Tribal people protest a controversial land bill passed by Jharkhand state in a rally in New Delhi in May 2016. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
Church leaders and human rights activists in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand have called for an independent investigation into the murder of a Christian tribal activist, allegedly by an anti-tribal movement.
Ramji Munda, 27, was killed by unidentified assailants on June 24 on the outskirts of his village in Ghagra in Khunti district.
Munda’s body was recovered by the police the following day. They said the case is under investigation and no one has been arrested.
“Ramji's murder seems to be the result of a planned killing. Being from the locality and an outspoken and courageous leader, he must have known many secrets and details of nefarious activities of the previous government and anti-Pathalgadi people,” said Father Vincent Ekka, head of the department of tribal studies at the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, referring to those opposed to tribal rights.
“At first sight it looks like his opponents murdered him because they must have suspected that when the time comes, he might reveal lot of wrongdoings of the state authorities.
“His opponents may have found it easier to eliminate him than to face the challenges in the court, which would have been more risky. I condemn the cold murder of Ramji and I strongly call for an investigation with all due procedure. The culprits must be punished.”
According to a Times of India report, Munda and his cousin and friend were returning home from Sakedih when they were attacked. His cousin was injured but his friend escaped unhurt.
Jharkhand Janadhikaar Mahasabha (JJM), one of the activist organizations in Jharkhand, acknowledged that Munda had played an active role in investigating rights violations by authorities during the Pathalgadi, or self-rule, agitation in Khunti district in 2017-18.
Munda was also a member of the fact-finding JJM team sent to Burugulikera village in West Singhbhum in February after a mass killing linked to the movement.
JJM officials have demanded the state government ensure an independent and fair investigation into Munda’s murder.
Alok Kujur, a JJM member, said Ramji was deeply committed to protecting and strengthening tribal rights and mobilized fellow tribals to push for their sociopolitical rights.
"It is indeed very sad news for all of us because Munda was very vocal about everything and a fearless youth leader,” Ratan Tirkey, a member of the Tribal Advisory Committee of Jharkhand, told UCA News.
“It is too early to speak about the motive behind his the murder. Anti-Pathalgadi elements could be the main reason and his leadership quality and small-time business rivalry can’t be ruled out, but we are just presuming,” Tirkey said.
“Whatever the reason for the killing of this young leader, Christian tribals have lost a peace-loving activist who stood up for the tribal rights.”
Asutosh Shekhar, a police official, said Munda had no criminal record and no case was filed against him in the Pathalgadi movement.
The Pathalgadi movement had spread to four districts of Jharkhand in 2017. The previous government run by the pro-Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party crushed the movement 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 legislation empowered the government to procure agricultural land from tribals for non-agricultural purposes.
The Pathalgadi movement regained prominence after the ordinances were brought in, with tribal people erecting new stones as a mark of protest. The government later withdrew the ordinances.
However, clashes between authorities and tribal communities continued and turned violent, leading to allegations that the movement was becoming more radicalized and fueled by separatism.
In June 2018, five female members of a non-governmental organization, 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.