Why Jharkhand’s Pathalgarhi villages plan to vote in fight for autonomy | India News

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KHUNTI: The undulating roads of Khunti are dotted with huge stone slabs, painted green with white text, claiming the tribal communities’ right to self-rule. The Pathalgarhis (stone plaques) have been in place for two years, delegitimising the rule of any elected government over tribal land. But now, before Khunti votes in the Lok Sabha elections on May 6, the movement has changed tenor, and strategy.
Older Pathalgarhis, set up in 2017, have switched from Hindi to Mundari, asserting in even stronger terms the tribals’ claim to autonomy. These go back to older precedents, referring to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and Mundari Khuntkatti (a lineage-based system of collective landholding by tribal communities). Pathalgarhis erected in 2018 have stuck to Hindi, declaring “India Non Judicial” and dismissing voter cards and Aadhaar cards as “anti-Adivasi” documents.
At Laterjang, which set up its Pathalgarhi in 2017, freshly painted wall graffiti repeats these statements — “Lok Sabha na Vidhan Sabha, sab se ooncha Gram Sabha (not Lok Sabha or assembly, gram sabha is the highest authority)” — but other messages make the political climate clear. One sarcastic take says, “Adivasi log gehri neend mein soye huye the. Raghubar Das aur Narendra Modi ne milkar Momentum Jharkhand laaya to yahaan paanchvi anusuchi ka bhoot nikal gaya. Bahut achchha kiya Raghubar Modi ne isliye CM ko bahut bahut dhanyavaad (Adivasis were in deep slumber. CM Raghubar Das and PM Modi together brought investors’ summit Momentum Jharkhand and destroyed the spirit of the Fifth Schedule. We thank the CM),” says another.
In the next lane, as Congress workers distribute NYAY enrolment forms and put up party flags, there is no resistance.
Just like Laterjang, Kochang — a stronghold of the Pathalgarhi movement — has decided to participate in the elections. A year ago, Kochang shot to the headlines after an alleged gang-rape in which Pathalgarhi supporters were implicated. Several arrests followed, including that of a cardinal at the Burudih church. While the government accused the movement of fostering criminal elements, Pathalgarhi supporters saw it as a conspiracy against them.
A week ago, a Congress party office was set up opposite the Pathalgarhi. “Everyone here will vote, just to replace the present government. Under Pathalgarhi, we do not believe in elections, but the kind of repression we faced forced us to change our strategy,” says Kali Munda, a Pathalgarhi leader at Kochang. “The government has tried to take away the rights of indigenous people across the country. It has tried to divide Christians and Sarnas (followers of animism), but we don’t believe we’re different.”
Beyond Kochang, the villages of Sakey and Saali are still holding their ground against elections, as is Udburu, the first Pathalgarhi village to set up its own banking system. Just like Kochang, Udburu saw a massive crackdown on its leaders last year.
Areas around arterial roads, like Chitramu or Burudih, have either pulled down the Pathalgarhi or painted over it. Chitramu pulled down its plaque last year, with a ceremony marked by funerary rituals. “Government officials told us we will get access to development schemes if the Pathalgarhi is removed,” says Kishun Swasi, a village elder. Others simply don’t want any more trouble. “We will vote and see if anything changes for us,” says a villager at Alhaudi, where the Pathalgarhi still stands at the village square and has been painted over, but not enough to render the text illegible.

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