Pathalgadi wave: When tribals fought for their lands

Last Updated 31 December 2019, 11:58 IST

Jharkhand's newly elected Chief Minister Hemant Soren and his cabinet on Sunday decided to scrap all the cases registered against protesters during the Pathalgadi movement in the state.

Keeping its poll promise, Soren's JMM-led government decided to initiate action to withdraw all the sedition cases filed against people during the movement, a revolt that erupted in 2017-18 against a decision taken by the Raghubar Das-led state government.

According to Scroll, in the Khunti district alone, around 10,000 sedition cases were slapped against the protesters for taking part in the movement.

So what exactly made scores of villagers revolt the way they did?

Brought in as an ordinance in May 2016, the state government in November 2016 pushed for amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act,1908, and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act, 1949, which prohibit the transfer of land to non-tribals and say that land cannot be transferred without the permission of the Gram Sabha. The amendments would have made tribal land transferable for industrial and 'development' purposes.

The two Acts, which have historical significance for the tribals, came into effect after a centuries-old long-drawn-out rebellion that began during colonial rule under which land was classified and notified without considering tribal land ownership. The Acts helped tribals in the region safeguard their ancestral land.

What was the Pathalgadi movement?

Pathalgadi or laying of stone is an age-old tradition followed by tribal communities in the state under which significant events such as births and deaths are engraved on stone slabs.

Using this tradition as an act of resistance to the Bill, green plaques began springing up at the entrance of nearly 200 villages, most of them in Khunti district in Jharkhand.

Etched on the 15-foot-tall and 4-foot-wide plaques were the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, and the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India, which deals with the provisions of the administration of scheduled areas and the tribes living in the region. The PESA gave Gram Sabhas in tribal areas special rights to implement schemes, among other special provisions.

To take a step back, the green stone slabs with PESA inscriptions were first put up by two bureaucrats -- the late IAS officer B.D. Sharma and former IPS officer Bandi Oraon -- right after the PESA Act was passed in 1996 in a bid to spread awareness about its provisions among the tribals who make up about 26 per cent of the population in the state.

However, the recent Pathalgadi wave was done to send out a message that the villages were sovereign entities, not bound by the state or the central governments, the President, the Prime Minister or the Governor, swearing allegiance solely to the Indian Constitution. The plaques also signified that the village panchayat was the topmost authority and prohibited the entry of outsiders.

Bills withdrawn

After the Pathalgadi movement gathered steam and tribals began taking to the streets, the Raghubar Das-led government, in August 2017, withdrew the Bills, which would have amended the two Acts. Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader and then Leader of the Opposition Hemant Soren had accused the then government of pushing for the Bill to aid corporate houses.

The violence that ensued in 2018

The Pathalgadi movement became violent in 2018 with the 'Pathalgadis' in Khunti clashing with police, which resulted in the abduction of three security personnel. The villagers then raided the house of an ex-Lok Sabha Deputy speaker. Several cases were filed against thousands of villagers and top leaders of the movement were detained. The movement eventually died down.

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections saw a brief revival of the movement with some tribals refusing to step out to vote in the elections.

The authorities have long claimed that the movement was fueled by Maoists.

As of May 2019, there are over 100 Pathalgadi villages in Khunti district, barely 50 km from the state capital Ranchi.

(With inputs from PTI)

(Published 31 December 2019, 10:59 IST)

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