An Adivasi rebellion to uphold the Constitution 

A series of unconstitutional measures by the State over the years led the Adivasi parganas and panchayats to engage in serious discussions on a mode of cultural resistance. They zeroed in on the pathalgadi as a way of enshrining their Constitutional rights and empowering themselves to keep the land-hungry corporates away

“Installing a stone in remembrance of our ancestors has been our tradition. Under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India, we have all the right to practise our customary laws. Then, how is pathalgadi a crime? This is what we don’t understand,” says Vijay Minj of Butunga village in Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district. 

Pathalgadi has been turned into a socio-cultural and political controversy with allegations that it is the Maoist movement under a different guise; that Christian missionaries are involved; that there are foreign conspirators behind it; and that this is a smokescreen for illegal opium cultivation. It is based on these allegations that during recent months the Jharkhand government has filed mass sedition cases against activists, villagers, writers and journalists. However, Adivasis say that is not what it is. Anima Ekka of Sarva Adivasi Samaj (SAS) says, “all the four reasons are baseless and only means to weaken the growing Adivasi self-determinative consciousness. There is nothing unconstitutional in Pathalgadi. But the local media, the non-Adivasi middle class and political parties together popularized it as anti-constitutional.” 

A pathalgadi in Bachrav

After riding for nearly half a day on the rough roads that cut through rugged terrain, I reached Butunga on a rainy evening. This has been the centre of the Pathalgadi debate in Chhattisgarh since early 2018. Earlier, starting in 2015, when Adivasis began to affirm their rights within the Scheduled Areas by erecting stone pillars, the discourse was more Jharkhand-based. In late April 2018, however, Chhattisgarh assumed centrestage when eight Adivasis, including a former IAS officer and a retired general manager of ONGC, were arrested. 

Those arrested were Joseph Tigga (retired general manager, ONGC), Herman Kindo (retired IAS officer), Million Minj, Sudheer Ekka, Phuljenis Ekka, David Kujur, Peter Xess and Jagdev Minj under sections 147, 427, 120 (B), 505, 332, and 352 of IPC. In all, 47 people were implicated in the case. There were some other unnamed people, too, among the accused, who were reported to be absconding. 

What happened in Jashpur during April 2018?

In late 2017, educated Adivasi youths in Jashpur district began to affirm their rights over land, forests and resources as in any other Scheduled Area. Soon they took inspiration from their counterparts in Jharkhand. The residents of Butunga, Kalia, Bachrav and Sihardand villages decided to erect pathalgadis in accordance with their tradition. On 22 April 2018, Bachrav was the first village to erect a pathalgadi; Kalia followed suit. The inscriptions on both the pathalgadis mentioned their constitutional and traditional rights. Batunga erected its pathalgadi but it did not have an inscription. Joseph Tigga was present at the unveiling of the first pathalgadi.

Remnants of the demolished pathalgadi in Butunga

Narrating the developments, the  residents of the village told me that “the local media misinterpreted it entirely”, and the local right-wing politician painted it as the handiwork of “Christian” elements. In less than a week,  on 28 April 2018, the local district Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders under the leadership of Prabalpratap Singh Judeo, the vice-president of Jilla Panchayat of Jashpur; Raimuni Bhagat, member of State Women’s Commission; Bishnudeo Sai, MP; Rajsara Bhagat, MLA (Jashpur constituency); Jageshwar Bhagat, former MLA of Jashpur; and Shivshankar Sai Bhagat, MLA (Pathalgoan) took out a “sadbhavna yatra” from Bachrav village.


“They couldn’t do anything in Bachrav – the villagers didn’t allow them to touch the pathalgadi,” says Vikas. “They came to Kalia village but here the police had secured the pathalgadi. The demonstrators reached Butunga around 4.30 pm, smashing the pathalgadi into rubble. Why a sadbhavna yatra with sticks, hammers, pickaxe and iron rods? If it is a sadbhavna yatra, why shout slogans like ‘Jai Judeo’, ‘Jai Sriram’, ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’, ‘Gau hatya band karo’, and ‘Vinash ke pathar band karo’?” 

Why Pathalgadi?

Adivasis have a tradition of erecting stone pillars or slabs with inscriptions in memory of their ancestors. Bharat Mukti Morcha leader Kalerdan Tirkey says: “In Adivasi custom, when anyone dies, a huge stone is erected over the grave. The Pathalgadi movement draws inspiration from this tradition of honouring the community’s ancestors.” The movement took off with the inscription of key provisions of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 (PESA) on huge stones to raise awareness among the Adivasis about this law that empowers the village as an administrative unit. “There is nothing wrong in it,” says Tirkey. “How can it be technically anti-constitutional when the collector, SP, SDM, and other authorities have been officially invited for it? It is a way of establishing that this land belongs to us and no one else would be allowed in here.

The writer speaking to the residents of Butunga

It is a fact that most of the state governments have failed to execute the statutory provisions under constitutional, legal, and judicial framework. The Fifth Schedule of Indian Constitution under Article 244(1) clearly stipulates that a Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) composed solely of members of the Adivasi community will advise the Governor of the state on the protection, well-being and development of the Adivasi people in the state. Octogenarian activist Stan Swami says, “The reality is that the meeting of the TAC takes place rarely, and it is convened by and presided over by the Chief Minister of the State and is controlled by the ruling party. TAC has thus been reduced to a toothless body – verily a constitutional fraud meted out to the Adivasi people.” Consequently, Adivasis are increasingly being deprived of their land, forests and water as private companies look to extract mineral resources.

The lack of engagement of the government with the people living in Scheduled Areas, particularly in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, is quite evident. Butunga is a classic example of this betrayal. Situated in the centre of a wildlife sanctuary, this village is cut off from the rest of the world. One of the village elders says, “Whenever we have asked for anything like proper roads or electrification, it has been brushed off under the pretext of wildlife. They need the animals to live but not humans. We live in our country as non-citizens.”

Historically, all Adivasi rebellions have had these contextual characteristics of alienation, betrayal, usurpation and intrusion into their domains. Sevti Panna of SAS  says, “Pathalgadi is a rebellion when Adivasis are made to be become benami [identity-less]. We invoked this spirituality that has led the Adivasis to affirm themselves. It also gives a clear message. Once the Pathalgadi is erected, any stranger entering the village arouses suspicion among the villagers. Thus they intercept and interrogate the villager.”

One community elder in Bachrav says, “We had never heard of the Constitution or PESA kanun. With Pathalgadi we know that we are special people and have specific protections under the Constitution.” Vikas, from Butunga, adds, “Can anyone point out one word on our pathalgadis that is unconstitutional? We want to learn more about our rights within the ambit of the Constitution. All we have said is that we are the First Nations of this land. Our nation is our village. We have never seen any other village.”

History of betrayal and broken promises

The betrayal of Adivasis in India is not just historical but also set in a cultural mode and tone. Several studies suggest that the Adivasi population suffered approximately 40 to 50 per cent of the displacement induced by development. Negi and Ganguly (2011) mentions that development projects in India have produced more than 21 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Although the Adivasi population makes up only eight per cent of the total population, they make up more than 40 percent of these IDPs. The difficulties faced by Adivasi IDPs are numerous and distinct, which aggravates the fundamental questions of their land alienation.

According to Dias (2000), the Washington-based World Watch Institute has covered the ecological and social-cultural impacts of mining ranging from community displacement, cultural loss and loss of community autonomy to loss of land, water, forests, fragile ecosystems and food self-sufficiency. In addition to this, the people from such mineral-wealthy regions have been pushed deeper into the mire of poverty, disease and lack of basic amenities.


PESA established a legal framework and roadmap for Adivasi self-rule. A result of the long-drawn struggle of Adivasis for self-determination, this Act for the first time recognized that Adivasis in India have had a rich social and cultural tradition of self-governance community councils (Gram Sabha). PESA gave significant powers to the Gram Sabha in all matters pertaining to the welfare and development of the Adivasis and other moolnivasis (indigenous people). “Had the people in the Scheduled Areas been allowed to exercise [the rights enshrined in] PESA, most of these problems wouldn’t have even surfaced. The officers don’t want to take the consent of Adivasi people at all,” says Indu Netam of Adivasi Samata Manch.

Many Supreme Court and High Court judgments have established the safeguards under the Constitution. The “Samatha Judgment” of 1997 disallowing any mining on Adivasi land came as a huge relief. PESA established the need for consultation with the Gram Sabha and its approval by consensus for any land acquisition to go ahead. The authorities have consistently ignored such judgments, letting colonial “law of eminent domain” override every other provision to alienate Adivasis from their land and plunder the rich mineral resources.

In 2006, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed. It was seen as the law that would rectify the historical injustice committed by the Indian State of not recognizing the rights of forest-dwellers. This Act granted each forest-dwelling family rights to four acres of forest land. According to the annual report of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), in the nine Scheduled-Area states, till 28 February 2017, 41,65,395 claims (40,26,970 individual and 1,38,425 community claims) have been filed and 17,90,624 titles (17,27,655 individual and 62,969 community claims) have been distributed. Nearly 24 lakh (57 per cent) are either pending or have been rejected.

The Supreme Court, in a path-breaking judgment (SC: Civil Appeal No 4549 of 2000), noted: “We are of the opinion that there is nothing in the law which declares that all mineral wealth sub-soil rights vest in the State, on the other hand, the ownership of sub-soil/mineral wealth should normally follow the ownership of the land, unless the owner of the land is deprived of the same by some valid process.”

The Supreme Court went on to declare 214 out of the 219 coal-blocks in the country illegal,  ordered their closure and levied a fine for illegal mining. However both the central and state governments have found a way of reallotting these illegal coal-blocks – through auction to make it appear legal!

In recent decades, the state governments, with the approval of the central government, have embarked on a plan of creation of “land banks”. Rajeev Lakra of SAS says, “Land bank is only a means to measure our area.” It certainly weakens Adivasi rights under Constitution, PESA, FRA, statutory bodies and other provisions. Every state government has plans to acquire at least 20 lakh acres of land, of which a minimum of 10 lakh acres are to be allotted to industries. This includes even “common land”, such as water bodies, rivers, rivulets, hills, hillocks, village roads, sarnas and masnas. This is being done without the knowledge and consent of people and their respective Gram Sabhas.

The instant trigger

Anup Toppo of SAS says: “There have been many instances of exploitation of Adivasis. The Indian State does not even consider Adivasis as citizens.” In 2014, soon after the BJP came into power, it introduced a Bill in Parliament to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) 2013. LARR 2013 gave space for dissent to those being displaced from their land and had provisions for their rehabilitation and better compensations. Despite resistance from almost all the opposition parties and dissent from some of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners, the BJP was all set to push it through. This move faced strong resistance from people’s movements across India. Lakhs of Adivasis took to the streets. “In December 2014, when the BJP-led government introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha, particularly with the idea of curbing Adivasi rights, our people become alert. It sounded the alarm. We resisted it strongly across Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and other areas too,” recalls Deme Oram. The government was thus forced to call off the move.   

Soon after this, the BJP, in power at the Centre and several states, tried to infringe on the state land laws. The most classical example is the way BJP tried to amend Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT) in Jharkhand. Both CNT and SPT had been a legal impediment to transfer Adivasi land to non-Adivasis, particularly to privately owned industries. In November 2016 the Jharkhand Assembly passed the Bills and sent them to Governor Draupadi Murmu for her assent. Six months later, in May 2017, the governor returned the Bills. Adivasis took it as a warning. A similar exercise of making amendments was undertaken in the other states that had special legal provisions for Adivasis in any form, particularly pertaining to land.

Enough is enough! 

This series of incidents led the Adivasi parganas and panchayats to engage in serious discussions on a mode of cultural resistance to the politics of alienation and dismissal of First Nations. No wonder Adivasis are asserting their right to self-governance through pathalgadi, which is de facto the true spirit of PESA.

It would then be highly erroneous to treat this movement as a “law and order” problem, call it “sedition” and therefore take a stand that the mighty arm of the State should punish the leaders. The pent-up frustration from over tens of generations is expressed through the Pathalgadi movement. We may not agree with all that is written on the pathalgadis. But instead of criminalizing Adivasis and those who stand with them in this struggle, we need to ask why Adivasis have written what they have written. Then we may find the answer: Implicit in those lines etched on the stone is the demand that the government uphold the Constitution. This may be too much to ask these days. 

References:

Dias, X. (2000). Mining Today – An Overview of mining in India. Background Paper for the first Mines, Minerals & PEOPLE Convention. Hyderabad: Samatha. 

Negi, N.S. and S. Ganguli (2011). Development Projects vs. Internally Displaced Populations in India: A Literature Based Appraisal. Bielefeld: COMCAD, Working Paper, 103.

Copy-editing: Anil

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