Jharkhand, there have been signs of a growing Pathalgadi presence. In April this year, at least three villages in Jashpur district of the state held Pathalgadi programmes, which drew a sharp response from the BJP. Led by Prabal Singh Judeo, the son of the late BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo, state leaders, who were quick to see a “Church hand”, held a “Sadbhavna rally” in Jashpur, where a stone plaque put up by Pathalgadi supporters was brought down.
With tempers flaring, villagers clashed with the police and the administration, and were accused of holding officials hostage for a few hours. The government arrested eight people, including former IAS officer Herman Kindo and a former ONGC employee, Joseph Tigga, on May 1. Ever since, even Chief Minister Raman Singh has given several statements saying Pathalgadi was a covert attempt at conversion.
Tribal leaders in Chhattisgarh, however, dismiss this notion and say such statements reveal the lack of understanding of tribal identity. “How can this be about conversion? If somebody wants to convert to another religion, they will do it quietly; not create a ruckus so it gets found out like this. It makes no sense. This response is driven by politics,” says Arvind Netam, a tribal and former Union minister in the 70s who rejoined the Congress last month.
Netam believes there is only one reason the tribal community would feel the need to assert their Constitutional rights. “That reason is apathy. Over the last so many years, tribals have been watching as the rights given to them under our laws and the Constitution have been completely reneged on. Land is taken away without gram sabha consent, and when there is consent, it is manufactured consent, without any following of laws like the Forest Rights Act. There are issues with land titles, and there is virtually no implementation of the provisions of the Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and the PESA Act, 1996. In such circumstances, tribals have chosen to remind the government of their rights by writing these down on a stone in their village. That is a crime for you?” says Netam.
He adds that the government’s reaction to the movement, both in Chhattisgarh and in Jharkhand stems from an othering of the tribal community. “They have stopped understanding who a tribal is, how close they are to their forests, their land and their customs. This is why the Constitution under PESA guarantees self-government and a recognition of traditional rights. The government has forgotten this,” says Netam.
In Chhattisgarh, the largest statewide Adivasi organisation, the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, has said it would replicate the Pathalgadi process in places other that in Northern Chhattisgarh. The president of the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, BPS Netam, also a retired IAS officer, says the government had failed to assuage the “constitutional needs of tribals.”
However, in meetings that the Samaj has held in Chhattisgarh with other social organisations and individuals, and even the government, a note of caution has emerged. “In their eagerness, on some stones, things that are unconstitutional have been written — such as, that no outsiders can enter villages. Or that the IPC or CRPC doesn’t apply. These are dangerous on two counts. One, it gives the government the chance to say that we are being unconstitutional. And second, villagers will begin to believe this. The Constitution is our strength,” says BPS Netam.
The controversy has drawn a limited response from the Chhattisgarh government. On June 11 and 12, they held a two-day “special gram sabha” across the state on the implementation of the PESA Act. The principal Opposition in the state, the Congress, has kept a nervous distance on the issue, not wanting to be drawn into a debate that helps in polarisation. Leaders have said that while they back tribal rights, they would not support anything “outside the ambit of the Constitution”.