Jharkhand’s Pathalgadi movement loses steam as fear clouds villages 

Pathalgadi movement, The Federal
Tribals who took to bows, arrows and slingshots to take charge of their governance, are now clouded with fear.

It’s been a year since the Pathalgadi movement reached its peak in Jharkhand and things have changed drastically. Tribals who took to bows, arrows and slingshots to take charge of their governance, are now clouded with fear. They are not even willing to talk about the movement because they are afraid they will be arrested or harassed.

Around June last year, tribals in about 200 villages in Khunti and few other districts declared that their gram sabha was the only sovereign authority. They refused to recognise the Central and state governments, the President, Prime Minister and Governor. They proclaimed allegiance to the Constitution. They put up green stone plaques, measuring 15 ft by 4 ft, with excerpts from the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996 as well as warnings to outsiders, prohibiting them from entering the village. 

The movement came into force after the BJP government, led by Chief Minister Raghubar Das, in November 2016 amended two laws that protect tribal tenancy rights: Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT), 1908 and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPT), 1949. The amendments enabled the state government to acquire tribal land for ‘development’. After months of vociferous protests by tribal communities, the government in August 2017 announced that it was withdrawing both bills.

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The journey

Over the past one year, the police arrested a number of top Pathalgadi leaders including People’s Liberation Front of India area commander Bazi Samad alias Takla, Father Alfonso Aind, Jonas Mundu, Ajob Sandi Purty and Ashish Longo. As a result, it seemed like the movement lost its momentum or petered out in many villages. 

FIRs have been filed against at least 150 named and thousands of unnamed villagers on frivolous charges. A few of them were even booked for sedition. 

Denying such allegations, the BJP spokesperson for Jharkhand Praful Shahdev had earlier told The Federal that the government is committed towards uplifting the tribals. “The Pathalgadi movement was carried out by anti-nationals and people who indulge in conversion. Our government came down heavily on them.” 

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Voices of resent

Tribal activists feel that there is an attempt to suppress their resentment. “There is an attempt to diffuse resentment through some kind of harassment such as an FIR. These are targeted towards a select few but it impacts other people who are willing to stand up. For instance, in the Pathalgadi movement, a few tribal ministers spoke about it,” Jean Dreze, an academician, economist and tribal rights activist had told The Federal

In March 2019, Dreze too was detained along with two others by police in Jharkhand’s Garhwa district for organising a gathering about Right to Food without permission from authorities. His detention sparked a wave of outrage among many political figures and economists who condemned the act on social media, following which he was released. “There’s a climate of suppression and it’s quite serious. Under the BJP rule, it has become harder to find a place for public meeting or a chance of significant descent,” Dreze said.

An end of Pathalgadis?

While the movement seems to have lost its momentum, some tribal pockets are keeping it alive. On June 26, regional media reports suggested that tribals of Garhwa village in Khunti quietly celebrated the first anniversary of the Pathalgadi movement. A year ago, a group of armed Pathalgadis abducted three security personnel posted at the then local BJP MP Karia Munda’s home in Khunti. 

News reports suggest that tribals in Sitagada village are also planning to celebrate the first anniversary of Pathalgadi. But district officials are unaware of the development. 

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, tribals who were a part of the Pathalgadi movement boycotted voting, indicating that they stand by their decision of recognising the gram sabha as the only sovereign authority.

Demands of Pathalgadis

The leaders of Pathalgadi movement in June 2018 prepared an 11-point charter of demands that they sent to various authorities including President Ram Nath Kovind. The key demands include:

  1. The gram sabhas should get all the funds earmarked for the tribal sub-plan
  2. The tribal people should not be branded as naxals and sent to jail
  3. Changes in the land acquisition laws should be revoked
  4. All police and paramilitary forces should be withdrawn from the Scheduled Areas and their camps dismantled
  5. A separate education board — Adivasi Board — with a distinct syllabus should be created for tribal students