By Shukoh Albadar
Ranchi: Merely 40 km south of the Jharkhand capital of Ranchi lies Khunti, a newly-carved out district surrounded by rich flora and fauna that has drawn the attention of the national media.
Dominated by Communist Party of India (CPI) Maoist and its splinter rebel group PLFI, the district is the hub of a new political movement popularly known as the Pathalgadi.
Green stone plaques at the entry point of villages declares “Bharat ka Samvidhan” (Indian Constitution) on their top in Hindi language and then list constitutional provisions and tribal’s rights in white lettering.
Backdrop of the Pathalgadi Movement
In February this year, a ceremony took place in the district’s Kochang village under the banner of Adivasi Mahasabha (grand assembly of indigenous people). Thousands of tribal people enthusiastically participated with traditional bows and arrows and machete. During the meeting the local tribal leaders challenged the authority of federal and state governments and declared that not a single inch of land would be the government property.
They showed their allegiance to the Constitution and rejected any other authority or power. To establish the manifesto more strongly they started Pathalgadi, putting giant plaques at the entry point of the village declaring their gram sabha or village assembly as the only sovereign authority. ‘Outsiders’ were banned from entering the villages.
Now what they assert vehemently is Mera Goan, Mera Zameen (My village, my land) that affirms that village dwellers have to accept and follow laws passed by the gram sabha. They blamed the ruling government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party for keeping tribal in dark and concealing their rights to gain certain political interest. Since the tribal people have now become aware of their rights, the government is in fret and fume mode now.
Demand for Autonomy
Recently, the government marked the movement unlawful and flawed and launched a major hunt to arrest the movement’s local leaders. Ruling it anti-constitutional government came up with outsized hoardings in the area with a note that tribals are being misled in the name of the movement.
Sudhir Paul, a civil rights activist and head of Manthan Yuva Sansthan, a youth movement, asserts that Pathalgadi is not unconstitutional. “This has been an ancient tradition of Munda tribes to document their traditions. It shows their association with nature. The new perspective in this movement is that tribal’s political consciousness has become stronger. They are trying to ascertain their rights provided by the Indian constitution.”
Paul wants the whole movement to be seen in the backdrop of government’s policies that try to crush tribal rights. After the BJP government came in power in 2014, it has tried to amend the CNT and SPT Act that largely protects tribal tenancy rights. Enacted during the British Raj in 1908 Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) prohibits the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals hence protecting their community ownership. Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPT) has much similar to the CNT Act.
“There is a need to see the whole movement in this perspective that on the one hand lands are forcibly taken from them by the government in the name of development causing the forced removal of their homeland. Tribals of the state are against the corporate-driven development agenda. It is a natural but remarkable burst of anger resulting into rebellion with doubts and conflicts arising among them,” he added.
The Pathalgadi movement has become a tool to denounce the government policies and assertion of their rights. Nearly 200 villages of the state, particularly in Khuti, Gumla, Simdega and West Singhbhum districts are under its great influence.
Noted journalist of a local Hindi daily Sanjay Yadav believes that Pathalgadi movement gained momentum in 1996 when Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA provision came into effect.
Drumbeaters B.D Sharma, an IAS officer and tribal leader Bandi Oraon initiated the practice of placing the stone slabs to make the tribal people aware of their rights mentioned in the Act. Pathalgadi is part of the tribal customary law of Jharkhand and other tribal population dominated states like Chhattisgarh and some part of Odisha.
“Pathalgadi is an age-old tradition inscribed in Adivasi philosophy in which their belief and rituals are carved on the stone plaques. But things are changing now” he adds.
Development Far Away
The villages that come under this area are far away from the development. Kochang is one of the villages where one can see primary school building only but without any teachers. The village’s primary health center lacks basic facilities and wears a deserted look. Though the government is now in great haste to revamp development projects, locals have their unsatisfactory versions.
On the condition of anonymity, one of the locals says that the government’s so-called development is far away from the reality in tribal populated villages. Schools buildings and Primary Health Centers are present but neither a single teacher nor doctors are available here. Village dwellers go near about two kilometers to fetch water.
“There is a huge scarcity of drinking water and the only source of water from crater or pothole of the nearby mountainous riverbed. Swacch Bharat Abhiyan is a complete failure here. Villagers argue that if they have to fetch water from two kilometers, what is the use of making toilets. Firstly the government should provide water facility to these villages,” he said.
If people sitting the political corridor feel that implementation of development projects as arduous one, they must hand over the autonomy to the people of tribal villages so that they might govern themselves on their own. The government must think over transferring of the development fund to the village assembly, the villagers demand in unison.
(This article first appeared in twocircles.net on October 1, 2018)