What is happening in Khunti, Jharkhand?

Last month, I made two trips to Khunti – near Ranchi, Jharkhand where a movement for local autonomy has been going on for well over a year. Starting first in Simdega, the movement has spread like wildfire in Khunti. The district has around 150 villages and at last count, it had spread to almost half of them, according to local media.

Pathalgadi is originally a local tradition of the Mundas who are the majority community in Khunti. Traditionally, it was done to pay a tribute to their ancestors and mark territory. Before we delve into its resurgence as a political tool of protest, we have to understand the forces at play in the state lately.

By making a non-tribal – Raghubar Das – the CM for the first time in the short history of Jharkhand which was separated from Bihar at the turn of this century, the BJP, known to be a party of outsiders or Dikus in the state, tried to assert its clout in a state 1/4th of whose population is tribal. The second mistake it made – with great fanfare – was to organise Momentum Jharkhand.

The event, billed as an Investors Summit, was held in 2017, and attracted top BJP leaders and captains of the industry. The government pledged to the industrialists land for their projets which got the goat of the tribal population and activists, other than the Opposition. Rightly so, as the tribal population is mostly dependent on farming for sustenance and compensation for land acquired by government is not so easy to come by in the state.

It is the resistance to prevent their land from being acquired by a government the tribal population does not trust which has finally culminated in the Pathalgadi movement. Relying on the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which gives special rights to tribal populations, the leaders of the movement began to install stone slabs marked with several prohibitions for outsiders, including members of the administration and the police, and in effect, declaring themselves autonomous of the state machinery. Attempts were subsequently made to run schools and banks independent of the administration. There is also a ban on speaking in Hindi in the area and tribals are communicating only in Mundari.

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This gave the administration and the BJP-led government an excuse to paint the movement and its leaders as secessionists, and subsequently a blitzkrieg of misinformation and repression was launched.

The flash-point was reached when a team of women belonging to an NGO performing a play in Kochang, a remote part of the district where the rogue militia of PLFI – People’s Liberation Front of India – rules the roost, were allegedly raped. The general impression in the state is that PLFI is a creation of the state police, to counter the Maoists who are said to be on the decline in Jharkhand, if the claims of the government are to be believed.

The government quickly blamed the Pathalgadi leaders for the alleged gangrape. Without producing any evidence, it chose to tar the entire movement by the tribal population fighting for its rights. In an instance of terrible chicanery and perfidy, the local media parroted the allegations without making any background checks of its own.   

There were several loopholes in the police version. We don’t know who invited the said NGO to perform in Kochang. One Sanjay Sharma, associated with the NGO, who filed the FIR two days after the alleged incident, was not even at the site on the day the incident took place. He disappeared as the controversy erupted. The police made no tangible effort to trace him. When it could not link Pathalgadi leaders to the alleged gangrape, the police secured the surrender and confession of a PLFI member said to be involved in the alleged crime, who claimed he was paid by the former to do so. But this too was reiterated by the media without any cross-examination.

A crackdown on a Gram Sabha meeting in the village of Ghaghra, close to the capital Ranchi, followed. In anger, the tribals kidnapped four bodyguards of ex-MP Karia Munda of the BJP, himself a tribal. But they were later released safely after the police backed down and ceased the repression for the time being.

When I visited Kochang, the CRPF had already established a post in the primary school in the small hamlet with a predominantly Christian population. The tribals with whom our team of a researcher, a poet of Mundari language and a social worker spoke, said they were afraid of so many armed personnel descending upon their habitation. A well-placed source at the church in Kochang – the Father has been picked up by the police for ‘collaborating’ in the alleged gangrape – told me that the whole thing was most likely  a set-up, designed to tarnish the reputation of tribal leaders and the church and to turn public opinion against them. What gives further credence to this theory is that none of the women who were allegedly gangraped have yet confirmed that the alleged rape actually took place, leave aside any involvement of tribal leaders in it. Only one of them has anyway spoken to  a news website and she too has not made any comment on that, keeping her focus on the events following it. The rest remain gagged.

In Ghaghra, tribals we spoke to said that the CRPF had stayed the night near the village before the Gram Sabha meeting was to take place. In the morning of the meeting, before it was to start, the forces made an offer of reconciliation to the villagers. “It was a ploy to get us to drop our traditional weapons and sticks and to disarm us. We trusted them and did so. But when we approached them unarmed, the beat us up and destroyed our vehicles. Everyone was beaten up. Property was looted. All the young men have run away from the village, staying in the forests,” I was told. This is what led to the kidnapping of the bodyguards, they said.

A crackdown on the Church, perceived to the backing the movement also ensued. Allegations of selling children followed, tarring the Missionaries of Charity, once again without evidence. The BJP has also accused the church of grabbing land. 

It suffices to say that the BJP government has decided that tribal land is there for the taking and no resistance shall be brooked. But its forgets that even before 1857’s struggle for Independence took place, the tribals of Jharkhand had managed to force the mighty British government to grant them rights over their land. This is an old battle over ancient lands and to underestimate the enemy is a deadly mistake in any war.

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Abhimanyu Kumar Written by:

Abhimanyu Kumar is an independent journalist based in Delhi.

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