Amid a raging movement in Jharkhand for a separate Sarna Code for Adivasis, villagers of Tilma in Khunti region are fighting an uphill battle to protect tribal culture and practices. They want to protect sacred Sarna Sthal, which are sacred groves in tribal areas where worship and traditional practices are carried out. The villagers have accused cops of setting up a police station on this Sarna Sthal, along with barring them from the space and suppressing any protest over the issue.
The villagers maintain that despite the presence of a police station barely 7 kilometres away, the police have been setting up a new station in violation of tribal land rights and the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA Act). The residents have written multiple letters to authorities appealing that the effort should be stopped and they should be given access to their sacred land. They have currently sought an intervention into the matter from Chief Minister Hemant Soren and even the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.
The Adivasi community claimed that the acquisition of land was not done with their consent. Moreover, they claimed the efforts to build a police station there it violate the land acquisition act and the protection guaranteed under the PESA Act that empowers communities to determine which projects are allowed on village land.
The villagers said that the land in question was less than an acre and it has now been fenced with barbed wires. This has halted the movement of the villagers. They also claimed that any attempt at staging protests was being curtailed. For the Munda tribe living this region, it is as much a acquisition of land grab by the police as it is a question of land rights and autonomy. For them, it also involves the issue of protecting deep-rooted tribal practices and traditions.
Dispute over Land
Speaking to Newsclick, Ba Singh Horro explained the situation on the ground. He said the police have taken over the disputed land with barbed wires, which implies a deep violation for the adivasis. “In every village, there are Sthals (decicated spots) where tribal worship takes place. There are five to six types of worship that tribals perform, which are extremely significant to us,” Ba Singh said.
Further explaining the traditions, he said, “One is Jayar where we worship around Sarhul (time of new moon in March or April); another is Jilu Jayar, right before we go for hunting during the Holi season, another one is the Gumdi Damri worship where we worship the black bull; others include Devi and Bhuru pooja. What is important is that the encroachment is taking place on the Sarna Sthal where worship of the village deity (Sarna Pooja) takes place. To us, These traditions are significant. These are born when a village is created. The police want to take over this very land.”
The Times of India reported that the Superintendent of Police in the district, Asutosh Shekhar, said the land was acquired by the administration and handed over to police. “The plot on which the police station is being constructed does not include any Sarna Sthal. An adjacent plot is the Sarna Sthal but the villagers wanted to carry out rituals inside the fencing. Hence, they were stopped,” he said.
However, for the villagers, that land includes the open space wherein tribal traditions of offering sacrifices are carried out. Ba Singh said, “The villagers are determined to not let go of this land. One of the very strong reasons for this is their commitment to protect our lands, another key reason being the problems that arose when the practices were not carried out. There is a strong belief system that Sarna worshipping will protect our land. The administration is claiming that these are orders issued by the District Collectorate but no proof is being shown to us.”
The issue has been ongoing for the past three years--wherein the possibility of the police station was proposed. In December 2020, the Gram Sabha refused to give consent to the construction of the station. “We were told post the refusal that the government will bring in force and will set up the station anyway,” said Nandram Munda, a resident of the village. He added, “In February, the wiring and the fencing was done; those who were opposing were mishandled and scared away, lathis were also used.”
The villagers had written a letter in October last year, demanding the state administration to take cognisance of their rights and stop the encroachment by the police. Currently, over a 100 villagers have signed a letter urging the administration to not overlook the mandatory consent form needed for any construction that is carried out on Gram Sabha land.
Protecting Adivasi Identity
The development in Tilma needs to be understood in the context of the long-standing movement for the demand of protecting tribal traditions and keeping them out of the Hindu fold. After a long-standing demand of adivasi leaders from across the state, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha government has finally passed a resolution for a separate Sarna Code for tribals in the state. The resolution will seek a special column for followers of the Sarna religion in the Census, 2021. At present, they are not classified as a separate entity. Adivasis have demanded a separate Sarna code in the census for decades, which, according to them, will give them a distinct identity. Without a separate column for members of the community in the Census, they were classified either as Hindus, Muslims or Christians till date.