A writ petition challenging mass sedition cases against Adivasis in Jharkhand’s Khunti district has been filed in the state High Court. The petition, filed in August by lawyer Sunil Vishwakarma on behalf of a newly formed village organisation called the Adivasi Nyay Manch, has asked for the cases to be transferred to a special investigation agency.

As reported by Scroll.in, at least 10,000 Adivasis who participated in the Pathalgadi movement have been charged with sedition in 14 FIRs filed by the district police in 2017 and 2018. The actual number of people accused of sedition could be higher, if there are more FIRs than those accessed by Scroll.in.

The writ petition was admitted by the High Court, which has served copies to Jharkhand government and the police department, which are the primary respondents. The first hearing in the matter is pending.

The Pathalgadi movement, which literally means the laying of stones, began in 2017 when Adivasi villages started installing stone monoliths with engravings of provisions relating to tribal autonomy in the Indian Constitution, as interpreted by them.

The police have accused the movement’s leaders of propagating “the wrong interpretation” of Constitution to mislead Adivasis and turn them against the government. But the writ petition, which was filed on August 1, points out that the investigating officers have failed to establish what is wrong about the interpretation of the constitutional provisions engraved on the stones.

“[T]he offence under section 124(a) has been added without any cogent evidence,” the petition states. It has been instituted by the “self statement of trainee and probationary police officers” even though the matter relates to the Indian Constitution and its Fifth Schedule, which gives Adivasi communities a measure of autonomy.

The petition states that the cases filed by the police relate to “tribal custom, rule and culture” but the investigating officers have neither looked at these aspects nor have they examined the powers and rights available to tribal communities under the Fifth Schedule.

The police have labelled participation in Pathalgadi an offence without investigating the “use and importance” of the Adivasi custom of erecting stone monoliths, the petition adds.

It states that about 70% of the population of Khunti is living in fear because the police FIRs have charged “unknown” people, which means anyone could be falsely implicated in the cases in the future.

The Adivasi Nyay Manch was constituted on June 9 in Bhandra village at a meeting attended by more than 200 residents of nearby villages. Its aim, as stated in letters to Jharkhand government, is to seek justice for the thousands of Adivasis implicated in the sedition cases in Khunti.

This reporter met members of the organisation in Bhandra village on a day in early November as they began a drive to collect donations from villagers for a fund to support the legal challenge.