With Patthalgarhi, an ancient practice being used to foment secessionism in tribal areas, seeing a militant rise, anybody seen as an “outsider” has become a target.
On 19 June 2018, an 11-member non-governmental organisation (NGO) team comprising five women and six men had gone to stage Nukkad Natak, street theatre in RC Mission School of Kochang village under Arki Police Station of Khunti district in Jharkhand on the invitation of the school management. Six armed men, later identified as People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) cadre, arrived at the scene and asked the theatre artists about their entry despite Patthalgarhi in the region. According to a report in Prabhat Khabar, the accused were angry with the artists as they suspected them of distributing pamphlets against Patthalgarhi in Khunti town.
To teach these artists a lesson, they abducted all 11 of them at gunpoint and took them to a place near Chhota Uli jungle in the troupe’s own vehicle. The women in the group, including an 18-year-old and another who was just about to be married, were beaten and raped. Reports in local newspapers Dainik Prabhat and Dainik Bhaskar also allege that the rapes were videotaped and the women told to keep quiet about the incident. However, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIGP), Amol Venukant Homkar, has denied any knowledge of the rapes being filmed.
According to Additional Director General of Jharkhand Police, R K Malik, six men led by Baji Samad, area commander of the outlawed Maoist outfit PLFI, have been identified as the perpetrators of the crime. While two of the accused have been nabbed by the police, a hunt is on for the remaining accused. The police have also booked Fr Alfonso Aeind, principal of RC Mission School, for concealing information about the abduction of the women from the school compound. Fr Aeind, it is alleged, requested the kidnappers to spare only the two sisters working in his school, while remaining unconcerned about the fate of the women artists.
Patthalgarhi is the latest novelty being employed by Naxals and Maoists to foment secessionism in tribal areas. An ancient practice among the tribals of Jharkhand and some areas of Chhattisgarh, Patthalgarhi has been a tradition of remembering ancestors, drawing territorial boundaries, announcing communally held beliefs and providing information about settlements and demographics through stone inscriptions.
Misinterpreting the provisions of gram sabhas under the fifth schedule and Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, in the Constitution, Naxals have started installing stone inscriptions which challenge the authority of Central and state laws and bar the entry of government officials into villages. With Patthalgarhi seeing a militant rise, anybody seen as an “outsider” has become a target. Patthalgarhi “activists” are not even allowing developmental agencies to enter the areas marked by stone inscriptions as no-go zones. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders from the area have often blamed Christian missionaries for actively colluding with Patthalgarhi “activists”. Being an emotional issue for the tribals, any opposition to Patthalgarhi draws immediate retaliation from them and Naxals have been exploiting the sentiment for their designs.
The 2,000-strong police force, which is searching for the remaining Khunti rapists, is facing stiff resistance from Patthalgarhi supporters. A police team, which went looking for John Junas Tidu, mastermind of the Khunti gangrape, and Patthalgarhi kingpin, Joseph Purti, in Madrudih village was attacked by supporters on 26 June. These supporters chased the police force for 3 km before attacking BJP Member of Parliament Karia Munda’s house in Anigarha and abducting four guards from there. Munda’s daughter-in-law alleged that attempts were made by Patthalgarhi supporters to abduct her from the residence. After 50 hours of sustained action involving 2,200 jawans and 300 officials, police managed to rescue the abducted jawans. However, four of the of Khunti rape accused, John including Junas Tidu and Joseph Purti, still remain at large.
Both Tidu and Purti have been advocating violence and secessionism openly in village after village. Telling the villagers that Central and state laws do not apply to them as they enjoy “special status”, the duo are threatening officials with dire consequences and assuring villagers of “independence” within six months. On its part, the Jharkhand government has launched an all-out effort to go after Patthalgarhi leaders. Home secretary S K G Rahate held a high-level meeting in Khunti on 30 June and asked officials to expedite developmental works on a war footing.