Pathalgarhi movement, which has been inspired by two systems — the traditional system of ‘sasandiri’, or stone slabs with which Munda tribespeople mark the spot where ashes of the dead are buried, and an awareness drive launched by IAS officer BD Sharma, commissioner of Bastar and champion of tribal rights, and IPS officer-turned-politician Bandi Oraon to empower tribals by spreading the word about PESA provisions.
It is a tribal tradition of erecting stone slabs to demarcate the area of their villages’ jurisdiction, declaring their autonomy and self-rule in the areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Several villages in Jharkhand’s Khunti district have resorted to Pathalgarhi and now, have virtually been fortified with round the clock police presence.
Authorities say they are legally acquiring land to be used for ‘development’ projects, but villagers tell another story. Most of tribal farmers in Jharkhand are subsistence farmers and half live below poverty line in Jharkhand.
“On several successive nights last month, the police came to the village and started beating anyone they could find,” said Lucia Soy, a woman of the local Munda tribe.
“They didn’t even spare domestic animals. They thrashed our pigs in anger when they did not find the men.”
Maga Purty* (not her real name), an elderly woman, said to Al Jazeera that, security forces had thrown her cooked rice to the ground and took away her blankets and farm tools.
“They locked me inside my hut while they beat my son outside,” said Purty, who requested anonymity.
After the allegedly violent police raids on their hamlet and villages in the surrounding area, the farmers fled to the forest and hid for nearly a month, the women said, missing the window of sowing paddy in their fields. They are now struggling to resume work.Uduburu in Khunti district is near the birthplace of Birsa Munda, an Adivasi indigenous community leader who had led guerrilla resistance against British colonial rulers in the 19th century.
A nationalist icon, many state institutions are named after Birsa Munda, including Jharkhand’s main airport in the capital, Ranchi.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das promised to crush the movement, as the police launched crackdown on defiant farmers.
Between February and July, the police registered complaints against more than 3,300 farmers, including the heads of several village assemblies as well as unnamed farmers, charging them under the law of sedition.
Those found guilty under the colonial era law may face up to three years in prison.
Formal police complaints were 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.
Permanent CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) camps have been built in few villages allegedly by forceful land acquisition or on the land donated for the construction of Samudayik Bhawan (community house).
“Though the situation is limping back to normal following a series of direct confrontation between the security forces and tribals after the Pathalgarhi movement, the massive police crackdown is continuing. Hundreds of locals have been picked on false charges and police hunt for those named in the fabricated FIRs have been continuing. Evading arrest and subsequent harassment, a large number of people have fled the villages. Several villages have been turned into fortresses with the police and para military forces present round the clock,” tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla told Newsclick.
Barla said: “Permanent camps of CRPF have come up in at least five villages of the tribal-dominated Khunti district – also home to the biggest tribal icon, Birsa Munda, and the epicentre of the Pathalgarhi movement. The land for the camps was first obtained in the name of construction of community houses and later, when the villages refused to give their land realizing that CRPF camps had been built on their land, the land was acquired by picking up innocent villagers and Gram Sabha leaders and threatening them with false cases.
The tribal leader also alleged that the police was keeping a close watch on visitors and their movements. The Pathalgarhi movement supporters claim that the demands made by the movement are “legitimate” and “within the framework of the Constitution”. They argue that the legitimacy of the demands lies on Sections 13 (3), 19 (5) (6) and 244 (1) of the Fifth Schedule. They are, say the activists, in conformity with the provisions of the panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA – a law enacted by the Government of India for ensuring self-governance through traditional Gram Sabhas for people living in the Scheduled Areas.
The movement leaders dared the government to come up with a written statement and give an explanation of Section 13(3) and 244 (1) of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
A total of 86 villages of Jharkhand’s one of the most under-developed district had taken part in the Pathalgarhi movement.
The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India, which mentions Scheduled Areas as referred to in Clause (1) of Article 244 of the Constitution, is termed as a “Constitution within a Constitution”. It talks about ensuring self-governance through traditional Gram Sabhas (self-elected village body) for people living in the Scheduled Areas; legislation on panchayats in conformity with the customary law, social and religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources; habitation or a group of habitations or a hamlet or a group of hamlets comprising a community and managing its affairs in accordance with traditions and customs and having a separate Gram Sabha.
As per the Fifth Schedule, every Gram Sabha needs to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution; the Gram Sabhas have roles and responsibilities in approving all development works in the village, identify beneficiaries, issue certificates of utilization of funds; powers to control institutions and functionaries in all social sectors and local plans; and Gram Sabhas or panchayats at appropriate level shall also have powers to manage minor water bodies; power of mandatory consultation in matters of land acquisition; resettlement and rehabilitation and prospecting licenses/mining leases for minor minerals; power to prevent alienation of land and restore alienated land; regulate and restrict sale/consumption of liquor; manage village markets, control money lending to STs; and ownership of minor forest produce.
When the villages resorted to Pathalgarhi, big stone slabs were erected to demarcate the area of their villages’ jurisdiction. It was declared on the slabs that outsiders – including the police and administrative officials – were barred from entering the village.
Also no one – including the government – can acquire land or sell it without seeking permission of the Gram Sabha, while the locals can draft their own rules to save the tribal culture.
“The Pathalgarhi movement has been intentionally misinterpreted to snatch away its constitutional sanctity. The declarations were taken in literal sense. Barring outsiders from entering the villages don’t mean that there is a restriction of their entry or movement in the villages. It means that no outsiders – be it administrative officials – can interfere in the affairs of the villages. And this is in line with the PESA. In fact, the legitimate demand of Adivasi autonomy has met strong resistance from the government and that is unconstitutional,” said Barla.
She went on to allege that the police and the government intentionally linked the movement with the gang-rape so that it loses support from different quarters. “The movement is treated as if it demands two separate Constitutions. In fact, we want that provisions in the Indian Constitution be followed,” she said.
Lashing out at the police for “defaming” them, Pathalgarhi supporters have announced through Gram Sabhas that they would not cooperate the police investigation. “We are being shown in poor light by the police. They distort the facts and continue to level allegations against us. Therefore, we are not going to cooperate with their investigations,” a Gram Sabha member told Newsclick requesting anonymity.
Explaining the legalities surrounding the movement, noted constitutional expert Subhash C Kashyap – former secretary general of the Lok Sabha – said Pathalgarhi was “legitimate”.
Explaining the tradition of Pathalgarhi, Barla said, “There is a tradition and history of Pathalgarhi among tribals belonging to the Munda tribe.
However, when these villages began practicing the ancient tradition, the police started to inquire them as it’s an anti-national activity, forcing the villagers to take the cops hostages.”
The tribal leader further claimed that what tribes the were doing was not unconstitutional. “It has been a practice among tribals to inscribe the constitutional powers given to them under PESA Act on stone slabs and install them on village borders,” she added.Communist Party of India ( Marxist-Leninist) leader Vinod Singh also maintains that the Pathalgarhi movement has “no problem” and is “completely legitimate”. “The government must stop the ongoing crackdown as it would worsen the situation.
“The Pathalgarhis invoke the parts of Indian law and the Constitution which grant us the right to govern ourselves,” said Sushma, a local activist in 2018. “If the state will not believe in its own laws, then who will?” she asks.
“We have our own laws and customs and unless there is a case of murder, rape or robbery, the state administration cannot intervene. Even then, only if the gram sabha agrees, can the state officials intervene,” Sushma had said to The Print.