A VILLAGE has emptied out of its young men, 43 people have been booked for sedition, criminal conspiracy and other charges, one finds himself behind bars, while an 83-year-old has gone underground, as Jharkhand tries to nip in the bud a renewed demand for “independence” in a small division, springing from British-era rules. Ramo Birua, the 83-year-old resident of Bhagabila village in Chaibasa, had issued a call to hoist the flag for “a separate Kolhan Estate”, on December 18. A former block development officer, Birua retired as additional district magistrate in undivided Bihar. After Birua went missing, police arrested one of his supporters, Munna Ban Singh, and named 43 others in the FIR.
Officials admit not many people support Birua, but say pre-emptive action was necessary as people could get easily “misguided” on issues of autonomous self-rule of tribal people.
It was the second time police lodged an FIR against Birua. In April, he was arrested following a case at Manjhari police station of West Singbhum district, for similar activities. Says Deputy Superintendent of Police Prakash Soy, “This time, he tried to get things done on a bigger scale… He had begun issuing certificates like for caste, income and age, under the letterhead of ‘Kolhan Estate Government’. Initially, we thought him to be an old maverick. But when he distributed pamphlets, posters and banners talking about Kolhan Estate Government and planned to unfurl the flag, we decided to take action.”
A woman at nearby Bindibasa village, refusing to identify herself, says officials have come “half-a-dozen times” to inquire about the flag plan. “As it is, youngsters from here go to places like Gujarat and Bengaluru to work. Some work in the fields, but the rest have escaped… I request them not to harass us,” she says.
Birua’s claim is based on the 1837 ‘Wilkinson’s Rule’ — a British-era instrument to control the Kolhan region, comprising West Singhbhum, East Singhbhum and Seraikela Kharsawan districts of Jharkhand. With its constitutional status not yet settled, Kolhan continues to remain a separate entity within India, according to Birua.
In 1982-83, a group of leaders from the region, under the banner of the Kolhan Raksha Sangh, had even made their way to London demanding that being a region “separate from India”, Kolhan be given the right to interact with the British Commonwealth on its own. The three leaders, Narayan Joko, Christ Anand Topno and K C Hembrom, had been booked for sedition, though the government later withdrew the charge.
Officials said while Birua does not have any links with them, in the papers seized from him, he talks about writing a letter to the Queen of Britain and President of India in 1995, saying that under Article 372 (1) (2) of the Constitution, Kolhan was a separate estate and only he could be appointed its ‘Khewatdar No. 1 (main revenue collector)’.
As per Birua, the title was finally offered to him on December 18, 1998.
It was apparently to mark this occasion that Birua had called for the flag-hoisting on December 18. A poster seized by the police also refers to Birua as ‘Malik-in-Council’ of ‘Kolhan Government Estate’, with around 20 more people nominated to it.
West Singhbhum Deputy Commissioner A Rajkamal said they continue to follow the principles of the Wilkinson’s Rule, which include adhering to a traditional system of governance. “The administration appoints the Manaki-Munda, who have the right to settle civil disputes and petty criminal offences. They also verify the antecedents of a person. In fact, the Wilkinson’s Rule is also part of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, which is the existing law of the land. So there is no lacuna as such,” Rajkamal said.
About Birua’s claim to be ‘Khewatdar No. 1’, the official said, “Nobody has seen the document, which he claims to have in possession.”
At the residence of Birua at Matkam Hatu village on the outskirts of Chaibasa town, a woman claiming to be his eldest daughter-in-law but refusing to give her name rued that he has never looked after them. “The last I remember, he came for a brief visit eight-nine months ago. He is angry with my husband and me because I am a Hindu, while they are Ho tribals.”
Dismissing Birua’s claims of having “an order from the Queen”, she adds, “Is it the age for him to do such things?”
The Wilkinson’s Rule
Chotanagpur came under British control after Sir Robert Clive defeated the joint forces of Nawabs of Oudh and Bengal, supported by Mughal emperor Shah Alam-II, in Battle of Buxar, 1765. The British entered into agreement with the local kings, to collect rent on their behalf. Later, King of Porahat, now a town in Chaibasa, promised the British higher revenue if he was given control. The British agreed.
By 1832, however, the Kol tribal groups rose in rebellion against the high rent and usurpation of their land by outsiders. The then British Agent for Kolhan region, Sir Thomas Wilkinson, decided to occupy the area by force. For three months, the Kols fought, but the rebellion was quashed.
In 1837 though, Wilkinson decided that Kolhan be declared a ‘Kolhan Separate Estate’, headquartered in Chaibasa. He came out with what was called ‘The Wilkinson’s Rule’, under which traditional customary laws of Munda-Manaki would continue to be followed. While the Mundas were responsible for civil issues at the village level, Manaki, one per gram panchayat, looked after criminal issues.
Since Independence, there has been no explicit legislation setting aside The Wilkinson’s Rule.
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