A tribal woman dances in frenzy while a man intones mantras in what seems like an age-old ritual to a pagan god, but then this is a ‘Pathalgadi’ area and she is leading the villagers in worshipping a stone plaque inscribed with tenets governing their everyday lives.
The high notes of electioneering don’t strike a chord in Jharkhand’s Maoist strongholds where a huge stone plaque, or ‘Pathalgadi’, declares at the village entrance itself that residents are governed by their own rules and all outsiders are banned, regardless of whether they are politicians or just casual visitors.
READ | Who was Birsa Munda?
Unlike the rest of the country, villages, particularly under Pathalgadi, are governed by a separate set of rules where ‘gram sabhas’, or village panchayats, reign supreme.
There are over 100 Pathalgadi villages in Khunti district, barely 50 km from the state capital Ranchi, where the tribes don’t recognise any authority and don’t owe allegiance to the Constitution.
This is the land of legendary tribal icon Birsa Munda, who waged a fierce battle against the British in the 19th century and is worshipped as god.
Khunti, one of the 14 parliamentary constituencies in Jharkhand that is reserved, is preparing for a clash of two Mundas on May 6 – BJP’s former chief minister Arjun Munda and Congress’ Kalicharan Munda.
But the electoral silence is almost eerie with the tribals saying they will boycott the polls, celebrated as the festival of democracy elsewhere in the country.
“Our rights have been seized by (Chief Minister) Raghubar Das. No rights, no votes,” proclaimed Maki Tuti, 42, after worshipping the stone plaque at the entrance of village Bhandra, a ritual the villagers follow every Thursday.
Dikus, or outsiders, are strictly forbidden but this correspondent managed to enter the villages through ‘Pathalgadi’ leaders to talk to the villagers.
With just two days to go before elections on May 6, none of the 11 contenders has reached the interior areas.
There is no faith in the government or the electoral system but the fact that the villages in Khunti lack even the most basic amenities widens the gulf.
“We have no amenities in our village. The government has done nothing for us…We just want peaceful living with no interference,” Ratan Tuti, 50, told PTI.
Those younger echo the same disillusionment.
Bindi Nag, 27, said her only wish is that the government stops harassing the youth.
The story is the same in village after village. Be it Hashatu or Chamidih, Siladone or Kumkuma, plaques warning that outsiders are banned and the tribals reject any authority of the state or the Central government are the first thing visitors encounter when they approach village.
The plaques mention Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA.
Questioned on the Pathalgadi villagers’ outright rejection of the polls, Khunti MLA and state minister Neelkanth Singh Munda said, “It is no subject.”
“There is no question of infringing upon the rights of the villagers. There has been enough development work. The roads are better than Ranchi and that is why you could reach here,” he added.
He is also the brother of Congress candidate Kalicharan Munda.
But the facts state otherwise, said the villagers.
At Kumkuma village, 70-year-old Sheonath Munda said, “No one has reached us.”
The Khunti Lok Sabha seat covers the districts of Khunti and Simdega and portions of the Ranchi and Seraikela Kharsawan districts. The constituency has six assembly segments, Kharsawan, Tamar, Topa, Khunti, Kolebira and Simdega.
It is one of most backward regions of the eastern state and is also hit by Maoist violence.
The constituency has become one of Jharkhand’s high profile parliamentary constituencies after the BJP fielded Arjun Munda by dropping its eight-term MP Kariya Munda.
Asked about Kariya Munda, villagers in some Pathalgadi areas used expletives, saying he had done nothing for the development of the constituency.
Some villagers said they have sent a list of demands to all higher ups, including to President Ram Nath Kovind. The demands include withdrawal of all law enforcing machinery, earmarking of funds under tribal sub plans to the gram sabhas.
They also want that tribals should not be branded extremists and sent to jail.
Wearying of fighting the system, some of the villagers said nobody understands them and all they want is a peaceful life with full control over their “jal, jungle and jameen (water, forest and land)”.
Said one villager in Kumkuma who did not want to be identified, “We do not want to vote as the outside world is alien to us.”
“Which Bharat sarkar? Our sarkar is the gram panchayat,” added an elderly man. “We cannot allow our water, forest and land to be snatched away. It is our birthright.”
To Birsa Munda goes the credit for the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) in 1908 which prohibits transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. In 1949, the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPT) maintained the same position.
The attempts to make amendments in both the laws by the BJP government in the state, headed by Chief Minister Raghubar Das, has met with vociferous protests.
Khunti was in the headlines last June when Pathalgudi supporters barged into MP Kariya Munda’s home at Anigada-Chandidih and abducted three policemen.
In another incident, five women from an NGO were allegedly abducted and gangraped by armed men associated with Pathalgadi while staging street plays at a school.
Among its multiple problems is the one of tribal women being lured by touts into becoming domestic workers and bonded labourers.
The narrative of migration and bonded labour is repeated in village after village. The list is long, the characters different and the story same.