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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Jharkhand: Schools serve as security camps, military barracks

This article is from July 2014 on presence of security forces in school buildings in Jharkhand before and after the general elections.

High School for SC-ST children in Tiskopiya village in Bokaro where CPI(Maoist) blew eight classrooms in in 2009 after security forces stayed there during the elections. photo-Manob Chowdhury

High School for SC-ST children in Tiskopiya village in Bokaro where CPI(Maoist) blew eight classrooms in in 2009 after security forces stayed there during the elections. photo- Manob Chowdhury

In recent years, as the presence of security personnel in Jharkhand has multiplied, schools and civic buildings have frequently become the theatre of conflict between the paramilitary forces and the rebels. In the absence of large, concrete structures inside densely forested districts, security personnel use civic buildings, schools, anganwadi for accommodation, and camps. For instance, April 4 onwards, in Palamu, CRPF’s 157 Battalion deputed in Chatarpur before polling made barracks out of the government middle school building cordoning off the school with concertina wire and converting its roof into a watch-post. It was the same in several other districts.

Four days after the second phase of polling for Lok Sabha elections got over in Jharkhand on April 17, the CPI(Maoist) blew up panchayat bhawan in Rajabar in Koderma. The building had been used as a temporary camp by one of the 212 additional units of the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) deputed to keep watch in the state during the Lok Sabha elections. Recently, on June 25, the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a Maoist splinter group active in western Jharkhand, called for a bandh in all schools in Khunti district citing CRPF’s continued use of school buildings to station troops here. There are instances of classes being disrupted, and overall, this exposes schools to the risk of becoming civilian targets of CPI(Maoist).

In 2008, Ranchi-based activist and school teacher Shashi Bhushan Pathak filed a PIL in Jharkhand High Court objecting to school buildings being turned into temporary and permanent security camps. On the High Court’s orders, Jharkhand police furnished a list of 40 schools in 13 districts where it had set up pickets and security camps, including primary, middle, high schools, hostels, schools for visually disabled children. On November 21, 2008 the Jharkhand High Court ordered security forces vacate all school premises by January 2009. Senior police officials say they have since complied with this order.

Investigations in West Singhbhum and Latehar, however, reveal the CRPF continue to camp schools buildings temporarily and have even converted parts of schools buildings into permanent camps. Villagers pointed out instances where first schools had been occupied temporarily during elections, and then the same camps being turned into permanent camps later.

In Chotanagra in West Singhbhum, a CRPF camp and a thana function at one end of the ground of the Upgraded High School and Residential School for Scheduled Tribes. The school is one of two residential schools catering to tribals villagers from 56 forest villages in Saranda.

“This space used to be a maidaan where people came to play sports from all over. In 2004, the Border Security Force camped here before general elections and then the CRPF set up a permanent camp,” said Ajay Sahu who runs a grocery shop across the road from the school. A wall in the center of the playground was built a few months back, taking away the students’ access to the playground.

“Sometimes the jawans would come to the school to fill water from the handpump, and when the special forces CRPF’s CoBRA, Jharkhand Jaguar visited, they camped in the school at night. Parents of children from Sonapi proposed a wall be built to discourage this as adolescent girls live in the hostel,” said a school teacher requesting anonymity. A CRPF jawan filling water from the school’s hand-pump told this reporter that the jawans had no option but to use the school’s hand-pump, as the camp had an Aquaguard water filter but electricity failed regularly.

Bombings, demolitions; schoolchildren suffer

In retaliation for the security forces making barracks out of school buildings in the last few years, the Maoists have bombed dozens of schools all over Jharkhand. In Tiskopia in Bokaro the rebels blew up eight classrooms of a high school for SC-ST children after the CRPF stayed in the school for 45 days during the elections in 2009. School staff recounted seeing iron doors, windows, sports materials, books lay scattered all around the school building, and classes were held under a tree for the next two years.

Upgraded Middle School Salve village in Garu block in Latehar district where Maoists demolished a freshly constructed boundary wall in 2013 objecting to it as schools are often used as barracks by security forces. photo-Manob Chowdhury

Upgraded Middle School Salve village in Garu block in Latehar district where Maoists demolished a freshly constructed boundary wall in 2013 objecting to it as schools are often used as barracks by security forces. photo-Manob Chowdhury

The same year, in Banbirwa, Kone and Saryu in Latehar, they planted bombs and demolished portions of the school building at night soon after they were used by CRPF. Last march, the rebels demolished the nearly-built boundary wall of the Upgraded Middle School in Garu in Latehar. Schoolgirls who watched from a distance recounted watching the rebels break the wall with their rifles soon after school had got over late afternoon: “Dhakol dhakol ke tod diya. Hum ne Master ji ko duur se aate dekha, aur chilaye, ‘Masterji party aayi hai, bhago!'(They broke it bit by bit. We saw the school teacher approach and shouted out, ‘the “party” (Maoists) are here. Run!’). Vishram Oraon, the village Shiksha Samiti member whom the rebels beat up for allowing the construction of the wall, said security forces had camped at the school during panchayat elections of 2010.

In several villages, paramilitary personnel camped temporarily inside classrooms as permanent camps were built in the immediate vicinity of the school. Now camps exist cheek by jowl with schools.

In Latehar’s Saryu village, a CPI(Maoist) “liberated territory” till 2009, the government high school staff recounts the rebels would hoist a black flag in the school on republic day. As paramilitary operations to oust the rebels began, the CRPF stayed in the school innumerable times, even as Maoists warned the school staff against letting security forces camp there. In 2009, the rebels blew up the middle school building a kilometer away. Now, a permanent CRPF camp has been set up across the high school playground, while the ground serves as a helipad for the camp.
Over 360 students of classes till VIII study in the school, and 87 senior students, including 50 girls. “If additional forces come they still stay in the school but not more than three days at a time. Sometimes they come during school hours to take water or borrow chairs and tables,” said the school principal Chandrashekhar Singh, while he supervised the construction of a boundary wall. “If a wall had been built earlier, perhaps the helipad would not have come here?” mused Mohammad Hakimuddin, a farmer.

Upgraded Middle School  in Marangloia in Latehar where Jharkhand Armed Police have set a camp since 2008 in a part of the building even while the school runs in the other part. photo-Manob Chowdhury

Upgraded Middle School in Marangloia in Latehar where Jharkhand Armed Police have set a camp since 2008 in a part of the building even while the school runs in the other part. photo-Manob Chowdhury

In another block Balumath in village Marangloia, the only government middle school catering to ten villages in Marangloia has served as Jharkhand Armed Police(JAP) camp for the last six years. Police personnel occupying the classrooms complained of being cramped for space as over 100 of them live in five small classrooms. The earthen courtyard of the school was being used by mining firm Abhijeet Group to park JCB excavator machines. After the Maoists set fire to the group’s vehicles in 2012, district officials gave permit even to the Abhijeet Group to park vehicles next to the JAP camp inside the middle school.

“The police came to stay in the school when I was in class VIII. We would find it difficult to go to the toilet because there were no toilets and we used the fields. The jawans would use the fields too. Now they have built a toilet,” said Sangeeta Kumari, who is now studying for a Bachelor’s in Arts at the Ranchi University. The schoolchildren and the security personnel still share a hand pump for drinking water.

Police, maoists deny responsibility

Jharkhand has a rural literacy level of 61 percent; female literacy in rural areas in 48 percent. The dropout rate in middle school is very high at 48 percent. A report by Human Rights Watch on militarization of schools in Jharkhand and Bihar identifies that government’s failure to ensure necessary infrastructure for the police violates communities’ right to education as schoolchildren must bear with overcrowding and manage in temporary spaces, and girls’ education suffers.

Officials either deny, or disagree. “Normally, we stay in the open to avoid staying in schools. Or, we stay in schools which we find abandoned, where no teaching is going on. For instance, in one school where we camped, 100 students were enrolled but there were shrubs growing everywhere,” said a CRPF commandant in Latehar. “To my knowledge there is no CRPF camp running out of a school, or disrupting classes in any way,” said Jharkhand’s Director General of Police Rajeev Kumar.

The CPI(Maoist) cadres acknowledge that bombing school buildings as part of “People’s war” has put rural children at a disadvantage but put the onus on security forces’ practice of staying in school buildings.

They cite rare instances where the party has helped rebuild bombed schools in their defence. “We demolished the high school building in Tiskopia after the CRPF stayed there 45 days during the 2009 elections. But we contributed when the villagers pooled funds to rebuild it in 2011,” said Rakeshji who leads local guerrilla squads in Bokaro’s Jhumra hills referring to a non-government school for SC-ST children in Gomia block. When asked to confirm, staff at the school were apprehensive of both acknowledging the rebels’ role in rebuilding the school building even as they expressed anxiety over the possibility of the school being occupied by security forces a second time in future elections.

The young rebels of Jhumra hills

Babita Mahto, who has been with this Local Guerrilla Squad of CPI (Maoist) a year, said that joining the party gave her a sense of purpose and immortality.

“So many women in the Mahto community kill themselves due to the stress from dowry, tilak [social ceremonies]. If I die at home, my parents will mourn for some months; we had a daughter who died, they will say. But here, there are so many of us who will remember — there was such and such didi [older sister], our comrade; she died for the people.”

An article based on this and other interviews with Maoist rebels in this area appeared in The Hindu.

Another interview with the Maoist cadre in Singhbhum during parliament elections was published here.

In a forest village, a parallel conversation

The Hindu Blogs

It was a weekday when I got a call from Manohar*, an invite to attend a shahaadat diwas in Chotanagpur region the next day. Two months back, Manohar had helped us get in touch with the CPI(Maoist) for an interview. As he said shahadat diwas, a day to commemorate martyrdom, I was unsure if it was the rebels’ leaders’ lives the ceremony was meant to recount, but had little opportunity to ask till I was on the road with him the next day.
A few hours out of Ranchi as we reached the forest, the road gave way to a dirt track winding through rocky outcrops. Mahua trees were in bloom, its yellow fruit scattered on the ground. Sal was sprouting fresh green leaves.

Vote ke jariye sarkaar ke rang badalta hai, shoshan-shaashan bandh nahin hota hai – Bhakpa (Maowadi) “Voting will change shades of governance, not repression,” the banned CPI(Maoist)’s message for boycotting elections scrawled in large brown letters on the wall of a hut painted white. The hut’s inhabitants went about their routine.

The path soon gave way to a large clearing. Here, at the base of a hill, the villagers – men dressed in white shirts and dhoti, women in sarees, musicians with drums, dancers with plastic flowers in their hair – were under one tent, and in front of them were two six feet-high statues under a bright blue and yellow canopy.

It was only then that it became clear the farmers from several villages around the hills had gathered to celebrate the lives of two of their ancestors, whom they described as the first from Jharkhand to fight the British. They recounted that Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh had been executed to their deaths defeated by the British in April 1812 – nearly 45 years before what I had learned in textbooks to remember as the first year of Indians’ rebellion against the British, the Mutiny of 1857. “Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh of Navagarh and Panari Pargana amar rahein,” began Govardhan Singh of the village path pradarshak samiti that has been organizing the function every April.

Who were the two? What had they done? Was their any direct link between the Maoists’ presence in the area and this public ceremony? And how did this affect the politics, voting of these interior villages? I wondered as I watched ceremony those gathered had organized to honour their first freedom fighters.

This is how the organizers described the story of Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh’s lives:
Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh, two landowners, fought against the British in Chottanagpur region 1812 onwards. When the British government ordered Govind Nath Shahdeo, the king of Chotanagpur, to pay Rs 12,000 as tax to the East India Company, Bakthar Say refused on behalf of the peasants of the area Navagarh Raidih. This provoked a fight in which Bakhtar Say killed Hira Ram, the Ratu courtier sent to collect this tax. The magistrate of Ramgarh then sent an army from Hazaribagh under Lieutenant H Odonel, while reaching out to the kings of Jashpur and Sarguja (in present-day Chhattisgarh) to surround Say from all sides. At this time, Mundal Singh reached Navagarh to help Bakhtar Say. The battle lasted two days. Say’s armymade up of farmers of the area held off the British, something the kings and rulers of Navagarh, Panari, Gumla had failed at.
But a month later, E Rafreez of Ramgarh Battalion planned a second charge against both leading a large army. This battle lasted three days. Say and Singh were forced to seek shelter with Jashpur ruler Ranjeet Singh. The latter betrayed their confidence and they were arrested and taken to Calcutta where they were executed on 4 April 1812.
A Google search for the two’s names to read or corroborate for oneself yields nothing.

The sun climbed higher but the people kept coming in hundreds. By late afternoon, the numbers had increased to thousands. Those who took turns to speak paid homage, and compared Say and Singh’s revolt to the struggle of tribal villagers who sent several years in jail in Latehar and Chaibasa prisons charged by forest officials for collecting firewood from forests. Others compared the struggle of Say and Singh against the British in the 19th century to the displacement of lakhs of Jharkhand’s tribals in the last hundred years, reflecting the feeling many describe as Jharkhand’s “repeated colonisation” – first by the Biritish, then ruling governments, and now large mining firms.

“Political leaders visit and try as may to talk sweet, they will have to answer about our displacement,” Munna Kisan, the village shahadat diwas committee convenor, a frail old man wearing a white shirt over dhoti and canvas shoes spoke animatedly.

Manohar, who was in jail on charges of being a Maoist, asked questions that have been absent from the political and TV debates preceding elections – why do a majority of women in the country still have khoon ki kami (anaemia), if even a single school or wells had been built in the village every year since Independence would things not be different, why were gram sabha resolutions on use of land and trees flouted despite Constitutional provisions, were leaders living in Delhi capable of ever understanding the lives and priorities of Jharkhand’s villagers?

As the villagers watched, several young men dressed in shirts and trousers came and watched from afar. The organizing committee members identified the men as from the local squad of the CPI(Maoist). The carnival grew bigger. The karam dances grew more vibrant. The festivities would go on all night, Nagpuri artists were expected to perform at night. The villagers said they had collected over one lakh rupees to organize the meeting. The “party” (Maoists) had contributed additional funds. To celebrate two martyrs the villagers associated with the Indian freedom movement, I wondered.

“They maoists are samaaj sewi (social workers), except they carry guns,” offered the panchayat’s young woman mukhiya when I asked her about the presence of armed squads in the hills surrounding the village as we shared a big lunch of dal, rice, tomato chutney, and washed it down with sattu (gram flour, water). When I asked if the rebels had tried to constitute committees within the village as is common in pockets of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, she said the krantikari kisaan samiti had existed since several years but had made no active effort to carry out public works in the village. The perfectly amicable relationship the villagers seemed to have with the Maoists, panchayat institutions, as well as large NGOs operating in the vicinity of the villages seemed an unusual co-existence, peculiar to Jharkhand. But will the alliances of those with similar aims though different strategies here survive and evolve to question future rulers and governments?

Lok Sabha Palamu, Chatra: From jungles to the Parliament

TMC Candidate Kameshwar Baitha 1

The Hindu

In Haidarnagar market in Palamu district in Jharkhand, an area with a significant presence of Maoists, the roads are lined with red flags with images of Hanuman stitched over them. At the crossroad in the market, Bhojpuri songs blare out of loudspeakers kept in a mini truck. These are also used to announce that Kameshwar Baitha, the sitting Member of Parliament from Palamu will be holding a nukkad sabha.

In 2009, Mr. Baitha, a former Maoist commander, won the Lok Sabha elections from Palamu while serving a prison term in Bihar. He had commandeered the Koel-Sankh zone of the CPI (Maoist) along the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh border. He won after defeating political heavyweights like the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Ghuran Ram. After being elected to Parliament, Mr. Baitha spent another two years and 7 months in jail, getting bail only towards the end of 2011.

Last month, Mr. Baitha switched from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to the Trinamool Congress after it became known that the RJD and its ruling coalition partners, the JMM and the Congress would field a common candidate. The constituency is reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. Among Mr. Baitha’s rivals this time is former chief of the Jharkhand police, Vishnu Dayal Ram, who is known for his term as Superintendent of Police in Bihar’s Bhagalpur when the infamous jail blinding incident took place there.

Mr. Baitha arrives dressed in a white kurta-pajama. He makes a brisk round of the market and shakes hands with shopkeepers and customers. He is stocky, with matted hair and a bushy moustache. Climbing atop a jeep, he then goes on to address a gathering.
TMC Candidate Kameshwar Baitha 2

“When I walked with a gun as a Maoist,” Mr. Baitha says, “I realised three things ail Palamu: unemployment, akaal (drought), and Naxalvaad (Naxalism). Mothers send their children to wash dishes in hotels, or to carry dung at landlords farms. Adults here migrate in distress to work in more developed States. Unemployment, hunger, oppression, and destruction of our culture is what causes Naxalvaad. Operation Greenhunt can never
end it,” says Baitha, as a crowd of men listens intently, while a few women watch from afar.

“By electing me, you made a social revolution possible. But I ask for your vote again to make an economic revolution this time,” he concludes, offering sattu (gram flour) water to those gathered.

Land wars, caste disparities

Back in his white SUV, Mr. Baitha explains what he means by an economic revolution.

“Palamu is an agricultural area. For the poor people’s lives to improve, the farmers need more watershed projects to irrigate their fields. Palamu’s farmers need effective land redistribution,” he says. Mr. Baitha’s nephew Mukesh Baitha sits at the back of his car, armed with a gun. A jeep full of armed police personnel is at the head of his ten-car cavalcade passing through the broken road winding through wheat fields.

In Palamu, as in entire Bihar, feudalism and the subsequent marginalisation of the lower castes, who were also landless, created a fertile ground for unrest. During the 70s, many low-caste tillers who got no relief from land reform movements joined the Maoists.

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Mr. Baitha, born in a mine worker’s family in a village in undivided Bihar’s Bishrampur, recollects he had joined the Maoist group Party Unity in the late 1980s after the Arwal massacre in which 21 supporters of the left-wing Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (MKSS) were killed in police firing.

From the 1990s until now, Palamu has repeatedly figured among India’s poorest districts. Splinter groups such as Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee have prolifered here since the early 2000s, which Maoists allege receive police aid. In this complex milieu came Kameshwar Baitha’s unprecedented win of 2009.

At Devrikhurd village, when he stops at a paan shop, Vijay Mehta, a farmer, complains that this is Mr. Baitha’s first tour of the village after being elected. Mr. Baitha asks for forgiveness. “I got only two years and five months of my term to work,” he says. He points to a sheesham tree nearby. “If you plant a seed and it does not sprout to become a tall tree at first, will you not give it a second chance?”

At Gayabheega tola, there are several concrete houses but people from the Ravidas SC community live in thatched huts outside the main village. An old woman in a red sari, Sarda Devi, scolds Mr. Baitha for having failed to ensure that she received her widow pension. Mr. Baitha chats with her and her family and asks them to allow him to screen a CD inside their house. “This CD has recordings of the 258 questions I raised in Parliament on the Japla cement factory near here, on minerals use, on inflation,” he says as the group watches a recording of him taking oath in Parliament.

Many youngsters here have migrated to cities in search of livelihood. But several families still depend on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that they say is riddled with corruption. “You have been our old leader since the time we were young, but see what you can do for our livelihood,” the villagers tell Mr. Baitha as they affectionately bid him farewell in the night.

Rooting for a change

In the neighbouring Chatra constituency, former Maoist commander Ranjan Yadav is fighting on a Samajwadi Party ticket. In 2009, while serving a prison term, Mr. Yadav had unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) ticket. Later he joined the RJD and tried lobbying with the party supremo Lalu Prasad while the latter was in Ranchi jail after being convicted in the fodder scam. After the RJD gave up the claim to field a candidate from Chatra, allowing its coalition partner Congress to field Dheeraj Sahu, Mr. Yadav switched to the SP. The constituency consists of the tribal-dominated forested Latehar district and the plains region of Chatra that has a significant population of Scheduled Castes and backward castes.

“In Mahuadan in Latehar, and in many parts of Chatra, there is no electricity even after 60 years of independence. Big corporations mine coal and iron ore but children in villages cannot even attend a good school. These are issues I want to raise through politics,” says Mr. Yadav in a white dhoti in his sparsely furnished house, still under construction in Namkum on the Ranchi border.

Since Ranjan Yadav joined mainstream politics, the CPI (Maoist) has issued public statements dubbing him as a traitor. Last September, the local CPI (Maoist) leader Sudhir issued a six-page statement against Mr. Yadav and two others — Yugal Pal, a former member of the Maoist’s zonal committee who had announced that he plans to join the All Jharkhand Students Union and former sub-zonal commander Vinod Sharma — saying anyone supporting their candidature will be tried by a jan adalat (people’s court). Mr. Yadav says he fears for his life after the fatwa which he finds unjust. Yugal Pal has since withdrawn his announcement.

Mr. Yadav recounts he had joined the Party Unity in 1990 at the age of 23 while working as a petty contractor in Palamu. “The party did a lot of good work for ordinary villagers — building checkdams, schools in Garhwa. During marriages, we would distribute utensils. But I have stopped believing we will come to power through an armed revolution,” he says.

Mr. Yadav says the Maoists have weakened because some opportunists have joined them and also because of increased police pressure. “There have been instances where the relatives of party members have become contractors. The contractors would try to bribe commanders saying they keep a cut for themselves instead of collecting funds for the party alone.”

The Maoists have accused Mr. Yadav of collaborating with the police in paramilitary operations against the Maoists. He refutes the allegations. “The CPI (Maoist) have lost their hold in Chatra because of the Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee. The police is exploiting cracks within the party by supporting such splinter groups,” he said referring to a Maoist splinter group formed in early 2000s by Brajesh Ghanju citing that Ghanju dalits were not treated on par with the Yadav who then dominated the top posts then. “I have not asked for TSPC for their support but I have told them not to disturb my workers and that we won’t disturb theirs,” said Mr. Yadav of his relationship with the TSPC.

Jharkhand SPOs and their families under attack from Maoists

In response to a Public Interest Litigation, in July 2011, the Supreme Court while asking the State to disband the Salwa Judum, ordered the Chhattisgarh government to desist from using SPOs in countering the Maoists. Following the July order, the recruitment of SPOs in Jharkhand too was briefly paused, but resumed after a Bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and SS Nijjar in November said the July order applied only to Chhattisgarh, not to other States. Jharkhand has a sanctioned strength of 6,400 SPOs, though senior police officials put the current number at 3,000. Police officials cite the State Police Acts to justify use of SPOs.

A squad of CPI(Maoist) on March 21 night opened fire at a social gathering in Khunti, 30 km from Ranchi injuring two villagers and set fire to a jeep. The tribal villagers said they suspected the rebels targeted the family and friends of Raila Dhingra Munda for his work as a Special Police Officer (SPO) gathering intelligence for the Khunti district police. Before this, Mohammad Sajjad, a 30-year old SPO had lost his right leg while assisting Assistant Superintendent of Police (Operations), R.S. Mishra defuse an Improvised Explosive Device in Chatra last week.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

On Saturday, Mara Munda, Raila’s younger brother who had been shot in his right thigh and had fractured his bone lay in Rajendra Institute of Medical Institute, Ranchi’s orthopedic intensive care ward.
“We had invited more than 400 villagers to celebrate the “kaan chhedni” (ear piercing) ceremonies of both my sisters. At 8 30 pm I stepped out of our courtyard and heard a gun-shot. The next moment I had fallen. There was panic as everyone tried to flee, I cried out for my friends to pull my body inside the house or I would have died,” recounted the 20-year old with effort as his father Sande Munda who spoke only in Mundari looked on.

The Maoists had killed his oldest brother Rupu Munda who also worked as a SPO in a market in Adki in 2010, he said. He said the rebels numbered around sixty, and after shooting at him and his neighbour Birsa Munda, 40, in their legs, they had set fire to a Tata Magic jeep that Mara had started been renting to ferry passengers from the village to Khunti town since four months back. “They set fire to the soundbox (speakers) too before they left,” he said.
Mara’s older brother Raila, who works as a SPO, was away in Khunti when the incident happened. The family’s neighbours first brought the injured to Khunti Sadar Hospital, and then to Ranchi in the morning.

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Villagers in Hembrom in Adki block said the police had not even visited the village since Friday night, going no further than a concrete road 500 meters from the village. District police officials said the investigations were on.“Our search operations are on for the Maoists,” said Khunti’s Superintendent of Police Anish Gupta.

Raila Munda, Mara’s brother said he had started working as a SPO in 2008. “I finished matric exams and started working for the police because the Maoists had terrorized our entire village, coercing us. The police officers, the previous Sps Manoj Kaushik, Tamilvanan paid me Rs 3000 or so every three months for information. The Maoists killed my older brother in 2010 and now they did this while searching for me, and the police did nnot even visit my house yet,” said Raila Munda on the phone from Khunti.

Since 2010, Maoists have killed at least 16 persons in Adki and Tamar in Khunti and the adjoining area Bundu in Ranchi targeting them for acting as SPOs for the police.
This report in The Hindu here.

A previous post on Maoists’ violence against SPOs and their families in Khunti here.

memorial /tombstone

“Badhaniya goli kaand”. “For Supay Bodra (CMPDI staff), Sanjay Bodra (BA First year), Supay Bodra (student intermediate XII), Masih Bodra (Class VIII), Pitai Mundu (a farmer) shot by paramilitary personnel on 5 April 2009.”