millions of tribals are being evicted from their villages and their rights over their forests are being taken away. Whenever they protested against the forceful eviction from their land and forests, they have been subjected to state terror and the government stamped them as Maoists. Hundreds of tribal youth have been killed in staged encounters by the police and the central paramilitary forces through Indian Government’s largest war on civilians – the Operation Green Hunt or its newer versions. It is not hard for the tribals to comprehend the real intention of the government which is planning to evict and massacre the tribals en masse from their land and forests for the sake of the mining corporations.
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