Budhua Munda greeted the visitors to his village in Jharkhand as they all settled down on a bamboo straw mat spread under the shade of a tree on the morning of May 1.

The Adivasi youth, who wore a blue track pant and a white T-shirt, then pulled out the Hindi edition of the Constitution of India from a plastic bag he carried. Flipping through the thick tome, he stopped at a few paragraphs marked with a yellow highlighter. “See, what the Constitution says,” he said. “It says that the gram sabha is supreme in Fifth Schedule Areas. It is above Parliament, Assembly or any other institution.”

This was at Kudatoli hamlet of Bhandra village under Sadar block of Jharkhand’s Khunti district. Located on the side of a metalled road not very far from the Khunti district headquarters, Kudatoli is home to around 45 Munda Adivasi families.

The visitors were a group of journalists and researchers, including this correspondent, who had travelled to the area from across the country to gain an insight into the Pathalgadi movement, which seems to have taken the political establishment in Jharkhand by storm.

Pathalgadi, which means “erecting a stone” in the local Mundari language, has been a tradition with the Mundas of Jharkhand for hundreds of years. In the tradition, pathar or stones are erected to notify, mark or demarcate important spots such as boundaries, homes, land, forests, and graveyards. The Adivasi community also erects similar stone slabs in honour of their dead.

However, since early last year, Adivasis have been using Pathalgadi as a mode of protest against the state government’s alleged anti-tribal policies, and to draw the attention of the community towards the the rights of the tribals under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and the supremacy of the gram sabha or village council. As a result of the movement, huge stone slabs inscribed with details of the constitutional provisions and laws that safeguard the rights of tribals over land, forests and other natural resources in Fifth Schedule Areas, written in Hindi and Mundari languages, have been erected in over 300 villages across five districts.

(Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).

Adivasis and the law

India has a population of over 10 crore tribals who are protected by the Fifth Schedule and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The Fifth Schedule covers Adivasis in nine states, while the Sixth Schedule is applicable to the North Eastern states. Though tribals under the Sixth Schedule have been provided with considerable autonomy, the protections extended to Fifth Schedule areas have remained on paper only. For instance, theoretically, no development activity can be taken up in Fifth Schedule areas without the approval of local tribal bodies. But in reality, these areas have witnessed rampant mining and industrial activities since Independence, in blatant violation of laws. This has resulted in Adivasis in these areas being pushed to the margins of society.

Similarly, another law meant to benefit Adivasis – the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 – encouraged local self-government in Fifth Schedule Areas to ensure that they planned their own development. But this too has never been implemented properly.

At the crux of the Pathalgadi movement is land, the core identity of Adivasis who fear that their identity is being eclipsed by development strategies devised at the top – an approach that ignored their rights under the law as well as the community’s own wishes.

The immediate triggers of the movement, however, seem to be the Jharkhand government efforts in 2016 to amend the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1876. While the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act governs Scheduled Areas in the Chotanagpur plateau in Jharkhand’s western region, the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, enacted by the British after the Santhal Adivasi rebellion of 1855, governs Scheduled Areas in the Santhal Pargana in Jharkhand’s East. Both laws restrict the sale and transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis. The Raghubar Das government’s bid to amend these laws is directed at facilitating the transfer of tribal land for development work, and the creation of a land bank for its ambitious Momentum Jharkhand project, which aims to attract investment to the state.

The proposed amendments to the Acts could not be made as, last year, following stiff opposition to the move, Governor Draupadi Murmu, who is an Adivasi from Odisha, returned the Bill that the Assembly had passed to the government, without giving her assent to it.

But Adivasis, who form 26% of the state’s total population, continue to be suspicious of the government’s intentions, and fear that their land would be handed over to big companies for various projects.

This is why early last year, Adivasis in many villages started erecting the stone slabs – measuring around 10 feet in height and 4 feet wide – with details of the laws that protect their rights. The movement gained momentum and soon spread to over 300 villages in Khunti, West Singhbhum, Gumla, Saraikela-Kharsawan and East Singhbhum districts.

At the meeting in Kudatoli hamlet of Bhandra village. (Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).

‘Biased media’

Just an hour before the meeting during which Budhua Munda brandished his copy of the Constitution of India, the group of journalists and researchers sitting in the audience had been stopped at the entrance of the hamlet by a group of young men suspicious of their intentions. “What do you want?” asked one. Another said: “We do not want to discuss anything with media people from Ranchi.”

According to the village residents, this hostility was because the Pathalgadi movement has attracted bad press locally. They say ever since the movement began, several local news reports – in which several officials and politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been quoted – have attempted to tar the movement by branding it “secessionist” and alleging that it was backed by Maoists and illegal opium cultivators. Chief Minister Das has also blamed “anti-national forces” for backing the movement and instigating Adivasis. The villagers believe that the local media published these defamatory reports at the behest of the state government.

The Das government is clearly not happy with the movement. Around 15 of its leaders have been arrested and slapped with several criminal charges, including sedition. This has added to the atmosphere of distrust between the government and Adivasis.

The youth agreed to let the reporters and researchers enter if the gram sabha granted permission for a meeting. It came around an hour later. The youths brought straw mats for everyone to sit on and the meeting began. Soon, many other villagers, including women and children, joined in. The villagers did not make any formal introductions because they feared that divulging their names would attract more trouble from the police.

Even Budhua Munda, who spoke on behalf of the gram sabha as the aged council chief was not present, did not formally introduce himself at the beginning. “What is in a name,” he asked with a shrug. Villagers listened to him attentively as he spoke with authority about tribal rights and ownership over land, forests and other natural resources, and their concept of development.

According to Budhua Munda, who dropped out of school in Class 4, the top-down process of development from the state to district, to block and gram panchayat has ruined the lives of Adivasis since Independence. “It is faulty and encourages lots of pilferage,” he said. “Out of the budget of Rs 12,000 for a Swachh Bharat toilet, government officials and contractors eat up more than a half. Out of the budget of Rs 1.30 lakh for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, the beneficiary finally gets less than Rs 1 lakh. What is the point of such development?”

The villagers in the audience nodded in agreement.

Budhua Munda added: “But now there are plans to rob us of our land and forest by taking decisions from the top, and we cannot allow that.” He added that the gram sabhas of several villages took the decision to erect the stone slabs to assert the rights and ownership of Adivasis over natural resources.

The youg man explained the reason for the hostility of Adivasis in the region towards the press. “Media persons from Ranchi visited us and we put forth our grievances,” he said. “But the papers published exactly the opposite of what we said. They accused us of revolting against India. They unfairly played up a story of tribals holding some policemen hostage in August last year at a village, paving the way for the administration’s crackdown on tribals.”

Adivasis in Jikilata hamlet of Udbur village of Jharkhand. (Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).

Self-governance vs top-down governance

The distrust towards outsiders was also evident at Jikilata hamlet of Udbur village, around 15 km from Khunti’s district headquarters. As soon as the visiting contingent entered the village, a bell was rung and over 50 Munda tribals, armed with bows and arrows, gathered to interrogate their visitors. The group gained entry because the nephew of the gram pradhan was their guide.

“We are not against our country, we just want our rights over our resources,” said gram pradhan Markus Munda later, at a discussion. “We can manage our land, forests and water in a much better way than the block or district officials.”

He added: “They accuse us of being Maoists. But let me tell you, Maoists do not recognise the Constitution while we are strictly going by it. On the other hand, those in power are diluting the same Constitution to exploit us.”

Markus Munda said that since the government had been trying to suppress a genuine movement for Adivasi self-rule, the community, in protest, had decided not to avail their entitlements under government welfare schemes like the Public Distribution System, rural employment, housing and pension. He said that villagers have also stopped sending their children to schools, because “they have been reduced to eateries rather than hubs of education”.

Asked if it was possible for them to survive for an extended period without government welfare assistance, an Adivasi woman sitting behind Markus Munda retorted: “We survived even when there was no government scheme.”

(Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).