Kelly Kislaya | Apr 2, 2019 | 8 min read
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A green 15-feet stone plaque mentioning various articles of the Indian Constitution stands tall in Bhandra village of Khunti block in Jharkhand’s Khunti district.
Called patthal in the local language, the gram sabha installed it, in a process called pathalgadi, in 2017. Its purpose: Citing various articles, namely 13(3), 19(5), 19(6) and others, it prohibits outsiders from entering the village, doing any kind of business or job, and claiming that none of the laws of Parliament or legislature can be implemented in the area, which comes under the Constitution’s fifth schedule.
Sources add that the administration is refraining from removing the plaque, fearing an outburst from the villagers, which wouldn’t be the first.
Pulling the strings from behind the scenes
Started as a movement by tribals to protect their land in 2017, the Pathalgadi movement gradually snowballed into something else, leading to numerous clashes between the villagers, police personnel, and administration. Arrests of various Pathalgadi leaders by late 2018 led to the movement dying down, officially; but sources claim it is still operational under wraps. And one of the top leaders of the movement, Yusuf Purty, the main accused, remains absconding.
However, a few locals, in hushed voices, deal the ultimate blow — the movement may influence a low voter turnout in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
Among the places where low turnout is expected are Kurunga, Kochang, Mochia, Chalkar, Barudih, Longa, Naranga and a few more villages south of Arki block, Udburu, Ardih, and Jikilata villages in Murhu block, and a few villages in Khunti block.
The gram pradhan of a village in Khunti says, “While we have tried to convince many villagers to not be a part of this ‘new’ Pathalgadi, we are getting information that meetings are being held in the middle of night to keep the movement alive.
“In the December 2018 bypolls, some polling booths in these areas saw an abysmal turnout. The same can be expected in the LS elections.”
Seconding the gram pradhan, a social activist of Kurunga village says, “No votes were cast in 20 booths in my village as well as in seven booths in neighbouring Sake during the bypolls, and it is likely that the upcoming elections will be boycotted too.”
This activist is against the new movement and is so scared for his life that he doesn’t stay in his village. “I go in the afternoon, if needed, and leave soon after. People are not happy that I support the administration; hence, I am not safe there.”
It’s the administration’s “extreme action” against the villagers in the name of “crushing the movement” that has them simmering with anger and fear; and that’s what is likely to affect the voting.
A Khunti-based social activist says that during one of administration’s anti-Pathalgadi drives, many innocent people were accused of sedition and thrown behind bars. “People are terrified of the police after they framed some villagers. In such a situation, why would they want to vote? And even if they do, they will definitely not vote for the present government,” he adds.
From student to breadwinner
Seventeen-year-old Sonu Munda (name changed), whose gram pradhan father is behind bars for allegedly being a Pathalgadi supporter, has been forced to take up work amid his studies.
“Before my father went to jail, I was focused on my studies, but now, the responsibility of earning for the family is also on my shoulders. I have to take care of my grandmother, mother, aunt, and sister,” he says.
Sonu’s father, who was arrested last year, is currently in Ranchi Jail. Arranging money to pay the lawyer and for frequent travel to the city has been worsening the family’s situation. “I have been to Ranchi court twice and Khunti court seven to eight times. Every visit costs around Rs 2,500. Farming is the only source of income, but we do get some support from the gram sabha. However, there is no outside help,” the teenager says.
He adds that whether or not the village will vote in the upcoming elections is still undecided. “The issue has not been discussed in the gram sabha.”
On the other hand, Chitramu, a village neighbouring Sonu’s, pulled out from the Pathalgadi movement, by removing the plaque, in 2018 and has been enjoying government benefits since.
However, Sonu’s argument is: “If there were schemes already, why weren’t they given before the movement could start?”
Putting up protection, one plaque at a time
The gram pradhan of another village in Khunti, who is against the movement, explains that Pathalgadi was a century-old tradition of the Munda tribes and involved installing stone plaques to honour the dead or define the limits of a village.
“There were four types of plaques — one to honour the dead and mentioning the generations and work of the person, another installed under the trees bearing names of those who died an unnatural death, a third put up in the names of couples belonging to the same gotra who married, leading to their banishment from the village, and the fourth one for identifying a village’s limits,” he says.
“So, I don’t understand this new type listing Constitution articles. It was never there until recently.”
A social activist adds that the new type came into being because the villagers wanted to protect their lands.
“The government was preparing to grab their land without their consent and a new Pathalgadi movement was the way to stop it. The Constitution clearly states that the land in the areas under the fifth schedule should be taken only with the gram sabha’s permission; so, when the villagers saw that wasn’t being complied with, they decided to start the movement,” he says.
However, according to him, the movement was misrepresented. “It was the fear of losing their land that led the villagers to do this. But the administration started arresting innocents and lodging cases of sedition against villagers and activists who were supporting the movement.”
But the police have a different version: they say that while the villagers’ movement was about prohibiting entry to outsiders and administration officials, not sending their children to school, and even planning to start their own currency and banks, it was later hijacked by opium smugglers. “Opium farming is done in many villages of Khunti, and opium dealers found this movement as an opportunity to stop the police’s entry in the farming areas, to continue their illegal work freely,” a police source reveals.
What really happened from 2017 to 2018?
The ‘new’ Pathalgadi movement started in early 2017, when stone plaques announcing gram sabha as the sovereign authority were installed in Kochang and a few other neighbouring villages of Arki block. This proclamation of self-governance soon spread to other villages in Arki, Murhu, and Khunti blocks.
On August 24, 2017, Kanki villagers detained a team of policemen that broke the barricades at the village’s entry point; though there was no plaque there, this was one of the early Pathalgadi movement incidents.
On June 19, 2018, five female social workers enacting a play at a school in Kochang village were abducted and gang-raped. The police alleged the involvement of two Pathalgadi supporters in the crime.
Then, on June 26, the police raided Udburu village to arrest Purty. Though he wasn’t arrested, his property was attached. The raid angered villagers and supporters, who gathered in Ghaghra village and protested; because the police opened lathi-charge, supporters abducted three armed guards of MP Kariya Munda and a policeman from his house in Anigara village.
The incident proved pivotal, leading to a massive crackdown by the administration against Pathalgadi supporters. Officers say that, since then, around 36 leaders have been arrested and 250 people booked under various charges.
In July 2018, Chitramu village of Khunti became the first of the dozens to pull down the Pathalgadi plaque, following which a development fair was organised there, bringing many benefits for the villagers.
Mangal Singh Pahan, a ward member of the village, says, “We joined the movement after listening to its leaders; but soon, we realised that not taking government schemes and not sending children to school wasn’t sensible. Hence, we removed the plaque. This election, all of us are ready to vote.”
But rumour has it…
Many, however, say the movement is still alive, even if in secret. A former mukhiya of Murhi Panchayat says, “Kanki village, where policemen were kept prisoners in 2017, is still affected. While no one says anything openly, secret meetings are held. The gram pradhan, Nathanial Munda, does not want to take any development schemes and even fines villagers Rs 500 if they fail to turn up for gram sabha meetings.
“We are trying our best to convince all villagers to cast their vote in the upcoming elections.”
Padma Bhushan awardee and sitting MP of Khunti, Kariya Munda admits the movement might have some impact on the upcoming elections. “It won’t be huge, but some supporters of the movement might try to disrupt voting in interior areas. However, I don’t think people will boycott the elections altogether.”
attempts, government officials refuse to comment on the issue and say giving
any kind of importance to it will only encourage the supporters to cause
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