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Pathalgadi movement: Ahead of polls, Chhattisgarh BJP attacks tribal practice as 'conspiracy' by Christian community

Editor's note: Pathalgadi are stone slabs bearing inscriptions that villagers in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have, over the past year, appropriated to declare their "independence" from the state and central government, and as signposts to mark tribal agitation. This has led to state action against the rebellion. Firstpost will run a series of reported pieces from the region to understand the concerns of locals and the government's position.

Raipur: Election year in Chhattisgarh has stirred up all kinds of political plots, and the Pathalgadi movement is getting ensnared in it. The little heard of tribal practice, which is actually decades old, has been in the news over past few months, especially after the arrest of two senior government officials on the charges of bringing Pathalgadi (in its current form) to Chhattisgarh, and allegedly coaxing six panchayats in Jashpur district to get behind it.

The district has been a flashpoint for the movement, with tribals in many villages placing stone slabs inscribed with Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, (PESA), as a demand for self-rule, holding the gram sabha as supreme and hitting out at the state government, in Chattisgarh’s case, the BJP.

A Pathalgadi stone in Chhattisgarh. Image courtesy: Kunnathully Nakulan Kishore

A Pathalgadi stone in Chhattisgarh. Image courtesy: Kunnathully Nakulan Kishore

Pathalgadi functions in Jashpur villages recently drew the government’s attention and ire, and BJP leaders held a “sadbhavana rally” in the last week of April, which unfortunately ended with a stone slab being damaged in Batunga village. Following this, seven arrests were made.

The arrested men included former ONGC employee Joseph Tigga, retired IAS officer Herman Kindo and one Phuljens Ekka. On 1 May, Tigga was booked in Surguja for giving an inflammatory speech. The other men were also booked for rioting and instigation. Advocate Mohammed Rafique complained the Bagicha police picked up the three men but not those who damaged the stone slab.

On 2 July, the three men managed to secure bail—after the district court initially rejected it— which was then delayed because of the high court summer vacation. The men spent two months in jail. The men were asked not to fan the movement further and stay away from commenting on the same to the media.

'Nothing but political gimmick'

Some in Chhattisgarh are claiming this movement is a political gimmick aimed at inflaming the sentiments of the people and creating turmoil among the tribal community to garner votes. Advocate C Tirkey from Jashpur minced no words. “It is nothing but a political gimmick to create an uproar in the tribal area just before the election. It all started from the villages of Kaliya, Butanga and Bachhraon, where a panchayat meeting was called and village limits were marked with a ‘stone installation’. A few statements were made saying power should be given to the villages,” Tirkey said.

He added that some of those working in NGOs from Surguja region might have used the occasion to inscribe the stone slabs, as the tribals do not have much knowledge of the Constitution. Days later, in the last week of April, BJP leaders started a march from Bachhraon to Kaliya villages, and called it a “sadbhavana rally”. The resulting clash between two groups saw the stone installation being damaged. This led to protests by the tribals.

It is alleged that the administration, acting out of bias, arrested those leading the village movement even as the tribals demanded action against those who damaged the stone. “It has now been turned into a national issue. Politics is hurting sentiment,” the advocate explained.

The BJP sees a conspiracy by the Christian community: A charge Tirkey was quick to refute. “There is no way they are involved,” he said. “The community members have already given in writing to the administration that they are being drawn into a political issue.” Meanwhile, Yudhvir Singh Judev, MLA, Surguja’s Chandrapur, has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought withdrawal of reservations for tribals who have converted to Christianity. He has been raising the issues at different forums and released the letter on social media.

Opposition weighs in

Last week, a no-confidence motion—which failed—was moved by the Congress against the Raman Singh-led BJP government in Chhattisgarh. During the discussion, Congress leader TS Singh Deo brought up the “sadbhavana rally” and said “for political gains, the ruling party leaders participated in the unveiling of the ‘Pathalgadi’ stone, just to retain good faith among the tribes. Then another group damaged the slab to stir sentiments, leading to a law and order situation”.

Questioning the State’s intentions, Singh Deo pointed out that instead of providing jobs or implementing Forest Rights Act, PESA and other laws in the area “the forest department is still standing as an owner”. “Why can't they hand over the community rights of forests, like in Maharashtra? The government does not have any vision or courage to safeguard the rights of tribes. It has not dealt sensitively with the issue,” Singhdeo said.

Veteran Congress leader Arvind Netam said there were three parts to the issue. Delving into the history of Pathalgadi, he recounted that before the arrival of the British, tribals would mark village limits with a stone, believing it would protect them from evil. Flowers were offered and other settlements accepted it as the village boundary. “Then the British came, and mapping of villages was started, but even they did not disturb things much. The third part falls after Independence, when constitutional rights were provided to the tribes: But never fully implemented,” Netam said.

What’s new?

It is true that the Pathalgadi movement is not new. It has been around for around 15 years, when former bureaucrat BD Sharma started the placement of stones with constitutional provisions on them. He worked in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra to create awareness about rights, Netam explained.

The movement picked up recently when fresh stones were inscribed, and the government raked up the issue of tribal conversion and Naxalism. Right-wing leaders have for long been undertaking ‘Ghar Wapsi’ programmes to reconvert tribals in Christian-dominated districts such as Surguja and Jashpur, while Naxalite support has been alleged to exist in Rajnandgaon and Korba districts.

According to Netam, social movements for land, forest and water have exited for a long time. Pathalgadi will also continue, he added. Netam insisted it was not a political movement, nor was it related to the election. “Yes, I asked the Congress to step up for support but I have not backed the movement fully. Even after being in the Opposition for so many years, the party has not supported the practice,” the veteran Congressman said.

On the matter of conversion, Netam said those involved would not rake up a controversy or participate in an agitation. “When it comes to the issue of reservations to converted Christians, the Constitution will have to be changed. Will they separate the North East, where there are 90 percent Christians?” he asked.

Kunnathully Nakulan Kishore is a Raipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters

Read part 1 here: Pathalgadi movement: BJP's attempts to reap political dividends from ongoing rebellion fuel tribal ire


Updated Date: Jul 19, 2018 17:20 PM

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