The Netarhat people’s movement continues unabated
Since the 1950s, Indian Armed Forces have used the scenic forests of the Netarhat plateau in the state of Jharkhand as practice grounds to try out and perfect their combat skills. Come spring every year, the army moved into the region inhabited by more than 2 lakh tribals and turns the area into a simulation of a battleground. Army trucks trample over fertile fields, bullets fly, bombs explode – the tribals had no option but to vacate their villages and migrate temporarily till the army elaborate practice came to an end. After a few months, tribals would return to a war torn landscape that was their home. Dead animals, unexploded shells and mines, fields and grounds blasted into shambles. For all the troubles, the loss and the outright hell meted out to them, the army compensated the villagers by paying Rs. 2/- per family.
For forty years, dissatisfaction grew in the hearts of the natives but they were at loss as to how to face up to the power of their army and their government. Then on the 23rd of March 1994 a group of tribal woman stood in front of the army trucks. They would not allow them to enter their lands. ‘We will give our lives, but not our land’ was the slogan they shouted. For two days, the woman stood down the army. Faced with a determined non-violent opposition that seemed to be gaining in numbers hour after hour, the army beat a retreat. The people had won. Every year on the 23rd and 24th the over 200 villages in Netarhat celebrate ‘Victory Day’ to mark this great event. It is also a reminder that the fight is far from over but that in each other, in numbers they would find the strength to perspire.
The army is currently involved in trying to acquire 3606 square kilometers of the plateau to turn into a pilot firing range. This spells displacement and loss of livelihood for over two and half lakh tribals who have been born and raised in the region. The army, the state government, the authorities, the police have all tried to arm twist their way to acquire the land but the movement is strong and resilient. Jharkhand is a state that formed around a people’s movement. There is a legacy to their struggle. It is a land where the people have learnt to fight for their rights. The Netarhat movement was far from just a momentary outburst of dissatisfaction. Like all notable people’s movements, it was built on solid foundations; it is strategic, aware, empowered and immensely popular. Every time the army tries to move in, there are more million people who come from all over the region to stand ground and hold fort. Even if the army tries to provoke them, they maintain their organization and equanimity. Their greatest asset against the might of the army is their non-violence.
Community Correspondent Birendra Tirkey belongs to the region. He is a headmaster at school but if he hears of a standoff between the people and the army, no matter where he is, no matter what he is upto, he would leave everything to rush to the spot. “It is the code by which people live here,” says Birendra. “It is unwritten but it’s the way that my community is wired. I have been attending protests, stand-ins and sit-ins since my early teens. And I will not stop until the army ceases its attempts to steal our land.”
Birendra is proud of the legacy of the Netarhat struggle and is prouder of the fact that younger people are always joining in. “When I started the protest, I was one of the youngest. Now I see people who are younger than me and the sight fills me with great happiness. We people have grown up with the struggle. It is part of our identity. The youngest among us hasn’t even seen the worst of times but they have heard of the movement from their elders. And they have made the fight their own.”
“Every popular movement has its own stories, its own legends, its own songs and slogans. It is the culture of the movement, and the times and the struggle. One of the reasons I have made this video is to tell the story of the struggle to people everywhere. The torch is lit. This is my attempt to pass on the flame. I’m reaching out to the world. You never know where the fire takes hold.”