The theory and practice of ‘eminent domain’ may be centuries old. It empowers the government to expropriate private property with compensation in the name of public use. It covers a multitude of uses for government projects which are meant for public welfare such as roads, waterways, government offices, railways, schools, industries etc. There is no dispute about it as long as appropriate compensation is given and the acquired land is genuinely used without harming people and environment.
But the dispute arises when the government legislates an act empowering it to declare non-transferable and non-saleable scheduled area lands into a commercial commodity. The present agitation of the tribals in Jharkhand has to do with this factor. It has been unleashed by the BJP dominated Jharkhand government’s hasty act of amendment of Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (1908) and Santal Parganas Tenancy (Supplementary Provisions) Act 1949. The March 6th tribal rally of over three thousand people in New Delhi is one such agitation of a people who feel that the Damocles’ sword of displacement from their own ancestral holdings is hanging over them. The fire of tribal discontent is in the air all over Jharkhand and beyond.
The tribals feel that the first ever non-tribal Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Mr. Raghubar Das, is on a confrontational course with the adivasis and moolvasis. Faithful proponent of the BJP agenda of giving businessmen a free ride, Das did another daredevilry immediately after the amendment by signing memoranda with over two hundred business magnates and industrial tycoons. According to Das government, in the name of so-called development, it is very well justified in using the weapon of ‘eminent domain’.
This development agenda was already heralded by India’s Prime Minister Modi a year ago. At a ‘Parivartan Rally’ in Allahabad on June 13, 2016, Modi declared, ‘Vikas dekna hai to Jharkhand jaiye!’ (Go to Jharkhand if you want to see development.) No wonder, the Modi-bhakt is not leaving any stones unturned to convert Jharkhand into a beehive of industrial belts, business corridors, and commercial parlours.
On the other hand, the tribals feel that their land is the abode of their ancestral spirits that have been guarding their land and forest and guiding their lives. Hence, on the land where angels fear to tread Das and company are threatening an invasion like vultures and locusts. The tribals are in no mood stomach such an inroad that will destroy their identity, displace and scatter them and turn them into migrants and vagrants.
Except for a handful of tribals who have been won over to the BJP fold, the tribals, cutting across party lines or religious ideologies, are under one umbrella crying foul against the state amendment. The issue, according to them, is their fight for survival. They say that their fundamental and human rights to their land and life’s resources are being snatched away from them. That is where community leaders and religious leaders are on the same platform to defend these very rights.
The Das faction accuses the church leaders of playing politics. For example, the recent memorandum submitted by Cardinal Telesphore Toppo and other church leaders to Jharkhand Governor Ms. Draupati Murmu was criticized by the Hindu nationalist party as an act of mixing religion with politics. But the church leaders contend that the human and fundamental rights of the tribals are under threat. And, wherever there are such violations, every citizen is duty bound to stand up, speak up and defend the victims.
They have a point. Christianity has centuries old history of defending people’s human and fundamental rights. Be it in El Salvadore or in the African continent or in developed countries like America, it has stood with people for human freedom, liberation from exploitation and against suppression under unjust structures. Here in India we have monumental examples of priests, nuns and church members standing with the oppressed, lending their voice to the voiceless, and representing the cause of the marginalised. All in the name of truth and justice! Therefore, what Cardinal Toppo and other church representatives did was only expected of them by demonstrating that they not only preach from the pulpit but are ready to walk an extra mile with the least and the lost. Their master, Christ, has taught them what it means to be a good shepherd.
The present tribal agitation has an emotional aspect too. The tenancy laws of 1908 and 1949 were the results of tribal uprisings and agitations over at least two centuries. The blood spilled by their ancestors to win freedom from exploiting hordes of moneylenders, landlords, jagirdars, and the colonial regime still inspires the present generation and makes them assert their bond to their land.
To prevent further uprisings, the British administration made land tenancy laws in tribal areas insulating tribal holdings against land grabbers and commercial hawks. Such tenancy laws have helped the tribals to protect their land holdings and also preserve their communitarian system of living. Land in a tribal village is a community holding. Individuals are apportioned land as per need by community consensus and not for greed. The theory of private property is anathema. Without respecting this communitarian aspect, the Das government with its ‘diku’ (outsider) mentality wants to cater to the greedy businessmen who want to make a fast buck on the minerals and other rich resources of Jharkhand.
The Jellikattu bull issue’s emotional vibrations were able to shake even the very Supreme Court of India facilitating new legislation to give legal coverage to the bull festival. That being so, the tribal emotional aspect cannot be just swept under the carpet by any regime under the pretext of ‘eminent domain’.#(Published on 27th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 13)