Tribal practice takes religious overtones in Chhattisgarh, BJP sees church hand

Six months before the Assembly elections, a 5-feet green stone opposite a grocery shop in this village has come to stand for a religious divide and led to eight arrests, including that of a former IAS officer.

For tribals across Central India, such stones with carvings are an age-old practice called Patthalgarhi, commemorating celebrations, announcements, area demarcations, or even death. This particular stone came up on April 22, citing sections and judgments, and declaring that “no act enacted by the Vidhan Sabha or the Rajya Sabha such as the IPC, CrPC, Representation of the People Act etc apply in Schedule 5 areas (the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution deals with the administration and control of Scheduled Areas, Scheduled Tribes)”. Next to it on a wall are written the words ‘Na Lok Sabha, Na Vidhan Sabha, Sabse Unchi Gram Sabha (Neither Lok Sabha, nor Vidhan Sabha, the highest is Gram Sabha)’. But what the tribals see as assertion of their rights, “as guaranteed by the Constitution”, has been dubbed by the ruling BJP as a “missionary tactic to mislead the tribals”.

Kiran Lakra, a Christian Adivasi of Bachraon, says the controversy has surprised them. In the run-up to the stone being put up, Kiran says, there was nothing religious about it. “The elders in the gram sabha kept calling everyone, and even those who were not Christian used to come. The elders would teach us about our rights in the Constitution, how we should run our villages, and that no other government had a role.”

However, closer to April 22, those attending the meetings began to be almost exclusively Christians, mostly from the Oraon community. The inauguration saw participation by thousands of tribals, including from other villages. “Our leaders like Joseph Tigga made speeches. But nothing was written, or spoken, about religion, or against anyone. It was only about our rights,” says Peter Tirkey, who lives in the home adjacent to the stone.

Jashpur, with 62 per cent of its population tribal, is not new to religious politics. Christians make up 22.26 per cent of its numbers, and the church in Kunkuri town is said to be Asia’s second largest. The district is also home to firebrand BJP leader Dilip Singh Judev, who led the party’s ‘Ghar Vapsi’ programmes to “reconvert” tribals. His son Prabal Singh Judev is vice-president of the BJP state youth wing and of the Jashpur zila panchayat. On April 28, Prabal led a ‘Sadbhavna Rally’ across villages, also attended by Union Minister Vishnu Dev Sai, raising Hindutva slogans.

Following the march, a stone structure, which till then had no writing, was demolished by a mob in Butunga village, less than 10 km from Bachraon. Irate villagers seeking action allegedly attacked a police vehicle, and held senior officials hostage for over six hours.

Till then the state government had been wary of taking action, careful not to make it a government vs tribals issue. “But when the organisers took the law into their own hands, we got our chance,” a senior official says. Since then, eight people have been arrested, and 12 others named in FIRs, that accuse them, among other things, of promoting enmity between religious groups.

Breaking his silence, Chief Minister Raman Singh said that Patthalgarhi was the result of “forces that want to back religious conversion”.

Says Prabal, “Christian missionaries who have been very active in the conversion of Hindu tribals in Jashpur district have found a new way to expand their agenda, and that is Patthalgarhi. Causing confusion by misinterpreting our Constitution in tribal society makes them easy target of conversion. They are restricting outsiders from entering villages, which is a violation of fundamental rights.”

A Patthalgarhi stone in Surajpur district, for example, says that in Schedule 5 areas, non-Adivasis don’t have the right to roam around, settle or conduct business. Recently, Patthalgarhi has also seen a revival in villages of Jharkhand, bordering Jashpur, generating controversy on the same grounds.

Apart from Jashpur and Surajpur, Patthalgarhi stones have also come up in Ambikapur district in Chhatisgarh.

Experts warn that while Schedule 5 of the Constitution does protect rights of tribals, the content on the stones is not correct. Says Neelabh Dubey, a Chhattisgarh High Court advocate, “There are very strong provisions that protect the rights to land and customs for tribals, but there can’t be infringement of fundamental rights which exist for every citizen.”

Of those arrested, while Joseph Tigga is a former ONGC employee, Herman Kindo is a retired IAS officer now settled in Kunkuri. Local political leaders believe Kindo has political aspirations. The Kunkuri Assembly seat is currently held by the BJP.

The Congress has said that while the content of the writing of Patthalgarhi may be “misleading”, it is a sign of the “disaffection” after a 15-year BJP government.

In a statement on May 2, the Catholic Church distanced itself from Patthalgarhi, saying those who had been arrested were not its representatives, and that connections were being made for “political gains”. Father Praful Bara, parish priest of a church in Jashpur and professor of English at Loyola College in Kunkuri, adds, “The Church may not have been involved in Patthalgarhi, but we play a role in the area. If they are asking for constitutional rights, what is wrong? Only members of our community have been arrested. If the administration intends to restore normality, they have to appear objective.”

Jashpur District Magistrate Priyanka Shukla says, “We are keeping a vigil to ensure that rumour-mongering is kept in check. We won’t allow any miscreants to misguide tribals.”

Jashpur SP Prashant Thakur said, “Action is being taken as per law and peace is being maintained.”

In Bachraon, however, that peace is tenuous. Kiran points to a section of the village where the non-Christians live. “They don’t come this side anymore. I think they have been tipping off police about the presence of Patthalgarhi leaders. But whatever happens now, we are prepared to fight for Patthalgarhi.”

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