Jharkhand: Rights Body Urges Govt to Withdraw Cases Against Thousands of Tribals

A fact-finding team has found that tribals in Khunti and their pathalgadi movement has been dealt with severe repression and torture.

New Delhi: The Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, an overarching network of multiple social movements and organisations, has asked the state government to immediately withdraw all cases against the “thousands of unnamed residents of Khunti” who were charged in connection with the pathalgadi protests.

Furthermore, the Mahasabha has called for a judicial inquiry into the charges framed against named people in the FIRs and has asked the police to speedily make public the evidence that formed the basis for those cases.

‘Pathalgadi protests’ is short-hand for a social movement that has spread across hundreds of villages in Jharkhand over the last two years. The movement has agitated against forceful acquisition of tribal land, while calling for a reinforcement of the traditional gram sabha and Adivasi governance systems.

‘Pathalgadi’ is a traditional practice of the Munda Adivasis, who erect giant stone slabs (pathals) in honour of their ancestors, to announce important decisions about their families and villages or to simply mark the boundary of their villages. Over the last two years, pathals across villages have been painted with constitutional provisions for Adivasis, various judicial orders and their interpretations. 

The Jharkhand state government headed by chief minister Raghubar Das, however, believes that the pathalgadi rebellions may harbour “anti-national elements” and are being used to incite hatred against outsiders. Over the last year, numerous cases have been filed against Jharkhand’s villagers and farmers, with state police invoking charges of sedition and rioting for “wrongly interpreting the Constitution”.

Also read: In Jharkhand’s Khunti, Aftermath of Pathalgadi Movement Likely to Be a Poll Issue

In a statement put out this week, the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha said that a fact-finding team comprising activists, academics and lawyers, visited a few pathalgadi villages in the Khunti district of the state.

“The team found that the state responded to pathalgadi with severe repression and violence. Adivasis in some villages were severely beaten, houses were raided and ransacked. In Ghaghra village, a pregnant woman, Ashrita Munda, delivered a physically disabled baby, a couple of weeks after being beaten by the police during a raid,” it said.

“The police has also forcefully set up camps in schools and community buildings without the consent of gram sabhas in many Adivasi villages. In addition to this, the police has booked thousands of Adivasis under sedition. According to 15 FIRs, available with the fact-finding team, the police has charged about 100-150 persons and 14,000 unnamed people under several charges including sedition. It is estimated that a total of 29 FIRs have been filed till now,” it added.

The results of the fact-finding team were sent to state chief secretary D.K. Tiwari this week. Tiwari did not respond to meeting requests sent by the activist network.

Importantly, the Mahasabha acknowledges that while most of the interpretations of the constitutional clauses written on the pathals may be “wrong or far-fetched”, they are nevertheless  “based on valid issues and demands of Adivasis and their basic idea about the supremacy of the Gram Sabha”.

The fact-finding team’s conclusion is that the pathalgadi protests are a “non-violent response to specific policies of the government”.

Consequently, the Mahasabha notes, the Raghubar Das government should remove all “police camps from the nine schools and two community buildings in Adrki, Kochang, Kurunga Birbanki, Kitahatu, Kewra and Hut”.

“The government should initiate genuine dialogue with representatives of the Pathalgadi villages, Adivasi organisations and experts on the interpretation of Constitutional provisions written on the pathals,” it said.