The Pathalgadi movement for adivasi autonomy

pathalgadi movement

The Adivasis of India have been trying to protect their lands and assert their collective right to self-determination since India’s Independence and long before. The Pathalgadi movement is the most powerful recent mass expression of self-determination, which is presumably why its participants have been terrorized and criminalized by the Indian state. This also why it is vital that more and more people understand this movement.

The word ‘Adivasi’ comprises two Hindi words – Adi and vasi – so literally it means ‘original inhabitant’, implying indigeneity.Although as official terminology ‘Adivasi’ was rejected in favour of ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (STs), members of India’s 705 STs are guaranteed special rights under the Fifth & Sixth Schedules (Part XVI and Article 46) of the Constitution. Several ethnic groups are yet to be notified, and overall the Adivasi population should probably be considerably more than the official 2011 Census ST population of 10,420,000(8.6%ofIndia’spopulation), which in any case gives India by far the highest tribal or indigenous population of any country.

Unfortunately, the Indian government has repeatedly denied Adivasis status as the Indigenous Peoples of India before the UN

Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. However, on 13 September 2007, the Indian state became party to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In effect, this was the first official admission that India’s Adivasis and tribal peoples are India’s Indigenous Peoples. This was corroborated by the Supreme Court judgement on 5 January 2011, which said that tribal people (STs orAdivasis) are descendants of the original inhabitants of India, who have faced historic injustice as one of the most marginalized and vulnerable commu- nities.1 Despite this, the Indian govern- ment has continued to fail to take adequate measures to protect their rights.

Adivasis have always lived in or around the forests, their life cycles attuned to the rhythms of nature. Government’s data suggests that 89.9% ofAdivasis still live in rural areas. But they do not merely depend on natural resources for their livelihood. Their identity, cultural traditions, conscience, and ethos of existence are based on attunement to nature. The basic   characteristics   of   Adivasicommunities are ‘casteless, classless, communitarian, based on equality, community based economic system, co-existence with nature, consent based self-rule, dignity and autonomy’.2 However, economic liberalization, glo- balization and privatization have had terrible impacts onAdivasi life.The self- dependent community has been almost compelled to become government- dependent due to misguided govern- ment policies. Adivasis have been alienated from their land, territory, and resources, and they have largely lost their autonomy.

Historically, Adivasis exercised traditional forms of ownership rights over their lands, territories, and natural resources. But everything changed with formation of the ‘State’, and state interference over the country’s natural resources. The Governmentof Indiafirst set up by the British enacted various laws, such as the Permanent Settlement Act 1793, the ForestActs from 1865 and the Land Acquisition Act 1894, to assert control over tribal people’s lands, territories, and natural resources. This induced a marginalization of Adivasis on a terrible scale, depriving them of their lands and forests.

Instead of setting this right, India’s Independence made their situation even worse, as the govern- ment constantly expanded its control over natural resources by enacting numerous laws such as the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act 1980, in the name of conserving forests and wildlife without regard to the forest peoples who have always lived in symbiosis with the forest.

Thus, Adivasi lands, forests, water bodies, hills and minerals have been snatched away, alienating them from local control in the name of development and national interest, and under the guise of protecting wildlife. According to available data, between 1950 and 2000, at least 60 million people in India were displaced or lost land due to ‘development projects’ such as power stations, dams, mines, cement and metal factories and wildlife sanctuaries. Of those displaced, at least 40% wereAdivasis. At most, 25% of these displaced people were rehabilitated, while the rest got virtually nothing.

Despite this, central and state governments are busy luring investors by weakening the existing laws that are supposed to safeguard tribal lands, organizing Global Investors’ Summits in state capitals. ‘Land banks’ have been formed that list community land (commons), forests and sacred groves without consent from village councils, which are meant to be the supreme authority in Adivasi villages under Indian legislation. In effect, India’s laws are grossly violated to serve corporate interests.

Adivasi rights in India fall into three types – constitutional, legal, and tradi- tional. The right to self-determination is one of the most important, connecting all three types. Self-determination is at the heart of Adivasi culture and history, even though in recent times, Adivasis have been severely punished for asserting it. The Indian state has completely failed to enforce the constitutional provisions for Fifth Schedule Areas (Adivasi territories), and other legislation that was supposed to promote self-rule, as well as the UNDRIP. Adivasis who have been tryingtoprotecttheiridentity,autonomy, culture, languages, lands, territory, and resources face vicious repression, often by portraying them as Naxals, anti- national or anti-development. They have been falsely jailed, tortured and killed in large numbers. Their right to freedom of expression is hideously curtailed.

The right to self-determination is recognized in Schedules Five and Six, the PESA and Forest Rights Acts and other legislation. It is also specified in Article 3 of the UNDRIP, which guarantees tribal peoples the right to freely determine their political condition and to freely choose their form of economic, social, and cultural development. We must note that the traditional rights of Adivasis are also legitimized through laws such as the Chota Nagpur and Santal Pargana TenancyActs and Wilkinson’s rules, as well as through several judgements of the Supreme Court. Despite all these safeguards, Adivasis’ right to self- determination has not only been neglected, denied, and deactivated in India, but also repeatedly mis- understood, defamed, and suppressed by government authorities.

Self-determination is at the heart of the Pathalgadi movement, which started among Munda Adivasis of Khunti district in Jharkhand as a way of reclaiming their collective rights, and soon spread to the neighbouring states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Etymologically, Pathalgadi means ‘erection of a stone slab’ (pathal stone, with gadi meaning fixing or erecting). Pathalgadi is thus an erected stone slab symbolizing Adivasi customary rights, practices, beliefs and culture. An entire village community is normally involved in ceremoniously erecting stone slabs in a village for various purposes such as perpetuating ancestors’ existence, demarcating village boundaries, displaying a settlement’s history for posterity, showing the generations’ continuity in the land, and to memorize a special event or incident.

The use of ancestral stones to convey a political message can be traced back to the 19th century. When British rulers asked MundaAdivasis of Khunti to prove their ownership over the land they cultivated, they carried a huge ancestral stone from Khunti to Kolkata, and submitted this as evidence there on 25 March 1880. After the PESA was passed in 1996, former IAS officer B.D. Sharma and former IPS officer Bandi Oraon started the practice of erecting stone plaques in villages with provisions of this act inscribed on them, in order to makeAdivasis aware of their legal and constitutional safeguards.

A new chapter of Pathalgadi began in 2017. While mobilizing Munda of the Khunti region to reclaim their collective land rights, leaders of the Adivasi Mahasabha understood its significance as a symbol for a new mass movement, which was launched on 9 February, at Bhandra village. The purpose was to oppose a new phase of land acquisition by the Jharkhand government through passing two ordinances for amending the Chhotanagpur Tenancy (CNT)Act of 1908 and the Santal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act of 1949. These ordinances were passed in May 2016, and lapsed in November 2016. Despite a huge uproar in the Jharkhand LegislativeAssembly, theAmendments of CNT/SPT Acts were tabled and passed in just three minutes, with no discussion permitted.3

These amendments drastically undermine the use for Adivasi lands. Major amendments to Sections 21, 49 and 71 of the CNT Act and Section 13 of the SPT Act allow the commercial use of Adivasi land and acquisition of agricultural land for non-agriculture purposes. This is disastrous forAdivasi land rights because the Jharkhand government has listed 2.1 million acres of so-called government land (GM land) in their land bank. This includes sacred groves, village paths, playgrounds, graveyards, forest lands and hills. The Jharkhand government also organized a Global Investors’ Summit and signed 210 new MoUs with corporate houses, who have proposed investment of Rs T3.10 lakh crore in the state.

It was these events that triggered the Pathalgadi movement, in which stone plaques were installed in more than 200 villages, which asserted the supreme authority of traditional village councils. Drawing from custom, these display messages on large stone slabs, painted green and white and measuring about 15 by 4 feet. The movement seeks to replace the power of the central and state government with that of the local Gram Sabha (village council). The message they display includes excerpts from the Indian Constitution and Supreme Court judgements, as well as warnings to outsiders not to enter the village without permission from the headman.

The Pathalgadi movement was a declaration of non-cooperation with the Indian state.Villages issued identity cards, opened their own schools with their own syllabus, established their own banks and traditional health care systems. They also deployed guards, dressed traditionally and armed with bows and arrows, whose duty was to prevent outsiders from entering villages without prior permission. Villages were barricaded with bamboo fences and check posts.

After a year, when the authorities decided the movement threatened their interests, the government declared it unconstitutional and anti-national, and crushed it with violent use of police and paramilitarily forces. When these forcefullyenteredvillagesafterbreaking the barricades, they captured Pathalgadi leaders and took them into custody.

The event that triggered the wave of extreme repression occurred in June 2018. Several women actors were reported to have been abducted and raped on 19 June after performing at a Catholic school near Kochang village in Khunti district, and the perpetrators were said to be leaders of the Pathalgadi movement. Many elements of the story did not add up however. Those arrested included the school principal, who certainly seemed innocent. Police kept the women under ‘protection’ for two months, with no media access, and on their release, they were told not so speak out on pain of death. Few who have investigated the incident closely believe that this rape happened as the police version alleges, or that those arrested were the perpetrators.

One week later a police firing took place 50 kms away, after Ghagra village erected a Pathalgadi. Police were furious and went on a rampage while searching for two of the Pathal- gadi movement leaders accused of the rape, Joseph Purty and John Junas Tidu, of Udburu village, as well as three Adivasi security guards, abducted from the house of Adivasi MP Karia Munda in Charidih village, in a bid to insist on dialogue with the police after several Pathalgadi activists had been beaten up.

On 26 June, an estimated 2,000 villagers opposed the entry of about 500 armed police into Ghagra. One man was killed, and several badly wounded. The slain Adivasi was named Birsa Munda, after the iconic leader who resisted British rule and died in jail in 1900. This young Birsa Munda was from Chamri village, one of the first to erect Pathalgadi stones in Khunti in 2016-17.

Repression soon became very  severe, with the movement branded as ‘Maoist-instigated’. Deeply respected non-tribal supporters such as Stan Swamy were targeted too. This repression was compounded by the murder of Amit Topno in December 2018, a Hindi language journalist covering the Pathalgadi movement in Khunti and its suppression. There has been no proper investigation yet, let alone justice for Amit.

Pathalgadi is clearly a prime example of Adivasis’right to self-determination, which the Indian state purposefully misunderstood, defamed and crushed. It was branded anti-national not only by the state, but also by the centrally ruling BJP party, by national and regional media, and right wing Adivasi organizations and CSOs. Consequently, there was an onslaught against Adivasis of the entire region. A few villagers were directly killed by police violence, and sedition charges were filed against over 10,000 Adivasis. Over 20 new permanent military camps were established in the region, without consent from village councils. Most of these were set up in school premises.

Out of 30 cases that Jharkhand police have brought against 11,321 villagers, only 381 of these were named. The rest were unnamed, in three districts – Khunti, West Singh- bhum and Saraikela-Kharsawan.4 Of these 30 cases, 21 involve sedition charges filed under Sections 124A of the Indian Penal Code 1860, accusing villagers of waging war against the Indian state for establishing their Gram Sabhas as supreme authority. Police submitted charge sheets to the court against 182 accused persons relating to all 30 cases, with 115 of these imprisoned, and most still languishing in different Jharkhand jails. The Jharkhand police have also declared 3,210 villagers as absconders, most of whom have left their villages for fear of being arrested, leaving their families to fend for their own survival.

The Pathalgadi movement was therefore one of the major issues in the last Assembly election of Jharkhand, held in December 2019. The opposition alliance, consisting of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), led by present Chief Minister Hemant Soren, raised the issue strongly during the election campaign, promising to drop all these charges if the Alliance came to power in the state. This helped him get elected with a comfortable majority for the Alliance.

On 29 December 2019, immediately after taking his oath as Chief Minister, Hemant Soren announced the with- drawal of all Pathalgadi cases, con- firming this in his first cabinet meeting.5 This withdrawal was ini- tiated a month later, but unfortunately, two years after this, it has yet to be translated into reality. Soren’s government formed three-member committees in each of the affected three districts, headed by the Deputy Commissioners (DC) with the Superin- tendent of Police (SP) and Public Prosecutor, to initiate this withdrawal of all Pathalgadi cases filed from 2015 to 2019 in different police stations of these districts.

Upholding the government’s order, the committees reviewed all the Pathalgadi cases within a couple of months, submitting their reports along with recommendations to the government. Paradoxically, these com-mittees’ recommendations derailed the guvernements radical decision, since they recommended withdrawing just 19 of the 30 cases, and dropping sections 121A and 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code in just seven cases. The committees avoided any comment on four cases, which include the two cases related to the notorious alleged gang rape in Kochang village.

Though all three district level committees sent their reports to the Department of Home, Jail and Disaster Management (Govt. of Jharkhand) two years ago, no decision has yet been taken by this department, which seems to have kept quiet about the contents of these reports. Responding to RTI queries, the department merely mentioned that the matter is in process. Obviously, the recommendations of the district level committees upset Soren’s government and brought it to a crossroads. Since the Chief Minister promised to withdraw all charges, any declaration against this would create a political upheaval for his government, with an adverse impact on its chances in the next Assembly election. Neverthless, Soren’s governments is completely silent on Pathalgadi cases in its second year’s report card released on December 29, which has upset the Adivasis.

The Pathalgadi movement is a 21st century revolution of Adivasis’ collective right to self-determination. Although misrepresented and defamed by the state, it has given a new ray of confidence to Adivasis throughout India that they can still challenge the state with the power of their unity and traditional self- governance. If the Jharkhand state government is to re-establishAdivasis’ trust and support, it has to withdraw all the Pathalgadi cases and uphold Adivasis’ constitutional, legal, and traditional rights.

1. Supreme Court order on the SLP (Cr) 10367 of 2010, Kailas & Others Vs State of Maharashtra.

2. Ramdayal Munda, Adivasi Astitava aur Jharkhandi Asmita ke Sawal. Vani Prakashan, Delhi, 2002.

3. Gladson Dungdung, ‘Why CNT/SPT Acts WereAmended’,Adivasi Publications, Ranchi, 2017

4. Status Report prepared by a three members committee headed by the Deputy Commissioner of Khunti, December 2020. Report of the Department of Home Affairs, Government of Jharkhand, obtained through the Right to Information Act, 2005, in December 2020.

5. Letter of the Joint Secretary, Department of Home, Jail and Disaster Management, of Jharkhand, dated 28 January 2020.

Gladson Dungdung is a human rights activist

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