Jailal Rathia was an indigenous Adivasi community leader and farmer in Kunkuni village, Raigarh, Chhattisgarh state. Chhattisgarh is a mineral-rich state which is home to nearly 8 million Adivasi people (about a third of the population). Adivasi communities, who traditionally have strong links to land and forests, and have suffered disproportionately from development-induced displacement and environmental destruction in Chhattisgarh and across India.
In October 2016, Jailal Rathia filed a petition before the Chhattisgarh High Court alleging that he and several other Adivasi villagers had been cheated out of about 300 acres (121 hectares) of land by members of a local land mafia acting in collusion with the local administration. The villagers said that their lands were subsequently sold at higher prices to mining companies, or acquired by the state – which paid higher compensation amounts – for the construction of a railway track. Rathia also filed complaints under a local law prohibiting the transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis, and wrote letters to the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes on the issue.
On 16 March 2017, Jailal Rathia travelled to market in a nearby village for a personal errand. His family says that after he returned home, he said that he felt weak. Late that night, he tried to vomit, was profusely sweating, and died soon after. His son Ananda Ram Rathia said, “At around 10am the next morning, when we saw his face, we found that his mouth was frothing. By the time we took him to the crematorium, his body had swollen up.” Rathia’s family suspect that he was poisoned by members of the land mafia who he was campaigning against. His family cremated his body soon after his death, according to traditional custom. An autopsy was not conducted.
Jailal Rathia’s family members and the co-petitioner in his case Mayaram Rathia said that he had been threatened by members of the local land mafia and local police on several occasions, and told to withdraw the petitions he had filed. His son Ananda Ram Rathia said, “A few weeks before his death, my father told me that he was threatened by [an alleged member of the land mafia] and his life was in danger.” His brother Chandrika Rathia said that Jailal Rathia had also received threatening phone calls from local police officials, a month before his death. Other villagers in Kunkuni also said they had received threats. They were not provided protection by the police.
After Jailal Rathia’s death, his wife filed a criminal complaint on 18 March 2017 alleging that her husband had been murdered, and seeking a forensic investigation. The police have begun an investigation. Police personnel have recorded statements from local villagers and sent the remains of Rathia’s body for forensic tests. The investigation is ongoing. No arrests have been made.
On 9 May 2017, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes ordered the head of the district administration of Raigarh to inform about the action taken against officials accused of transferring tribal land to non-tribals. The Commission also directed the Senior Superintendent of Police, Raigarh to investigate the case. A team from the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes is conducting its own investigation into the allegations of land grab visited Kunkuni in June.