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: The ruling BJP in Chhattisgarh seems bent on reaping a political dividend from the ongoing Pathalgadi movement in the state by allegedly dividing the tribals and turning the focus onto issues of religious conversions and reservation. And with Assembly elections around the corner, this has only added to this speculation.
At the centre of the row are the state's northern areas of Jashpur and Surguja, where the Pathalgadi movement arrived in its political form on 22 April, when tribal folk in the villages of Bachhraon and Butanga placed a stone slab outside their borders and declared the Gram Sabha as the highest institution.
The Pathalgadi movement has been spreading rapidly in the past one-and-a-half year across the tribal belt in Jharkhand to the linked areas of Chhattisgarh and Odisha, and even Madhya Pradesh. The stone slabs with constitutional rights of the Gram Sabhas written on them are meant to wrest back the powers granted to tribals under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA).
In the past year, such slabs have been installed in several villages and tribals in some areas of Jharkhand have made compliance to Gram Sabhas compulsory for the residents. In many areas, even government officials have been stopped from entering.
Election year and tribal benefits
Chhattisgarh's Jashpur district has a large percentage of Christian voters (22.6 percent), the majority of whom are converts. This has for long been a flashpoint for the Hindutva brigade, whose leaders like the late Dilip Singh Judeo led 'Ghar Wapsi' campaigns to reconvert the Christian Adivasis and demanded that converted Adivasis shouldn't get the benefits of reservations.
The Pathalgadi movement, which focused on the violation of the PESA Act, has recently shifted focus to reservations for the tribals. It has also earned a bad name after the Kunti gangrape in June, in which the police identified a local pastor and "Pathalgadi supporters" as accused.
The BJP has jumped into the fray, with party president and election strategist Amit Shah visiting Chhattisgarh in the last few months – along with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat – to understand the tribals' resentment and the Pathalgadi issue.
The party is keeping a close eye on Surguja and Jashpur to pre-empt a decline in its tribal vote base, as Pathalgadi hits out at the state government. The BJP knows it had a meagre vote difference with the Congress in the last polls and tribal indignation can cause difficulties this election year.
A question of conversion
Since the mid-19th century, Christian missionaries have been operating schools and hospitals in tribal-dominated areas. Later, the local tribals began adopting Christianity. The 2011 Census showed 64.61 percent of Jashpur's total population as tribal, and 22.26 percent of the people as Christians.
In 1952, seeing the increasing population of Christians, the RSS opened its first Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in the area. As political activities started taking place rapidly, Judeo took the command of the Hindu organisations there.
Judeo soon became known for his efforts to bring back converted tribals to the Hindu religion with his 'Ghar Wapsi' campaign. After his death, his family kept on his work.
When the Pathalgadi movement started, Judeo's son Prabal Pratap Singh, also the vice-president of Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha from Chhattisgarh, was the first to come to the forefront. Prabal, carrying on with Operation Ghar Wapsi, is working to bring back the converted tribals to the Hindu religion by washing their feet.
In such a scenario, Pathalgadi is proving to be a challenge as the tribals are demanding their rights. Their resentment forced the ruling BJP to take out a "Sadbhavna Yatra" in late April, which resulted in a ruckus and the leaders commanding the Pathalgadi movement were jailed.
While Chhattisgarh home minister Ram Sewek Paikra has alleged that "behind the Pathalgadi movement are forces associated with religious conversion and hell-bent on dividing the tribals, according to the information we have", there are others who lay the same charges on the door of right-wing outfits.
Once a tribal, always a tribal
Senior journalist and political analyst Alok Putul is one such person. "Six of 14 seats in north Chhattisgarh are such where Christian voters are important. The Congress occupies seven of the 14 seats and the BJP is now engaged in the polarisation of Hindu votes in this area on the pretext of Pathalgadi," he said.
He added that the Pathalgadi movement may have its drawbacks, but the biggest reason for its rise was the PESA law being marginalised in some areas.
In June, Judeo's younger son and MLA from Surguja's Chandrapur Yuddhvir Singh wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling for ending reservation benefits to converted tribals in the country.
Citing the possibility of Jharkhand changing the format of the caste certificate to end benefits for converted tribals, his letter said the state government may take a decision in this regard soon.
It also pointed out that those changing their religion take benefit of the ST category not only in Jharkhand but all over India. "According to confidential reports, thousands of people who are taking benefit of ST reservation are not worthy of taking such benefit as their financial status has become stronger after conversion… this is not right," Yuddhvir wrote.
Former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi, however, disagreed with his demand. He pointed out that no state government can snatch the original identity from tribals changing their religion and snatch away their benefits. He cited an order of the Supreme Court to say "once a tribal, always a tribal".
Chhattisgarh Christian Forum president Arun Pannalal charged the state BJP government with spreading communal propaganda. "Whenever they have nothing substantial to say, they begin to chant about religious conversions," he said, narrating how three years ago, the entry of Christians into certain areas of Bastar was banned under Section 129 of Madhya Pradesh Panchayat Act, 1973, and the state BJP government had supported it.
"But when tribals in Jashpur barred the entry of outsiders by referring to this very Act, the BJP government started shouting about conversion," he added.
"The Supreme Court has considered the tribal a religion-free entity, a nature-worshipper. If they are getting reservation, it is due to being tribals and not Hindu or Christian. Those who do not understand the Constitution are today talking about tribal reservation," Pannalal alleged.
BPS Netam, former IAS officer and president of Chhattisgarh Sarv Adivasi Samaj, is strongly against linking Pathalgadi with religion. He said that Pathalgadi is basically a cultural and social tradition. Netam said that in order to register the provisions of the PESA in Jashpur, the tribals campaigned Pathalgadi movement but people are linking it to conversion in order to defame it.
He said that many tribals in Jashpur adopted Christianity, got an education and then got good jobs. These things were not liked by the Judeo family there. That is why they are trying to polarise by connecting it with conversions. Reservation of tribals is facing attack under this conspiracy.
The author is a Bilaspur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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Updated Date: Jul 19, 2018 17:21:13 IST