AT A crossroads outside the hamlet of Hakadua, in the state of Jharkhand, a small and solemn group of villagers gathers around a slab of rock erected near a sacred grove. Under the noon blaze a white-whiskered priest and a troupe of young women in red saris murmur, sing and place cups made of folded leaves at the base of the rock, which is covered on both sides with inscriptions. These include passages from the constitution and the PESA act of 1996, which is supposed to ensure self-governance for people living in “tribal” areas, such as this. An elderly participant has trouble reading the text, but no difficulty explaining the locals’ grievances. First, to the extent the state is present in the area at all, it is incompetent, corrupt and domineering—in effect abrogating PESA and other laws meant to protect tribal interests. Second, they fear their land is being stolen. Mining companies, keen to get at coal and other riches underground, run circles around tribal leaders in court. The upshot is that the villagers want no part of India any more: the inscribed monolith is, in effect, a declaration of independence.
Hundreds of such monoliths have been erected outside tribal settlements in recent months. The consecration of one near the village of Omto is followed by a rally of some 2,000 tribal men carrying primitive weapons. Most shoulder bows and arrows fletched with chicken feathers. Others bear wicked-looking axes and spears, and a few have fashioned crossbows out of surgical tubing and bamboo bolts.
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These men see themselves as descendants of Birsa Munda, a 19th-century tribal leader who fought a brief but fierce guerrilla war against the British. Independent India has adopted him as a nationalist; Jharkhand’s main airport is named for him. But Omto’s headman hails these modern-day Mundas with cries of “Our village, our rule!” and “Out with India!” The current leader of the monolith-raising movement, Joseph Purti, waves a thick copy of the constitution above his head as he speaks. “They are imposing citizenship on us,” he says of the Indian state, urging a boycott of all government institutions.
Tribals, arguably the most neglected of India’s many minorities, make up almost 9% of its 1.3bn people. Between 1947 and 2000 roughly a quarter were displaced. Some 40% of those living in tribal villages are malnourished. Many live along the line that separates north India from south, and regard themselves as the aboriginal inhabitants. Their ancestors somehow managed to live in India for thousands of years without becoming culturally Indian. Many of their languages are primordially distinct, as different from Hindi as Basque is from French. Some tribals are Hindu and others Christian, but many persist in forms of worship that predate both religions—such as erecting large stones to mark undertakings of great significance.
Jharkhand’s chief minister has promised to crush Mr Purti’s movement (two days after the rally, a criminal complaint was filed against everyone present). Its previous leader has been arrested on charges that include making “assertions prejudicial to national integration”. The government has accused the activists of wanting to cultivate opium poppies and of propagating Maoist revolution.
For years the authorities have conflated the campaign for tribal rights with India’s long-running Maoist insurgency. The terms “Red Corridor” and “the tribal belt” are used interchangeably. But the insurgency has largely been suppressed over the past decade by a ferocious military campaign, without snuffing out tribals’ complaints of injustice. Maoist ideology plays no visible role in the monolith movement.
Meanwhile stone slabs have started catching on in the neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The security services can hardly be happy about that. It may be fair to label the movement “anti-national”, a favourite term of abuse these days. But at least it is not violent, if “not exactly non-violent”, in the words of an intellectual sympathiser. Indeed, all the angry tribals are asking is that the government respect its own laws and undertakings. The ferocious response to such an innocuous request is telling in itself.