Research Paper

Adivasis on the March – Crisis and Cultural Genocide in Tribal India  

By Gladson Dungdung & Felix Padel

IMG_1216India’s tribal people are in ferment after a Supreme Court (SC) judgment in February 2019 ordered eviction of over a million tribal families from traditional lands where claims under the Forest Rights Act (2006)[1] have been rejected – as the majority have been, due to obstruction from forest officials and a multitude of murky vested interests.[2] Adivasis are on the march in many states,[3] despite a stay on the judgment asked for by the main political parties.[4]

The case at the SC was brought by several conservation groups. Yet evicting Adivasis is the last thing likely to save India’s surviving forests.[5] Despite hard work by hundreds of dedicated people in conjunction with thousands of tribal families battling mindless bureaucracy, government officials overall have failed outrageously to implement the Forest Rights Act, that was meant to start correcting the massive historic injustice towards Adivasis.[6]

The SC order and Adivasi reactions unfolded in February-March 2019, after vicious government repression of an Adivasi resurgence known as the Pathalgadi movement, in Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Pathalgadi (‘installation of stone slab’) represents a highly original attempt to assert Adivasi autonomy and control over land, territory and resources, which has been recognised through several laws, that have not been properly implemented by most state governments (See here).[7]

The context is one of vastly accelerating dispossession of hundreds of tribal communities in India;[8] and the (often admitted) overall failure to implement the PESA (Panchayat [Extension to Scheduled Areas]) Act of 1996, that was meant to decentralise control in tribal areas, giving tribal people the real autonomy supposedly guaranteed under Schedules V & VI of India’s Constitution. Similarly, the Forests Rights ACT (FRA) of 2006 was meant to correct a historic injustice by giving tribal people their due rights to the forests they have always lived in. The SC order appalled tribal rights activists already reeling from the scale of repression.[9] Government representatives failed even to appear in court to answer the highly distorted charges brought by the ‘anti-Adivasi’ conservation groups.[10]

IMG_1304Erecting megaliths is an ancient custom among many of India’s tribal peoples, for commemorating the dead among other purposes. The custom of erecting pathalgadi stones with quotations from the Constitution or PESA Act was initiated by B.D. Sharma along with senior police officer Bandi Oraon, after PESA was passed in 1996. The practice was revived in 2016-17, in Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, in the face of a rising tide of looming land grabs. One part of this was an unprecedented ‘Land Bank’ portal started by the Jharkhand (and other) governments in 2016, which involved listing Adivasi common or unregistered lands, including sacred groves, as available for investors to buy.[11] By January 2019 this Land Bank listed over two million acres of Adivasi lands in Jharkhand,[12] with a similar phenomenon in Odisha,[13] and other states.

Erecting these large, inscribed stones therefore responds to an urgent need to spread recognition of Adivasis’ legally recognised rights.[14] The stones are inscribed with words from India’s Constitution and PESA, that delegate authority to village councils (Gram Sabhas). By April 2018, the Pathalgadi movement was spreading fast,[15] with its epicentre in Khunti district.

IMG_1253Then an event occurred in June 2018 that led to a wave of extreme repression. Several women actors were reported to have been abducted and raped on 19th June after performing at a Catholic school near Kochang village in Khunti district, and the perpetrators were said to be leaders of the Pathalgadi movement. Many elements of the story did not add up however (See here, The Wire report),[16] and those arrested included the school principle, who was certainly innocent, and is still jailed.[17] Police kept the women under ‘protection’ for two months, with no media access, and on their release, they were reportedly told not so speak out, with death threats to them and their families if they did so. No-one who has investigated the incident closely believes that the rape really happened at all.

Just one week later, a police firing took place 50 kms away, after Ghagra village erected a Pathalgadi. Police were angry about the new stone, and threatened villagers with death if they erected more; supposedly, they were also searching for two of the leaders accused of the rape (Joseph Purty and John Junas Tidu, of Udburu village), as well as three Adivasi security guards, who had been abducted from an Adivasi MP’s house (that of Karia Munda in Charidih village), in a bid to insist on dialogue with the police after several Pathalgadi activists had been beaten up. The police firing took place on 26th June, when an estimated 2,000 villagers were opposing the entry of about 500 armed police into Ghagra. One man was killed, and several badly wounded. The slain Adivasi was named Birsa Munda, after the iconic leader who resisted British rule and died in jail in 1900.This young Birsa Munda was from Chamri village, one of the first to erect Pathalgadi stones in Khunti in 2016-17.[18]

Repression soon became very severe,[19] involving many arrests and charges brought by police against over 10,000 Pathalgadi activists. The movement has been branded ‘anti-national’, and Maoist-instigated,[20] with revered non-tribal supporters such as Stan Swamy targeted too.[21]

            This repression was compounded by the murder of Amit Topno in December 2018, a Hindi language journalist covering the Pathalgadi movement in Khunti and its suppression. There has been no proper investigation yet, let alone justice for Amit.[22]

Recently, a new spate of forced takeovers of Adivasi lands has occurred in several parts of Jharkhand, especially for a new coal-fired power plant by Adani in Godda district (in the state’s northeast, bordering Bihar and West Bengal). Villagers have been beaten up and their crops bulldozed, with widely circulated photos of a woman touching an Adani official’s feet, begging him not to do this. Adani’s plan is for a mega-power plant near Godda, for which coal would be brought from Adani’s controversial new mine in Australia, with electricity sold at a large profit to Bangladesh.[23] Similarly extreme repression has taken place against Adivasi protestors against a huge Adani coal project in Surguja district in north Chhattisgarh.[24] This follows years of mining takeovers in many tribal areas of central India, where open-cast coalmining has devastated hundreds of square kilometres of forest, displacing hundreds of  villages, despite strong Adivasi-led movements against this, for example in North Karampura valley in Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand.

As Virginius Xaxa has pointed out, one of India’s most respected sociology professors of tribal origin, depicting the Pathalgadi movement as ‘anti-national’ is deeply ironic, since its aim is to disseminate the established and neglected laws of the the Indian Government.[25]

Jharkhand’s Adivasis have been marching in large numbers.[26] It is well recognised that tribal communities have preserved India’s forests better than anyone,[27] and over 100 conservationists have joined calls for rescinding the Supreme Court order.[28]

There are too many vital struggles by tribal communities in India to summarise briefly, including uproar on several issues in Northeast India,[29] some involving mass displacement by big dams, oil and infrastructure projects.[30] Adivasis in north Odisha have vowed to boycott the upcoming elections, since the main parties are so apathetic towards their essential needs and rights.[31] Asurs, Birhors and other members of ‘Particularly Vulnerable Groups’ (PVTGs) are neglected and discriminated against outrageously (see here).[32]

Courageously, Sukhram Munda, the headman of Kochang village, near where the alleged gang-rape took place, has spoken out about how he was manipulated into signing land acquisition papers by police bringing a completely bogus case against him, while other villagers were tricked into signing land away through police gifts of sarees and dhotis. The school for which he donated land has been occupied by armed police, who are seeking more land to set up a permanent camp.[33]

To say that tribal people are being displaced by ‘development’ compounds the injustice.[34] What is forcing the displacement is financial investment, that is making a small number of people rich by sacrificing tens of thousands of those human beings living most sustainably in ecosystems they have lived in symbiosis with for centuries, that are now getting destroyed and turned into wastelands at an unprecedented speed – ecocide unfolding alongside cultural genocide.

The setting up and expansion of boarding schools for tribal children is making this cultural genocide much more intense,[35] promoting an unacknowledged policy of assimilation into the mainstream, that follows very closely the pattern of ‘stolen generation’ boarding schools into which indigenous children were forced throughout North America and Australia[36] – a deeply harmful policy for which the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia have apologized to their indigenous citizens.[37] The first ‘industrial school’ was set up for native American children near Pittsburgh in 1878.

The policy of assimilation through boarding schools in north America and Australia ended in the 1970s-80s. In India, by contrast, boarding schools for tribal children are getting more numerous and bigger, and recent government directives are for more boarding schools and greater digitialisation of education, removing learning even further from community control.[38] In ‘Ashram schools’ for tribal children, which number several thousand and are now complemented by many more models of private and government tribal boarding schools (such as ‘Eklavya’ and Kasturba Gandhi residential schools), it is regular practice for children to have their hair cut short on enrolment, and to be given a new Hindu name – just as they were assigned Christian names in North America.[39] Traditional languages, ornaments and even religious practices are regularly banned. In many such schools, Sanskrit is taught – a wonderful, ancient language, but alien to tribal culture, while no less ancient languages such as Gondi and about 400 other tribal languages find no place in the curriculum. As a result of the humiliation and denigration associated with these languages, most show a sharp decline, even though Article 350A of India’s Constitution insists on every child’s right to be taught in their mother tongue. The result is a situation of linguistic genocide, and ‘miseducation’.[40]

The world’s biggest boarding school right now is called KISS (Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences) in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, which houses about 27,000 children from all 62 of Odisha’s Scheduled Tribes (STs), and increasing numbers of tribal children from other states too. Parents are enticed into sending their children to this distant school, even though the experience often alienates them from their families, communities and natural environment. This happens through recruitment agents throughout Odisha and beyond, with tribal development agencies, principals of local schools and even police officials persuading parents to send their children to KISS for a free education, with extravagant promises.

Children at KISS are allowed home only once a year. Special foods that their families send with them back to school are automatically thrown away in front of the children when they arrive in the school premises. Mobile phones through which they could keep in touch with their families are reportedly completely forbidden, and if found on children are confiscated or even broken in front of them. Since children can only go home once a year, this banning of mobiles, even to older children, who cannot phone home easily even when they fall ill, greatly accentuates childrens’ sense of isolation and incarceration at KISS.

The institution has won accolades from all sides for the free education on offer ‘from KG [kindergarten] to PG [post-graduate level]’, and its founder Achyuta Samanta’s claim to be doing a major social service to India’s tribal people has won him a recent award from the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.[41] This promotion is being done by government officials, some very senior,[42] even though the model is a private one. In effect, the government is abdicating its responsibility towards education, with day schools being closed in large numbers.[43]

In addition to the cultural genocide that boarding schools are contributing to, they are also directly damaging a huge number of individual children. Thousands have died in residential schools across India and sexual abuse has been reported repeatedly from tribal boarding schools in Odisha,[44] Chhattisgarh,[45] and elsewhere.

What is particularly sinister about this trend towards large boarding schools is that much of this industrial scale, regimented schooling is being funded by the very mining companies that are seeking to grab tribal lands. Adani is setting up a tribal boarding school called ‘Adani Vidya Mandir’ in Surguja district of Chhattisgarh, where it is grabbing tribal lands for coal mining, funded through its CSR (‘corporate social responsibility’);[46] with another project spreading computerised education in tribal schools in Godda district of Jharkhand where it is using force to acquire land for its power plant. The NMDC (National Mineral Development Corporation) that is expanding iron-ore mines and trying to set up a steel plant in south Chhattisgarh, has set up an ‘Education City’ in Dantewada district,[47] with several more under construction. As for KISS, it has MOU (memoranda of understanding) with Vedanta, Nalco, NMDC and Adani. The Vedanta MOU, for example, promises 20,000 rupees per year from the company for every Dongria Kondh child sent to KISS for education.[48] In other words, it looks as though tribal children are being brainwashed and alienated from their communities so as to facilitate massive further land grabs in the near future.

Other educational models exist! An expanding number of culturally sensitive, small-scale schools in different areas make learning fun,[49] and use tribal languages – a multilingual model that educational research shows produces far better results for improving literacy than imposing a mainstream language from the start. Nagaland has a model in which every village community exercises responsibility over local schools.[50] Is it possible that we can reverse the learning?[51] How can the cultural genocide be stopped? The mainstream world needs to start learning the values of sharing and sustainability from tribal communities, while education for Adivasi children has to become something that is fun and genuinely liberating, while serving their interests and under their own communities’ control.

[1]https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/what-is-forest-rights-act/article26419298.ece?fbclid=IwAR3X0cOo-Shgn7h4QihRLdSWrcX_gb4sXzU3JPI0hoqJ-mAIKMJ1WX4Kst4

[2]https://scroll.in/article/914404/five-reasons-why-claims-by-forest-dwellers-for-their-land-are-low-and-rejections-are-high?fbclid=IwAR2OThS-dFuzr5aR8BP4nigR4n8ZpyRk-3-hMqnZlxBtXUaSzzkjBCc5wyA

[3]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/tribals-protest-against-their-eviction-from-forests/articleshow/68245292.cms?fbclid=IwAR089Xw794aU3U6R4Sx1mEBn1kRJPvTOq43dKrEA6A8I76mG7rtN-nzMu0w

[4]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/bjp-congress-cms-to-appeal-scs-forest-order/articleshow/68160730.cms?fbclid=IwAR0_vJ7nsOf3XflQGpzRElnGTMhN5OAcBvVBtEdDasbnDlpI-KfyIM4bcls

[5]https://www.news18.com/news/opinion/opinion-dear-urban-activists-evicting-tribals-does-not-do-wildlife-conservation-any-favours-2056403.html?fbclid=IwAR1p4Dgjsadytt34Uh1WQWZ41pDRPaCEQUTxh2SyDd1eBRhmc5FBK8WMuH0

[6]https://scroll.in/article/914820/conservation-groups-should-be-helping-adivasis-save-forests-instead-they-are-working-to-evict-them?fbclid=IwAR1M_mek29uIT0qL6cjYSnadF448ENFIHTjeTg0lV_K5UVaFcZRbLUfB4SY

[7] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pathalgarhis-long-shadow-Indias-tribal-heartland-wants-freedom-from-govt-control/articleshow/67673490.cms

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/25/land-grab-tribal-people-india-adivasi?fbclid=IwAR3VUCNOmbrskFiJcSNYBjLeQcZ7ibl0B-FMTKP8YCIyYp9I2tMDRmE_jQI

[9] https://www.counterview.net/2019/02/pro-corporate-supreme-court-order-on.html?spref=fb&fbclid=IwAR24z2Ad1TSKulOf0m3bGwPsVEQ-io7rY6LDt-OZkAcpXrbTnnDj2PrJZT0

[10] https://countercurrents.org/2019/02/23/corporate-conservationists-use-judicial-process-to-annihilate-indias-indigenous-people/?fbclid=IwAR2qiOBnZzAOmsy1acFYSCNK4jAOj4A1GHIXGZKRi58cdR75TbhrWaaXrB8

[11] Jharkhand Land Bank Portal inaugurated, Times of India 5 January 2016, at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/good-governance/jharkhand/Jharkhand-land-bank-portal-inaugurated/articleshow/50448318.cms

[12]https://adivasihunkar.com/2019/01/10/a-memorandum-to-the-governor-of-jharkhand-against-the-land-bank/

[13]https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/governance/odisha-govt-lures-industries-via-land-banks-alienates-people-from-commons-61496

[14] https://thewire.in/politics/jharkhand-religious-freedom-bill-tribes-cnt-spt

[15]https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/the-pathalgadi-rebellion/article23530998.ece

[16]https://thewire.in/rights/police-targeting-pathalgadi-supporters-in-the-jharkhand-gang-rape-case-report

[17] https://thewire.in/rights/jharkhand-pathalgadi-movement-abduction-violence

[18] https://thewire.in/rights/jharkhand-pathalgadi-movement-gang-rape-police-firing

[19] https://thewire.in/rights/jharkhand-pathalgadi-movement-abduction-violence

[20]https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/pathalgadi-a-naxal-act-to-spread-anarchy-jual-oram/articleshow/65047474.cms

[21] https://thewire.in/rights/pathalgadi-movement-adivasis-stan-swamy-sedition

[22]https://thewire.in/rights/amit-topno-journalist-jharkhand-pathalgadi

[23]https://www.indiaspend.com/taking-over-fertile-land-for-adani-group-from-protesting-farmers-jharkhand-government-manipulates-new-law-meant-to-protect-them/

[24]https://caravanmagazine.in/communities/coal-mining-hasdeo-forests-protests?fbclid=IwAR3zREf6lEKYixW0JyTLqFR8VcMRw_SuoJTeJUUsTBbj6k-6vUWKOdXKXsc

[25] https://adivasihunkar.com/2019/01/12/is-the-pathalgadi-movement-in-tribal-areas-anti-constitutional/

[26]https://www.sabrangindia.in/article/10000-jharkhand-tribals-protest-against-sc-order-evicting-forest-dwellers-ancestral-lands?fbclid=IwAR1bJtCAUunTZG9CSSC5yIKp2agz3Swdu3j4Rmc_V6ajop1qSuQPmhSpHOI

[27] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/how-to-kill-a-forest-adivasis-forest-dwellers-evicted-conservationists-5603789/?fbclid=IwAR0wtLtosyCJ59xYX83pYGj1sbnuxDSbmgmAk9ib0fKLEhX9NVooqDiCHsw

[28] https://www.counterview.in/2019/02/100-indian-world-conservationists.html?fbclid=IwAR3daOkTb0tQi3toO3wFhfWVx-s3KotLPgY1NBa2vwjT4hBKUr3S847IUQo

[29] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/fear-and-loathing-in-the-north-east-citizenship-bill-brings-region-to-boiling-point/article25986291.ece

[30] http://e-pao.net/epSubPageExtractor.asp?src=education.Human_Rights_Legal.Natural_Resources_Management_in_Manipur_By_Jiten_Yumnam

[31]http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/2019/mar/04/harried-tribals-of-chakidi-vow-to-boycott-upcoming-elections-1946467.html?fbclid=IwAR3OF7TphY0Ura_3Dd6_Amsoatbn5TA76Hj9OV2WMT4tDrSRia0nlf4iBjU

[32]https://adivasihunkar.com/2019/01/16/the-betrayed-asurs-of-jharkhand/

[33]https://adivasihunkar.com/2019/03/05/i-was-forced-to-sign-on-the-land-acquisition-papers-sukhram-munda/

[34]https://www.epw.in/node/153848/pdf?0=ip_login_no_cache%3Dae806304c296901be13ee691f89f03db

[35]https://www.anthro.ox.ac.uk/files/jaso10120182247pdf

[36]http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/aguide-to-australias-stolen-generations#toc0

[37] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/15/justin-trudeau-pledges-reconciliation-canada-aboriginal-abuse

[38] https://www.indiatoday.in/union-budget-2018/story/budget-2018-eklavya-model-schools-in-tribal-majority-areas-by-2022-says-arun-jaitley-1158993-2018-02-01

[39] https://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3524-residentialschools

[40]https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/miseducation-in-bastar-13347

[41] https://kalingatv.com/state/kiss-conferred-with-ncst-leadership-award-for-exemplary-services-towards-st/

[42] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-idea-of-kiss-2/

[43] https://scroll.in/article/738028/chhattisgarh-is-closing-down-schools-in-areas-where-it-should-expand-them

[44]http://zeenews.india.com/news/odisha/orissa-cm-ordersprobe-into-sexual-abuse-of-tribal-girls_612376.html

[45] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/east/story/dhanora-sexual-assault-case-neeta-naag-vinod-naag-kanya-ashram-tribal-school-superintendent-dhanora-village-chhattisgarh-184413-2014-03-11

[46] http://indiacsr.in/dr-priti-adani-fronts-adani-vidya-mandir-surguja-chhattisgarh-educate-underprivileged/

[47] https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/chattisgarh-dantewada-educationcity-109956-2012-07-17

[48] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/vedanta-funds-education-of-100-underprivileged-tribal-children/article23080857.ece

[49] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSIaAIP-wwM

[50] https://www.outlookindia.com/newswire/story/success-story-of-nagalands-communitisation-programme/575565

[51] https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/economy/reverse-the-learning-57776

Article

Is the Pathalgadi Movement in Tribal Areas Anti-constitutional?

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A movement known as the Pathalgadi movement has been brewing for quite some time in the tribal areas in the heart of India. Yet, it had not caught the attention of the people at large and the national media, until the alleged kidnap and gang rape of five non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers by some youths in the Khunti district of Jharkhand. The movement, though not confined to them, is more notable in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The state administration and regional media have dubbed the movement as anti-national and Maoist-driven. Cases of sedition have been filed against people sympathetic to, and those associated with the movement, as well as villagers supporting the movement. A large number of people have been arrested. Some are on bail while others are still languishing in jails. The Pathalgadis, on the other hand, claim it to be constitutional. The claim, in my view, is true and tenable, though they have been over-enthusiastic in their interpretation of some provisions. The problem with the special provisions provided for tribes in the Constitution and laws enacted for their safeguard is that the very people and institutions—politicians, administrators and the judiciary—that are to administer them, have generally little knowledge and understanding of the special provisions and laws themselves. These are special provisions and laws, and cannot be subservient to the laws, rules and regulations applicable to the general population.

Pathalgadi as Tribal Tradition

The term Pathalgadi has been drawn from a tribal custom of placing a stone at the tomb of a dead person, especially among tribes belonging to the Austro–Asiatic linguistic family such as the Mundas, Khasis, etc. Sasandiri was the original term the Mundas used to describe this practice. However, after the enactment of the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) in 1996, former Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer B D Sharma and former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Bandi Oraon initiated the practice of placing stone slabs inscribed with provisions of the act. This was done with a view to raise awareness of the provisions among the villagers. It is worth noting here that the 73rd (Panchayati Raj) and 74th (Nagarpalika) constitutional amendment acts of 1992 were excluded from their extension to the Fifth and Sixth Scheduled Areas. Parliament was to extend provisions for Scheduled Areas by enacting separate laws, which it did through the PESA in 1996. The act extended the provisions of the Panchayat Act to the Scheduled Areas.

Social Moorings

What is happening today in the tribal areas in the heart of India, reminds one of the early phase of the British rule in these areas. The British brought tribes under the same rule and administration as others, once the territories they inhabited were incorporated into British India. There was an imposition of laws, rules, regulation and administration that were alien to the tribes. The new land and revenue settlements resulting in the introduction of private property in land along with written documents in support of it, was one such instance that played havoc in tribal areas. This was the beginning of the alienation of tribal land to non-tribes. The improvement of the means of communication to tribal areas only accelerated these processes as the regions were now not only opened to the movement of traders, merchants and moneylenders, but also to the land-hungry non-tribal peasants from the plains in its vicinity. This accelerated the alienation of the tribal land leading to general restlessness among tribes, culminating in a series of revolts and rebellions at a regular interval all through the late 18th and 19th centuries. Often, these revolts are treated as wars of independence of the tribes against the British. It is worth noting that these wars were as much against the people of the plains as against the British. Both were equal partners in the oppression and exploitation of the tribes. The recurrent revolts did pose a threat to the British rule and administration. As a measure to contain such recurrences in the future, the British therefore toyed with the idea of certain safeguards. These came in the form of non-regulation tracts where general laws and regulation were not applicable unless felt otherwise. Later, such areas came to be referred to as excluded and partially excluded areas, which provided some space for traditional systems of self-governance.

Much of the problems the tribals have been facing today have their roots in this colonial legacy, which became even more entrenched in post-independence India. What is being witnessed today in tribal areas is a repeat of what their forefathers had been through about 200 years ago. Alienation of land from the tribes to non-tribes has continued unabated despite the constitutional provision of bringing much of the areas that the tribes inhabit into the Scheduled Areas, either under the provision of the Fifth or Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. This problem has been compounded by the extent of displacement that the tribes in the region, especially the Fifth Scheduled Areas, have been witness to following the state development projects as a part of the nation-building process. With the opening up of the Indian economy to the wider world through the processes of liberalisation and globalisation since the early 1990s, there has been an unprecedented entry of the private companies, including multinational corporations (MNCs), for resource extraction and profit. The state governments have been very proactive in facilitating and aiding this process. As there are laws restricting alienation of land from tribes to non-tribes, states began acquiring lands and making it available at the disposal of private companies at a price higher than what it paid to tribes as compensation.

Such passing of tribal land by the state to private companies in the Fifth Scheduled Areas, as per the historic Samata judgment of the Supreme Court in 1997, is legally and constitutionally untenable. Hence, the state governments have been toying with the idea of tampering with the legal and constitutional safeguards meant for the tribes. This has been most evident in Jharkhand. There had been attempts to bring in amendments to the Chhotanagpur Land Tenancy Act, 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949. The former was enacted in the aftermath of the tumultuous Birsa Munda movement. The bill failed to receive the assent of the Governor due to massive protests by the tribals. As a strategy to break the unity of the tribes, the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill was introduced and passed in 2017. A few months later, an ordinance was passed introducing the amendment to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Settlement (Jharkhand Amendment) Bill, 2017. The ordinance has been awaiting assent of the Governor and President. All these moves are pointers to the persistent attempts by the government to counter the provisions of protection and safeguard enshrined in the Constitution and laws.

Legitimate Assertion

Given such repeated moves by the states for the acquisition of tribal lands, the tribes are pushed to defend themselves. Earlier, they had been resisting such projects through protest, rallies and other democratic means on a continuing basis. Of late, however, they have been trying to defend themselves from such assault by asserting their constitutional and legal rights emanating from the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. In the Fifth Schedule, the governors, to begin with, are vested with special powers to safeguard and protect the interests of the tribal population. They are expected to examine laws enacted by Parliament and the state legislature to ascertain if they are in keeping with safeguarding of tribal interests, and accordingly have the power to restrain their application in Scheduled Areas or suggest their application along with suitable amendments. They are responsible for the maintenance of law and good governance in tribal areas. In all these they are expected to take the advice of the Tribes Advisory Council. They are also expected to submit annual reports to the President of India on the tribal situation of the state. Paradoxically, however, the governors have shied away from this constitutional responsibility. Due to this, much harm has already been done and is still being done, but the governors seem to be oblivious of their responsibility. Under the Sixth Schedule too, the Governor is a custodian of tribal interest though there is a provision of self-governance in the form of autonomous district councils. The autonomous council has legislative, executive and judicial power over certain subjects. What the Fifth Scheduled Areas of mainland India did not have is self-governance. Hence, there was a campaign and movement for self-governance which was led by Bharat Jan Andolan, an umbrella organisation of NGOs, activists, academics and grass-roots tribal community organisations. The slogan of the movement was “hamara gaon hamara raj” (our village, our rule). The movement culminated in the enactment of the PESA in 1996.

In short, the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution provides for administration and control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes (STs) and gives power to the Governor to make regulations for peace and good governance of the Scheduled Areas. Deriving force from these enabling provisions in the Constitution aimed at ensuring social, economic and political equity, several specific legislations have further been enacted by the central and state governments for the welfare of the STs, the PESA being one of them. Essentially, the Fifth Schedule is a historic guarantee to the STs over the land they live on.

However, the acronym PESA for Provisions of Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act is somewhat misleading. It is important to note that it is not an extension of panchayati raj as it is generally viewed, but an extension of the provisions of the panchayat to Scheduled Areas. The provisions provided in the PESA are substantially different in letter and spirit from the Panchayat Raj constitutional amendment act of 1992. The latter was exempted from its application in the Fifth and Sixth Scheduled Areas. The PESA provides for self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in the Fifth Scheduled Areas. In fact, the PESA mandates that notwithstanding anything contained under Part IX of the Constitution, the legislatures of the states shall not make any law under that part which is inconsistent with any of the features of the PESA. The key features are:

(i) A state legislation on the panchayat that may be made shall be in consonance with the customary law, social and religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources. Every gram sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and customary mode of dispute resolution.

(ii) All relevant subject laws and rules, central and state are to harmonise with the aims and objectives of the PESA. Some of the key acts that need consideration in this context are those regarding land acquisition, mines and minerals, forests, forest conservation, excise, etc.

(iii) While endowing panchayats in the Scheduled Areas with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-governance, the state legislature is to ensure that the panchayats and the gram sabha are endowed with power and authority to enforce or regulate the ownership of minor forest produce, power to prevent alienation of land and to restore alienated land, the power to manage village markets, exercise control over moneylending, excise, etc.

Given such powers to tribes under the PESA, it is extremely problematic to treat the Pathalgadi movement as anti-national and book people associated with the movement under charges of sedition. In fact, the people are merely asserting the rights provided to them by law and the Constitution. If they have gone somewhat overboard with regard to the interpretation of some of the provisions, the state governments are almost totally ignorant of special rights provided to tribes in the Constitution and law enacted by the state. If governments fail to imple­ment the rights given to the people, it is only imperative that people engage in democratic assertion for the realisation of their rights. Indeed, history is witness to the fact that the implementation of laws has been effective only where there are grass-roots organisations to ensure the effective realisation of rights.

 

Virginius Xaxa is Professor of Eminence at Tezpur University Assam. He can be reached at virg1978@gmail.com

Note:  This article was first published in EPW.

Ground Report

Land Grab in Kochang

By Gladson Dungdung

14thgz3-1 09.01.28

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.