A bell rings in a village in Jharkhand. Within no time, people start to gather. Word has already been sent to other villages. Women have come in large numbers. At this gram sabha meeting, a message goes out: everyone must gather for the Sankalp Divas, to renew the pledge against the Netarhat field firing range.

It is March 21. I have travelled to Rampur village in Gumla’s Chainpur block with the documentary filmmaker Meghnath and his team from the production house Akhra, to attend the Sankalp Divas protest meeting, to be held on March 22.

The next morning, the village bell starts ringing again. People begin to step out of their homes. Men tie their belongings to their backs, while women herd the children. Every village has pooled in resources to hire autos, tractors, buses. People start to slowly inch towards Netarhat. We, too, leave for Netarhat.

We take the Mahuwadand route. All along, people look poised to leave for Netarhat. Every auto and tractor heading in the direction of Netarhat is running full. On the way, there is a Jairaagi basti. Many have stopped by to have chai-nashta there. Women sitting in the tractors are carrying umbrellas to protect their children from the sun.

Songs are blaring from the vehicles. “We won’t leave the village, we won’t leave the jungle, we won’t abandon mother earth, we won’t quit the protest,” one of the songs says. It is from a film made by Biju Toppo and Meghnath. It echoes in village after village. At this, the Akhra team smiles.

After some time, we start to climb the Netarhat hill. People are stopping by a stream of water to quench their thirst. Some are eating the food they brought from home. A man slowly trudges along, pushing his cycle forward, while carrying a cycle pump slung across his back.

A protest pilgrimage

For the people of Jharkhand, the Tutuwapani site has been a protest pilgrimage site for the past 30 years. For them, the jungle-zameen – the forest and the land – is deeply connected to their identity.

Their protest is directed against a decision to convert Netarhat into a field firing range for the army. In the early 1990s, when Jharkhand was still part of United Bihar, a gazette notification was issued to build an army camp as part of a field firing range in Latehar and Gumla districts. For this, 1,257 mauja – or 1,471 sq km land – spread over 245 villages was notified for acquisition.

Even before this, in 1966, the army had begun conducting exercises in the area under the Manoeuvres, Field Firing and Artillery Practice Act, 1938. These exercises were being conducted in eight Adivasi villages over 308 sq km of Scheduled Areas and 140 sq km sanghat/ common land. In 1991-’92, the number of villages and the area was proposed to be increased. In 1993, the people of Netarhat and nearby villages started protesting. This voice of protest took the shape of a big movement. People started joining in from many areas. An organisation was born – people’s struggle against the pilot project of Netarhat field firing range.

A photo taken in the early years of the Netarhat protest movement. Photo: Biju Toppo

This was the first time that local youth took over the leadership of a protest movement. Jerom Gerald Kujur and his friends stepped into leadership roles while they were young. Even women participated in large numbers. In 1994, because of the movement, the firing exercises were stopped. But the area could not be freed of the firing range notification.

Sriprakash, a filmmaker who has made a documentary film on the movement, said that according to knowledgeable people, when the Bofors gun was purchased by the Indian government, a need was felt for a firing range to test its long firing ability. But the people of Netarhat questioned why didn’t the government consider using the existing field ranges in Gaya and other locations for the purpose? The forest expanse of 40 km is an eco sensitive area – why should this be uprooted, they asked.

Even today, people have the same question: in the name of development, why should small but invaluable things that are essential to maintaining human life be sacrificed? The forest isn’t just a forest. It represents the diversity of life. Saving it amounts to saving diversity.

Even today, people have fear in their hearts. Of losing their homes, their jungles. Of threats to their identity. That’s the reason why, for 30 years, people have made long journeys – packing food, carrying children – to come here.

The protest saw large-scale participation of women. Photo: Praveen Tudu

After reaching Tutuwapani, people gather in one place. Once it is evening, a few members of every family make arrangements to eat and sleep. Three stones are placed to make a hearth. The hearth is lit up. To light it, people have brought wood from their homes and villages. On one side, the members of the central people’s struggle committee are talking about the struggle, and on the other side, rice is being cooked on the stove. Some women are creating saucers out of leaves for the food to be eaten in. Others take care of the children.

The creativity and struggle that Gandhi ji spoke of, the things he practised in life, those have been present in Adivasi life for long. It is part of the Adivasi way of life. People live it naturally. This creativity and struggle shows in the Netarhat movement.

On the stage, youth drawn from Jharkhand’s colleges are staging a play. Girls are singing in their mother-tongue, Kurukh language. In the area, Kurukh speaking people are predominant. The language is spoken by the Oraon community. On the stage, the members of the central struggle committee and social workers are offering their views. After this, everyone eats together. Till midnight, people stay up, watching a documentary film on the struggle. The title of the film is ‘Whose Defence?’ It has been made by Sriprakash, who is connected to the struggle.

The night is deepening. Some people sleep near the stage, others in the jungle, others wrap up pathar ki chadar and sleep. Here is a living example of a non-violent, democratic struggle by Adivasis over 30 years. A community, a struggle, a movement that is autonomously continuing in a peaceful way.

Adivasi women block a truck of the Indian army. Photo: Biju Toppo

The participation of women in the movement is its strength. At the start and even today in many Adivasi villages people don’t feel the need to let women participate and speak in meetings. But the Netarhat movement offers a powerful example of women’s role. It has raised their awareness. The movement has produced many small movements under the leadership of women. The leadership of women in the gram sabha has grown stronger. Several examples can be seen in Gumla and Latehar.

In Rampur village in Gumla district’s Chainpur block, for the past 10 years, women have been struggling to save their jungle and stones. Their role in the gram sabha is strong. The women of this village have collectively chased away the timber mafia. Flora Khalkho said, “The timber mafia had come with a vehicle and staff. The women of the village rang the bell and all of them came out. Most men of the village were away, either to work in the fields, and to graze the animals. Some others had gone to the city for work. In such a situation, the women got together and fought with the people who had come to cut the wood. They ran away.”

“The next day, a police vehicle came,” she added. “We started fighting with the police too. Then, they also went away.”

Khalkho continued, “The timber mafia got women embroiled in a false case. But we continue to fight it till this day. People of the village have economically supported the fight. Even after all the difficulties, we have taken a pledge to save the jungle, the hill, the river. This is the property of the community. Its loot has to stop. Our ancestors have saved this for us. We will save this for our children.”

The people of the Asur Adivasi community live in Lupungpath, another village of Chainpur block. The women there speak about their struggle to stop bauxite mining. “The police had come with a vehicle to start bauxite mining near the village,” Kiran Suchita Asur said. “But the women of the village protested strongly. In the end, the police had to return. Today, mining is closed around the village.”

Brijinia Asur said, “When the army used to come to Netarhat for its artillery exercises, many women of the area became victims of molestation and rape by them.” She had tears in her eyes.

“Earlier, when people were not organised, the women of the village used to run away towards the forest in fear,” she added. “But today they sit in the gram sabha. They offer their opinion and participate in the movement. Women have been empowered in the gram sabha. The same strength is visible in the movement.”

Philomina Asur said, “When they heard the village could get displaced, the women who had gone to the city for work returned, so that they could stand together with their families in this struggle. They joined the movement out of concern for pregnant women, elderly women, single women and children joined this struggle.”

People have an emotional connection with this movement because Adivasis have always had an emotional relationship with the water, the forest and the land. Whenever there is any displacement, women and children are the ones who suffer the most. That’s why they take part in the movement in large numbers.

Jerom Gerald Kujur was a young man when he took a leadership role in the Netarhat protest movement. Photo: Praveen Tudu

Jerom Gerald Kujur, general secretary of the central committee of the Netarhat central struggle, said that the movement has cast a glow across Jharkhand, uniting people to fight against displacement.

For instance, the struggle against the Palamu Tiger Reserve in Palamu and Garhwa, adjacent to Latehar, continues till date. To fight against displacement, the people there had sought help from those associated with the Netarhat movement. Eight villages fall in an eco-sensitive area, writer and social activist Sunil Minj said. Some villages lie in the core area of the tiger reserve, others in its buffer area. There is pressure to bring the villages of the core area into the buffer area, but then the geographical expanse of the buffer area will be further increased, which will lead to more villages getting displaced.

Of the eight villages affected by the Palamu Tiger Reserve, the people of two villages agreed to move out on the condition that every family be given Rs 10 lakh and be resettled in a new place. But the residents of the area where they were to be resettled refused to give up their land. Now the government wants to send them to Madhya Pradesh. The people are naturally disappointed. Others in the village now do not want to leave their land.

Inspired by Netarhat, people are constantly agitating against displacement. James Herenj, a social activist who lives in Latehar, said, “The movement against the Netarhat Field Firing Range has empowered people. Bauxite mining has stopped in some areas of Latehar. This has saved springs, rivers, waterfalls, water bodies that are the only source of water for the forest as well as the large population living in the areas around it.”

Larger solidarities

At the Sankalp Divas gathering, speaking from the stage, Kujur refreshed everyone’s memory of the history of the movement. The gathering reaffirmed their pledge to continue the agitation till the notification is not revoked.

Farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, who came to Jharkhand for the first time to see and understand this movement, said, “Whoever lives here, should have the right to water, forest, land. Many people of the country were associated with the farmers’ movement. Adivasis, farmers, women were all involved. They were with us. Today we stand with the Adivasis in their struggle. We will continue to do so.”

Social activist Daymani Barla said, “Drones are being used to survey Adivasi land. The central government wants to prepare a digital map. One day, Adivasi people will have to give proof to show their land belongs to them.”

“During the term of the Raghubar Das government in Jharkhand,” she continued, “the Sarna place of worship of Adivasis, the Masna site, the pasture land, the community land of the village were also put in the government land bank, which provoked a strong protest from the people. Today again, a threat looms over Adivasi land. The land that Adivasis cleared by taking on tigers, bears, snakes, scorpions. Jharkhand’s land is Adivasi land. Our leaders Sidho-Kanho and Birsa Munda fought with the British against land settlement. Today we are compelled to fight against our own government.”

Former MLA Sukhdev Bhagat said, “The people of the 245 affected villages of Netarhat field firing range have a constitutional right to live and survive here. Adivasis have the right to protect their water, forest and land. This area is under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Not even an inch of land is owned by the Central and state governments in the Fifth Schedule area. It is clear in the PESA Act that community resources of any village cannot be transferred to anyone without the consent of the Gram Sabha. Village heads of 100 villages, who came to participate in the Sankalp Divas, have decided to go to the capital Ranchi and submit a memorandum to the Governor after marching from the Tutuwapani movement site from April 21 to 25.

On the evening of March 23, the two-day meeting concluded with a resolution to protect jal, jungle, zameen, and continue the protest till the notification of the Netarhat Field Firing Range is cancelled.

Again, people loaded the goods on their backs, women and children began singing songs as they headed back. The same song resonated across the hill again: “We won’t leave the village, we won’t leave the jungle, we won’t abandon mother earth, we won’t quit the protest.”