In Jharkhand, a tribal assertion met with fierce police crackdown

Jharkhand, India: It was dusk in Uduburu, the time that farmers usually return home after working in the paddy fields, but the hamlet in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand was deserted. 

The village square was empty and the mud huts were locked.

After darkness fell, a few women cautiously approached a hand pump at the entrance to the village to draw water.

Lucia Soy, a tall, gaunt, middle-aged woman, explained 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 of agitating against what they say is the forceful acquisition of their farms and pasturelands.

They [police] didn’t even spare domestic animals. They thrashed our pigs in anger when they did not find the men

Lucia Soy, villager

“On several successive nights last month, the police came to the village and started beating anyone they could find,” said Soy, speaking in Mundari, the language 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 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.

Several women and men slowly gathered around the water pump. In faint torchlight, they showed their injuries. Some still had swollen feet, weeks after the alleged police beatings.

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.

Uduburu is also home to Joseph Purty, a government college teacher who over the past year led a movement for a boycott of all government institutions against the allegedly forceful acquisition of tribal land for “development work” – a euphemism for industrial or mining projects.

Hundreds of farmers joined in the demand.

Their protested centred on a centuries-old Munda tradition in which the community engraves stone monoliths to mark significant milestones in the village.

Large stone edicts freshly painted green and white can be seen in many of Khunti’s hamelts [Anumeha Yadav/ Al Jazeera]

The “pathalgadi” rebellion saw farmers organise ceremonies in which they carved the constitutional provisions of tribal autonomy on large rocks, and erected these at the hamlets’ entrances.

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.

These tribals were not merely installing stone edicts, they were inciting people [and] insulting officials who visited the villages

AK Sinha, Khunti Superintendent of Police

Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das promised to crush the movement, as the police launched crackdown on defiant farmers.

Between February and July, more than 3,300 farmers, including the heads of village assemblies, have been charged 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.

Between February and July, more than 3,300 farmers, including the heads of village assemblies, have been charged under the law of sedition [File: Khunti police station/EPA]

The police have registered several criminal complaints against Joseph Purty, the college teacher in Uduburu. He was also named, along with other youth from the pathalgadi movement, in a gang-rape complaint filed by five women on June 21.

However, questions over the investigation were raised when one of the rape survivors later stated in a news interview that she did not name Purty or any other pathalgadi movement leaders in her complaint, claiming that police added their names.

Purty, who is in his late forties, and his wife, a teacher, are currently on the run.

We organised pathalgadi ceremonies following our tradition. We were simply stating that all Adivasis in Jharkhand must unite

A Munda youth from Murhu in Khunti

Khunti Superintendent of Police AK Sinha declined to comment on the rape investigation, but backed the sedition cases against the tribal farmers. 

“These tribals were not merely installing stone edicts,” he said. “They were inciting people [and] insulting officials who visited the villages.”

He added: “The farmers were demanding that tribal farmers arrested [between February and August this year] be released from prison, merely on orders of their village assemblies.”

The farmers also threatened to ban outsiders from entering their villages and warned of using force if needed, claiming they will raise their own armies,” said Sinha.

On several of the megaliths, the farmers engraved messages saying outsiders were not permitted to reside in protected tribal areas or enter the village boundaries without seeking permission of village assemblies.

The farmers denied police allegations that they were raising an army, explaining that following pathalgadi ceremonies, there were large public rallies with protesters carrying traditional weapons including sticks, axes, bow and arrows.

However, they said no one was assaulted.

Inspector P Prasad, the investigating officer in the rape complaint, also declined to speak on the sexual assault case.

But he said police had filed several criminal cases against the farmers because they were “not allowing the administration’s movement in the area”.

He added: “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.

Police officials accused the residents of illegally growing opium and siding with groups belonging to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

The impoverished forested “tribal belt” in central and eastern India, where Jharkhand lies, is conflated with the area of a decades-old Maoist rebellion. 

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 militarisation in Khunti and adjoining districts in the name of pushing out the Maoist uprising.

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 [a long, heavy iron-bound bamboo stick] when we had not even touched any policemen,” he said. “We organised pathalgadi ceremonies following our tradition. We were simply stating that all Adivasis in Jharkhand must unite.”

Netram Munda, an elderly man in Murhu, told Al Jazeera that the villagers had organised stone carving ceremonies in an attempt to save their ancestral farmland.

The officials told us they were acquiring land for a ‘Knowledge City’…, but now they have stated that they will be building a military training school

Durgavati Odiya, an activist with the Central Sarna Committee

“In Khutkatti (forest patches first cleared by the Munda indigenous communities), no one outside the community has the rights to buy land, but Chief Minister Raghubar Das is framing new laws allowing the district commissioner to sell our farmland to anyone.”

After India’s independence from Britain 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.

About nine percent of India’s population are from tribal communities, or Scheduled Tribes as they are categorised in the constitution.

In Jharkhand, tribal communities, or Adivasis, form 28 percent of the population, and 54 percent of them live below the poverty line.

Villagers say the government school in Kochang has now been occupied by paramilitary forces [Anumeha Yadav/ Al Jazeera]

In 1996, parliament 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 that all adult members of a habitation constitute a village assembly, which can act to prevent land loss, should be consulted on land acquisition, and can grant of certain mineral leases.

In addition to national law, land cultivated by indigenous communities in Jharkhand are protected under 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 protection 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 [village assembly] 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 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.

“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 organised by government officials in 1996 after the 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.

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 land acquisition laws by the government. 

He told Al Jazeera by phone that “normalcy has returned” in Khunti after dampening pathalgadi movement.

In Khunti, the Adivasi inhabitants expressed 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 consent, and were not transparent over why they needed the land.

“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 [village assembly] 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 rebels. 

“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.”

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 security forces had told residents that their local school had been “merged” with another school in Ruggudi, four kilometres away.

“The younger children cannot walk so far to classes through the forest, they will be forced to drop out of school,” Soy said.

Concertina wire around a school occupied by paramilitary in Kochang village in Khunti, Jharkhand [Anumeha Yadav/ Al Jazeera]

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