General Elections 2019

Pathalgadi rebellion takes shape of a new crisis at election time

Scared of mistreatment, 30 villages in Khunti district of Jharkhand have decided to boycott elections

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Friday 05 April 2019
Jharkhand Pathalgadi rebellion
One such Pathalgadi installed in a village. Photo: Priya Ranjan Sahu One such Pathalgadi installed in a village. Photo: Priya Ranjan Sahu

In recent years, several villagers in Khunti district of Jharkhand have declared gram sabha as the only sovereign authority by installing Pathalgadi, traditional stone plaques, at the entrance of their villages. The aftermath: around 30 villages of the district in Jharkhand have declared that they will not vote in Lok Sabha elections scheduled to occur on May 6, 2019.

The locals say they are scared that the hostile security forces and local administration will use this as an opportunity to punish them.

In the last couple of years, residents of many villages erected Pathalgadis, which had several articles from the Constitution, provisions of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) and fifth schedule inscribed on them. They wanted to remind officials of the power of gram sabha.

This led to a conflict between local authorities and villagers. “Villagers were ill-informed about the power of gram sabha, but the government instead of dissuading them used this as an opportunity to suppress and oppress locals,” says PC Murmu, a tribal leader from Jharkhand.

A fact finding team from Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha (JJM), People’s Union for Civil Liberties, WSS and Adivasi Adhikar Manch concluded that several FIRs have been filed against at least 150 named and thousands of unnamed villagers on frivolous cases. Few of them were booked even for sedition.

As a result, people were avoiding local police. Now, security forces have organised camps in local schools, says Sunil Minz, a local activist based in Ranchi. He added that tribals are scared that the government may cause harm to them if they go out. So, 30 villagers have announced that they will not participate in voting.

To diffuse the stress, few civil society groups had tried to reach out to L Khiangte, chief electoral officer, Jharkhand, to inform him about the panic and fear prevailing in the area.

They wrote a letter to him saying, “We would like to bring to your notice the attempts by local administration and police across the state to dissuade people to discuss their issues under the pretext of Model Code of Conduct, which applies only to political parties and not citizens). Recently, members of JJM were detained by Bishunpura police and a non-political meeting on issues of Right to Food they were addressing was stopped. The district administration claimed later that section 144 was in place in the district. But it is yet to share the copy of the notification. It seems it has become a practice to routinely apply section 144 as soon as model code of conduct comes into force.”

“It is worrying that section 144 is being used to stop people from discussing their issues in non-political gatherings during elections. For a thriving democracy, it is imperative that citizens are able to gather and discuss their issues freely during elections,” the letter reads.

They have requested the officer to take cognisance of the abnormal situation in Khunti Lok Sabha and also to deploy special independent observers to monitor elections in the constituency to ensure free and fair voting.

Siraj Dutta, one of the activists who went to meet the chief electoral officer on April 2, 2019, says despite giving appointment, the officer did not give them any time. “After waiting for at least three hours, we had to return after submitting the letter to this office,” he added.

Claiming to be unaware about the letter submitted to his office, Khiangte said he is aware of the issue. “We will run an awareness programme to convince the locals,” says Khiangte.

When Down To Earth asked about the security issue and the fear factor in Khunti district, he said one senior police observer appointed by the Election Commission is in Ranchi and administration will take all necessary actions.

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