RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat camped in Chhattisgarh in June as he was reportedly ‘concerned’ about the Pattargarhi movement unfolding in left-wing extremism affected states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In June itself, five street theatre activists working for a NGO supported by Christian missionary were kept hostage and raped in Jharkhand. The local police initially put blame on some activists involved in the Patthargarhi movement and finally two of the accused were arrested.
Media reports regarding Patthargarhi started emerging around Gujarat Assembly elections. In the last couple of months a slew of media reports succeeded in creating a public perception against Patthargarhi and branding it as pro-Maoist. On May 17, the Organiser, the mouthpiece of RSS, carried a story with the heading: “Patthargarhi is directly linked to conversion”. The story was based on a statement given by Ranvijay Singh Judev, Rajya Sabha MP from Chhattisgarh.
Now that the Patthargarhi movement has been branded pro-Maoist, a few basic questions need to be answered.
Origins of this movement can be traced to the remote villages of south Rajasthan, bordering Gujarat, way back in 1998, two years after the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA was enacted at the Centre. It followed that Patthargarhi is essentially a constitutional act that has nothing to do with the left-wing insurgency. Nor it is linked to religious conversions as claimed by RSS and others.
Among more than 350-inscribed stones installed outside (fifth schedule) tribal villages in Wagad area (Dungarpur, Banswada, Pratapgarh, Sirohi) of Rajasthan, many bear the name of MPs, MLAs and even state and central ministers. Dozens have been inaugurated by district magistrates and government officials. All these stones essentially mention the provisions of PESA act. Some bear the provisions of Forest Rights Act (FRA) also.
The PESA presents a framework of ‘Gaanv Ganrajya’ (village republic/self-rule) for the Scheduled Areas (SAs) and it has often been described as a ‘Constitution within a Constitution’. The uniqueness of this law is that it attempts to bring together in a single frame two different worlds—one is a simple system of tribal communities governed by their respective customs and traditions, and another is the formal system of the state governed exclusively by law. In this sense, it establishes different sources of authority and systems of legitimating for the customary laws of the tribal communities (the constitution and a statute, respectively) putting in place rules of recognition which supersede any other prior authority that the tribal people may claim as the source of their customary laws and rights. The PESA is more crucial than the provisions of Schedule V because it accepts Gram Sabha as the core unit of all kinds of deliberations and implementation of the law.
Talaiya: The legacy of BD Sharma
Around 20 kilometers from Dungarpur district headquarters on Banswada road is a tribal village Talaiya, the first in India that declared itself “Village Republic” on December 6, 1998. It was a ceremonious day that saw luminaries like late Dr Brahma Dev Sharma (former Commissioner SC/ST) and Dilip Singh Bhuria (MP and Chairman, Bhuria Committee for PESA) attend the first ever Patthargarhi after completing a long march of more than fifty kilometers that started from Kodiyagun village bordering Aravalli district of Gujarat. The stone installed inside the primary school campus mentions BD Sharma as the chief guest. Here they do not use Patthargarhi to describe the process.
Mansingh Sisodia, patron of Wagad Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, tells us that they use the word Shilalekh (inscribed stone) from the very beginning. According to him, Patthargarhi has perhaps come from Jharkhand and is comparatively a new usage. Wagad Sangathan along with other non-government organisations like Aastha and 'Jungle Zameen Jan Anodolan’ (JZJA) has been instrumental in creating the momentum for PESA and FRA in Rajasthan. Activists like BD Sharma of Bharat Jan Andolan and Pradip Prabhu of Shetkari Sangathna used to interact with the activists of Aastha and used to visit these areas from the beginning of 1990s. The tribal people and even local activists started to relate themselves with the PESA after its enactment in December 1996.
The JZJA, with the cooperation of the BJA at national level, played a crucial role in making people aware about this law. Though there was no intense movement for this purpose, JZJA organised a dharna in Jaipur in favour of this demand and BD Sharma and other activists from outside Rajasthan also participated in it. Finally, a Rajasthan PESA Act was passed in 1999. Although installing stones in the memory of deceased is a traditional tribal practise, all this was much before Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh knew about PESA or "Village Republic".
Talaiya still has a gram sabha in place like other 350 “Village Republics” here. It maintains registers, a working map of the local resources and takes proposals regarding self-rule in its meetings. Somaji Bhagat, the eldest man in this area, is an encyclopedia of the local struggles. In his nineties he lives on a hillock with his family and still recalls those initial days of Patthargarhi movement. He claims loudly, “I was the first along with BD Sharma to perform first Shilalekh in this country. We demand our right over land and natural resources but we would never fight. No violence.” Sisodia says, “This movement is within the constitutional framework and people in Rajasthan have never resorted to violent acts. Nowadays, what we hear in media about Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand incidents shock us. The state first turned a blind eye towards the implementation of PESA. Now it is desperate to dismantle the very Act by linking it to left-wing politics.”
The PESA presents a framework of ‘Gaanv Ganrajya’ (Village Republic/Self-rule) for the Scheduled Areas (SAs) and it has often been described as a ‘Constitution within Constitution’. The uniqueness of this law is that it attempts to bring together in a single frame two entirely different worlds- one is a simple system of tribal communities governed by their respective customs and traditions, and another is the formal system of the state governed exclusively by law
In April 2012, Dungarpur municipality was converted into a municipal corporation giving the town administrative rights to expand in the town's periphery. The tribals grew suspicious that their land could be acquired anytime without fair compensation. They began campaigning with the help of Wagad Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and filed RTI applications. They even petitioned the then CM Vasundhara Raje. An inquiry was initiated and found that a compensation claim of the erstwhile king was still subjudice and nothing could be done till it gets resolved. The compensation case might be subjudice but there’s no dispute that the land belongs to the government. So the government has built anganwadis, primary health centres, schools and even given mining leases on the land. This led the tribals to rejuvenate their Shilalekh (aka Patthargarhi) movement in last few years and resort to PESA and FRA Acts to ensure their survival.
The petrophobic state?
Despite systemic state betrayal, the tribals never lost the sight of constitutional ways. Sisodia says, “What we could see now in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh is derived from the tribal struggles of Rajasthan”.
Priyanka, an MA B.Ed trained tribal girl is a case in point. She was recently elected to the Gram Panchayat Samiti of Bichhiwada block in Dungarpur and runs Gram Sabha in her village. Likewise in Kodiyagun village, Lakshmi is the president of Gram Sabha and his father-in-law has been the sarpanch. There seems minimum friction here between the state body like Panchayat Samiti and Gram Sabha, both part of the constitution.
The web of “legal pluralism” and competitive “administrative control” (KN Chaube, NMML Delhi, 2014) over resources has till date not dithered the tribal of South Rajasthan to bend its ways.
But when the tribals of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are asserting their rights in the framework of "constitution within constitution", it scares the State, RSS and its media. This speaks volumes of some new conspiracies being hatched in the name of Maoist insurgency to selloff natural resources in that area. Otherwise Patthargarhi is just a law-inscribed stone in itself. Why the hell should anyone fear it? Is the state petrophobic? Any clues from Kashmir valley?