“WE have to be careful about withdrawing the cases against the Pathalgadi movement activists because not all the cases are of a political nature. There are cases against some activists pertaining to rape and abduction too, which, obviously, cannot be withdrawn,” said senior Jharkhand Congress leader Rameshwar Oraon, who is now a Minister in the newly sworn-in Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government.
His comments came immediately after Chief Minister Soren declared the withdrawal of all Pathalgadi movement-related cases hours after he was sworn in on December 29, 2019, at Ranchi.
The Pathalgadi movement became a symbol of the tribal people’s uprising in Jharkhand in the wake of the previous Raghubar Das government’s decision to amend tenancy laws in November 2016. The pro-tribal people tenancy laws in Jharkhand, called the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act (enacted in 1908) and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (enacted in 1949), mandate that tribal people’s agricultural land cannot be transferred to non-tribal people or for non-agricultural purposes.
This, however, was sought to be changed by the Raghubar Das-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2016 when it brought in ordinances seeking to amend the two Acts, making it possible for the government to acquire tribal people’s land for commercial purposes and also making possible the transfer of their land to non-tribal people. This was met with stiff resistance by the tribal people in the form of a movement during 2017-18, which came to be known as the Pathalgadi movement. It is believed that the tribal people’s resentment had a huge role to play in the defeat of the BJP in the recent Jharkhand Assembly election.
Pathalgadi is, in fact, the tribal people’s term for erecting stone slabs to mark important events in a village, such as a birth or a death. This, however, took on a different connotation in 1996 when two Indian Adminstrative Service officers, B.D. Sharma and Bandi Oraon, erected stone slabs with inscriptions from the Constitution that granted special protection to tribal people over their land, forests and other natural resources, at the entrance of their villages. This was done after the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, (PESA) was enacted.
The stone slabs were put up at key points in the villages to spread awareness among the tribal people about their rights and powers. When the BJP government tried fiddling with the tenancy laws, more such slabs sprang up all over the State. Violent street protests, too, took place, and the government slapped sedition cases against thousands of tribal people.
It was reported that in Khunti district alone, which is the birthplace of the tribal people’s icon Birsa Munda, 10,000 such cases were registered. Seeing the resentment against the government’s move, the Governor, Draupadi Murmu, did not give her consent to the amendments and sent the ordinances back to the Raghubar Das government, which later withdrew them. But the fear that if Raghubar Das came back to power he would bring it back had taken root, and this fear played a crucial role in the victory of JMM-Congress candidates in the majority of tribal people-dominated seats.
The JMM promised in its manifesto that all Pathalgadi cases would be withdrawn once it came to power. And this is exactly what Hemant Soren announced immediately after taking charge. But, apparently, the Congress does not approve of a blanket withdrawal of all such cases. Rameshwar Oraon told Frontline that there had to be a review before the cases were withdrawn. He made it clear that those activists against whom there were rape, murder or abduction charges could not be set free.
He was referring to the notorious case of 2017 in Khunti district when five women activists of a non-governmental organisation were reportedly abducted, raped and killed by Pathalgadi activists because they happened to be “outsiders”. There was another case when three security guards posted at the residence of then BJP MP Kariya Munda were kidnapped from his official residence in Khunti, allegedly by Pathalgadi activists.
Another senior Congress leader from Khunti, Kalicharan Munda, who contested but narrowly lost the Khunti Lok Sabha election to the BJP’s Arjun Munda, also told Frontline that in the garb of the Pathalgadi movement there were reports of opium being cultivated in the interior areas of the forests. “In the name of Pathalgadi, villagers do not allow government officials to enter their villages, where it is known that opium is cultivated in large areas,” he said. Opium cultivation is banned in Jharkhand, but there are reports that this happens in remote villages that are under the protection of Maoists, who then sell it in the international market to raise funds. Kalicharan Munda was also of the view that a thorough review would need to be done before withdrawing Pathalgadi cases. But even Congress leaders agree that there was no problem in withdrawing cases of sedition, which were basically political and relating only to the protests against the previous government’s move on tenancy law amendment.
Another important decision of the Soren government was the announcement to clear the long-pending dues of anganwadi workers and para teachers. He also announced that government vacancies, pending for a long time, would be filled soon.
“We want people to be happy. Our government’s top priority will be jal , jobs for the youth, education and medical facilities. We will work to make clean drinking water available to all, will review the previous government’s decision to close down schools in remote areas and reopen those which should not have been closed. As for jobs, we will begin by filling up government vacancies first and then work out a plan,” said Rameshwar Oraon.
But before doing anything else, it seems Hemant Soren will have to start setting up a public library because he has been showered with books as gifts after taking over as Chief Minister. Some of them are For the Love of India: The Life and Times of Jamsetji , gifted to him by Ratan Tata; Good Economics for Hard Times , written by the Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerji and Esther Duflo; and The Difficulty of Being Good , written by Gurcharan Das. This apparently followed a tweet by Soren in which he requested that those wanting to wish him should do so by sending him books and not flowers because he would then set up a library open to all.
But interestingly enough, the common minimum programme (CMP), which former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had promised in his press conference in Ranchi saying it would be formulated a day before the government takes oath, is still to take shape. Not having a CMP could lead to differences among the alliance partners, giving the BJP an opportunity to attack the government. “But that will not happen. As you would have seen, most of our promises in our respective manifestos are common. We will go about implementing our nischay patra [manifesto] one by one,” said the JMM’s general secretary, Vinod Pandey.
But he did not mention consulting his party’s alliance partners, the Congress or the RJD. It remains to be seen how long the alliance continues because Jharkhand has a poor track record of non-BJP governments’ longevity. Raghubar Das’ government, in fact, was the only one to complete its term in the 20 years of Jharkhand’s existence.