Pathalgarhi’s long shadow: India’s tribal heartland wants freedom from govt control

What began as a movement against government control has led to ‘autonomous’ villages in Jharkhand, unrest in Odisha and policy changes in Chhattisgarh

RANCHI/ROURKELA/RAIPUR: The signs of change are hard to miss the moment one enters Jharkhand’s Khunti district, birthplace of two tribal rebellions separated by a century. “ Sab se upar gram sabha (gram sabha above all else),” announces the writing on a wall. It all started on March 9, 2017, when Bhandra village in the tribal-dominated district inaugurated its ‘pathalgarhi’, a huge stone slab announcing the autonomy of the village from all forms of government control. The Pathalgarhi movement that erupted from this is still going strong, having spread and made impact in neighbouring Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

“Pathalgarhi will not stop. The government has to recognize the legitimacy of what we are asserting. No effort to quell the movement with subversive tactics will deter us,” says Marcus Purti (name changed) from Torakera village, Jharkhand, associated with the movement.

What the villages are asserting is the right of the people to administer areas where they live, based on an interpretation of constitutional provisions like the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA Act and the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Pathalgarhi has been inspired by two systems — the traditional system of ‘sasandiri’, or stone slabs with which Munda tribespeople mark the spot where ashes of the dead are buried, and an awareness drive launched by IAS officer BD Sharma, commissioner of Bastar and champion of tribal rights, and IPS officer-turned-politician Bandi Oraon to empower tribals by spreading the word about PESA provisions.

How tribal communities justify their claim to autonomy


Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 empowers gram sabhas to preserve customary traditions and resources

Section 244 (1) part B and para 5 (1) of the Fifth Schedule allows the governor to exempt a Scheduled Area from the purview of any law passed by the legislature

Section 13 of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 spells out that a person “likely to” commit a crime in Scheduled Areas is prohibited from entering the area

ARTICLE 19 (5)
Article 19 (5) of the Constitution, which states that the right to move freely and reside anywhere can be restricted to protect the interests of a Scheduled Tribe

Demarcating every Pathalgarhi village is one such megalith. Meetings go on for days to arrive at a consensus on what each Pathalgarhi should say. Inaugurations of the slabs are grand affairs. In the initial days of the movement, the villages would send out invitations even to the President, Prime Minister, governor and chief minister.

A few men linger around the point of entry to each village, carrying axes just out of sight. Gram sabhas, governing councils for villages in areas administered under the Fifth Schedule are the final word in areas that have adopted Pathalgarhi, rejecting government intervention. Archers guard gram sabha meetings.

While traditional gram sabhas did not admit women, the movement in its present form makes no such discrimination. Government schools have been shut down and children study a curriculum different from what prevails in the rest of Jharkhand. Village heads have declared ownership of all natural resources in their areas, including water.

“Pathalgarhi is very much constitutional. We are asserting the rights of traditional gram sabhas under the provisions of the Fifth Schedule,” says Siddhesh Munda (name changed), acting pradhan of the gram sabha in Jikilita village in Khunti district.

Government response to the movement has gone from being dismissive to repressive. Opposition party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has claimed the government has lodged cases against 1,500-odd people involved with Pathalgarhi. The government says only 23 cases have been filed against 250 people.

In June 2018, the gang-rape of five women from an NGO at Kochang, a nodal point of the movement, and the detention of four jawans who were in charge of BJP MP Karia Munda’s security at Ghaghra village brought the movement into the spotlight again.

Chief minister Raghubar Das, Jharkhand’s first non-tribal elected head, calls Pathalgarhi an illegitimate campaign aimed at giving “protective cover” to Maoists. The other spectre the government claims to be behind the movement is the Church. “Christian missionaries are making villagers restrict police from entering their areas so that they can cultivate poppy,” Das said. “We want such elements to mend their ways immediately. If they don’t pay heed, we will crush them,” he added.

In the past year, the movement also spread beyond the state to neighbouring Odisha’s Sundargarh district. Stone slabs were raised at the entrance to some villages in Sundargarh but the demand for tribal ‘self-rule’ here saw more instances of social groups facing off against the district administration over the interpretation and implementation of PESA. The slabs still stand but no new ones have been reported in the past few months.

“Christian missionaries are making villagers restrict police from entering their areas so that they can cultivate poppy. We want such elements to mend their ways immediately. If they don’t pay heed, we will crush them” Raghubar Das, Jharkhand CM

“It is unfortunate that the state government is not serious about implementing PESA in a scheduled district like Sundargarh. Hence locals adopted Pathalgarhi, an age-old practice of creating awareness,” said Ramesh Minz, a native of Kutra block of the district.
In the recent past, PESA first made headlines in the district when the state government notified the formation of the Rourkela Municipal Corporation in 2014. Tribal rights organisations such as Sundargarh Zilla Adivasi Mulvasi Bachao Manch objected to the inclusion of several hamlets around the city in the proposed corporation area as, according to it, this went against the very spirit of PESA.

The anger over the corporation and what many claimed were CM Naveen Patnaik’s “anti-tribal” policies grew in intensity in the rural pockets of Sundargarh. Many local tribal leaders like Biramitrapur MLA George Tirkey and displaced tribals’ leader Baghe Lakra joined the call for decentralisation of power, close reading of the Constitution and implementation of PESA.
“Sundargarh is a scheduled district. We have been demanding the implementation of PESA here and therefore Pathalgarhi had some resonance in the district,” said Tirkey.

“Pathalgarhi is very much constitutional. We are asserting the rights of traditional gram sabhas under provisions of the Fifth Schedule” Acting pradhan, gram sabha, Jikilita village, Khunti district

Meanwhile, in Chhattisgarh, the movement has quietened down, largely because a lot of the demands of the tribals have since been met. Between April and July, tribals from villages bordering Jharkhand had installed stone slabs.

While the movement in the state was peaceful, the then BJP government felt nervous as assembly elections were around the corner and alleged the movement was aimed at declaring these villages as “autonomous republics”.

A group of BJP workers took out a ‘Sadbhavana rally’ in the last week of April 2018 to these villages, where they damaged the stone slabs, leading to stone pelting. Besides, the then ruling party leaders also alleged that the Church was behind the movement, a charge strongly denied by the Christian community.

“Pathalgarhi will not stop. The government has to recognize the legitimacy of what we are asserting. No effort to quell the movement will deter us” Marcus Purti (name changed), Torakera village, Jharkhand

Chhattisgarh Sarva Adivasi Samaj patron and veteran tribal leader Arvind Netam said the state government never took PESA laws seriously and did not conduct gram sabhas under PESA whenever land acquisition took place for industrial and other projects.

Sensing the mood, the Congress, in its election manifesto, had promised to protect ‘jal, jungle and jameen’ of tribal communities. After coming to power, the Congress government returned the land acquired from tribals in Bastar to its original owners after Tata Steel’s integrated steel plant project — for which the land was acquired — failed to come up.

Courtesy: The Times of India