New Delhi/Ranchi: The Jharkhand Police have charged 30,000 unnamed people (mostly Adivasis) under several serious sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including sedition, for resorting to ‘Pathalgarhi’ – a tribal tradition of erecting stone slabs to demarcate the area of their villages’ jurisdiction, declaring their autonomy and self-rule in areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
As many as 20 people, including activists, writers and journalists, have been 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”.
Several Adivasi villages of the district, primarily in Khunti, Arki and Murhu blocks, have done ‘Pathalgadi’ in the last two years. Based on the traditional practice of the Munda community and drawing from constitutional provisions of the Fifth Schedule and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), stone plaques, painted with legal guarantees for Adivasis and rules formulated by the Gram Sabha (village council), were erected at the entrance of the villages.
The stone slabs quote sections of the Indian Constitution and PESA that give special protection to Adivasis and recognise the Gram Sabha as the basis of self-rule in tribal-dominated areas. For example, Adivasis have the primary right over their natural resources – Jal, Jangal, Zameen (water, forest, land). The plaques also mention some locally formed rules such as restricted entry to outsiders. Some interpretations of the constitutional provisions, mentioned on the slabs, are definitely unusual and also, may be, impractical.
Recently, warrants were issued against four of them – Stan Swamy, Vinod Kumar, Aloka Kujur and Rakesh Roshan Kido – who are known to have always fought for Adivasi rights. Well-known poet Jacinta Kerketta told NewsClick, “The government should stop labelling voices of dissent as sedition. It is a violation of right to expression.”
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According to the government, almost 10% of the total population of the three blocks is “anti-national”. People of the region allege that they are not able to freely share violations of their rights, as they are scared that they may be named in the FIRs.
Jean Dreze, while addressed a sit-in organized at Raj Bhawan by Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha – a network of activists and people’s organisations – said, “The brutal manner in which the Jharkhand government is dealing with the ‘Pathalgarhi’ movement is a case of gross over-reaction to legitimate and non-violent demands of the local Adivasis. The tradition of self-government in Khunti should be valued and celebrated.”
Instead of attempting to dialogue with the people of these villages on these interpretations and their demands, the government has allegedly responded with “severe repression and violence”. In 2018, the police raided several villages that had done ‘Pathalgarhi’. It allegedly attacked Ghaghra village in Murhu during a Pathalgadi ceremony. The cops – as alleged – vandalised houses and severely beat people, including women, children and differently abled men. One pregnant woman who was allegedly beaten delivered a baby with disabilities. Two persons were shot; one of whom died. Many other Pathalgadi villages also saw police violence in the last two years. The police randomly picked up villagers on the pretext of “questioning” them. Camps of security forces have been set up in at least nine schools and two community buildings, without the permission of the respective Gram Sabhas.
The assertion of Khunti’s people through ‘Pathalgarhi’ has roots in the long history of alienation of land and alleged exploitation of Adivasis in Jharkhand. Based on conservative estimates, at least 1.5 million people have been displaced in the state allegedly due to alienation of land between 1951 and 1995. Of these, 41% were Adivasis. In the last few decades, Khunti district itself has seen several attempts for “forceful acquisition” of land for various projects such as construction of Koel-Karo hydroelectric dams and Arcelor-Mittal steel plant. Both these projects had to be scrapped after public protests. There are also longstanding grievances against the alleged failure of the state to protect the distinctive social and cultural identity of the Adivasis.
“In the last five years, there have been continuous attacks on constitutional rights of Adivasis across the state. There have been several attempts to weaken the powers of Gram Sabhas in various acts. The government repeatedly tried to weaken the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNTA) and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPTA) that provide protection to Adivasis’ right to their land. The government also formulated the land bank policy that creates a pool of land owned by Gram Sabhas to be offered to corporates without the approval of the people,” the protesters alleged.
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On one hand, they added, the BJP-led state government continues to violate provisions of Fifth Schedule left, right and centre and runs away from implementing PESA, while on the other, the Prime Minister is busy creating news by bowing before the Constitution (book) before entering Parliament.
Adivasi Women’s Network’s Elina Hora said, “The Jharkhand government should immediately check severe violations of human rights across the state in the form of violations of Adivasi rights, mob lynchings and attacks on women.”
The agitators demanded that the government must immediately withdraw all “frivolous” FIRs filed against the thousands of unnamed residents of Khunti and activists on charges of sedition. It must also undertake – they said – judicial inquiry into the charges framed against the named people in the FIRs. They dared the government to make public all the evidence that formed the basis for these FIRs and the evidence collected in all related inquiries since then.
The protesters have asked the government to initiate dialogue with representatives of the ‘Pathalgarhi’ villages, Adivasi organisations and experts on the Constitution. “The government must ensure immediate implementation of all provisions of Fifth schedule and PESA in letter and spirit,” they added.