I was forced to sign on the land acquisition papers: Sukhram Munda

Sukhram of KochangSukhram Munda is the village headman of Kochang, located in Khunti district of Jharkhand (India). The village was widely known after the incident of gang-rape and it is still in the news for illegal and forceful land acquisition. Gladson Dungdung spoke to Sukhram Munda on the Issue. Excerpt from the interview.

Gladson: How did you join the Pathalgari Movement (Movement for installation of stone slab)?

Sukhram: We were not aware about the provisions of the Indian Constitution. When we heard about the Pathalgadi Movement, some members of the Gram Sabha (village council) participated in some meetings of the Pathalgari Movement, and found is as crucial for the village to protect our land, territory and resources because our area comes under the Fifth Scheduled of the Constitution, where land cannot be acquired without the consent of Gram Sabha. Soon, I conducted a Gram Sabha’s meeting to discuss on Pathalgadi, where all members participated and agreed to install a stone slab at the entrance of our village. Thereafter, we collected the money and bought a stone slab, where the constitutional provisions were curved and installed at the entrance of village on 25th February, 2018.

Gladson: The government authorities claim that Pathalgari Movement is unconstitutional. What is you respond to it?

Sukhram: I don’t think it is unconstitutional. In fact, we have curved the constitutional provision on the stone slab to educate and make aware our Adivasis. Pathalgari is our tradition. We install stone slabs in many social and cultural occasions.

Gladso: The Indian Media claimed that the Adivasis have put barricades at the entrance of the villages. The President of India, the Prime Minister, the Governor, the Chief Minister and other government authorities cannot enter in the village without permission of the Gram Sabha. They must pay tax to the Gram Sabha before entering to the village. Are these allegations true?

Sukhram: These are fake allegations. We have not stopped anyone from entering to our village. Everyone is freely moving here. There is no such barricade or tax system.

Gladson: Pathalgadi leaders Joseph Purty had given a call to boycott the government’s welfare schemes, health & education facilities and developmental activities. Do you agree with him?

Sukhram: Kochang Gram Sabha is very clear about the Pathalgadi, which is good for our village to protect our natural resources but we are against of boycotting welfare schemes, health & education facilities and developmental activities. I have given my land for school in free of cost, health sub-center is being run in my house for last couple of decades and Aanganbadi center was also in my house. Therefore, how can someone blame me of boycotting government’s schemes?

Gladson: You claim that Pathalgadi Movement is to protect land and other natural resources, can you tell me what kind of threat is on the village’s natural resources?

Sukhram: After Kochang gang-rape incident, a police camp was setup in school of my village. I have given land for school in free of cost but another 14 decimals of my land were grabbed for construction of toilet for Jawans(constables) without my consent and compensation.

Gladson: Do you want compensation for your land?

Sukhram: No. I want my land back. How can the government acquire anybody’s land without his/her consent? I know that Adivasis will not survive with compensation. We need land for our existence.

Gladso: Did government take your consent for using school as the security camp?

Sukhram: No. It was done in the night. The para-military forces landed in the night and school was vacated. The teachers were told that their school is merged with the Middle school of Ruguddih village, which is four kilometers far from here.

Gladson: How many children were studying in school? Where are they now? have they shifted to the Middle School, Ruguddih?

Sukhram: 35-36 children of Kochang were studying in the school. Now, they have stopped going to school. The school is far so they don’t want to go. How will I convince them to go to school? This is denial of right to education of our children.

Gladson: Is there any other case of land grabbing in Kochang?

Sukhram: Yes. There is a major case of land grab. The government authorities are violating the power of Gram Sabha for grabbing land of the village. The government intends to setup a permanent police camp in the village but we are against of it. We don’t need a security camp. We are safe without the police.

Gladson: Can you tell me how the government authorities are violating the laws to grab the land in Kochang.

Sukhram: The Circle Officer (CO) of Arki block issued a notice to conduct the Gram Sabha’s meeting for acquisition of 2.47 acre of land for the construction of a community hall. We objected it because how can the CO issues such notice? Only the Gram Sabha has the power to call such meeting. We already have a community hall in the village therefor we don’t need one more community hall. We wanted to know that what kind of community hall the government is going to build in such a huge patch of land? We were surprised to know that government wants to acquire our land for the security camp under the guise of a community hall to avoid the protest, and when we started objecting, the government authorizes are suppressing our voices.

Gladson: Can you explain me how your voices were suppressed and what kind of power is being used to acquire the land?

Sukhram: I was harassed by the police. I’m under their surveillance. On 29th October, 2018, I had gone to Ranchi to attend a seminar. While returning home, the police caught me in Khunti and I was taken to Khunti police station where the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Arki police station was also present. The OCs of Khunti and Arki forced me to sign on the land acquisition paper. They threatened me to imprison in the false charges of participating in Pathalgari Movement if I disobey them. They said that once I were imprisoned, I would never get out of the Jail. I’m already facing four false cases therefor I was afraid of them so signed on the land acquisition papers. They released me at 11 PM after signing the papers.

Gladson: What kind of cases you are facing?

Sukhram: All four cases are regarding the Pathalgari Movement. I was falsely accused of participating in some events of the Pathalgari Movement, where I was not part of but I was in Ranchi during those events. I have proof too. For instance, I was charged in a case of Kanki, where police personnel were hostage by the Gram Sabha but I was not present in Kanki that day. I was in Ranchi for treatment of my eyes.

Gladson: What happened after you were released from Khunti police station?

Sukhram:  After going back to village. I called for the Gram Sabha’s meeting on 30th October 2018, obeying the CO’s order for land acquisition but the government officers did not turn up. Our time was wasted. On the next day, the OC of Arki police station arrived at Kochang’s village market with three Vehicles. Two vehicles are loaded with Sarees and Dhotis (cloths for Men and Women) and another vehicle was full of police personnel. They distributed the cloths among men and women who were present in the village market and got their signature and thumb impression on blank papers. When some villagers asked them the reason for clothe distribution, they said that they are distributing clothes for ‘Sohrai’ festival. Later, we came to know that the document was converted as the Gram Sabha’s resolution for land acquisition. Immediately, we had a meeting in the village and sent a protest letter to the District Land Acquisition Officer, Khunti. I also met the DLAO, who told me that the Gram Sabha has given its consent for the land acquisition. He showed me the papers which I had signed in the police station and the villagers had singed and impressed their thumbs for receiving clothes. This is how we were cheated and betrayed.

Gladson: Now what will you do to protect the land?

Sukhram: We will fight till our last breath. We have no choice. We will also approach to the Jharkhand High Court.

Gladson: Are you not afraid of the government? The police camp is near your house are you safe? Is there any incident of police atrocity in the village?

Sukhram: Do we have any choice rather than fight for our survival? We have not yet faced any such atrocity in the village but it will not remain the same forever.

Gladson: The Pathalgari Movement is blamed for opium cultivation. While coming to Kochang, I saw opium plants both side of the road. What you have to say?

Sukhram : The Pathalgari Movement has nothing do with the opium cultivation. You have seen how opium is being cultivated in the region openly. The police camp is in Kochang and Jawans go for patrolling everyday but they don’t destroy the opium plants. I’m surprised! I have told the police officers several times about it but they don’t bother for it. I don’t know why?

Gladson: Kochang village was defamed worldwide for gang rape. Can you tell me about it?

Sukhram: I don’t know much about it. The victims also did not meet me. I came to know about the unfortunate incident through newspaper only. But I can say that Fr. Alphonse is innocent but he was falsely accused because he creates awareness among the Adivasis.

Ground Report

Land Grab in Kochang

By Gladson Dungdung

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He was alone from Kochang village in the crowd of more than 2000 Adivasis, gathered in Sarvada, which was one of the centers during the Birsa Revolt popularly known as “Birsa Ulgulan”. Kochang was defamed worldwide for gang rape and its so-called connection with Pathalgari Movement last year. Since then, every Adivasi of the village is under surveillance, therefore, they don’t go anywhere in a group. As per the Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, the right to freedom of expression, movement and assembly is fundamental rights of everyone in the country and the State is duty bound to protect, promote and secure these rights. However, the same rights come under the purview of anti-State activities here and anyone can be booked under the sedition charges for their involvement in such activities.

On December 9, 2018, the man had come to tell us about the story of land grab in Kochang but he didn’t dare to unfold the story in the mass meeting due to fear of being victimised by the State. He apprehends of paying the price for exposing the land grab because many police informers were also present in the meeting. He assumes that he might be falsely accused of being the part of Pathalgari Movement and thrown behind the bars. But he was unable to control his emotions. Perhaps, he thought that it may be unfair to return his village without unfolding the matter of land grab. After hearing my speech patiently, he came to me and said that he wants to tell me something about Kochang but of course, not in public. I was eager to know as I already had a document of Kochang land grab, therefore, we went to a corner. He narrated the whole story and I heard him patiently.

The story is that after so much of hue and cry on the ‘Pathalgari Movement’, which is one of the autonomous movements of Adivasis in Jharkhand, the land grab has begun in the Mundas’ territory. The State has been busy in establishing the permanent security camps in the region so that the grabbing of land and mineral resources for the corporate sharks could be started. Needless to say that the security forces will be used to suppress the dissent voices during the corporate resources grab. The State has been facilitating the natural resource grab using all the possible ways and means. For instance, the consent of the Gram Sabha is must for land acquisition in the Fifth scheduled areas but the government has hijacked the power of Gram Sabha. The case of Kurun and Kochang villages unfolds it.

On 23 October 2018, the Circle Officer (CO) of Arki Circle Office issued a notice for conducting Gram Sabha’s meetings in Kurun and Kochang village on 29th and 30th October 2018, subsequently. The letter reads, “A notification letter issued by the Superintendent of Police, Khunti regarding the land acquisition for the construction of community halls in Kurung and Kochang is received, and the dates for the meetings of Gram Sabhas have been fixed on 29th and 30th subsequently, therefore, the presence of every of Gram Sabha member is must.”

The Adivasis of Kochang and Kurung question that how can the CO fix the dates and issue the notices for conducting the Gram Sabhas’ meetings? Who has authorized him to do so? How did he get such power and authority to order us for conducting the Gram Sabha’s meetings? The Deputy Commission of Khunti was out of the scene and the prime role was assigned to the Superintendent of Police, Khunti. Therefore, villagers also question the role of SP. Has the government changed the role of SP from the law and order to rural development? If the SP will look after the law and order and deal with the affairs of rural development, then what will the Deputy Commissioner do?

It would be very interesting to know that there are community halls in both the villages therefore, the villagers doubt whether the SP is going to build community halls or police camps in thier villages? According to the letter, 2.47 acres of land will be acquired in each village for the community hall, which raises a serious question. What kind of community hall the SP is going to build? As per the present practices, 15 to 20 decimal land is acquired for the construction of a community hall, which is more than enough, and of course, there is no such community hall in any village in Jharkhand, which is built on such massive land of 2.47 acres.

The fact is that the government has planned to build permanent security camps in both the villages to serve the vested interest. However, the policy makers know that Gram Sabhas will never give NOC for the land acquisition for setting up the permanent police camps in the villages. Therefore, a trick was played in the name of community hall. Fortunately, the Adivasis understood the trick instantly. They also know that as per the PESA Act 1996, only the village head can call for a meeting of Gram Sabha, still they followed the government order to understand it in depth.

After issuing notice, the police started threatening the villagers. On 29 October 2018, Khunti police picked up Sukhram Soy, village head of Kochang from the market, when he was having breakfast in a roadside hotel. He was taken to Khunti police station. The police officers threatened him to book under sedition charges if he doesn’t agree for the land acquisition. They said that they will send him behind the bars in a false case regarding his involvement in Pathalgari Movement. He was released from the police station at 11pm. The State has been using the ‘Pathalgari’ to punish the dissents. For instance, 20 activists, writes and students were booked under sedition charges. Among these, some of them had merely shared some of my articles regarding the Pathalgari Movement on their Facebook walls. Interestingly, the State violates the laws but the Adivasis are booked and imprisoned under the sedition charges. The Adivasis have been struggling for survival in their own country.

It was the peak hour of harvesting season, still the villages of Kurung and Kochang gathered for the Gram Sabhas’ meetings on 29th and 30th following the CO’s order. They thought that the denial of the CO’s order may have adverse affect on them as more than 60 village headmen and common Adivasis are already in prison on the allegation of being the members of Pathalgari Movement. But neither the CO nor the SP or other officers arrived for the meetings. One full day was wasted but who will pay wage to the Adivasis for it?

Interestingly, on November 1st, 2018, the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Arki Police Station arrived by his vehicle with some police constables having guns in their hands and ‘Saris and Dhotis (cloths for men and women) in the vehicle. They started distributing ‘Saris and Dhotis’ among the people, who were present in the small market near Kochang village. They also gave Saris and Dhotis to those, who were grazing their cattle near the village. They asked the beneficiaries to put their signature or thumb impression on some blank papers. The OC was extremely pleased for accomplishing the work. Perhaps, he thought that the grabbing of the Adivasis’ land is one of the easiest task on the Earth. Adivasis can be fooled with a piece of cloth or ‘Haria’ (traditional drink) with chicken. But is it so? Of course, Not. However, he was overwhelmed.

On the next day, he converted the blank papers as the consent papers of Gram Sabhas for land acquisition and sent it to the SP. The man told me that none of those who have singed or impressed their thumbs on blank papers after receiving ‘Saris and Dhotis’ belong to Kochang village. I just laughed thinking that what will happen to the OC when the SP would come to know about the truth? Is OC made himself fool while fooling the Adivasis? But who will reveal the truth? Will the mainstream media take any interest on it, who tirelessly misinterpreted the autonomous movement of Adivasis while reporting about the Pathalgari?

The case of Kochang exposes that how the biggest democracy on the Earth, has been suffering from the democratic deficit. Is democracy alive in our country anymore? I would say that the capitalism has already assassinated the democracy long ago. How can the democracy be alive when the PESA Act 1996 passed by the Indian Parliament is kept aside to serve the vested interest? The PESA Act recognizes and legitimates the Gram Sabha as supreme authority of a village located in the fifth Schedule area.

Indeed, one can also say that the corporate houses have hijacked the Indian democracy because they fund the political parties and spend countless money during the elections, which is actually the investment for them similar like they invest in a share market. And after formation of the government, they harvest it. That’s why the government(s) amend the safeguarding laws made for Adivasis to serve the corporate interests. Kochang land grab is enough to prove that the State has been facilitating the land and resource grab. The man who told me about the Kochang land grab, went back to his village but no one knows how long he would be safe. He has invited me to visit Kochang but I’m not sure whether I’ll meet him in his village, somewhere else or in the prison.