Ranchi: Last week, some 80 officials of the Khunti administration, including SP Ashwini Kumar Sinha, held ‘hostage’ for 12 hours by tribal villagers, who dug trenches and put up barricades to trap them, and then aired a host of land rights concerns at a village barely 16 km from the district headquarters and 60 km from Ranchi.
The tribal folk were understandably perturbed by the BJP state governments bid to rewrite tenancy laws, which appear to facilitate the further alienation of the Adivasis from their land.
In addition to the government bringing on a controversial ‘prevention of conversion’ bill designed to drive a wedge between the Sarna and the ChristianAdivasis, there is a growing mistrust of a against the state government.
Though, seemingly, the new tenancy rules being scrapped didn’t lead to rapprochement, because a new land acquisition bill has sparked fresh fears against the official machinery, evident in this hostage incident that snowballed from a simple police probe.
By the time 80-odd hostages were released, 12 hours later, around 7.30 in the morning in the presence of South Chhotanagpur DIG Amol Venukant Homkar and Khunti DC Manish Ranjan, the crowd of villagers had swelled to 5,000 at Kanki village in Bhandra panchayat.
Mostly tribal Christians, the crowd demanded assurance from the administration that their land under the 5th Schedule of the Constitution and Panchayati Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas (Pesa) Act would be protected.
They alleged the state government was out to grab their land and ruin indigenous culture by enacting new laws.
Additionally, the tribals wanted Khunti municipal body be denotified and pucca houses for poor built, but their main concern was their rights over their land. They maintained that they had every right to put up barricades to protect their lands, and that no one could enter their villages without permission from their gram sabhas.
On August 25, around 7.30pm , a team of five policemen, reportedly following a ‘tip-off’ about a firing incident, reached Kanki village, but were trapped by trenches, boulders and tree trunks.
The team called up DSP Ranveer Singh, who reached there with reinforcements. He tried threatening and on firing a few gunshots in the air, only to realize that these weren’t scared people who would run away. The crowds, instead of dispersing, grew bigger. Soon, a dozen policemen, including the DSP, were held hostage. Around an hour later, at 8.30pm, when the SP got information, he rushed in with additional force but he was also trapped. So were Sub-Divisional Magistrate Pranav Pal, executive magistrate Ravindra Gagrai, CRPF assistant commandant Pankaj Kumar, Torpa SDPO Nazir Akhtar and OCs of nearby police stations!
Around One in the morning, when South Chhotanagpur DIG Homkar and Khunti DC Manish Ranjan embarked on their rescue mission, they could not reach their trapped colleagues as villagers had dug trenches and thrown tree trunks, branches and boulders on the roads. While the influential people of the Munda community assured the DIG and DC that the trapped officials were safe, they also advised the senior bureaucrats against hasty moves or show of force.
The impasse ended after sunrise when the DIG and DC went again to speak to tribals. The officials were released when the DIG assured them that he would look into their demands, big and small, even down to action against police highhandedness and repair of a village platform. “They wanted us to promise actions in front of all, even as the crowds from nearby villages kept coming,” the DIG said.
A ‘senior police officer’. quoted by the Telegraph tried to put a communal spin on it. he reportedly said, “The area is dominated by tribal Christians. Churches and politicians have convinced tribals that the BJP-led government was out to ruin them. Rebel outfits too are trying to make inroads in this atmosphere of fear and mistrust,” he said.
Notice how the official, without any evidence blames includes the Church and Rebel outfits in one breath. The Church is being paired with politicians, and this warped narrative is being lapped up by the Ranchi press it would seem.
Similar agitations, sources said, were spreading to other areas. In Simdega, SP Rajeev Ranjan Singh said posters and banners with slogans like jal, jungle aur jammen humara hai (water, forests and lands are ours) were found at several places.
Chief minister Ragubar Das on Friday formed two committees to analyse the ‘decline in tribal population since Independence’ and to simplify modalities for transfer of land in Scheduled Areas.
Rural development minister Neelkanth Singh Munda would helm the panel comprising MLAs Tala Marandi, Shiv Shankar Oran and Gangotri Kujur and social worker Ratan Tirkey to examine reasons behind the dip in tribal population.
Social welfare minister Louise Marandi will head the panel that would explore if the CNT Act clause specifying a tribal could transfer his land to another tribal in the same thana area could be deleted and if in Santhal Pargana a non-tribal can transfer land to another non-tribal to build a house. MLAs Menaka Sardar, Ram Kumar Pahan and former home secretary J.B. Tubid are members of this committee.