Writ in stone

In Jharkhand’s Khunti, a gangrape and a subsequent stand-off have sharpened the mutual mistrust between tribals and the State. As villages in these parts assert their identity through the Pathalgadi movement, The Indian Express looks at the circumstances that turned a centuries-old tradition into an act of tribal assertion.

Written by Prashant Pandey | Updated: July 8, 2018 2:01:23 pm
Writ in stone Most of the men have fled Ghaghra village since the June 26-27 stand-off between the villagers and the administration. The stone plaque in Kochang village that declares the “power of the gram sabha”. (Express Photo by Arjun Chhabra)

It’s not an easy ride to Kochang village in Arki block of Jharkhand’s Khunti district. The Khunti-Arki-Kolebira road, which is being widened to two lanes, ends at Arki and from there, the 29 km to Kochang is through broken concrete and gravel on a hilly terrain.

Located on the Khunti-West Singhbhum border, Kochang and other villages around it have in past decades been a stronghold of the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a Maoist splinter group, and the CPI (Maoist), but with most of the cadres and their leaders having either surrendered or arrested, the movement is on the wane. But now, a new form of resistance is taking shape in these parts — the Pathalgadi campaign, a form of tribal assertion that has sought to declare the supremacy of the gram sabha while asking the government to stay away.

On February 25, Kochang and its surrounding villages, Bahamba, Sake, Tusunga, Totekera and Sijuri, witnessed a joint Pathalgadi event in which stone plaques were installed, announcing the gram sabha as their only sovereign authority. The plaques had excerpts from the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 (PESA, which ensures self-government through gram sabhas in tribal or Schedule 5 areas), besides prohibiting outsiders from entering the village. At the February Pathalgadi event, girls sang tribal Mundari songs while young men holding bows kept a vigil on bikes. The administration kept away, but watched warily.

Over the past year, such events have been held in several villages spread across at least three districts of the state — primarily Khunti and a few villages in Seraikela-Kharsawan and Chaibasa districts — all ending with the installation of the stone slabs that proclaim self-governance. Officials say at least 67 of the 760-odd villages in Khunti have witnessed the Pathalgadi movement.

But now, a gangrape in Kochang has sharpened the mutual mistrust between Pathalgarhi supporters in these villagers and the administration. On June 19, five women who had gone to a Church-run school to perform a street play against human-trafficking, were kidnapped and gangraped. Of the three people who were arrested, police alleged that two were Pathalgadi supporters who had carried out the act to “serve as a warning to outsiders”. The third arrest — of Alfonso Aind, a Catholic priest and head of the management of the school from where the women were kidnapped — has openly pitted the ruling BJP in the state against the Church.

Days after the incident, on June 26, police swooped down on Udburu village in Murhu block to arrest Joseph Purty, one of the top leaders of the movement in Khunti. While Purty managed to give them the slip, police attached his property and razed a shed outside his house where he held meetings. They also seized documents related to the ‘Bank of Gram Sabha’ that Purty had set up as a parallel economy in defiance of the RBI. As tempers rose, Pathalgadi supporters gathered in Ghaghra village, nearly four km from Udburu, and police caned protesters. Angry Pathalgadi supporters then marched to the house of Khunti BJP MP Kariya Munda in Anigara village, from where they kidnapped three armed guards and a policeman. At the end of a face-off between the two sides, police detained several people and the guards were freed.

With that, the Pathalgarhi movement — a political reincarnation of a centuries-old tribal practice where a stone slab bearing the names of ancestors is installed on family land — has emerged as the latest challenge for the administration in Khunti, the birthplace of the tribal freedom fighter and folk hero Birsa Munda.

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The five-room, single-storey building of Rajkiya Utkramit Madhya Vidyalaya (Upgraded Middle School) stands as a symbol of the movement’s deep distrust of the State.

It’s 1 pm and the school, with only 13 registered students from Classes 1 to 8, has just got over. Girdhari Ahir, one of the two teachers here, says, “Our school was built in 1960 and till recently had 27 children. Following the Pathalgadi event in February, their leaders began saying they won’t allow children to be taught in government schools. So a lot of children moved to the Christian school where this gangrape happened. That school has many sections and teachers for every class; here we have two teachers and one para-teacher for eight classes.”

He adds that the Christian school draws students from villages in a 10-km radius of Kochang. “No matter how much you give mid-day meals or uniforms, you won’t get students unless you have teachers for every class,” says Ahir, who travels 32 km to school on his motorcycle from Arki every day.

Across the school is the Kochang post-office. Inside a few men sit chatting with Sukhram Soy, the post-master who is also the gram pradhan. Soy has been named as an accused in nearly half-a-dozen Pathalgadi cases, including one this February, when Pathalgadi activists detained a few policemen in Kurunga village, where they had gone to arrest a man for allegedly cultivating opium.

Soy, who hasn’t been arrested in any of these cases, proclaims his innocence, yet says he stands by the Pathalgadi cause. “Our argument is clear. Under Schedule 5 areas, the gram sabha has the biggest role. The schemes chosen by the gram sabha alone should be allowed. We don’t want schemes to be imposed on us,” he says, before adding, “I never stop people from entering the village.”

One of the men in the group, who identifies himself only as “panchayat sevak” speaks in Soy’s support. “Why should the government get work done for us, issue tenders to outsiders? Why can’t the gram sabha be allowed to do it?” he asks. Yet in Kochang, the State makes its presence felt, however patchy — in the overhead power cables that came up two years ago (though supply is yet to begin), the health centre with two ANMs, the concrete roads and the couple of overhead water tanks that are powered with solar panels (though one of them was swept away in a recent thunderstorm).

A concrete road leads to the panchayat secretariat that’s painted pink and whose walls bear the lists of beneficiaries of the Centre’s Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). The building can’t hold the names of all the 335 beneficiaries for 2017-18 and so, the list continues on the walls of adjacent buildings.

Writ in stone The stone plaque in Kochang village that declares the “power of the gram sabha”. (Express Photo by Arjun Chhabra)

Although police and the administration point to the arrests in the gangrape case to hint at an understanding between the Maoists and Pathalgadi supporters, Soy denies it. To set the record straight, the gram sabha in Kochang passed a resolution saying they would help police track down the culprits. “No one from the village was involved. We will take help of other villages and, if the culprits are caught, we will hand over them to the police. It has brought a bad name to Kochang,” says Soy.

Officials in Khunti allege Soy was among those in Kochang village who turned people against government schemes. “His job as post-master is in trouble; a report against him has been sent to the authorities. His name is cropping up everywhere. That is why he seems to be singing a different tune these days,” says a senior official of the Khunti administration.

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While the Khunti gangrape case ended up as the tipping point, the anger in the state’s Schedule 5 areas against the State had been building up for a while. It started in 2016 with the government proposing changes in the Tenancy Acts (Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act) to remove the existing restrictions on the sale and transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. Though the provisions were withdrawn after the Governor returned the Bill, the Opposition led widespread protests against the government. Moreover, recently, the government’s amendment to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, which waived off the social impact assessment before land is acquired for certain projects, was met with suspicion in these parts.

Officials in the district administration claim they have always used tact, not force, to deal with the movement. “We realised people had been mobilised by Pathalgadi leaders and any use of force could have been counter-productive. So the administration and police adopted a softer approach,” says ADG (Operations) and Jharkhand Police spokesperson R K Mallick.

On August 24, 2017, villagers detained a team of policemen who had gone to Kanki-Siladon village in Khunti, where villagers had put up barricades at entry points to assert “the power of the gram sabha”. Though no stone slabs were installed then, that was among the early signs of the Pathalgadi movement in the district. Since then, police have registered over 15 cases and arrested more than 20 people, including some of the main leaders.

Officials say that on February 25, when Kochang and its surrounding villages witnessed a joint Pathalgadi event, Joseph Purty, among the leaders of the movement, exhorted people to boycott laws made by Parliament and the Legislative Assembly and reject government schemes, Aadhaar and voter ID cards.

“In some villages, they don’t allow gram sabhas to take place. In others, a gram sabha may take place, but they would resolve that they don’t need government help. We have tried to talk and sort things out, but they are not willing to listen,” says Arki Block Development Officer (BDO) Ranjita Toppo, while alleging that the movement leaders are selective in their outrage.

“Many of them still benefit from public schemes. Say, if a well is to be made, then they let in government employees. If a house under PMAY is under construction, then too they don’t stop our work. But if we propose anything new, they reject it. In some places, they have even started issuing caste, birth and death certificates in the name of the gram sabha. And when they send us letters, they refer to us as naukar mahashay/mahashaya (servants),” says Toppo, evidently hurt at this discourtesy.

BDO (Khunti) Suchitra Minj says, “Recently, we were working on the Centre’s Gram Swaraj Abhiyaan when people of Ghaghra village asked us to wait. They did not directly oppose government schemes, but said let us first complete Pathalgadi. They said, we will talk once we come inside the Schedule 5 area, but they are already under Schedule 5! They swear by the Constitution but don’t recognise us.”

About a kilometre from Ghaghra village, the site of the June 26-27 standoff, is the Pathalgadi slab. In white paint against the green of the stone slab are messages invoking “Bharat ka samvidhaan (Constitution of India)” and refers to the “prakritik gram sabha (natural gram sabha)” which is “sarv-shakti sampannta (all-powerful)” and has the “force of the Constitution”. Under the three-lion State symbol is a declaration that “free movement of outsiders and people not following tribal practices… is forbidden”. It goes on to argue that laws of Parliament and the Legislative Assembly do not apply here.

The other side on the slab states that voter ID and Aadhar cards are “anti-tribal documents”. It ends with a grand declaration: “Adivasi log bharat ke maalik hain (tribals are the owners of Bharat)” and government officials are “servants and coolies”.

While the administration claims a “lot of work” has been going on over the past few months to convince people against the movement, with several Pathalgadi leaders, including Purty, now on the run, officials say now is the time for them to move in and “fill the space”.

“At least 20 dedicated teams of officials will go to core Pathalgadi areas and take the villagers into confidence. We have told people that their youths can get jobs as policemen and homeguards. A textile cluster is coming up in Ranchi and we will get people from Khunti to get jobs there,” says Khunti Deputy Commissioner Suraj Kumar.

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Prem Chand Murmu of the Ranchi-based Adivasi Buddhijeevi Manch says that while the demands for a more powerful gram sabha are genuine, he disagrees with the manner in which they have been presented by Pathalgadi supporters.

“There is no doubt that governments over the years have been responsible for the problem. Under PESA, traditional gram sabhas ensure self-governance in Schedule 5 areas. But we have a situation where despite this being a Scheduled area, we still have the three-level panchayat system,” explains Murmu.

However, he says, the claims made on the Pathalgadi slabs can’t be completely accepted. “The right to move anywhere in the country is a fundamental right. Nobody can restrict that, unless there are reasonable grounds. Therefore, the solution lies in implementing PESA in full.”

However, officials claim there is more to the movement than meets the eye. Till a couple of years ago, Khunti used to be the second highest producer of poppy after Chatra. Villages under Khunti, Arki and Murhu blocks were used for poppy cultivation, which would be processed into opium. The proceeds of opium, police allege, were used to fund Left-wing insurgents. In 2017 and early 2018, police had destroyed nearly 2,500 acres of poppy cultivation in Khunti.

“Today if you map the areas under opium cultivation, the areas that were the hotbed of these insurgent groups and the areas now affected by Pathalgadi in Khunti, you will get almost identical maps” says a top official. Back at the post office in Kochang, Soy says he is aware of such charges, but can do little about it. “We are caught between two forces. The jungle party (the Maoists) has diminished, but not completely. Now, the government feels that we are against it due to Pathalgadi. What can we do? We will have to fight for our rights,” he says.

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