Assembly Elections 2019| In poll-bound Jharkhand, Pathalgadi movement signals tribal distress
Pathalgadi is a traditional practice of Munda Adivasis of erecting stone slabs (pathals) in honour of their ancestors, to announce important decisions regarding their families and villages or to mark the boundary of their villages.Updated: Dec 06, 2019 06:01 IST
In the last two months, villagers of Gaghra in the Khunti district of Jharkhand have refused to take their ration and pensions from the government. For the 600 people-strong village where the average daily income is below the poverty line, this is a form of protest.
“We will not take any benefit from the government which fails to recognise our right of self-rule through gram sabha under the Constitution,” said a young resident of Gaghra village, who wished to remain anonymous fearing reprisal. We get enough from the “soil and the jungles” to feed our families, the youth said.
Soon after the Lok Sabha elections, the state government in July changed the land acquisition law to allow land acquisition for the purpose of creating a land bank for development. For the villagers, most of whom belong to tribal communities, agricultural land is sparse in a landscape dotted with rocks. This change was greeted with resistance. It also brought back memories of 2016, when the then CM Raghubar Das first touted the idea to amend British-era tenancy laws to allow the government to acquire agricultural land, as well as regulate its sale and purchase by local tribals. An ordinance amending the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act was sent back to the drawing board in 2017. The laws provide for land rights to tribals and prohibit the government from acquiring tribal land without consent of the gram sabha.
“This move [to amend the tenancy laws] was seen as an attempt to take over tribal land by the government agencies for outsiders and was a reason for Pathalgadi, which was prohibited entry of outsiders into these villages,” said Siraj Dutta of Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha (JJM), a body of 32 civil society groups.
Around that time, stone slabs carved in Hindi and English with the Constitution’s guarantees for tribal populations began cropping up in villages of Jharkhand, mostly in Kunti district, 45 km from Ranchi. The text pointed out how the Constitution gave special powers given to tribal areas under Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Area) Act, popularly known as PESA, and allowed gram sabhas to take administrative decisions. This came to be called the Pathalgadi movement.
Pathalgadi is a traditional practice of Munda Adivasis of erecting stone slabs (pathals) in honour of their ancestors, to announce important decisions regarding their families and villages or to mark the boundary of their villages. In 1996, when PESA law was enacted, many tribal villages erected stone slabs quoting provisions of the law that allowed self-rule through gram sabhas. It resurfaced in early 2016, after the amendments were proposed. According to JJM the Pathalgadi movement has spread to at least 70 villages.
The South Chhota Nagpur region, which comprises five districts including Khunti, was once considered a hotbed of left wing extremism. Its literacy is now as low as 64%, one of the main reasons for resentment among tribals, who form the majority in this region. At Bhoot village, there was only one teacher for students for five classes, for instance. “After Pathalgadi outsiders [people from different states] are not willing to come here,” said the teacher at school in Bhoot village. Maranghada village head Anil Kumar Nag said that the only higher secondary school in their village has been taken over for a Central Reserve Police Force camp, resulting in a dip in children’s attendance. In Gaghra, the material for paving the road has been lying unused for the past year, a Kunti district government official, said.
In June 2018, a clash between the police and Gaghra villagers left one person dead and many injured. The locals had allegedly kidnapped three security personnel of former Lok Sabha deputy speaker Karia Munda. In the 23 First Information Reports registered, around 14,000 unnamed persons have been booked for sedition, according to fact finding inquiry conducted by JMM released in August. However, the Kunti district police released a statement last month clarifying that in the charge-sheet, the police has pressed sedition charges against 172 people. While cases may be booked against unnamed persons, a charge-sheet must name an accused.
Political experts also said unemployment and low income generation were other reasons for the resistance. “No mega project was launched in this region to alleviate the issue of employment. Nothing was done to exploit the huge tourism potential of the region,” political expert Vidya Bhushan Mishra said.
However, the BJP believes that the Pathalgadi movement will not impact voter preferences outside the region. BJP’s state spokesperson Pratul Shahdeo said, “People know that our government has carried several development projects in tribal areas.”
The South Chhota Nagpur region is a mixed bag for the ruling BJP. In 2014 assembly election, the BJP won 10 seats out of the total 16 and contested the polls in alliance with All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) party, which won two seats. AJSU’s main votebank is the Kurmi community, the other dominant electoral force in the region.
In 2019, the BJP and AJSU are contesting separately and the opposition — Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) —is in an alliance, unlike in 2014 when they fought separately. The region is considered a BJP stronghold because it was able to get tribal votes in 2014 due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
In 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote share in most of these seats declined, and in Kunti Lok Sabha seat, the party was behind the united Opposition (Congress-JMM-RJD) candidate in four of the six assembly constituencies, the Election Commission’s assembly wise vote share data reveals.
“The BJP was able to overcome some of the Pathalgadi anger because of PM Modi’s popularity in Lok Sabha polls. Now, Pathalgadi has again returned to haunt the BJP. It would be interesting to see how the party overcomes this hurdle,” said Mishra.
Sanjay Sahu, a BJP leader in Khunti, said anger among tribals over police action during the Pathalgadi movement is again “visible” now and there is some consolidation of votes against the BJP, especially among Christian tribals.
“The tribal community has a feeling of fear that the ruling party would grab their land if it comes to power again,” JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya said. “All tribals are on one platform when it comes to their land rights,” he said.
“Pathagadi signifies failure of the BJP government and we are raising it with full force,” said a senior Congress strategist for Jharkhand polls.