The arrests of 18 people in Ladurabasa and Asura villages on January 23 on various charges, including sedition, is one of the many instances of Adivasi protests for control and ownership over natural resources
There is an uneasy calm in the Ladurabasa and Asura villages of Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district. Eighteen people were arrested in these villages for carrying out a recruitment drive and gheraoing the local police station for a separate ‘Kolhan government estate’ on January 23, 2022.
Eight were charged with sedition later. The event brought the legacy of British rule in eastern India’s Adivasi belt back into the spotlight.
Ladurabasa and Asura are villages that come under the Mufassil police station area of the Sadar subdivision. Both are dominated by Ho Adivasis.
Surendra Paria, the munda or village chief of Ladurabasa — a part of the Kursi Gram Panchayat — said the recruitment drive was not required. “But we would be happy if the government conducts it. Till now, no one has a government job here.”
Ladurabasa is underdeveloped. Most residents are either farmers or daily wage labourers. Even cultivation is fraught with difficulties. Farmer Tirsan Alda depends on the monsoon for kharif paddy but admits that due to the lack of irrigation, vegetable production is difficult and the yield low during winter.
Educational opportunities are also absent. Ladurabasa resident Rahul Paria is an intermediate student of Tata College in Chaibasa town, 10 km away. “Most families cannot afford their children’s education by keeping them there.”
A cemented road was constructed two years back to connect Ladurabasa to civilisation. But it failed to send its girls beyond middle school who dropped out due to the absence of a high school in the village. The nearest one is again in Chaibasa.
Seeds of protest
On January 23, the situation turned grave after local activists tried to recruit 30,000 police personnel and 10,000 teachers for Kolhan estate, Rameshwar Jerai, who runs human rights organisation, Johar, in Chaibasa, said.
This is not the first instance of dissent here. Back in December 2017, the late Ramo Birua, a retired government officer, attempted to hoist a separate flag in the Khutpani block of West Singhbhum. The district administration imposed Section 144 and arrested Birua.
So, what is behind the Kolhan uprising? Kolhan is one of the five divisions of Jharkhand. It comprises three districts: East Singhbhum, West Singhbhum and Seraikela-Kharsawan.
Those protesting for a Kolhan government estate, want to follow the Manki-Munda system of tribal self-governance guaranteed by the Wilkinson’s Rule of 1837.
It ensured control of village land and resources in British India. But Ranchi-based social activist Sushma Biruli said some of the powers granted under it have either reduced or ceased to exist. A few people, not fully conversant with the Rule, are in favour of bringing it back.
In January 1996, Birua had addressed a letter to the British High Commission in New Delhi for the same. But the latter claimed that all agreements between the people of Kolhan and the British government ceased after India’s independence in 1947.
In a January 30 post on his Facebook page, historian Paul Streumer, who specialises in 18th and 19th century Jharkhand, explained how Kolhan came to be a separate government estate.
As a remedy, Streumer added, the British stopped the application of the Bengal Regulations (as laws were called at that time) and Thomas Wilkinson devised a simplified judicial system called Wilkinson’s Rule. It acted through mankis and mundas, who oversaw the administration of justice and collected taxes.
The provocation for the January 23 drive may have been strong in the face of unemployment and illiteracy. Later, to prevent the situation from escalating, the district administration joined hands with tribal organisations to spread awareness about national unity among the Hos.
Assertion of tribal identity
The playground in Ladurabasa village, under Kursi Gram Panchyat, where Kolhan estate activists conducted a recruitment drive in January. Photo: Manoj Choudhary
Jharkhand has witnessed repeated tribal uprisings. Protest erupted in 2017 after former Chief Minister Raghubar Das tried to amend the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act of 1876 to allegedly to speed up land acquisition.
Since independence, development projects and mines have displaced millions in Jharkhand from their lands. According to Land Conflict Watch, a project that probes land conflicts across India, 162,496 hectares of land and 488,845 people are affected in the state.
Things went out of control even in Khunti district, when the Pathalgadi movement spread like wildfire over safeguarding the constitutional rights of people residing in Fifth Schedule areas in 2017-18. Khunti has seen massive land acquisition during Das’ tenure under the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Ownership of khutkatti land (lands claimed through lineage after clearing forests), from which Khunti derives its name, is at the epicentre of the tribal agitation in Jharkhand.
Even now, the green stone slabs erected during Pathalgadi can be seen in villages. Traditionally, such slabs have been used as markers and boundaries for centuries in tribal societies.
There are 705 ethnic groups officially recognised as Scheduled Tribes in India, constituting 8.6 per cent of the total population. Apart from Jharkhand, protests have broken out in recent times in Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh to protect natural resources on which tribals depend for livelihood.
A college professor based in Ranchi said on the condition of anonymity that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People gives rights to indigenous populations to assert themselves anywhere. But people in Kolhan forget that India hasn’t adopted it even though it voted in favour of it.
In the midst of fight for self-governance, followers of the Satipati cult in a few villages of Khunti marked by Pathalgadi, have given up government identity cards, claiming that as original inhabitants of India, they do not require citizenship proof. In this, they have distanced themselves even from tribal society creating a sharp division.
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