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'New dawn' for Jharkhand's tribal people

Church leaders welcome a decision by the Indian state's new government to withdraw Pathalgadi sedition cases

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'New dawn' for Jharkhand's tribal people

Hemant Soren takes the oath of office as Jharkhand chief minister at a ceremony in Ranchi on Dec. 29. (Photo: IANS)

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Church leaders and activists in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand have welcomed the withdrawal of all Pathalgadi sedition cases filed against tribal people.

The decision was taken in the first cabinet meeting of the new state government on Dec. 30 chaired by newly sworn-in Chief Minister Hemant Soren.

It means that all cases related to the Pathalgadi movement filed in 2018 by the previous state government will be withdrawn.

“It is indeed good news for all the tribal people in the state. It is a new dawn for the people of Jharkhand as many were jailed, had cases registered against them and were harassed in the name of the tribal movement,” Father Anand David Xalxo, Ranchi Archdiocese public relations officer, told ucanews.

“The Pathalgadi movement was a vociferous campaign by people who had asserted that no project or program can be implemented without the consent of the gram sabha (village council), but the previous government took this movement as anti-government and many are charged with sedition cases, which was unfortunate and sad.

“There was no wrong in that tribal movement because they were protesting under the government law which gives them complete control over the scheduled area. Government can’t take any decision, project or any other activities without the permission of the tribals, which was violated.”

The Hindi word “Pathalgadi” means carving a stone in an ancient tradition among tribal communities. They are often erected to mark the birth or death of a person.

The practice took on a new meaning after tribal activists started erecting stones outside villages after the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act came into existence in 1996. That act empowered village councils to safeguard and preserve their traditions, community spaces and culture, and gave them the right to mandatory consultation over land acquisition.

The stones had the main clauses of the act carved on them and warned outsiders not to enter villages without permission.

The previous government run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Raghubar Das crushed the self-rule movement by using brutal police power.

In May 2016, the BJP government introduced two ordinances — the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act 1908 (Amendment) Ordinance and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act 1949 (Amendment) Ordinance — which enabled commercial use of tribal land and made it easily transferable. The act empowered the government to procure agricultural land from tribal people for non-agricultural purposes.

Tribal people protested by erecting new stones and named it a battle for water, jungles and land.

The ordinances were passed by the Jharkhand assembly in June 2017, but after objections from political parties and residents, state governor Draupadi Murmu asked the government to reconsider its decision. The government later withdrew the ordinances.

However, clashes between the establishment and local people continued and turned violent, leading to allegations of the movement becoming more radicalized and fueled by separatism.

In June 2018, five women of an NGO, who were in Khunti district to raise awareness about human trafficking, were allegedly abducted and raped. The police blamed leaders of the Pathalgadi movement for the crime.

Father Vincent Ekka, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, said the new Jharkhand government’s withdrawal of sedition cases will give tribal people the message that the government is with them and that injustice was done to them by the previous government.

“The BJP government knew that crushing the Pathalgadi movement was wrong but they went ahead with the plan because they knew the movement would bring down the government,” the Jesuit tribal priest said.

“The result of the assembly election showed that the Pathalgadi movement was right. The previous government was trying to crush the voice of the voiceless.”

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