The Pathalgadi rebellion -Amarnath Tewary
In recent months, many Adivasi villages in Jharkhand have put up giant plaques declaring their gram sabha as the only sovereign authority and banning ‘outsiders’ from their area. Amarnath Tewary reports on a political movement that is gathering steam across the State’s tribal belt
It is high noon at the government middle school in the heart of Maoist-affected Arki block in Jharkhand’s Khunti district. Over 100 Adivasi villagers have gathered in the school’s playground with bows and arrows and slingshots, called ‘Gulel’ in the local language.
They raise slogans, make proclamations. “We are the Bharat Sarkar (the Indian government). We do not recognise the Central or State governments or the President, Prime Minister or Governor. Our gram sabha is the real constitutional body. We will not allow anyone to enter our areas without our permission. We will not be exploited anymore,” they say in unison. The youth seem more agitated. “We are the real inhabitants of this country — jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest and land) is ours and no one can take them away from us,” they say. “And Pathalgadi (the stone plaques and signboards) are all about this.”
PESA carved in stone
Tribals make up 26% of Jharkhand’s population. Over the past year, in nearly 200 villages spread across four districts in the State— namely Khunti, Gumla, Simdega and West Singhbhum — huge stone plaques, known locally as Pathalgadi, have come up at the entry points of tribal hamlets. The plaques, measuring 15 ft by 4 ft and painted green, have messages carved on them. These include excerpts from the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) as well as warnings to outsiders, prohibiting them from entering the village.
“Pathalgadi are basically a way to demarcate our territories and tell outsiders (government officials) that the law of the land does not apply here. It is a movement of the tribal people that will gradually engulf all the 32,620 villages of Jharkhand,” say the young leaders of the movement, Balram Samad, John Junas Tiru, Shantimoy Hembrom, and Ranjit Soy, all in their twenties.
In Munda tribal custom, placement of a huge stone marks the death of a person. The Pathalgadi movement draws on this tradition of honouring the community’s ancestors. Activists say that the movement derives inspiration from the provisions of the PESA. The leaders of the movement decided to carve the key provisions of the PESA as messages on huge stones in order to enlighten Adivasi people about this law, which empowered a village as an administrative unit.
This is a sample of the plaque carvings: “A village shall ordinarily consist of a habitation or a group of habitations or a hamlet or a group of hamlets comprising a community and managing its affairs in accordance with traditions and customs; every village shall have a gram sabha consisting of persons whose names are included in the electoral rolls for the panchayat at the village level and every gram sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources, and the customary mode of dispute resolution.”
“We had started Pathalgadi by engraving these PESA provisions in all the villages of Jharkhand to increase awareness among the tribal people about their rights. But today, the meaning of Pathalgadi appears to have changed,” says Bandi Oraon, a nonagenarian who had started the movement under the banner of the Bharat Jan Andolan. A former IPS officer and MLA from Sisai constituency of Gumla district, Oraon was also a member of the Bhuria Committee constituted to frame the PESA.
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