What is Pathalgadi and why did Jharkhand CM withdraw Pathalgadi sedition cases?
In 19 FIRs, Jharkhand Police had pressed sedition charges against 94 individuals. These FIRs were also lodged against roughly 10,000 unknown tribals from different villages in Khunti district.
Moments after swearing-in, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren held his first cabinet meeting on December 29. The biggest news that broke that night was Soren government’s decision to withdraw the Pathalgadi sedition cases. Back in 2018, Jharkhand Police and the state government led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had declared the Pathalgadi movement supporters as “anti-nationals”. The police had pressed sedition charges against several activists alleging that the accused persons were involved in anti-national activities and misrepresented the provisions of the Constitution.
During Raghubar Das’s tenure, in 19 first information reports (FIR), the police had pressed charges against 172 individuals and 10,000 unknown belonging to different tribal villages of Khunti district. The police had got permission to press section 121A/124A (sedition) against 94 accused persons.
The resident editor of a leading Hindi Daily, in Ranchi, had told this correspondent that the Das government was quite serious in pursuing the cases – filed to crush the Pathalgadi movement. More importantly, until results of the fourth Jharkhand assembly election were announced, the fate of those behind bars was hanging fire.
Reason? Many of these families were not even willing to acknowledge or give credence to the Indian Courts or for that matter the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) or the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
What is Pathalgadi?
Pathalgadi is an old tribal tradition to mark the boundary of the village. Stone slabs are erected outside the village boundaries in some cases declaring the rules of the gram sabha – the representative body of the village. Tribals in Jharkhand especially those from Munda tribe also carry out Pathalgadi to erect memorial stones for deceased family members. At times, specifying the family lineage.
In 2017, Khunti district, located nearly 36 kilometres away from Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi, witnessed a resurgence of Pathalgadi as a movement. The district is dominated by the Munda tribe and Mundari is their primary language. It takes a drive of another 12 kilometres from the district headquarters to reach Murhu block of the district. The villages such as Udburu, Khatangatoli, Buruhatu, Jikeelta, Anidih, Sosodih, Mandra Putkaltoli, Chamdi, Bhandra, Kanki and Kekai were impacted by the movement. Notably, many of these villages are located in such remote parts that one hardly gets any mobile network here.
Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) patriarch Shibu Soren argues that Pathalgadi is an integral part of the Adivasi culture and that the government has no right to intervene in such cultural matters.
"Pathalgadi is a pan India concept and can be categorised as a form of the megalith," said AK Pankaj. He is an activist based in Jharkhand and has been working on the culture and history of the Adivasis. Pankaj said the Munda tribe has taken this culture of Pathalgadi to wherever they have settled.
According to him, Mundas carried out Pathalgadi on different occasions: to mark the boundary of their villages, to mark the establishment of a new village and at times to mark some major community decision.
Chokahatu -- a small hamlet nearly 40 kilometres from Ranchi -- is probably India's biggest Pathalgadi site. Pankaj claims that it is living history of the Munda tribe. Ashes of persons belonging to a particular Munda clan, irrespective of where they live, are brought to this site, said Pankaj.
The difference between traditional Pathalgadi and present-day movement
The present-day Pathalgadi movement took a slight deviation from its traditional form. The ideologues behind the movement used the Constitution’s Schedule Five to claim supremacy of the gram sabhas. Its leaders such as Yusuf Purty alias Professor erected huge stone slabs at the entry points of the villages asserting the “self-rule” or “self-administration” model. These stone slabs also declare that entry of “outsiders” (non-Adivasis) is not allowed without the gramsabha’s permission. And it challenges the credence of the Indian judicial system.
The difference between the two can be decoded by looking at the old Pathalgadi slabs and those erected in the wake of the present-day movement. One can find a classic example by looking at the stone slabs installed right outside Purty’s village – Udburu. A highway cuts in between Jikeelata and Udburu villages. And on both sides of the road stand massive stone slabs declaring the rules of present-day Pathalgadi. These stones dub government documents such as Aadhar Card, Voter ID as anti-tribal documents. These stone slabs also claim that laws passed by the legislative assemblies are not directly applicable to them.
And right next to this new-age Pathalgadi stands a memorial installed in 1982 written in Mundari. It briefs us about the history of Adivasis living in India and Jharkhand. The tribal-state was formed in 2000 but Adivasis have always identified it or referred to it as Jharkhand, amongst many names. And its references can be spotted on this slab.
“I was young when this slab was erected and is written in Mundari. It speaks about our history, from where we tribals came and how we settled,” Junas Mundu, 45, told this correspondent. Mundu is a farmer and lives near Jikeelata village.
When asked about the new-age Pathalgadi which restricts the entry of upper-castes and “outsiders”, Mundu said, “restricting anyone’s entry into the villages is wrong. We can live peacefully with the world only when we live together.”
In 2018, a series of events led to the crushing down of the movement by the BJP-led Jharkhand government. Ahead of the crackdown and show of brute force in villages such as Udburu, there was a sustained campaign being run against the Pathalgadi and its supporters. The FIRs under different sections including Sedition (Section 124-A) were also lodged against the movement’s ideologues such as Purty and Birsa Odeya, resident of Gitugara.
In June that year, five tribal girls were kidnapped and gangraped in Khunti’s Ghagra village. Purty – the tribal leader aggressively leading Pathalgadi movement - along with Father Alphanso and others were made co-accused in the case. In May 2019, Alphanso was convicted in the gangrape case. The security personnel deployed at BJP MP and former Lok Sabha speaker Kariya Munda’s residence were allegedly kidnapped by Pathalgadi supporters in the same week as the gangrape incident. Then the police in a coordinated operation started its raids and arrests. While several activists and supporters of Pathalgadi were arrested, others like Purty and Odeya were at large till December 2019.
The distrust of media and the government
In the wake of the crackdown, the mainstream media portrayed the Pathalgadi activists in an extremely bad light – a constant accusation when you meet the families of accused. These families continue to show complete hostility towards the media personnel.
“We don’t trust the media. You guys will again try to declare us as anti-nationals when the fact is that we (tribals) are true residents of this country,” Birsa Odeya’s cousin, in his mid-20s, had told this correspondent in Daugada part of the Gutigara village. Odeya was one of the accused in the sedition cases filed by the police. The distrust is such that he refused to even share his name with us.
In Udburu village, the story was no different. Purty’s brother and sister while defending their elder brother refused to share their names. “The moment you leave our village, the police will visit us. Media has been talking to us and using it against us,” Purty’s brother told this correspondent. They had accused the BJP government of framing their activists and family members. Purty’s sister said: “The government thinks he is against them. But for us, Yusuf Purty was fighting for justice, for Adivasis”.
Purty’s brother rejecting all allegations against his brother said: “Mera bhai deshdrohi nahi hai, Professor hai (My brother is a professor not an anti-national).
Soren’s political compulsion to withdraw the sedition cases
In the recently-concluded Jharkhand election, the BJP had to face a humiliating defeat at the hands of Hemant Soren-led Grand Alliance. While the BJP managed to win only 25 assembly seats, the JMM had clinched 30 seats and its allies, Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal had won 16 seats and one seat respectively.
Tribal communities form 26 per cent of Jharkhand’s electorate. The saffron party had to face the brunt of tribal anger in the state. And the BJP lost 26 of 28 assembly seats reserved for the tribals. This electoral rout is being decoded as the cumulative effect of anger simmering due to the BJP’s attempts to amend the indigenous land rights acts – Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT) – and the crackdown on the Pathalgadi movement.
The JMM’s manifesto had promised that it will withdraw cases filed against the protestors who were part of protests against the CNT-SPT amendments. In an interview during the elections, JMM’s patriarch Shibu Soren had said that if the JMM comes to power it will withdraw the sedition cases filed against the Pathalgadi supporters.
The tribals are the JMM’s core voter base. And to ensure that this vote bank doesn’t drift away from the JMM, the Soren family made such concrete promises. It was the JMM’s political compulsion to do so. The Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren understands these compulsions. That is the reason why, on day one in office, he withdrew the sedition cases filed against the tribals and the cases related to CNT-SPT protests.
However, for the accused, the legal fight in the Pathalgadi cases is far from over. Their fate will be decided by the judiciary. According to Jharkhand High Court lawyer Sonal Tiwary, the Soren government will have to ask the police to close the cases related to the Pathalgadi movement. This would mean the police cannot arrest any new individual who has not been already named in the FIR so far.
In the cases where a charge sheet has been filed or the accused persons are in jail, the public prosecutor will have to plead that the government wants to withdraw these cases. However, Tiwary, who has been handling cases related to Pathalgadi accused persons, told Asiaville: "It is up to the discretion of the judiciary whether it allows withdrawal of these cases or not."
Tiwary argues that the Soren government hasn't clarified yet whether all cases related to Pathalgadi will be withdrawn or only those pertaining to Section 124-A will be closed and the charges revoked.