Travelling down a freshly tarred road in Khunti district of Jharkhand, visitor can’t miss noticing stone slabs and signboards outside villages. “Outsiders aren't welcome", the green, concrete slabs engraved in white letters warn in Devanagri script.
Hundreds of such slabs, which are called Pathalgadi in the local dialect, cite various articles of the Constitution about governance in tribal areas to declare autonomy and self-rule for the region. Some slabs were pulled down after a crackdown by Chief Minister Raghubar Das’s BJP government, but many still stand in villages.
The Pathalgadi movement hit national headlines in August 2017 when villagers in Bhandra panchayat in Lohardaga district detained Aswhini Kumar Sinha, a superintendent of police, for 12 hours. In February 2018, people blocked a team of the Akri police station from entering their village.
The stone plague in Sonpur village of Khunti district
The BJP government, earlier this year, used the police to crack down on the Pathalgadi movement, fearing a challenge to its authority and the involvement of Maoists. For elections now, the BJP has put its best bet among tribals: former Chief Minister Arjun Munda.
“It was Arjun Munda who urged the party high command to intervene and instruct Das to (exercise) restrain (in dealing with the Pathalgadi movement),” said a senior BJP leader in Ranchi. The party has put Arjun Munda at the front of its Lok Sabha election campaign in the state, hoping he will make better impression among tribals.
The BJP has fielded Arjun Munda as its candidate in Khunti Lok Sabha constituency, the epicentre of the Pathalgadi movement and that goes to polls in the fifth phase of elections on May 6.
BJP leader Kariya Munda, an eight-time MP and former deputy speaker, was dropped in Khunti to pave way for Arjun Munda. Khunti is a BJP stronghold. Kariya Munda has won here since the 1989 elections, except when the Congress bagged the seat in 2004. Khunti elections will decide Arjun Munda’s political fate.
After losing assembly election in 2014, Arjun Munda has been trying to regain his clout in the state politics. Secondly, he has been given the daunting task to rebuild tribals’ trust for the BJP after the state government’s crackdown on the Pathalgadi movement.
Tribals form 66 per cent of Khunti’s population, making their votes crucial. Christians are important too, but the enforcement of an anti-conversion law enforced has alienated them to the BJP.
Despite being his rival, Chief Minister Raghubar Das is likely to ensure Arjun Munda’s victory in Khunti. For, Munda’s loss would put the state government’s tribal and anti-conversion policies under the scanner. Also, Munda’s victory will ensure that he shifts to national politics and his ability to challenge Das in the state is limited.
Arjun Munda has to factor in BJP leader and state minister Neelkanth Singh Munda. Neelkanth’s brother, Kalicharan, is the Congress candidate in Khunti. Neelkanth has rejected allegations that he is helping his brother in Khunti.
The Pathalgadi movement was about “banning outsiders, and Congress is using that sentiment for its advantage. “Munda hails from another district and is an outsider to the constituency (Khunti),” says district Congress president Ramkrishna Chowdhary.
Media reports say gram sabhas or village councils in 76 places have not decided about participating in elections, giving Arjun Munda a reason to smile.