Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Khunti: A green 15-feet stone plaque (pathal in the local tongue) mentioning various articles of the Constitution of India stands tall in Bhandra village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district. It’s the only physical remanent of the events of 2017 when this tribal settlement — among many others in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, some in Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal — proclaimed autonomy from the Indian state. While the movement has petered out — some say, gone underground — in a whirlpool of conspiracies, kidnappings, arrests and a horrific incident of rape, it seems people of Bhandra village are still in no mood to participate in the democratic process of electing the next government at Centre.
As news trickled out about this audacious decision of gram sabhas declare themselves the highest authority within its borders, as marked by these pathals, the country was confronted with dramatic visuals of tribesmen, and boys, standing side by side and brandishing primitive weapons like spears and bows, defending their way of life from the outside world. It’s safe to say these men will not be found standing in a line outside the polling booth, come 11 April when the first phase of polling begins. Jharkhand will go for polls in four phases on 29 April, 6 May, 12 May and 19 May for 14 constituencies.
And that the pathal is still standing at all is proof of that.
Installed by the gram panchayat in 2017, its purpose is to cite various articles of the Indian Constitution, namely 13(3), 19(5), 19(6) and others, and to prohibit outsiders from entering the village, doing any kind of business or job, and claiming that none of the laws of the Parliament or legislature can be implemented in the area, which comes under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
Sources add that the state administration is refraining from removing the plaque, fearing an outburst from the villagers, which wouldn’t be the first.
Pulling the strings from behind the scenes
Started as a movement by tribals to protect their land in 2017, the Pathalgadi movement gradually snowballed into something else, leading to numerous clashes between the villagers, police personnel, and the state administration.
Arrests of various Pathalgadi leaders by late 2018 led to the movement dying down, officially; but sources claim it is still operational under wraps. And one of the top leaders of the movement, Yusuf Purty, the main accused, remains absconding.
However, a few locals, in hushed voices, deal the ultimate blow — the movement may influence a low voter turnout in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Among the places where low turnout is expected are Kurunga, Kochang, Mochia, Chalkar, Barudih, Longa, Naranga and a few more villages south of Arki block, Udburu, Ardih, and Jikilata villages in Murhu block, and a few villages in the Khunti block.
The gram pradhan of a village in Khunti says, “While we have tried to convince many villagers to not be a part of this ‘new’ Pathalgadi, we are getting information that meetings are being held in the middle of the night to keep the movement alive. In the December 2018 bypolls, some polling booths in these areas saw abysmal turnout. The same can be expected in these elections as well." Attempts to obtain booth-specific turnout for the Kolebira bypolls were in vain and the administration refused to comment.
Seconding the gram pradhan, a social activist of Kurunga village says, “No votes were cast in 20 booths in my village as well as in seven booths in neighbouring Sake during the (December) bypolls and it is likely that the upcoming (Lok Sabha) election will be boycotted too.”
This activist, however, is against the new movement and doesn’t stay in his village fearing his safety. "I go there in the afternoons if needed, and leave soon after. People are not happy that I support the administration; hence, I am not safe there," he adds.
It’s the administration’s “extreme action” against the villagers in the name of “crushing the movement” that has left them simmering with anger and fear. And that’s likely to affect polling as well. A Khunti-based social activist says that during the administration’s anti-Pathalgadi drives, many innocent people were accused of sedition and thrown behind bars.
"People are terrified of the police after they framed some villagers. In such a situation, why would they want to vote? And even if they do, they will definitely not vote for the present government,” he adds.
From student to a breadwinner
Sonu Munda (name changed), a teenager whose father is behind bars for allegedly being a Pathalgadi supporter, has been forced to take up work amid his studies.
“Before my father went to jail, I was focused on my studies, but now, the responsibility of earning for the family is also on my shoulders. I have to take care of my grandmother, mother, aunt, and sister,” he says.
Arranging money to pay the lawyer and for frequent visits to jail to meet his father has been worsening the family’s financial situation.
“I have been to Ranchi court twice and Khunti court seven to eight times. Every visit costs around Rs 2,500. Farming is the only source of income. We do get some support from the gram sabha, but there is no outside help,” says Sonu.
He adds that whether or not the village will vote in the upcoming elections is still undecided. “The issue has not been discussed in the gram sabha,” he informs.
In 2018, Chitramu, one of the villages in Khunti district which were part of the Pathalgadi movement, pulled out by removing the plaque, and has been enjoying government benefits since. However, Sonu questions the motive behind it. "If there were schemes already, why weren’t they given before the movement could start?" he asks
Putting up protection, one plaque at a time
The gram pradhan of another village in Khunti, who is against the movement, explains that Pathalgadi was a Century-old tradition of the Munda tribes and involved installing stone plaques to honour the dead or define the limits of a village. He says: "There were four types of plaques — one to honour the dead and mentioning the generations and work of the person, another, to be installed under the trees, bears names of those who died an unnatural death, a third is put up in the names of couples belonging to the same gotra who married, leading to their banishment from the village, and a fourth one for identifying a village’s limits."
“So, I don’t understand this new type of listing Articles from the Constitution. It was never there until recently,” he adds.
A social activist adds that the new type of Pathalgadi came into being because the villagers wanted to protect their lands.
“The government was preparing to grab their land without their consent and a new Pathalgadi movement was the way to stop it. The Constitution clearly states that the land in the areas under the Fifth Schedule should be taken only with the gram sabha’s permission; so, when the villagers saw that wasn’t being complied with, they decided to start the movement,” he says.
However, the activist says that the movement was misrepresented.
“It was the fear of losing their land that led the villagers to do this. But the administration started arresting innocent villagers and lodging cases of sedition against them and activists who were supporting the movement,” he adds.
The Jharkhand Police, however, has a different version to tell. They say that while the villagers’ movement was about prohibiting entry to outsiders and administration officials, they stopped sending their children to school, and even began planning to start their own currency and banks. The movement was later hijacked by opium smugglers.
"Opium farming is done in many villages of Khunti, and opium dealers found this movement as an opportunity to stop the police’s entry to the farming areas, to continue their illegal work freely,” a police source reveals.
What really happened from 2017 to 2018?
The ‘new’ Pathalgadi movement started in early 2017 when stone plaques announcing gram sabhas as the sovereign authority was installed in Kochang and a few other neighbouring villages of Arki block. This proclamation of self-governance soon spread to other villages in Arki, Murhu, and Khunti blocks.
On 24 August, 2017, Kanki villagers detained a team of policemen that broke the barricade at the village’s entry point. Though there was no plaque there, this was one of the early Pathalgadi movement incidents.
On 19 June, 2018, five female social workers enacting a play at a school in Kochang village were abducted and gang-raped. The police alleged the involvement of two Pathalgadi supporters in the crime.
Then, on 26 June, the police raided Udburu village to arrest Purty. Though he wasn’t arrested, his property was attached. The raid angered villagers and supporters, who gathered in Ghaghra village and protested. The police lathi-charged the protesters following which some Pathalgadi supporters abducted three armed guards of the sitting MP of Khunti, Kariya Munda and a policeman, from his house in Anigara village.
The incident proved pivotal, leading to a massive crackdown by the administration against Pathalgadi supporters. Officers say that, since then, around 36 leaders have been arrested and 250 people booked under various charges.
In July 2018, Chitramu village of Khunti became the first of the dozens to pull down the Pathalgadi plaque, following which a development fair was organised there, bringing many state benefits to the villagers.
Mangal Singh Pahan, a ward member of the village, says, “We joined the movement after listening to its leaders, but soon, we realised that not taking benefit of government schemes and not sending children to school wasn’t sensible. Hence, we removed the plaque. This election, all of us are ready to vote."
But rumour has it…
Many, however, say the movement is still alive, even if in secret. A former mukhiya of Murhi Panchayat says, “Kanki village, where policemen were kept prisoners in 2017, is still affected. While no one says anything openly, secret meetings are held. The gram panchayat does not want to take part in any development schemes and villagers are fined Rs 500 if they fail to turn up for gram sabha meetings."
"We are trying our best to convince all villagers to cast their vote in the upcoming elections,” he adds.
A Padma Bhushan awardee, Kariya admits the movement might have some impact on the upcoming election, but won't lead to a boycott.
“The impact won’t be huge. Some supporters of the movement might try to disrupt voting in interior areas, however, I don’t think people will boycott the election altogether,” he says.
Despite attempts, government officials refused to comment on the issue and say giving any kind of importance to it will only encourage the supporters to cause problems.
Additional Chief Electoral Officer at Jharkhand Election Commission, Vinay Kumar Choubey said, “Before the elections, vulnerability mapping of hamlets is done where vulnerable populations and intimidators are identified. A vulnerability can be of any type, including cases like this. Then we go for confidence-building measures in those locations. The idea is to assure the population that we will ensure all safety measures so they can come out and vote. The district election officer would take due care to ensure that people come out and vote.”
Disclaimer: Names of some of the people interviewed for this story has been withheld or changed to protect their identity