The Jharkhand government’s order last week that statues of Birsa Munda, which usually depict the freedom fighter in chains, will be replaced by those in which he is unshackled, is an empty gesture.

The order comes even as the Bharatiya Janata Party government has announced further dilutions to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, which was enacted in 1908 after a revolt led by Birsa Munda, whose death anniversary is being observed on Thursday. The law restricts the sale of tribal land to non-Adivasis in 16 of Jharkhand’s 24 districts. In 1996, it was amended to allow the use of tribal land for mining and industry. Now, the government is proposing to dilute this law further to serve corporate interests.

The proposal to unshackle Munda statues is typical of Raghubar Das, who, since taking over as chief minister in 2014, has done little to focus on substantive issues that affect tribals, while undermining their constitutional rights.

Diluting tribal laws

The state of Jharkhand was carved out Bihar in 2000 after a long struggle by the Adivasis living in the Jharkhand region.

Das is the state’s first non-tribal chief minister. When questions were raised over his appointment to the job, the BJP appointed Draupadi Murmu, an Adivasi, as governor. But like her counterparts in other states, Murmu has little power or authority to intervene in government policy, and is a mere rubber stamp.

The issues confronting tribals currently are: access to land and resources, affirmative action in jobs and education opportunities, and land tenancy laws meant to secure their land.

Last month, the state Cabinet approved amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, which will clear the way for the commercial use of tribal land. The Chotanagpur law restricts the sale of tribal land to non-Adivasis. Under the Santhal Pargana law, which applies to six districts in eastern Jharkhand, most land is non-transferable and non-saleable, whether owned by tribals or non-tribals.

By diluting both these laws, which were enacted after tribal revolts against the British in the 19th century, the government wants to pave the way for private companies to use agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.

Babulal Marandi, the first chief minister of Jharkhand who left the BJP to form the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) party, has announced an economic blockade across the state on June 11 and 12 to protest against the government’s anti-tribal policies. Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, another regional party, has announced it will support this protest.

Earlier, on May 14, Marandi’s party had supported a state-wide bandh called by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to protest against the government’s domicile policy for government jobs and colleges, which fails to secure the rights of the state’s indigenous communities.

As it observes these regional forces getting together, the BJP feels threatened, which is perhaps why it is attempting to direct tribal anger elsewhere.

Munda the tribal hero

The Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act was enacted in 1876 following the Santhal rebellion in 1855 in which 30,000 Santhals died fighting to protect their land. Almost four decades later, in 1890s, Birsa Munda led a revolt against the colonial British government’s feudal land tenure systems.

Munda, who was born in 1875 in Ulihatu village in what is now Khunti district, was in his early twenties when he travelled from village to village organising Adivasis against the land settlement system imposed by the British. The British would pressure the zamindars and the ijaridars (landowners) to collect tax, and they in turn would try to take over Adivasi land. Because of Munda’s efforts, the entire Chotanagpur region fought as one.

Munda was literate and if he had wanted, he could have perhaps secured a position within the administration. But he did not do so.

The British jailed Munda, who died in prison at the age of 25 on June 9, 1900. But the rulers had to concede to the movement's demands and enacted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908. The movement is the legacy of his sacrifices.

When corporates get a free hand

The British tenancy laws were an attempt to stop the alienation of Adivasis' land, but post-Independence, state governments diluted their provisions. What the BJP government is doing now legitimises the land theft by non-tribals over the last few years.

Birsa Munda's chains are being removed to give the impression that tribals are free today, but the state's actions are meant to crush Munda’s ideals.

Munda wanted the forest land, the rivers, hills to remain for people and for creatures of the earth – bears, tigers, lions, insects. But the proposed changes in tenancy laws are meant to make this land freely available through so-called single window clearances at digital speeds for India’s Adanis and Ambanis.

The government may have ordered that idols should depict Munda as a free man, but at the same time, it has sent the message: business corproations need not look elsewhere, Jharkhand's tribal land is up for grabs.

Dayamani Barla is an award-winning Adivasi activist and writer. Between 1995 and 2012, Barla led movements against forced displacement by the Koel Karo dam, and by Arcelor Mittal's proposed steel plant in Khunti district, Jharkhand.

(As told to Anumeha Yadav.)