Indigenous India: written in stone

An indigenous movement in Jharkhand is reminding the Indian authorities of their constitutional duty to protect tribal lands. But the government is persecuting tribespeople for standing up. Rohini Mohan reports.

An indigenous movement in Jharkhand is reminding the Indian authorities of their constitutional duty to protect tribal lands. Illustration: Olivier Kugler 
An indigenous movement in Jharkhand is reminding the Indian authorities of their constitutional duty to protect tribal lands. Illustration: Olivier Kugler 

At cold daybreak, the men in Alaundi village emerged sleepily from their mud houses, chewing neem-twig toothbrushes and hugging shawls closer. Wordlessly, they walked through shrubby jungle, towards the warmest spot in a golden paddy field, where the March morning sun shone bright on the tribal council chiefs: three men sitting with a notebook, a cell phone and a laptop.

With the cell phone, secretary Ashirwad Horo called all the laggards, and in the notebook he wrote the meeting’s agenda, ‘Adivasi versus the State of India’. He opened the laptop to a PowerPoint presentation with taut summaries of sections of the Indian Constitution that held both promise and betrayal – the rights of indigenous tribes to land and forest. A month ago, the village had inscribed these lines on a three-metre-tall stone slab it erected at its entrance. ‘No one expected it would make us “anti-nationals”,’ said Horo.

Pathalgadi monoliths

Since September 2017, over 200 tribal villages like Horo’s in Khunti district, an hour from the capital Ranchi in the eastern state of Jharkhand, have been mounting enormous monoliths. The movement is called Pathalgadi – the installation of a stone. These 2.5- to 4.5-metre-tall slabs were previously memorials to the ancestors of the Munda indigenous tribe. Now, they are also signposts listing parts of Indian laws that grant tribal autonomy. They say, in the local dialect Mundari but written in the script used by Hindi, that only indigenous people have right over the land, that no industries, mines or businesses can set up here without their consent and that any outsider must seek the permission of the tribal council before entering.

Fearing a large-scale tribal uprising, the Jharkhand police arrested several participants for ‘disturbing the peace’. Ruling politicians have called Pathalgadi seditious. They call the protesters ‘anti-national’, a term that the government lobs at environmentalists and human rights activists; it suggests that dissent is treason. In response, more villages are erecting stone slabs.

A growing movement

In under a year, the movement has spread rapidly to other tribal districts across central and eastern India, in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, where over 26 million people face similar anxieties. Adivasis – indigenous communities – make up 8.6 per cent of the population in India, but constitute an estimated 40 per cent of those displaced by development projects. And only 21 per cent of these people have been resettled. The movement has become a metaphor for the growing mistrust between the Indian state and indigenous communities – and the ever-present potential for violence.

‘We gave our land for schools, but they brought us neither education nor jobs,’

When I went to Khunti in March, I found large green-painted stones at every turn, crossing and market. A few were erected in the 1990s to remind bureaucrats of the law; but most, in an eruption of anger, in the past year. Munda community leaders said Pathalgadi is an assertion of indigenous rights, repeatedly diminished by the government of India. As one woman from Bhandra village, who led 100 others in Pathalgadi in November, succinctly put it: ‘government means exploitation’. It’s short for the dispossession of land, poor schools, non-existent healthcare, few electricity connections, no running water.

Jharkhand's 'land banks' for developers

In 2001, when the tribal state of Jharkhand was carved out of the eastern state of Bihar after over a 100-year-long agitation for autonomy, the Mundas, Santhals and Oraon tribes hoped for change. ‘But the new state has been worse,’ said Ranchi-based indigenous rights activist Sanjay Basu Mallick. ‘It is politically fragmented, and every regime just tries to attract private investors by chanting that Jharkhand has 40 per cent of India’s mineral reserves, and “free” forest and village land’ – both of which, he reminds me, belong collectively to members of the Munda clan, who are the original settlers, and cannot be transferred for non-agricultural purposes to non-Mundas.

The immediate provocation for the movement, however, is the Jharkhand government’s creation of ‘land banks’ ready for development and its recent attempts to dilute hard-won legal protections for tribes. These would make it easier for the government to acquire tribal commons and transfer it to industry. When some Khunti residents found that their commons were marked as available on a map on the land bank website, they were appalled. ‘If the plan they’re showing is so deadly, their hidden plans must be deadlier!’ said Pawal Tutti, a 25-year-old Munda whom the village calls ‘computer boy’.

Power for tribal council

Pathalgadi wants to reassert the primacy of the customary tribal council. This would bestow financial control over state funds for tribes and consultation before highways and mines raze the granite-rich hill-forests they live in and the land they cultivate. A clutch of laws already mandate this: Schedule V of the Constitution, a 1996 central law that grants powers to village councils to self-govern, and a 110-year-old land tenancy law specific to the region. But for years, bureaucrats and politicians have brazenly whittled down the authority of village councils by ignoring them, fudging their consent for projects, or declaring in courts that they don’t exist. A few villages have started an ‘Adivasi bank’ where they believe their savings and the central welfare grants for tribal welfare will be safe from corrupt government officials.

Alaundi’s morning meeting in the fields was to decide if they should stop sending their children to government schools – another mark of protest. ‘We gave our land for schools, but they brought us neither education nor jobs,’ Horo explained. When I visited eight schools in the area, I found the teachers to be mostly higher-caste Hindus from neighbouring towns. Seventh-grade children could barely add two-digit numbers. In a handful of villages, I saw educated Mundas take not only mathematics classes for out-of-school kids, but also village-level seminars on indigenous rights.

‘Why would we rape women to prove a point? We are not out of control, it is the state that is stopping at nothing to crush us.’

The state government is enraged by Pathalgadi. ‘How can the tribals call us outsiders?’ said Jharkhand’s chief minister, who belongs to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. He is incensed by the usage diku, Mundari for a person outside the clan, on the stone pillars. His regime writes the Pathalgadi activists off as ‘Maoist-sympathizers’, a McCarthyian shorthand. The police and paramilitary forces are raiding villages and preventing further stone slab ceremonies. The local media, and some sections of the national media, have suggested that Pathalgadi participants are ‘misguided’ by anti-national insurgents, that the movement is a front for illegal opium agriculture. There is always a mention of the spears and arrows the men carry.

Protection from paramilitaries

For five months after my visit to Khunti, Alaundi’s tribal council secretary Horo called me every single day at 7am. ‘Johar,’ he always said, but our conversations after that upbeat Jharkhandi greeting grew darker by the week. From deciding only four months ago that their village would not join the school strike, to creating night-watch groups to protect themselves from the paramilitaries and sending youth to safehouses in the city, his village has been transformed. Few now have any hope in the state.

‘They detained three people from the neighbouring village at midnight,’ Horo reported in April. He was afraid to go to his field alone. Paramilitary forces had occupied another school, he said in May. After the chief minister said in a press conference that he would ‘not hesitate to use force’ against villages doing Pathalgadi, five Adivasis were shot in an encounter. Horo mentioned teargas and baton-beating. The police said they were provoked by seeing tribals carry ‘traditional weapons like bows and arrows’.

Soon after, Pathalgadi activists were accused of gang-raping women actors from a street theatre troupe that performed in the area. An investigation by a group of women activists found that the accusations were ‘based entirely on the questionable narrative proposed by the police’. Later that month, a group of indigenous people abducted three police guards from a local parliamentarian’s house. Soon, 20 people were charged with sedition.

Arrests and fear

Other states have followed suit, with similarly brutish and unimaginative action: denigrate first, and then arrest the protesters. Instead of addressing the real insecurities of indigenous peoples through dialogue, they’re closing doors.

On the day the men were arrested for rape, Horo called me, his voice choked. ‘Why would we rape women to prove a point? We are not out of control, it is the state that is stopping at nothing to crush us.’

By August, a handful of villages that saw arrests and increased paramilitary patrolling had called off the protests. One of them even removed the pillar they erected a year ago, saying they would now ‘like to co-operate with the administration’. Horo says his village, like many others, still held the same complaints against the government, but under its strong arm, he says, ‘we have learnt to bend.’

Rohini Mohan is an independent journalist based in Bangalore and author of The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.