Indian tribal people claim land rights victory

Catholics hail the win as significant to 'safeguard human rights' as Jharkhand state governor returns amendments to land act
Indian tribal people claim land rights victory

Tribal people protest on March 21 against the state government's proposed amendments to two land laws in Chaibasa, West Singhbhum district in the state of Jharkhand. The proposals have been heavily criticized for threatening tribal people's land rights. ( photo)

Church leaders and tribal activists in the eastern Indian Jharkhand state have hailed the governor's failure to sign contentious amendments to two land acts as a "historic victory" for the tribal people.

The proposed changes have been heavily criticized for removing the legal protection of tribal people's rights to their land and empowering the government to seize their farmland for developmental purposes.

Tribal people, including church groups, have campaigned against the amendments ever since the state legislature passed them in November.

"It is a historic win for all the tribal people in India, especially those in Jharkhand who had tremendous faith in the Indian Constitution to safeguard human rights," Father Stanislaus Tirkey, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' office for indigenous people told

The signature of the governor, who represents the Indian president in a state, is mandatory for a law to take effect. Governor Draupdi Murmu returned the amendments without signing them but with a query, local media reports said June 25.

"How will the amendments benefit the tribal people?" Draupudi asked in the query sent to Chief Minister Raghubar Das of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that governs the state.

Father Tirkey, an Oraon tribal priest, said the amendments challenged tribal people's identity and connection to the land. "When land is taken away, their basic resource is taken away," he said.

The Jesuit priest said local Catholics and bishops from the region had been vocal against the legislature and even sought the intervention of the Indian president in May.

"When our people are suffering we can't keep quiet," he said.

The current law does not permit tribal people to sell their land to non-tribal people. The ban aimed at protecting the land of uneducated and poverty stricken tribal people, who might sell off their land — the only source of their income — at throw away prices and become destitute. The BJP government maintained that this law only kept tribal people poor and industries and development away from their areas.

Anabel Benjamin Bara, who teaches at the Jesuit-managed Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur, a major city in Jharkhand, told that the governor returned it because she knew the amendment would not help tribal people.

The state-wide protests also meant the state "would face a major law-and-order issue" if the changes were accepted, he said.

Gladson Dungdung, a tribal activist in Jharkhand, said "the government has realized the mistake they have made because taking land from tribal people is like playing with fire."

Dungdung said that "decision was also made because the government is aware there is a state election due in one year and implementing the land law will destroy their image."

However, the tribal leader added they must continue to be vigilant. If the state legislature pass it a second time and send it for the governor's assent, "the governor will have no choice but to sign it."

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Jharkhand state was created 17 years ago when tribal-dominated areas were carved out of Bihar state. Jharkhand has some 9 million tribal people who form 26 percent of the state's 33 million population. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics.

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