Keenu Munda, a third-year Bachelor’s of Art student of Birsa College, Khunti, is one of 71,000 first-time electors in Jharkhand’s four constituencies that will vote today.
Late on the night of April 27, nine days before the polls, the police arrived at Munda’s home in Dhadhgama village and detained the young college student along with his older brothers, Bahadur and Basingh. He was released two days later on April 29.
Back home, Munda stands quietly in the courtyard of his family hut. He had been beaten in custody and still can’t sit because of the injuries.
Bahadur Munda, Keenu’s oldest brother, says the police did not explain why they were being taken away. “At around 11 at night on April 27, there was a loud banging on our door, and a policeman used a flashlight from the window to wake us up. They picked up my brothers from the adjoining rooms where they were sleeping,” he says.
He adds that the police took them and another neighbour to Chandidih village nearby, where they detained Sagu Munda, the village representative of the regional party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).
“At Khunti police station, two men held Keenu, while a third beat him, and stomped all over his body,” Bahadur Munda says. The police accused all of them of being involved in a murder in Dhadhgama on April 13. They say they denied it.
JMM’s Sagu Munda, a middle-aged bespectacled man, says the Station House Officer asked him if he had organised political meetings. “He said he had information that I was going around telling village residents not to vote and boycott the Lok Sabha elections. I denied this.” He was allowed to go home after being locked up 22 hours in the station.
Dhadhgama and Chandidih lie at the site of the Pathalgadi movement in Khunti, 50 km from Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi. Khunti is the birthplace of Birsa Munda, who led a guerrilla resistance against the British colonial rulers in the 19th century. It is also the home of Jaipal Singh Munda who represented Adivasis after he was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1946.
In 2016, two years after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state, it tried to amend the land tenancy laws that give special protection to tribal farmers’ land with devastating effects. The attempts to change the land tenure laws, creating a 25 lakh acre “land bank” for corporate and infrastructure projects that includes pastures, ponds, grazing lands of Adivasi villages, and state repression of tribal farmers’ protests against these policies, is a crucial question in Khunti, a constituency reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Tribes.
The Constitution accords special protections to the tribal areas under its Fifth and Sixth Schedules, recognising the historic wrongs tribal communities have faced. There are restrictions on the sale and transfer of tribal land and property to non-tribals in Fifth Schedule areas like Khunti.
In Jharkhand, the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) of 1908, enacted by the British in a concession to Birsa Munda’s rebellion, confers further protections to the land of small cultivators. In Khutkatti (forest patches first cleared by the Munda indigenous communities), no one outside the community has the right to buy land.
The Raghubar Das government first tried to amend the CNT Act in 2016. The governor returned the proposed amendments that allowed the use of farmland for non-agricultural purposes in August 2017 after several agitations by tribal farmers, including a protest where an elderly farmer, Abram Mundu, was shot dead by the police in Khunti.
Despite the farmers’ opposition, the government found ways around the tenancy laws. In 2017, through an amendment, it created several categories of projects on which the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013’s requirement for social impact assessment of projects no longer applies.
Following a Munda tradition to engrave pathal or stone monoliths to mark significant milestones in the village, in 2017-18, thousands of agitated Adivasi farmers took part in Pathalgadi ceremonies, installing pathal or megaliths on which they carved the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule’s special provisions for tribal autonomy at the entrance to their villages. The farmers proclaimed the gram sabha as the sovereign authority, and stated that no administrative or police activities be carried out without consulting the village assemblies.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das claimed the farmers were instigated by Maoists and criminals cultivating opium in interior villages and promised to crush the Pathalgadi movement.
Between February and July last year, the police registered criminal complaints charging the heads of 18 village assemblies, as well as over 3,300 unnamed tribal farmers with sedition under Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era provision, punishable with three years in prison. Records of the FIRs from March 2018 state that farmers were charged with sedition and rioting for “wrongly interpreting the constitution”, and for demanding the removal of police and paramilitary camps from villages.
Ghaghara village, five kilometres from Dhadhgama and Chandidih, was the site of the last Pathalgadi ceremony. A giant megalith, painted green and carved in white with constitutional provisions and Supreme Court judgements on Adivasi areas, stands in a clearing near a dirt track leading to the village. After the police tried to detain tribal villagers going to the ceremony last June on the day of the ceremony, a clash had broken out between the police and the village residents, in which a farmer died.
Angry farmers walked five kilometres to Chandidih, to the home of Kariya Munda of the BJP, an eight-time MP from Khunti. When they did not find him there, they detained three security guards and a policeman from Kariya Munda’s residence. They kept the security personnel overnight in a community building and released them the next day.
The government responded with violent raids on Ghaghara, Uduburu and Kevada, among other villages. Hundreds of farmers fled their homes and hid in the forest for weeks.
Nine months on, with the elections in a few days, there is anger and deep disquiet among the residents of Ghaghara. Their fear and anxiety are intensified by the detention of the youth from Dhadhgama and Chandidih last week.
“Security personnel broke down our doors, our cattle sheds; they thrashed our cattle when they did not find us and broke our pans,” recounts Julianne (name changed), a young woman. “We fled our home and hid in the forest for days, and could not plant paddy in time.” She points to incomplete repairs the family had carried out after the raids, and to aluminium pans bent out of shape from the force of the batons meant to hit the villagers.
The police arrested two men again last week. They are continuing with more of the same,” says Laxman Munda, referring to the beating of Keenu Munda and the detention of his brothers and Sagu Munda in Dhadhgama, and Chandidih nearby.
The resentment at the government’s brutal action may affect the election outcome this month. Some residents are reported to have passed resolutions to boycott the elections on May 6 but decline to speak on record. “There are meetings held at night to discuss whether to vote or not. Our village assembly has not decided yet,” says a village elder.
Some farmers were angry that their legislative representatives had failed to speak for them. “The security personnel raided us evening and night for days. Did Kariya not know?” asks Ignacius Munda, expressing resentment at the incumbent MP who lives less than five kilometres away. “He knew they were beating us and raiding our homes. He did not say anything, [he] remained quiet.”
Charged with treason
In this election, the BJP has replaced Kariya Munda—who was the deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha—with Arjun Munda, who has been the chief minister of Jharkhand thrice.
The Mahagathbandhan coalition of the JMM, Congress, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) and Rashtriya Janata Dal has fielded Kalicharan Munda, a former Congress MLA. His brother Neelkanth Munda is the state rural development minister at present and Khunti MLA from the rival BJP.
Last month, in April, Prime Minister Modi attacked the Congress for its election manifesto promise to repeal the sedition law, saying this will boost the “tukde tukde” gang—a term used to brand any dissent as anti-national and treasonous.
In Ghaghara, some of the poorest men from Adivasi families have been charged with and imprisoned for sedition, including Karam Singh Munda, the village head, and farmers Birsa Munda and Bikram Munda. “At present, 22 men are in Khunti prison on charges of sedition, including Ghaghara’s Karam Singh Munda, the most literate person in the village, who is in jail since last year,” says Dhanik Guria, a lawyer representing three Adivasi families from Ghaghara. “How is erecting a megalith with the Constitution’s provision for tribal autonomy an offence of sedition?”
He added: “These men were not trying to make a separate state, they were asking for laws to be implemented.”
Lawyer Amit Agrawal, who represents Powel Tuti, a farmer accused of sedition, says the state department of law (justice) had on April 1 sanctioned the sedition charge on 20 tribal farmers from Khunti. “These sedition FIRs charge farmers for “misinterpreting the Constitution”, and for not allowing “development work”. Even if it were a crime to install a megalith, they are generic FIRs with no details even of who installed the megalith, who witnessed the action and so on.”
Kariya Munda holds the remarkable record of winning seven of the last eight parliamentary elections in Khunti since 1989. The exception is 2004 when he lost to Sushila Kerketta of the Congress. Kerketta passed away in 2009. In 2014, Kariya Munda won with 36.53 per cent of the votes. The 2014 election also saw a voter turnout of 66 per cent—the highest turnout since 1999.
But will the unrest reflected in Pathalgadi affect the BJP’s vote share this time?
The BJP’s candidate and former chief minister Arjun Munda, who was in the midst of a hectic campaign, says he believes it won’t impact the party’s prospects. “We will separate those who instigated tribal farmers to do this from those who are innocent,” he tells Newslaundry. “We will examine each sedition case closely. Khunti’s local Adivasi residents will not be prosecuted.”
Jharkhand Congress president Dr Ajoy Kumar says there’s rage among the Adivasi and moolvasi (original inhabitants) against the BJP in Jharkhand and this will impact the elections. Kumar, a former police officer, says the Congress had vehemently opposed the government’s action in Pathalgadi villages. “During the Pathalgadi agitation, the government targeted Adivasi youth from low-income families. They filed sedition cases even against social activists for Facebook posts on Pathalgadi. We challenged the Das government that we will post the same on our social media accounts and they should register sedition cases against Congress members raising the same questions.”
However, responding to questions on the detention and police beating of Keenu Munda and others on April 27, Neelkanth Munda, the rural development minister and BJP MLA from Khunti, says “the police administration are doing their job”.
He adds: “Show me one instance where the BJP has taken any farmer’s land wrongly.” Referring to Japud in Torpa where the BJP government has built an electric substation even after Adivasi farmers refused to give 14 acres of pastureland to the project—with 84 of 130 households opposing the project in a gram sabha resolution—Munda responds: “Do they want electricity and roads, or not?” He added: “In one line: the BJP will win Khunti.”
Home secretary SKG Rahate did not respond to phone calls and SMSes sent to his mobile phone.
Khunti superintendent of police Alok says “the police have ensured there would be no boycott of elections through confidence-building measures”. He declines to respond when asked about the detention of five Adivasi men on the night of April 27, including the detention of JMM workers, and disconnects the phone.
Durgavati Odiya, the convener of the Sarna Sangrom Samiti, and an influential activist among animistic Sarna Mundas says “after getting so many thrashings, we are getting wiser every day”. Odiya worked along with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and had campaigned for the BJP’s candidates including Kariya and Neelkanth Munda, till 2015. The police in Khunti and Ranchi had named her in three criminal cases since 2016 when she organised farmers against the government’s proposal to amend tenancy laws. On October 23, 2016, a protest had been planned in Mohrabadi in Ranchi, but the police stopped the farmers from travelling 40 km from Khunti to Ranchi. When the detained farmers persisted and encircled the police at Saiko village, the police fired 11 rounds into the crowd, killing Abram Mundu, an elderly farmer, and injuring three others.
Odiya, 19 others in Torpa, Khunti, and “7,000-8,000 other unnamed villagers” were named in the police complaint, accused of assault and the use of criminal force to deter a public servant. “If we question why our farmland is being destroyed, the government responds with bullets and sedition cases,” says Odiya. She adds after continuous repression over the last three years, now at the time of elections, the administration was imposing further sanctions and coercing people in the name of voting.
“Arjun Munda is a fine candidate with experience. In any other situation, we would have accepted him,” she says, adding that she is concerned about Modi staying on as prime minister after this election. “We worry that if we vote for Arjun Munda here in Khunti, upar me Narendra Modi phir chamkega.”