Tribal people in Jharkhand protest in state capital Ranchi in July 2019 for their land rights. Police say seven people opposed to the Pathalgadi movement for tribal autonomy were killed after being kidnapped on Jan. 19. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
Police have confirmed the murder of seven tribal people, at least one of them Christian, four days after they were reported missing from their village in eastern India's Jharkhand state.
The seven, who opposed the Pathalgadi movement for autonomy, were kidnapped on Jan. 19, reportedly by rivals, and murdered, official Murari Lal Meena told media on Jan. 23.
“All seven bodies were recovered from a place three kilometers away from Gulikera village. Hills surround the entire area,” Meena said.
The Pathalgadi movement, largely supported by tribal Christians, seeks autonomy for tribal-dominated areas as guaranteed in India's constitution and laws.
Meena said police suspect the murders were the result of a clash in the village between supporters and opponents of the movement.
Father David Vincent, former vicar general of Jamshedpur Diocese, which includes the home village of the victims, said one victim was Christian.
“His name is James Bhurh, a Munda tribal and a Christian. We can confirm that much. But more details about him or others are not available," Father Vincent told UCA News on Jan. 24.
“We wanted to ascertain certain facts and to provide help for the bereaved families, but police are not allowing outsiders to enter the villages.”
The mutilated bodies of the men were found inside a jungle, said Auxiliary Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas of Ranchi, the state capital.
Church leaders have no details because the crime happened in a remote village with limited transport and communication facilities, said the bishop, a former secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.
“The police have not identified the murderers or the motive. At this moment, all are speculating but no one has any details,” Bishop Mascarenhas told UCA News on Jan. 24. “We need to wait for the police to complete the probe to know the truth.”
Suspected political link
Father Vincent said unconfirmed reports suggested three reasons for the murders. Some say they were killed for opposing the Pathalgadi movement, while others say it was due to village rivalry or a political ploy, the priest said.
Many consider the movement was among concerns that alienated tribal people from the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party and ultimately resulted in the party losing its majority to rule the state in an election last month.
Raghubar Das, the state's former chief minister, has accused Christians and church leaders of supporting the Pathalgadi movement in their efforts to torpedo his government. Christian leaders say their aim was to protect their lands.
Pathalgadi is an ancient tribal tradition of erecting stones or plaques in communities claiming lands. The modern-day movement erects huge stones or plaques with clauses of law carved on them. They also warn outsiders not to enter villages without permission.
The Indian constitution and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, allow self-rule for tribal people in areas dominated by them. But Das considered self-rule a challenge to the state government led by him.
An alliance of secular parties led by Hemant Soren replaced Das’ government following the December election. Soon after being sworn in as chief minister on Dec. 29, Soren promised to withdraw criminal cases the previous BJP government had filed against those who supported the movement.
Some pro-movement leaders suspect murder charges against Pathalgadi supporters could be a political ploy to tarnish both the ruling government and the movement.