By Rhea Dangwal
Push came to shove as I stood right in the middle of a massive Adivasi Aakrosh Maha Rally in Jharkhand back in November 2016. Ranchi had seen many such demonstrations but this one, angrier, had been brewing for months along the edges of the state. It was a direct democratic retaliation set up by tribal leaders mobilising Adivasis in their culturally significant colours of red and white to speak out against the state’s ruling BJP government.
The reason for the divide was announced by the loudest voices on the microphone as thousands of men, women, children, and I gathered to listen. “The government is hatching a conspiracy to loot and usurp agricultural tribal land on the behalf of the capitalists and business barons,” criticized Bandhu Tirkey JVM-P leader.
Jharkhand’s Raghubar Das-led BJP administration has been in a tug of war with the opposition to propose changes in a subsection of the Sections 21, 49 and 71(A) of the CNT Act and Section 13 of the SPT Act from the time they acceded to power. In response, waving striped red-white flags, thousands of tribals from villages across Jharkhand marched in what they were calling, their route to emancipation and gathered in the capital’s Morabadi Maidan located conspicuously within earshot of the chief minister’s residence.
Simply put, the CNT or the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 restricts the transfer of land belonging to Scheduled Tribes/Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes to non-backwards sections– including the government. The SPT or the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act works on similar lines.
Laid after the Birsa Movement more than hundred years ago in order to avoid the adivasi alienation of their land during British colonisation, the act disallows for tribal land to be usurped without a tribal willingly transferring their land through sale, exchange or gift to a fellow Scheduled Tribe member or resident of their own police station area.
The act has been amended at 26 times since then, making it flexible. It has put adivasi livelihood and land at risk of the state government’s buyout.
The ruling government has shown interest in reviewing the list of tribal classes and identify the extremely backward among them so that they can remain under the umbrella of the act while the others may be excluded.
It also has pushed to reinstate an amendment of 1981 by which the act was extended to municipal and notified area committees. This way, the land available under municipal areas will be free for transfer and exempt from the objectives of the act, making the CNT Act inapplicable in municipal corporation areas in cities like Ranchi and Dhanbad.
The provisions empower the government to acquire land in the Chotanagpur region for various infrastructure development activities. The amendments also facilitate tribal landholders to use their agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.
The pro-amendment group explains how the real estate sector of Jharkhand is perversely affected, besides its suppliers of construction material and labourers. Since the major chunk of land belongs to backward classes and Adivasis, major construction activity in the state has had to be brought to a halt.
While the Raghubar Das administration has been using this as a peg to go ahead with the constitutional changes, many locals and tribal leaders believe otherwise.
“Jharkhand is not just a state, it’s a conscience,” laments emphatic tribal journalist and activist, Dayamani Barla, into the mic as the audience across the maidan roars in agreement
“It doesn’t belong to the people only in the cities or only the Adivasis. The CNT & SPT acts give rights to people from all spheres to have their land and homes here. But to amend the acts, it’s as if we are being stabbed in the back!”
These sentiments are strong and belong to a protest that has been years in the making. While many remained peaceful in the demonstration; several locals around me held up sickles and axes as arms of their choice.
“As an adivasi, it is in our blood to protect our Jal, Jungle, Jameen (water, forest and land); no one has to tell us or teach us how to live and protect our livelihood. If they try to steal our land our homes, then our voices of protest will ring strong in their ears.” The crowds riled with enthusiasm as a youth leader and founder of the Jharkhand Bachao Andolan Manch, Deepa Minj-led her political skirmish.
As I walked with young and motivated tribal women, the entire stretch leading up the CM’s residence was surrounded by armed policemen and guards. The Raghubar Das government managed to quell the protests as best they could—with reports coming in of several buses with protesters being stopped at security checkpoints and not allowed to enter the city. In the past, the party has also reportedly used Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code that disallows unlawful assembly of more than four people in an area imposed on villages across the state to deter them from entering the capital.
Such protests have also been witness to unchecked police brutality as muscle flexing by the ruling BJP party with incidents like when Jharkhand police allegedly open fired on farmers protesting land acquisition for coal mines by the National Thermal Power Corporation in Badkagaon, Hazaribagh, resulting in several deaths in late 2016.
Amidst the tremendous opposition, the Raghubar Das government had to withdraw this set of proposed amendments in the last 2017 monsoon session of parliament, but the insidious conflict for land ownership continues as the ruling party and opposition continue to butt heads over rhetoric, deciding what belongs to Jharkhand’s people and what does not, while citizens look on in apprehension of losing ancestral ties to the land that defines their communities.
As of 2018, the disagreement still predominates local political discourse with Raghubar Das openly dismissing any protests as sponsored by the opposition. This has been in direct response to a string of, communal clashes and mob lynching incidents this year which shook the state of Jharkhand. Dissenting voices have found distinct notoriety in nearly 200 villages spread across four districts in the State— namely Khunti, Gumla, Simdega and West Singhbhum — where huge stone plaques, locally known as Pathalgadi, have come up at the entry points of tribal hamlets. The massive slabs painted green include excerpts from the Panchayat’s Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 (PESA) as well as warnings prohibiting outsiders or officials from entering these villages, making dialogue between contending sides even more complicated.