Sukhram Munda
Sukhram Munda

Opinion | The anatomy of a tribal uprising in Jharkhand

Pathalgadi wouldn’t have found foothold without factors that sustain anger

Here’s a seemingly remote story with impressive ripples.

On 6 July, Sukhram Munda, a village headman in Kochang village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district was shot dead by two men, who escaped. Sukhram was a leader of the Pathalgadi (or Pathalgarhi) movement that made waves in June 2018 when the entirely tribal movement announced the formation of a government based on customary laws. It denounced what it called discriminatory practices of the governments of India and Jharkhand, and claimed control under constitutional provisions that protect the identity, rights and lands of the tribal folk.

Among other things, massive stone tablets—pathalgadi—proclaimed the supremacy of the gram sabha, village council, over all else, including elections and voter identification. The tablets highlighted rights under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA. Besides parts of Khunti, the movement spread to adjacent West Singhbhum, Gumla and Simdega districts—mineral-rich, forested. The entry of outsiders began to be restricted.

The movement also had bizarre overtones. Adherents claimed that, besides a legitimate aspiration to rights, they were led by the ideals of Baba Kunwar Kesarisinh, a controversial cult leader from Gujarat’s southern Tapi district, a largely tribal area. In 1997, a domino effect of Kesarisinh’s charm led several hundred tribal families in Nashik, in neighbouring Maharashtra to declare independence from India’s laws, claiming they were the “owners of India". Kesarisinh’s son Ravindra now runs his Sati-Pati cult. In Khunti and nearby districts, the cult began to be conflated with Jharkhand’s 19th century rebel icon Birsa Munda—whose name is freely applied to institutions and places, including Ranchi’s airport.

It was—is—an embarrassment for Jharkhand’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The party has a majority. Khunti’s Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha constituencies have remained with the BJP for three consecutive terms. Assembly elections are due late this year, and, meanwhile, there’s this mess. Governance and development would be a handy solution, but Khunti, like many places in Jharkhand, is still waiting.

It’s easy to write off Pathalgadi as a collective of kooks and a plaything of Maoists and opium lords—some right-wing media persons and politicians have claimed as much—but that is both disingenuous and dangerous. Khunti is among the most socio-economically backward districts of Jharkhand—long known for providing India mineral riches while receiving a tiny fraction of proportionate development. Jharkhand also accounts for arguably the greatest number of displaced, mostly tribal people on account of mammoth public and private sector projects, and often followed by shabby resettlement and rehabilitation.

As with some other regions in Jharkhand, human trafficking bleeds Khunti. It’s also in the Maoist arc. There are several splinter groups. As elsewhere in Jharkhand and Bihar, some so-called commanders in this area are little more than warlords. Citizens are brutally squeezed between the rebels and the state, as this column has recorded. Case studies are also detailed in my book Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India.

Resentment has other footholds. Take the attempt by incumbent chief minister Raghubar Das to amend the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act. Implemented in 1908 in the wake of the ‘Birsa’ movement, it was designed primarily to prevent transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. Das pressed to amend this Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act. The assembly passed amendments to both Acts in end-2016 to acquire tribal land for development projects under the often-misused doctrine of eminent domain. Protests erupted. In mid-2017, the government was compelled to withdraw the Bills—the governor had declined consent. Another bill that permits the acquisition of tribal land for public purpose and public-private partnership—seen as a backdoor for the private sector soon followed. It’s a local variant of the stillborn amendment to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill that the Centre repeatedly attempted to implement via ordinance in 2015. Such moves also fed Pathalgadi.

The point is, Pathalgadi wouldn’t have found a foothold without several factors that sustain despair and anger, and breed dissent. Sukhram’s death won’t douse such flames.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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