Khunti's Tribals Are Blaming the State for Destruction of Their Society and Culture

Once the heartland of tribal culture, philosophy and traditions, the district in Jharkhand is now characterised by large-scale discontent.

Khunti (Jharkhand): A hundred years ago, the Khunti region of Jharkhand took pride in education, leadership, a close-knit society, forests, a distinct philosophy and an age-old robust land system. Now, the same region is a sordid saga of educational backwardness, a crumbling society, eroding philosophy and withering land system.

Khunti – not just a district in Jharkhand, but the heartland of tribal culture, philosophy and traditions – is where the Austro-Asiatic tribes (also known as Munda tribes) live. Thanks to the Church, you could see English teachers from the Khunti-Torpa area in schools across Chotanagpur and other south Bihar regions in the pre- and post-independence era. The region is also known for the famous leaders it produced: Birsa Munda, who had studied up to class 8; Jaipal Singh Munda, who studied at Oxford, cracked the Indian Civil Services exam and also quit the services, captained India to a gold in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and entered the constituent assembly to become the lone voice for tribal India; N.E. Horo, a tall leader of the Jharkhand Movement; and Ram Dayal Munda, who studied at Minnesota University and frequented United Nation conferences. But today the region is struggling to provide a decent education to its own children, thanks to policies of successive post-independence governments.

Now, Khunti is characterised by large-scale discontent against the government, Naxalism, poor education standards, a high dropout rate among school children and the agony of an eroding age-old land system. This discontent is being expressed through the Pathalgadi movement too, which the state government has been acting against with an iron fist.

Sasandiri is an area earmarked by Mundas to bury their dead. Each ‘Khunt’ family, which often resides in a large village with many households of the same ancestry, has its own sasandiri that runs into acres. Sambal Singh Munda too is a khuntkatidar Munda – a Munda whose ancestors cleared the forests many hundred years ago to settle there. Across Khunti, over 420 sasandiris, according to a rough estimate given by the Mundas, have reportedly now been placed in a ‘land bank’. A sasandiri is sacred to the Mundas, and the government’s move to take such land and place it under a ‘land bank’ has evoked rage. The people feel they have been robbed.

“Over 14 acres of our sasandiri land has been placed in the land bank by the government. The digitisation of land records has made the sasandiri land disappear from the records. We cannot spot our sasandiri in it. We are running to the land revenue office nearly every other day for justice,” says Sambal Singh Munda, a resident of Arki in Khunti. They do not know where they will bury their dead now.

Khatian Part II of the land record system acknowledges the Mundas as the jamindars, and unlike the tenants who pay revenue to government of India, the khuntkatidar Mundas pay only a ‘cess’ against their land. Apart from khuntkati land, the Mundas also own khuntkati jangal (forests). While the Mundas used to own about 400 forests, successive governments have been turning them into government-owned ‘reserve forests’. Now the Mundas are left with only around 120 khuntkati jangals.

“Thing like Pathalgadi express of the discontent among the Mundas. Even the elected representatives from reserved constituencies – MLAs and MPs – are not actually tribals in spirit. They work against the interests of the Mundas and other Adivasis. Through Pathalgadi, the Mundas were discussing and spreading knowledge among people on how they are being robbed off their rights. The government does not like this kind of awareness creation,” said Dhanik Guria, a lawyer in the Khunti court.

Apart from the Kompat Mundas, the larger Munda family of tribes includes Kharia, Santhal, Ho, Bhumij and others. However, the original Munda culture, philosophy and tradition are preserved mainly by the Kompat Mundas of Khunti. For example, while the original terminology for a Munda god is ‘singbonga’, Santhals, who are a part of the larger Munda family of tribes, call the god ‘thakur’, which shows Bengali influence. The Kharias, who also are a part of the larger Munda family of tribes, call the god ‘ponomoshor‘, which shows Oriya influence.

“Teachers do not know Mundari, children do not know Hindi. Munda teachers are deployed in non-Munda areas. Teachers speak to young children in Hindi and after a few days the children say they do not understand anything. The teacher then says Munda children are slow. All this appears to be a ploy only to destroy the Mundas,” observes Soma Munda, former deputy director of the Tribal Research Institute, which has now been renamed after famous academic and scholar Ram Dayal Munda, who was from the same region. Soma Munda is from Khunti’s Arki, the place which witnessed Birsa Munda take on the mighty British, and now the epicentre of Naxalism and Pathalgadi. It is after Birsa’s movement that the British government came up with the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act with the aim to protect tribal land. However, the present government’s move to amend the CNT Act is another cause for concern in Khunti and the rest of Jharkhand.

“The government wants to do away with Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, and come up with Jharkhand Tenancy Act so that protection given to tribal land is finished once and for all. This move is not accepted by the Khunti Mundas and other tribes,” said Soma Munda.

On January 1, 2014, The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, brought by the UPA-II, came into force. However, the BJP government that replaced the UPA brought an ordinance on December 31, 2014 to amend the Act.

On April 3, 2015, the BJP government brought the amendment ordinance for a second time, and then for a third time on May 31, 2016.

After these attempts were met with public opposition, the Centre set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). The JPC sought public opinion on the ordinance and a large number of organisations are said to have opposed it. The Central government then gave up the idea of amending the 2013 Act. However, BJP-ruled states started making efforts to amend the land Acts of their respective states to suit their land needs. In Jharkhand too, the BJP government made efforts to amend the CNT and SPT Acts, but public opposition prevailed. After giving up the idea of amending the CNT and SPT Acts, the government attempted to amend Section 2 and 3 of Land Act of 2013, and succeeded in doing so after the president gave his assent.

“A case is being built that the Church had been funding the Pathalgadi movement, which is false. The fact is that things like Pathalgadi or even Naxalism are due to government failures and the motivated move to destroy the Munda land system, khuntkati system and other such traditions. By blaming the Church, the government has managed to divide the Mundas into Sarna and Christian. This is very unfortunate,” lawyer Dhanik Guria said.

Khunti was once the heartland of tribal tradition, culture, history. If the government keeps doing what it’s doing, people believe that they may loser the very essence of their existence.

Santosh K. Kiro is an independent journalist. He is also the author of Life and Times of Jaipal Singh Munda and Munda Folktales and Elephant Stories.