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Criminalization of Pathalgari Movement

By Gladson Dungdung

Thousands of Adivasis involved in the “Pathalgari Movement” were criminalized for fighting for their collective rights to self-determination and protection of their lands, territories, and natural resources in Jharkhand State of India.

Forty-six year old Ladu Nag from the Munda Adivasi (Indigenous) community is bound to live alone after her husband Neta Nag, a resident of Kevda village in Khunti district of Jharkhand, was imprisoned in April 2018. The Murhu police had filed a case[1] against him along with 11 other persons (including a woman) on 13 March 2018.  They were accused of mobilising a big armed crowd without any notice or prior permission from the government authorities, capturing the police station and disarming the police officers[2]. The police alleged that they had instigated the people at a public meeting, which was organized to erect a stone plaque at the village entrance, with their speeches that supposedly hindered public works and disturbed the law and order. They were charged with sedition along with other charges under the Indian Penal Code 1860.

These allegations are related to the Pathalgari Movement, an autonomous resistance movement of the Munda Adivasis of Khunti district in Jharkhand for reclaiming their collective rights over their lands, territories, and resources.[3] Presently, the movement has spread across the major central Indian states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Etymologically, “Pathalgari” is ‘erection of a stone slab’. ‘Pathal’ is a ‘stone’ and ‘gadi’ means to erect it or fix it[4] on the ground. Thus, “Pathalgari” is an erected stone slab symbolising Adivasi customary rights, practices, beliefs and culture. Commonly, the entire village community is involved in erecting stone slabs in the village ceremoniously for different purposes;[5] like for the perpetuation of the existence of the ancestors, demarcation of a village boundary, displaying the history of settlement to posterity, showing the existence of generations in the land and for memorising the special event or incident.

While mobilizing the Munda Adivasi community of Khunti region for reclamation of their rights over the lands, territories and natural resources, the leaders of an Adivasi organisation called “Adivasi Mahasabha” understood the importance of the cultural symbol “Pathalgari” for the community, hence, they strategically used it for the mass movement[6]. The Pathalgari Movement was launched on February 9, 2017 at Bhandra village of Khunti district in Jharkhand against leasing out the land acquisition by the Jharkhand government through the passing of two ordinances for amending the land laws – Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act 1908 (CNT Act) and Santal Pargana Tenancy Act 1949 (SPT Act) in May, 2016. When the ordinances got lapsed, on November 23, 2016, despite a huge uproar in the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly, the Amendment Acts of CNT/SPT Acts were tabled and passed in the Assembly within three minutes without any discussion[7]. These amendments would weaken both the land safeguarding laws made for Adivasis.

There are three major amendments done in the sections of 21, 49 and 71 of the CNT Act 1908 and section 13 of the SPT Act, 1949. The amendments allow the commercial use of Adivasis’ land, acquisition of agricultural land for non-agriculture purposes and prohibition of land transfer through compensation. The first two amendments would have adverse effect on the Adivasis of Jharkhand precisely because, the Jharkhand government has enlisted 2.1 million acres of so-called government land (GM land) in the land bank, which includes the lands of sacred groves, village paths, playgrounds, graveyards, forest lands, hills, etc. The Government also organized a Global Investors Summit and signed 210 new MoUs with corporate houses, who have proposed the investment of Rs. 3.10 lakh crores in the state.

These events triggered the Pathalgari Movement and stone plaques were installed in more than 200 villages claiming the supreme authority of the traditional village councils. Drawing from the custom, they display messages on large stone slabs⁠, painted green and white, measure about 15 ft by 4ft. 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 include excerpts from the Indian Constitution, Supreme Court judgements, Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) as well as warnings to outsiders that inform them not to enter the villages without permission of the village headman[8].  

Neta Nag however, never participated in any activity of the Movement outside his village. He had merely participated in the meetings of his village council. He now faces charges under the section 147, 148, 149, 341, 342, 448, 323, 109, 114, 117, 290, 253, 120B, 504, 506, 186 and 121A of the Indian Penal Code[9] (IPC) along with sedition charges under the section 124A[10] . And if the police are able to prove the allegation in court, he will face lifetime imprisonment.

In the hope of releasing her husband on bail, Ladu took a loan on their patches of farming land and fruit bearing trees. But after handing over Rs.100,000 ($1500) to her lawyer, Neta still languishes in the Dumka district prison.[11] They have three sons, one is married and lives separately with his wife and child. The other two boys are also in prison on allegations of being the members of Naxal organization the CPI-Maoist[12].

Since his arrest, Ladu has been struggling to survive. She used to work together with her husband as farm labourers. She has not visited him as she has no money to afford the 400-kilometer travel from their village to Dumka district prison. When lockdown was imposed to address the Covid-19 pandemic, her life became even more miserable. She was unable to work following the nine-month lockdown in the region. But even after it was lifted, the economic impacts of the pandemic made it harder for her to get any kind of work. The second lockdown has worsened her life. However, now she hopes to get some work as monsoon has arrived.

Neta and Ladu Nag’s ordeal is not an isolated case. There are more than 10,000 Adivasis from Munda, Oraon and Santhal ethnic groups[13], however, mostly the Mundas, criminalized by the State in relation to the Pathalgari Movement.[14]  These attacks on the Pathalgari Movement is equated to the attack against the Adivasi’s right to self-determination. The ruling Bhartiye Janta Party (BJP) has actively suppressed, terrorized and criminalized the legitimate demands of the Pathalgari Movement[15].  It is one of the worst examples of criminalization of the Adivasi communities by the government of India.

The Jharkhand police has lodged 30 cases against 11,321 villagers with only 381 of them currently named (See Table 1), and the rest are unnamed in three districts of the state of Jharkhand.[16] Of the 30 cases, 21 are sedition charges filed under sections 121A[17] They are accused of waging war against the Indian State for establishing their traditional Gram Sabhas (Village Councils) as the Supreme Authority in the villages. The police submitted charge-sheets to the Court against 182 accused persons[18] related to all 30 cases with 115 of them imprisoned and most still languishing in different Jharkhand prisons. Consequently, most them have left their villages in fear of being arrested, leaving their families to fend for their own survival.

There have been no court hearings in 2020 (due to Covid-19 pandemic) since the arrests of previous years, thus no one was bailed out, resulting in pain and suffering for families whose working members remain in prison. Their fundamental right to life is denied. Though only few people are named as the accused persons in the FIRs but the police can pick up anybody from anywhere and include the person’s name under the guise of unknown accused persons. That’s the reason why most of the numbers kept in the FIRs as unknown persons.    

Table 1: Status of Pathalgari cases

District

Files Cases

Accused Persons

Chargesheeted

Arrested persons

Sedition

Cases

Other Criminal cases

Total

Named Accused

Unknown

Total

Named Accused

Unknown

Total

Khunti

19

04

23

340

10,640

10,980

155

00

155

115

Saraikela-Kharsawan

02

03

05

35

300

335

24

00

24

00

West Singhbhum

00

02

02

06

00

06

03

00

03

00

Total

21

09

30

381

10,940

11,321

182

00

182

115

Sources: Data provided by the Department of Home Affairs, Jail and Disaster Management (Govt. of Jharkhand), December 2020.

There have been no court hearings in 2020 (due to the Covid-19 pandemic) since the arrests of previous years, thus no one was bailed out, resulting in pain and suffering for families whose working members remain in prison. Their fundamental right to life is denied. Though only few people are named as the accused persons in the FIRs, police can pick up anybody from anywhere and include the person’s name under the guise of unknown accused persons. That’s the reason why most of the numbers kept in the FIRs are of unknown persons.    

The Pathalgari Movement was one of the major issues in the last Assembly Election of Jharkhand held in December 2019. The opposition alliance led by the present Chief Minister Hemant Soren, strongly raised the issue of sedition charges against more than 10,000 Adivasis and he promised to drop all the cases if the alliance comes to power. On 29 December 2019, Soren, right after oathtaking, announced the withdrawal of all Pathalgari cases.[19] Unfortunately, the Chief Minister’s words are yet to be translated into action after more than one and half year since the announcement.

If these cases are not acted upon and the Bhartiye Janta Party (BJP) returns to power in the next Assembly Election, there would be onslaught against these Adivasis again due to the party’s strong opposition to the withdrawal of cases. The same BJP government had suppressed, terrorized and criminalized the entire Munda community for reclaiming their traditional rights over the land, territory and resources[20]. In the worst situation, these Adivasis will be sent for lifetime imprisonment, which will be the gross violation of their rights.

 

[1] FIR registered with case No. 20/18 at Murhu Police Station on 13 March 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Read more on the Pathalgari Movement in Dungdung, Gladson. 2018. Why is the State Afraid of Pathalgari?” Adivasi Publications: Ranchi.

[4] Louis, Prakash. 2021. Fr. Stan Swamy: Maoist or Martyre? New Delhi: Media House. Pp 29.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dungdung, Gladson. 2018. Why is the State Afraid of Pathalgari?” Adivasi Publications: Ranchi.

[7] Dungdung, Gladson. 2017. Why CNT/SPT Acts were amended. Ranchi : Adivasi Publications.

[8] Pictures of the stone slabs of Kochang, Kanki and Uduburu village could be seen.

[9] FIR registered with case No. 20/18 at Murhu Police Station on 13 March 2018.

[10] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1641007/

[11] The recorded statement of Ladu Nag. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=148LOHHlT4U&feature=youtu.be)

[12] The Communist Party of India (Maoist) is a Maoist communist political party and militant organization in India which aims to overthrow the "semi-colonial and semi-feudal Indian state" through people's war. It was founded on 21 September 2004, through the merger of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) People's War (People's War Group) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). The CPI (Maoist) are often referred to as the Naxalites in reference to the Naxalbari insurrection conducted by radical Maoists in West Bengal in 1967.  CPI (Maoist) has been designated as a terrorist organisation in India under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act since 2009. In 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to the Naxalites as "the single biggest internal security challenge" for India, and said that the "deprived and alienated sections of the population" form the backbone of the Maoist movement in India.  The government officials have declared that, in 2013, 76 districts in the country were affected by "Naxal terrorism", with another 106 districts in ideological influence. In 2020 the activities of the party began to again increase in Telangana and other areas.

[13] Only a few members are from the Oraon and Sathal ethnic community. Most of the people criminalized are from the Munda ethnic community.

[14] https://scroll.in/article/944116/10000-people-charged-with-sedition-in-one-jharkhand-district-what-does-democracy-mean-here

[15] Dungdung, Gladson. 2018. Why is the State Afraid of Pathalgari?” Adivasi Publications: Ranchi.

[16] The status report prepared by the three members committee headed by the Deputy Commissioner of Khunti, December, 2020. Report of the Department of Home Affairs, (Government of Jharkhand) extracted through the Right to Information Act 2005 in December 2020

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19]https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/jharkhand-govt-withdraws-all-cases-in-Pathalgari-movement/1697008

[20] Dungdung, Gladson. 2018. Why is the State Afraid of Pathalgari?” Adivasi Publications: Ranchi.

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, Autonomy , Criminalisation , Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders

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