Soon after taking charge on December 29, 2019, the Hemant Soren-led government in Jharkhand had decided to drop “all cases” related to the Pathalgadi movement of 2017-2018. Almost a year later, the Soren government is still to send a requisition to the court to withdraw the cases, many of which involved charges of sedition, filed by the BJP government led by Raghubar Das. Pathalgadi was Soren’s major poll plank.
Asked about the delay in implementing the decision taken by his government in its first Cabinet meeting, Soren, at the Idea Exchange programme of The Indian Express, said: “When we took the decision, many questions also arose. Some [cases] were false… kuchh cases mein badmashiyaan bhi thi (There were problems in some). It is not that the matter is stagnant. A solution has been reached in half of the cases, which have been recommended for withdrawal; in some, investigation is still pending.”
What is Pathalgadi and how did the movement begin?
The word pathalgadi is drawn from a tribal custom of erecting stone plaques on the tomb of tribal people in Jharkhand, which has 32 tribal communities. It is also done in honour of their ancestors, to announce important decisions regarding their families and villages or to simply mark the boundary of their villages. When the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) came into force, former IAS officer BD Sharma, now deceased, started the practice of erecting stone plaques in villages with provisions of the Act inscribed on it. This was done to empower people belonging to the 5th Schedule area on their legal and constitutional safeguards. The pathals also quoted several orders of High Courts and Supreme Court such as Samatha judgement which says to preserve the tribal autonomy, their culture and economic empowerment, to ensure social, economic and political justice, and preservation of peace and good governance; P Rami Reddy vs Andhra Pradesh 1988 orders which says that ‘special legislations cannot be held to be unconstitutional on the ground of violation of other fundamental rights, such as Article 14 and 19(1)(g)’ and others. The villagers said that they read these provisions and orders to reiterate supremacy of powers of traditional Gram Sabha and traditional Adivasi governance systems; rights of Adivasis over land; the restricted rights of non-adivasis and outsiders in the scheduled areas to settle down and work and; that Adivasis are the original inhabitants and owners of India.
The Raghubar Das government had attempted to tweak Chhotanagpur Land Tenancy Act, 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949 – in which a tribal can buy or sell their land only to another tribal – by passing an ordinance amending Land Acquisition Act (Jharkhand Amendment) in 2017 and awaited Governor’s approval. However, the bill never got the go ahead due to massive protest by tribal communities. This led to violence in the state capital and protests were held in various parts of the state. As an extension to this protest, the tribals of Khunti, Gumla, Simdega, Saraikela, West Singhbhum area started erecting stones in their villages with PESA provisions highlighting their rights which came to be known as Pathalgadi movement.
What are the powers to safeguard and protect the interest of tribal population?
Tribals form more than 1/4th of Jharkhand’s population and areas of Dumka, Godda, Devgarh, Sahabgunj, Pakur, Ranchi, Singhbhum (East &West), Gumla, Simdega, Lohardaga, Palamu, Garwa (some districts have partly tribal blocks) are part of the 5th Schedule. It vests the Governor of a state with special powers to safeguard and protect the interests of the tribal population, which includes examining the laws enacted by the parliament or legislature and accordingly restrain or allow it keeping the interests of the tribals in tune with customary law, social and religious practices among others. However, in the absence of this in Jharkhand, the tribal population tried to assert their rights on their own. Siraj, a rights activist in Jharkhand, says: “The governor never exercised its power to implement 5th schedule provisions and PESA in letter and spirit. The executive too has largely skirted these issues till date.” For instance, there is less clarity on the role of Gram Sabhas in case of minor minerals, ownership of minor forest produce or power to manage the agri-produce market. Experts say that participation of the tribal population in the decision-making apparatus remains very low.
What was seen during the Pathalgadi movement?
During the Pathalgadi movement, many villages saw people gathering from surrounding areas with bows and arrows to ‘assert their rights’. In August 2017, it was claimed that a police officer was not allowed to leave a village by the villagers. In 2018, it was also claimed that former Khunti’s MP Kariya Munda’s bodyguards were abducted by Pathalgadi supporters, who in turn claimed that ‘their people’ were held by the police. This resulted in a crackdown leading to the death of a tribal, Birsa Munda – named after the freedom fighter. Following this, cases were registered against several villagers.
One of the FIRs registered in Murhu village under Khunti district invoked the sedition charge. It states: “Sambhidhan ki galat vyakhyata karke, Sarkar evam prashashan ke viroodh mein aam logon ko bhadkana…(Misusing the constitution with wrong description, and to instigate people against the government and the administration).”
What were the demands of the Pathalgadis?
Pathalgadis started asking for self-rule and said that the government should enter their area with Gram Sabha permission. Quoting Article 19 (5) of the Indian Constitution, they said outsiders are not allowed to live and work in adivasi villages without permission. The administration’s pamphlet calls this unconstitutional and violative of fundamental rights. They did not believe in Voter-ID cards or Aadhar cards, saying that it is for ‘common people’, and they did not follow it since they “khas admi”. A section of Pathagaldis also follow ‘Kunwar Keshri Sinh of the Sati-Pati cult from Gujarat’s Tapi district’ who said they did not believe in constitution and also they rejected government services. A fact finding body which had gone to the Pathalgadi areas, in its report, said, “…While most of the interpretations of Constitutional clauses written on the pathals may be wrong or far-fetched, they are based on the valid issues and demands of the people and the basic idea about the supremacy of Gram Sabha is not wrong.”
What happened to the cases?
The Raghubar Das government had come down heavily on the Pathalgadi movement. The police had filed cases against about 200 named accused and more than 10,000 unnamed people. A total of 172 people were made accused, out of which police had sought prosecution sanction against 96 accused. Apart from sedition, accusations against them included ‘attacking the police officers with weapons’, ‘Kidnapping officers or body guards of the MP with well-planned conspiracy’, ‘instigating locals to create hurdles equipped with local equipment without any information or permission’, ‘capturing the police station and snatching the weapons from the hands of police officers’, ‘creating an insecure situation, misbehaving with government officers’, ‘Provoking the people with their inflammatory speech against government and administration’, ‘creating obstacles in governmental progressive works and disturbed law and order’. Later within the BJP, a section of people were against charging the supporters with sedition. Tribal Affairs Minister and a BJP heavyweight in Jharkhand Arjun Munda in an earlier interview with The Indian Express had appealed for review of the sedition case.
What was the JMM-led government’s promise on Pathalgadi?
Withdrawal of ‘all cases’ related to the Pathalgadi movement was the first cabinet decision of the Hemant Soren-led JMM government in Jharkhand. A committee was formed and in 30 FIRs, among the 19 cases in which sedition charge was invoked, the committee has recommended withdrawal of IPC section 124A(sedition) from 17 cases. Most of the cases were registered in the year 2018 and a few in 2017.
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