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Trigger for Pathalgadi was State Govt’s Repeated Attempts to Amend CNT Act: Fact-Finding Team

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Jharkhand government responded to Pathalgadi with violence instead of honouring the constitutional rights of adivasis, claimed the fact-finding team
Pathalgadi

In 2018, the Pathalgadi movement had made headlines across India. It had been reported that the adivasis (tribals) of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were indulging in anti-national activities by erecting stones in honour of their ancestors to announce important decisions regarding their families and villages or to mark the boundary of their villages. While this movement took place in many districts of the two states, Khunti district remained the epicentre. Later, police arrested several Pathalgadi movement leaders and villagers and lathi- charged and fired on the protesting tribals. Cases of sedition were slapped on more than 14,000 tribals in Khunti itself.

For two days, on August 6 and 7, 2019, a fact-finding team comprising activists, academics, researchers and lawyers visited few Pathalgadi villages in Khunti (Ghaghara, Bhandra and Habuidih in Khunti block and Kochang and Birbanki in Arki block) to understand what led to the Pathalgadi movement and the response of the administration.

The team met several residents of Khunti and its neighbouring villages. Following which they also met the deputy commissioner (DC), Khunti Suraj Kumar.

On Thursday, they also held a press conference in Ranchi and presented their fact-finding report, as per which:

One deaf man was beaten as he was unable to hear the instructions given by the police. One woman was stripped and beaten by the mahila police and was unable to move for a week. A pregnant woman, Ashrita Munda, was at home when the police came into her house and beat her with a stick. She delivered a physically disabled baby. The police vandalised houses, vehicles and livestock.

It addition to using tear gas, the police also fired at people. Two people were shot, one of them, Birsa Munda, died at the spot. Many people ran away from their villages for several months and as a result, also missed the sowing season. The DC denied all the violence unleashed by the police. The violence was not restricted to Ghaghara. People were also beaten in the villages of Uduburu and Jikilata. Several houses were ransacked by the police in ‘kurki jabti’ (impoundment). In Totkara, the police let their dog loose on the people. The dogs badly bit a 25-year woman, Mariam Soy.

The fact-finding team found that the Pathalgadi movement was a non-violent response to specific policies of the government, like its attempts to dilute land laws, failure to respect the worldview of the adivasis, implementing schemes without the consent of the Gram Sabha, non-implementation of PESA and provisions for the fifth scheduled areas and rampant violations of human rights violations. The team noted that even though most of the interpretations of the constitutional clauses written on the pathals or stone slabs may be wrong or far-fetched, these are based on valid issues and demands of adivasis and their basic idea about the supremacy of the Gram Sabha.

The report mentions that Pathalgadi is a traditional practice of Munda adivasis to erect stone slabs (pathals) in honour of their ancestors, to announce important decisions regarding their families and villages or to simply mark the boundary of their villages. Since 2017, pathals painted with constitutional provisions for adivasis, judicial orders and their interpretations, have been erected in several villages of Jharkhand.

The villagers read these provisions and orders to mean the following – (1) The supremacy of the powers of the traditional Gram Sabha and the traditional adivasi governance systems. (2) The rights of adivasis over land. (3) The restricted rights of non-adivasis and outsiders in the scheduled areas to settle down and work. And (4) that adivasis are the original inhabitants and owners of India.

The members of fact-finding team during the press conference on Pathalgadi in Ranchi claimed that the immediate trigger for Pathalgadi was the state government’s repeated attempts to amend the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT Act) to ease acquisition of Adivasi land. The state government also did not allow adivasis to protest against this move by forcefully preventing their entry into Ranchi for a demonstration in 2016. They said the police also fired at the crowd, which resulted in the death of one person from Khunti. There are also apprehensions that the recently auctioned Parasi gold mines in the neighbouring block of Tamar will lead to acquisition of people’s land in Khunti for construction of roads and other infrastructure related to the mines. The people firmly said that nature (including land) is an integral part of the adivasis’ religion and governance system. According to the DC, however, acquisition of land is essential for development projects.

There is also anger against the constant attack on adivasis’ right to self-governance. Gram Sabha is not consulted before implementing projects in adivasi-dominated areas. Several residents of Pathalgadi villages have publicly rejected Aadhaar as they are apprehensive that it will ease exploitation of adivasis and their resources by outsiders, as the unique identification system equates adivasis with the ‘aam aadmi’ (common man).

Many people in the visited villages did not vote in the recent Lok Sabha elections as they felt that their Gram Sabha and Gram Pradhans were the primary governance entities. Anger against government policies also played a role.

The team claimed that the state responded to Pathalgadi with severe repression and violence. A day after the Pathalgadi ceremony in Ghaghara on June 26, 2018, thousands of police personnel lathi-charged the people. Several people were beaten up with sticks, including the elderly, women and children. One deaf man was beaten as he was unable to hear the instructions given by the police. One woman was stripped and beaten by the mahila police and was unable to move for a week. A pregnant woman, Ashrita Munda, said she was at home when the police came into her house and beat her with a stick. She delivered a physically disabled baby. The police vandalised houses, vehicles and livestock, the team said.

It addition to using tear gas, the police also fired at people. Two people were shot, one of them, Birsa Munda, died on the spot. Many people ran away from their villages for several months and as a result, also missed the sowing season. The DC denied all the violence unleashed by the police. The violence was not restricted to Ghaghara. People were also beaten in the villages of Uduburu and Jikilata. Several houses were ransacked by the police in ‘kurki jabti’ (impoundment). In Totkara, the police let their dogs loose on the people. The dogs badly bit a 25-year woman, Mariam Soy.

A total of 29 FIRs have been filed against people of pathalgadi villages. There is an apprehension that these FIRs may have charged all the Gram Pradhans of the pathalgadi villages and about 30,000 unnamed people under various charges, including sedition. The villagers get scared whenever the police visits their village, because any of them could be considered as one of the ‘unknown others’ in the FIRs. There were reports of more arrests in Ghaghara as recently as this month. Many people named in the FIRs or picked up by police were not even aware of the charges against them.

Due to this violence, there is immense fear amongst people. The police continues its visit to villages and are picking up villagers at random or raiding their homes, the team alleged. According to 15 FIRs, available with the team, the police has charged about 100-150 persons and 14,000 unnamed people under several sections that include abetment, obstruction to public servants while discharging their duty, creation of public nuisance, criminal intimidation and even sedition. This includes 20 people who are activists, writers and journalists charged with sedition only because they had raised questions on social media on the government’s actions in Pathalgadi villages and attack on adivasi rights, the team said.

A total of 29 FIRs have been filed against people of pathalgadi villages. There is an apprehension that these FIRs may have charged all the Gram Pradhans of the pathalgadi villages and about 30,000 unnamed people under various charges, including sedition. The villagers get scared whenever the police visits their village, because any of them could be considered as one of the ‘unknown others’ in the FIRs. There were reports of more arrests in Ghaghara as recently as this month. Many people named in the FIRs or picked up by police were not even aware of the charges against them.

The police has forcefully set up camps in schools and community buildings without the consent of Gram Sabhas in many Adivasi villages. The team found that government schools in Kochang and Kurunga were merged with faraway schools and their building was converted into police camps. The local administration even forged a resolution of the Kochang Gram Sabha to show consent to acquisition of a land for setting up a permanent police camp in the village. The Gram Pradhan of Kochang, Sukhram Soy, who opposed it fiercely, was murdered few months ago. The villagers alleged lack of adequate action and investigation by police in this matter.

Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, whose members initiated the fact- finding, expressed concerned over the silence of political leaders on the violations of adivasi rights in Pathalgadi villages.

It has appealed to all opposition parties to stand with the adivasis of Khunti and seek accountability from the state government. The team also demanded that (a) The government must immediately withdraw all FIRs and charges of sedition on the thousands of unnamed residents of Khunti and activists. (b) The government should undertake judicial inquiry into the violence unleashed by security forces in Ghaghra and other villages and ensure punitive action against the personnel responsible for the human rights abuses. It must also ensure compensation to victims of police atrocities in these villages. (c) The government must remove all police camps from the nine schools and two community buildings. (d) The government should initiate genuine dialogue with representatives of the Pathalgadi villages, adivasi organisations and experts on the interpretation of Constitutional provisions written on the pathals. (e)The government must ensure strict immediate implementation of all provisions for the fifth scheduled areas and PESA.

The inquiry team included JJM, a network of several people’s organisations and activists. Several organisations such as Adivasi Adhikar Manch, AIPWA, HRLN, Jharkhand Munda Sabha and WSS were also part of the team.

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