Death stalks ‘outsiders’ in Jharkhand tribal villages

 
 

The villages look innocuous, a mass of thatched roofs and mud houses ringed by fields in Jharkhand’s tribal belt. But danger lurks close by and unsuspecting visitors may even pay with their lives for walking into these villages as an increasingly jittery tribal population blocks the entry of “outsiders”.

Over the past two months, huge stone plaques and signboards have come up outside tribal settlements and hamlets across Jharkhand’s Khunti and Simdega districts, warning visitors from entering, wandering, living or settling down in these villages.

Hundreds of such installations – called Pathalgadi in the local dialect – dot the region and are a chilling reminder of the fate of nine outsiders, who were lynched in adjoining districts last month by frenzied tribal mobs over fears of child abduction.

Groups of young men watch over these ‘unofficial frontiers’, emerging and melting into hutments and shrubbery. Any outsider is quickly intercepted and a volley of questions follows. When HT attempted to take the first step into the tribal-dominated Bhandra village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, a group of young men surfaced from the nearby hutments and surrounded the team.

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“How dare you enter the village without seeking permission from the gram sabha (village committee)? Didn’t you read the instructions clearly,” retorted an angry young man, Mogo Munda, pointing towards the plaque placed. The village is just 40 kilometres from Ranchi.

Tensions rise before a local tribal journalist intervened. “But for this lady, you people would have been in serious trouble today for violating our gram sabha’s diktat,” said Munda, a member of controversial tribal group Adivasi Mahasabha.

The Mahasabha is at the forefront of the campaign to seal tribal villages by placing signboards, and stone plaques prohibiting the entry of outsiders, that include government officials, police, journalists and even street vendors.

The installations of these plaques are now grand affairs that happen in broad daylight with the local administration mute spectators.

The government says the Mahasabha is an anti-state, rogue group that is instigating gullible tribal villagers to attack non-tribals and further upset already frayed relations between adivasis and others in a state with 26% tribal population.

“We are working out an action plan to check the arbitrary diktats through sign boards, stone plaques,” Khunti superintendent of police Ashwini Kumar said.

But villagers say they aren’t doing anything wrong. Vijay Hansda, a Mahasabha supporter said, in schedule areas, gram sabhas are more powerful than Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. “The police have no role to play in tribal villages,” he said.

Experts fear the plaques are symptomatic of mounting worry among the tribal population over loss of traditional land, forest rights and property.

Soon after grabbing power in 2014, the BJP government amended two 100-year-old tenancy laws that spooked tribals because the new rules allowed the administration to take up adivasi agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. The Mahasabha stepped in to cash in on the resentment and fanned fears, motivating people to “secure” their villages and save their land from being acquired by government agencies.

There is nothing unconstitutional if the tribals are invoking their constitutional rights and protecting the sovereignty of their villages through Pathalgadi, which is an old traditional form of identifying geographical boundaries,” said Mukesh Birua, a tribal intellectual and activist.

The government says it has adopted a wait-and-watch move and allege that the Mahasabha is distorting constitutional provisions and spreading poison in the society. The state special crime branch in a report — HT has a copy — also accused the Mahasabha of instigating tribals to stage violent protests, rallies across districts against the BJP-led state government for amending the tenancy laws.

But in the meantime, fear has taken root in large swathes of the tribal belt. Non-tribals say they no longer have the courage to travel to the ‘liberated villages’ anymore. Even government officials fear for their lives after four forest guards were recently taken hostage and beaten up on fake charges of child lifting.

But not all people in these villages are happy with the imposition of the arbitrary rules.

“It’s so stupid of them to ask me to stop inviting my non-tribal friends to my home,” said, Jeetu Gope, fifth generation non-tribal living in Bhandra.

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