In Jharkhand, more militarization following tribal farmers’ pathalgadi assertion

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It was dusk, the time that farmers usually return home after working in the paddy fields. But the hamlet of Uduburu in eastern Indian state of Jharkhand was deserted. The village square was empty and the mud huts had locks on the doors.
It was only after darkness fell that a few women cautiously came out to draw water from a hand pump at the entrance to the village. Lucia Soy, a tall gaunt middle-aged woman, spoke in Mundari, the language spoken by the local Munda tribe, explaining that the villagers had gone into hiding fearing police action.
Thousands of people from across several villages in the area have been accused in criminal cases by the police for agitating against alleged forceful land acquisition of their farm and pasturelands.
“On several successive nights last month, the police came to the village and started beating anyone they could find,” she said. “They did not spare even domestic animals. They thrashed our pigs in anger when they did not find the men.”
Maga Purty, an elderly woman, said the security forces had thrown the rice she had cooked on the floor, and took away her blankets and her farm tools. “They locked me inside my hut while they beat my son outside,” she said.
After the violent police raids on their and neighbouring hamlets, the farmers had fled to the forest, and remained in hiding for nearly a month, the women said, missing the window of sowing paddy in their fields. They are now struggling to resume work.
Several women and men had slowly gathered around the water pump. In the faint light of a torch, they showed injuries and swellings on their feet from the police beatings that had not healed even after weeks.

An assertion
The hamlet of Uduburu in Khunti district lies near the birthplace of Birsa Munda, an Adivasi (indigenous) community leader who had led a guerrilla resistance against the British colonial rulers in the 19th century. Birsa is now a nationalist icon, and many state institutions are named after him, including Jharkhand’s main airport in the capital, Ranchi.
Uduburu is also the home of Joseph Purty, a teacher at the government college, who over the past one year led a movement for a boycott of all government institutions against alleged forceful acquisition of tribal lands for “development work” – an euphemism for industrial or mining projects.
Hundreds of farmers joined in the demand doing “bittdiri”, or “pathalgadi”, which means carving stones, a centuries-old Munda tradition in which the community engraves stone monoliths to mark significant milestones in the village.
The farmers organised ceremonies in which they carved the constitutional provisions on tribal autonomy on large rocks, and erected these at the entrance to the hamlets.
But the assertion by the Munda farmers that the government follow the laws and the constitution’s special provisions granting self governance in predominantly tribal areas such as Khunti has drawn the ire of the state.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das has promised to crush the movement, while the police launched crackdown on defiant farmers.

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Criminal cases
Between February and July, more than 3,300 farmers, including the heads of the gram sabha (village assemblies), and unnamed farmers, have been charged under the section 124 (A) of Indian Penal Code or the law of sedition. 
Those found guilty under the colonial era law may face up to three years in prison.
First Information Reports (formal police complaint) was filed in March, invoking charges of sedition and rioting for “wrongly interpreting the constitution”, and for demanding the administration remove police and paramilitary camps from Kevada and other villages.
More than 2,000 paramilitary forces were deployed in the area, stated the district police superintendent. Now, over 300 security personnel are camping in schools in Khunti’s interior villages, forcing students to drop out.
The police have also registered several criminal complaints against Joseph Purty, the college teacher in Uduburu. He was also named along with other youth from pathalgadi movement in a complaint of gangrape filed by five women on June 21. One of the rape victims has since stated in a news interview that she did not name Purty or any other pathalgadi movement leaders in her complaint, but their names were added later by the police, raising questions about the police investigation in the rape case.
Purty, who is in his late forties, and his wife, a teacher in a local government school, are currently on the run.
Khunti Superintendent of Police AK Sinha declined to speak on the rape investigation. But he justified sedition cases against the tribal farmers. “These tribals were not merely installing stone edicts,” he said, adding “they were inciting people” and “insulting officials who visited the villages”. saying that the governor and the chief minister are public servants.” 
“The farmers were demanding that tribal farmers arrested between February and August this year be released from prison, merely on orders of their gram sabha (village assemblies). They were threatening to not allow entry to diku (outsiders) into the village even if they had to use force, and claiming they will raise their own armies.” 

On several of the megaliths, the farmers had engraved added demands that in protected tribal areas, no one from outside the village could reside, or enter the village boundaries without seeking the permission of village assemblies. The tribal farmers denied police allegations that they were raising an army, adding that following pathalgadi ceremonies, they had taken out large public rallies carrying traditional weapons including sticks, axes, bow and arrows, but not assaulted any one.

Inspector P Prasad, who is investigating officer in the rape complaint, also declined to speak on the investigation.
He said the police had filed multiple criminal cases against the farmers because they were “not allowing the administration’s movement in the area”.
“We wanted to acquire land to expand police camps in Khunti’s Saiko and Marangahada villages, but the farmers refused to give land for this. They regularly obstruct developmental work,” he said. 

The police officials accused the residents of siding with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s cadres and of illegally growing opium.

The impoverished forested “tribal belt” in central and eastern India, the region where Jharkhand lies, is conflated with the area of a decades-old Maoist insurgency. Of 30 districts most affected by the violent conflict between the Maoists and Indian security forces, 13 are in Jharkhand, and include Khunti. The Maoists have played no visible role in the pathalgadi movement. The farmers have long-standing grievances, fear being displaced from their farmland, and oppose the steady militarization in Khunti and adjoining districts in the name of snuffing out the Maoist insurgency. They accused the administration of being corrupt, domineering and exploitative, and diluting the land tenancy laws meant to protect indigenous communities’ land rights.

“We want to ask the police administration, why are they raiding and beating us?” said a Munda youth in a village in Murhu block, who did not wish to be identified in the report. “They beat me and my wife from head to toe with fibre lathi (polycarbonate batons used by the police) when we had not even touched any policemen. “We organised pathalgadi ceremonies following our tradition. We were simply stating that all Adivasis in Jharkhand must unite,” he said.

Netram Munda, a village elder in Murhu, told Al Jazeera that they had organized pathalgadi ceremonies as a necessity to save their ancestral farmland.
“In Khutkatti (forest patches first cleared by the Munda indigenous communities), no one outside the community has the rights to buy land, but the Chief Minister Raghubar Das is framing new laws allowing district commissioner to sell our farmland to anyone.” 

What the Constitution promised
A large number of areas predominantly inhabited by the indigenous communities had been declared Excluded/Partially Excluded Areas under the British under the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874.
After India’s Independence in 1947, the government accorded special protections to the tribal areas under the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. The government in free India recognised the historic wrongs the tribal communities had faced, from the British colonial rulers, as well as people from the mainland. 
There are restrictions on sale and transfer of tribal land and property to non-tribals in the Fifth Schedule areas, such as Jharkhand.
the Governor of a state holds special powers to restrict transfer of land and property rights from the tribal communities to non-tribals, and to regulate money-lending, acting on the advice of a Tribes Advisory Council. Tribal communities, or Scheduled Tribes as they are categorized in the constitution, are approximately nine percent of India’s population.

In Jharkhand, tribal communities, or Adivasis, form 28 percent of the population, but suffer from the worst levels of poverty, at 54 percent of the tribal population in Jharkhand’s villages living below poverty line.

In 1996, parliament had enacted the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), acknowledging the continued threat to indigenous communities rights and resources, and upholding their rights to self-governance in tribal areas.
PESA acknowledges all adult members of a habitation constitute a gram sabha (village assembly), which can act on its powers to prevent land loss to the community, and are competent to should be consulted on land acquisition and on grant of certain mineral leases.

Besides these national legislations, land cultivated by indigenous communities in Jharkhand are additionally protected under the colonial era tenancy laws.
Though Birsa Munda had died in prison at the age of 25, the British in a concession to the Munda rebellion had enacted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908, which confers protections to the land of small cultivators.
In the state capital Ranchi, Ratan Tirkey, a member of the state Tribes Advisory Council, a government body appointed in all Fifth Schedule, or protected areas said, “Khunti is on the boil because the government is ignoring Fifth Schedule provisions, and bypassing consulting the gram sabha on acquisition of farmland and pastures.”

Dayamani Barla, a Munda land rights activist in Ranchi, [explained that one of the first steps the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had undertaken after coming to power was to propose changes to dilute the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, the region’s unique land tenure system. 
But the proposed changes could not be passed following deadly agitation launched by the tribals. 

The Governor returned the proposed amendments that allowed use of farmland for non-agricultural purposes in August 2017 after several agitations by the tribal farmers, including a protest in Khunti where an elderly farmer, was shot dead by the police, less than 20 kilometers from Uduburu. The government however, found ways around the tenancy laws, reducing the scope of progressive provisions in land acquisition laws despite questions raised by the Tribes Advisory Council, Tirkey said.
The government has created several categories of projects for which acquisition laws’ rules for the social impact assessment of projects, and of obtaining the consent of affected communities no longer apply, he explained.
“If after all this, people analyse the constitution’s Fifth Schedule provisions themselves and inscribe it on rocks or megaliths, or anywhere in their homes, how is that unconstitutional?” he asked. Ironically, Tirkey pointed out, the first pathalgadi ceremonies inscribing the Constitution’s tribal area provisions had been organized by government officials in 1996 after PESA law was passed. Several of these megaliths are still standing in Khunti. “The only difference now is the language has turned more assertive, reflecting people’s bitter experiences with the administration,” he added.

On the phone, Neelkanth Munda, member of the state legislative assembly from Khunti, and the state’s minister for rural development, declined to comment on the changes made to the land acquisition laws by the government. He said that “normalcy has returned” in Khunti after the whittling down of the pathalgadi movement.

Tirkey compared the ongoing pathalgadi movement as being in continuation of a practice started by BD Sharma, a bureaucrat, one of the architect of the PESA law, who had in 1996 helped organized stone carving of PESA provisions on self governance in villages in Khunti, several of which are still standing today. “The only difference now I perceive now that the language of the engravings has turned more assertive and blunt in rejecting government interventions, perhaps reflecting the experience of the village inhabitants with the administration.”

Increasing militarization
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In Khunti, the Adivasi inhabitants expressed a growing distrust of the government’s ongoing land acquisition projects.
Durgavati Odiya, an activist with the Central Sarna Committee, a Munda religious organisation, who has also been named in several criminal complaints, claimed the police were threatening the village assemblies to “vacate land for projects, or face repercussions”. She said the administration continued to disregard norms for gram sabhas’ consent, and were not transparent on the purpose of land acquisition.
“The officials told us they were acquiring land for a “Knowledge City”, and people thought it was to build a university, but now they have stated that they will be building a military training school and an airstrip on the land,” said Odiya. “In Japud village, 84 of 130 households in the gram sabha opposed diverting 14 acres of pastureland for an electric sub-station, but the administration still went ahead with the construction,” she said.

Khunti Deputy Commissioner Suraj Kumar, the head of the civil administration, confirmed that a training centre for security personnel was going to be built on the land acquired for the “Knowledge City”.  He said that officials had documents to prove that consent of the village assembly had been obtained for a power sub-station in Japud. Kumar accused the village functionaries of working under the influence of the banned Maoist revolutionaries. “We also support traditions such as pathalgadi, but under the Maoists’ influence, the tribal communities are inscribing inflammatory statements and this can turn into a violent movement, which it is our responsibility to prevent.”

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After intensifying raids, the Jharkhand Armed Police and paramilitary now occupy school buildings in remote villages of Kochang, Kurunga, Sinko and Sarda leading to more resentment. In Kurunga and Kochang forest villages, Veronica Soy, an elderly farmer, said the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force had occupied the only government primary school building, with no prior information to the community. Soy questioned how this could be termed as being tribal communities’ “development”.
“The paramilitary met our village head only after occupying the school and said they will remain here until “peace” is established,” Soy recounted. “But even the school principal was not informed.”

She said the security forces had told the residents that their local school had been “merged” with another school in Ruggudi, four kilometers away.
“The younger children cannot walk so far to classes through the forest, they will be forced to drop out of school,” Soy said.

An edited version appeared in Al Jazeera here.

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