As I returned to my hometown Ranchi, after a few months of ‘abroad education’, I was gripped by a romantic feeling trying hard to identify with Shah Rukh Khan’s “Swades”. This, however, was unreasonable. I was on a six months VISA – too short for such an exaggerated sense of separation from the motherland. However, it was long enough to make me contemplate on the state of my home country. Honestly, I was left as pensive and heartbroken as Mohan Bhargava. Not that I am dissatisfied with the technological and economic breakthroughs we have achieved in this decade, but it pains me, or in fact, it would pain anyone who ponders upon the things we have been ignoring as a society. Communal hatred and autocratic government policies have marred the cultural purity of India. In such turbulent times, I learnt about the “Pathalgadis”.
My hometown Ranchi is the capital of Jharkhand – a state carved out of Bihar in 2000. It is home to one of the largest tribal population in the country which is also one of the most ancient aboriginal population in the subcontinent. These people have always protected the forests as their gods and have a tremendous amount of respect for the environment. Their local politics and tradition have always been centred around nature and its resources. “Pathalgadi” is an ancient tradition practised by these local people, particularly the Mundas, in which they erect monoliths around their villages demarcating local territories and also reminding the people of their heritage. A modern adaptation of this tradition celebrates the idea of “community democracy” and local political autonomy in order to safeguard the land from the clutches of the government.
The recent controversy emerged when the state administration expressed concern over a depiction of the Indian constitution on these monoliths. The villagers had tried to interpret the constitution in a context that strengthens their demand for land ownership. They started putting warning signs prohibiting any outsider to enter the village without prior permission and proclaimed self-rule over their land. This may sound like a communist utopia where the downtrodden has risen up for his rights which naturally has upset the ruling government. Afraid of a political backlash, these so-called ‘rebels’ have been termed anti-nationals backed by the Naxal movement. It’s probably high time that people like us, the largely urban population, understand the clichés of such a crisis.
The first question is – why is the government so desperate? The Patalgadis are not violent, neither are they up to any coup or so it seems so far. Their demands and practices do not challenge the constitution of this country, rather it strengthens the core philosophy that it is based upon. “We, the people of India..” echoes from each of these monoliths, glorifying the ideas of liberty and fraternity granted to each of the citizens. How is a more local interpretation of the constitution a threat to national integrity? Why are their demands for an equitable resource distribution anti-establishment? Why is it that the question of communal differences always comes up? We must understand that disagreements and arguments like these are necessary to any democracy. What the Pathalgadis are doing is upholding their freedom of expression and the right to demand justice. If the government tries to suppress rightful political independence, then we are on the road to a fascist state power.
As a matter of fact, Jharkhand is a state largely dependent on natural resources for industry and agricultural use. Large-scale urbanization and expansion of highways have led to a devastating impact on the forests of Chotanagpur, making the livelihood of tribal people a challenge. Moreover, the Naxalite movement has made the lives of these tribal men and women even more miserable. Under such circumstances, it only seems a very democratic initiative that the Pathalgadis have started to make people aware of their rights and duties and also combat oppressive policies of the government. The administration must understand that development cannot occur while keeping these people in isolation and denial. Nonetheless, to save the natural environment, it is imperative that the forests are left to those who belong there. They are the true stewards of nature.
I just wish that dialectics such as these remain imbibed in our democratic setup and people are given the freedom to engage in a creative and constructive interpretation of constitutional provisions in this country.