The recent wave of tribal unrest under the banner of the Pathalgadi movement in tribal-dominated Jharkhand, has unnerved the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is finding it difficult to cope with the situation. The BJP is worried as the movement has the potential to spread to the neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, all with a significant tribal population.

In the latest incident which rocked the region, five theatre artistes were gang-raped in Khunti district, close to capital Ranchi recently. According to the police, Pathalgadi activists were behind the incident. While the administration was trying to solve the case, three bodyguards of BJP MP and former Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Karia Munda, were hijacked. There was an attempt to hijack his daughter-in-law, allegedly by Pathalgadi activists this week too. The bodyguards were rescued later.

Pathalgadi means planting a “stone order”. It is believed that stone plaques and signboards have come up at the entry points of over 200 villages in the state. This “stone order” dismisses the authority of Government of India and the state government in the villages.

The two incidents have completely jolted the state administration, on how to contain the unrest which has been building up for the last few years. BJP president Amit Shah has apparently asked the state unit for a detailed report on the latest incidents as any complacency may affect the party’s poll prospects in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Shah may visit Ranchi next month to take stock of the situation. In 2014, the BJP bagged 12 out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand, while in the Assembly elections, the first ever majority government was formed by the BJP in the state that came into existence in 2000. “The Opposition is spreading the canard at the national level that the BJP is anti-Dalit. Now they will start painting us as anti-tribals. This will not only affect our poll prospects in Jharkhand, but also in other states. We have a good support base among the tribals as was evident in the recent Assembly elections and we cannot afford to lose them,” said a senior BJP leader.

The fresh trigger to this movement were the changes made in the Land Acquisition Bill, 2017, which was passed by the state Assembly and very recently approved by the President. The new bill allows the government to eliminate the step of conducting a social impact assessment for land acquisition. There is a fear among the tribals that their land will be taken away by the government in the name of development. In November 2016, the state government made amendments in the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPTA) and Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CTA), which prohibits the sale of tribal land to non-tribals. However, there was strong opposition to this amendment and subsequently, Governor Draupadi Murmu returned the bills for reconsideration. The Raghubar Das government finally withdrew the bills in August 2017.

The Opposition led by Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has called for a Jharkhand bandh on 5 July against the land acquisition bill.

What has added fire to the land issue is the Church’s alleged support to the Pathalgadi movement, which, according to the ruling BJP dispensation, is because the Raghubar Das government enacted the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017, to check religious conversion, which was rampant in the state. Though the Church has vehemently denied its hand in the Pathalgadi movement, it has alleged that the Raghubar Das government is against the tribals. Similarly, there are also indications of support from the Maoists. “They all appear to be hand in glove, as their interests match,” said a source.

According to Salkhan Murmu, a prominent tribal leader and president of Jharkhand Disom Party, if immediate steps are not taken to contain the unrest, Jharkhand will soon become Manipur, which saw a situation where tribal representatives were attacked by the tribal people. Murmu, a former BJP MP, said the basic policies for the tribals were never formulated ever since the formation of the state and the tribals felt cheated. “I cannot say that one government or one Chief Minister is responsible for it. Before Raghubar Das, all the CMs were tribals. Moreover, all the parties got the opportunity to rule the state in the last 18 years. As for the Land Acquisition Bill, there is a fear among the tribals that their land will be given away to the corporates. Pathalgadi activists are using this fear against the government,” he said.

Opposing the Pathalgadi movement, Murmu said confrontation could not bring about any solution. “Tribals have genuine concerns, but these cannot be solved through non-democratic means. Instead, efforts will have to be made to correct the wrongs, through constitutional ways. We are organising a rally in Chaibasa on 3 July to call upon all the tribal public representatives—MPs, MLAs, mukhias, zila parishad chiefs etc—to unite, cutting across party lines, for the larger interest of the tribals. For example, out of 81 Assembly seats, 28 have tribal MLAs. They can bring about the required changes. We cannot wait for the next Assembly elections to come to power and then make the changes, as till that time our land will be gone,” he added.

The Pathalgadi activists say that they do not belong to any nation and the gram sabha is the supreme authority. Besides Khunti, Pathalgadi groups are active in Simdega, Gumla, West Singhbhum and Seraikella-Kharsawan districts of the state. Incidentally, all are Maoist infested districts. These stone plaques have provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA written on them. “Outsiders” are “warned” not to enter the village, as per the “order” written on these plaques. Their fight is aimed to reclaim their rights over “jal, jangal and zameen (water, forest and land)”. Khunti has emerged as the epicentre of the Pathalgadi movement.

Speaking to this newspaper, Chief Minister Raghubar Das, without naming the Church, said there were “some forces” that were misguiding the innocent tribals against the development work being carried out by his government. “These forces have problems with us because we brought the Religious Freedom Bill. There is an effort to defame the government,” he told The Sunday Guardian. Das also offered talks with the activists in order to address their concerns.

Secretary General of the Catholic Bishop Conference of India (CBCI), Bishop Theodor Mascarenhas, said: “We do not support the Pathalgadi movement. But Pathalgadi is not the only issue. There are many issues involved. The Raghubar Das government is biased against the tribals. There is a move to divide the tribals between Christians and non-Christians and take away their land. There is disenchantment among the tribals. The state government appears to be having a vindictive attitude towards the Church and Christians. He is showing hatred towards us. We would appeal to the CM to pay heed to the advice of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—sabka saath, sabka vikas.”

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