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In 2017, the Jharkhand police filed a case of sedition against an octogenarian named Ramo Birua. It went unnoticed: a major tribal land rights movement called pathalgadi was underway in the state, and the case was one of many.
But Birua was charged with sedition for an unusual reason. He had declared himself the ruler of the ‘Kolhan Government Estate.’ This referred to a tract of land spread over 5000 sq. km in the West Singhbhum district of southern Jharkhand.
Birua was no eccentric. He’d had a long career, which included several important administrative positions in the government of undivided Bihar. When he retired in 1991, it was as Additional District Magistrate, no small fry in local bureaucracy.
Decades earlier, Birua had written two letters, one to the Queen of England and one to the President of India, claiming to be the ruler of Kolhan Government Estate. The offices of both dignitaries had returned standard replies acknowledging receipt.
Birua claimed these replies as validation of his position. Under the assumed title of ‘khewatdar malik no. 1,’ he started issuing tax receipts, caste certificates, income certificates and domicile certificates. He appointed people to start collecting rent from the locals. This went on until the sedition charge and his subsequent arrest in April 2017.
When he was released on bail seven months later, Birua jumped back into the fray. He had associates who believed in his call for an independent Kolhan, though the group had never really commanded substantial public support, so it was now something of a movement.
In late 2017, Birua decided that there would be a Kolhan flag-hoisting ceremony on 18 December. Perhaps in a bid to generate public interest, he claimed that high-ranking officials from the central and state governments would be attending.
Alerted by the publicity, the Jharkhand police registered another case of sedition and waging war against Birua and 44 others. The group was prevented from raising the Kolhan flag at the event in Khuntpani. Munna Baan Singh, an associate of Birua’s, was even arrested by the police.
But a different group did successfully manage to hoist the flag elsewhere, near Jamshedpur. And Ramo Birua, ‘the number one owner of the land’ in Kolhan, evaded arrest by going underground.
grew up in Ranchi but only came across Ramo Birua while researching a book on sedition law.
On subsequent visits to my hometown, I trawled through old bookstores, hoping to land upon a definitive history of the administrative anomaly called Kolhan. I found histories of Jharkhand, but these made only passing references to Kolhan. Birua’s case ended up in my book, but I was intrigued by the wider story of this piece of India that Ramo Birua had once declared the corner of a foreign field.
First, some context. In early 2017, several villages in Jharkhand  laid stone slabs along their borders, barring entry to outsiders. They were protesting the amendment of a law that would ease restrictions on the transfer of tribal land. The stones were imprinted with text from the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act.
The state and central governments were no longer welcome in these parts, the villagers declared.  No government activity or land acquisition could lawfully be undertaken in a tribal area without permission from its village assembly, the gram sabha.
Pathalgadi is a tribal cultural practice to mark important occasions and to demarcate village boundaries. It has since become synonymous with a widespread political movement that asserts indigenous people’s rights, including those over land and self-governance. When Birua and his associates declared their independent state, they were simply taking matters a step further than usual.
Nobody has been able to trace an original copy of the Wilkinson’s Rules. The High Court of Patna noted that it has only seen a typed copy.
In fact, Birua’s 2017 movement would barely appear secessionist compared to its previous avatars. Long before the founding of the modern Indian state, the people of Kolhan repeatedly refused to be ruled by outsiders, be they local chieftains or the colonising British.
At the heart of the movement is a directive that may seem near-mythical to outsiders, but which still informs the daily realities of the region’s people: the Wilkinson’s Rules. Named for a nineteenth century British captain, they are possibly the only piece of codified rules from the time of the British East India Company that are still applicable in India.
Exasperatingly, nobody has been able to trace an original copy of the Rules, and even the High Court of Patna noted that it has only seen a typed copy.
The Rules became the legal peg on which the secessionist movement of Kolhan hung its cloak of sovereignty. They are inextricably linked to the history of a neglected region, and a people who tried to construct their own meaning of freedom.
he Chotanagpur plateau rises in the region between the Gangetic plains and the Mahanadi river. The Kolhan Government Estate is in the deep south of this region, perched above the northern boundary with Odisha.
The myths trace the indigenous peoples of Kolhan to Yayati, the ancestral king of the Pandavas. The tenth generation of Yayati’s descendants were four brothers whose names will sound familiar: Pandya, Kerala, Chola and Kola. While the first three settled in the south, the last of them made his home to the north of the Indian peninsula, in the heart of the plateau.
Historical knowledge as of this writing begins in the stone age, evidenced by findings of Palaeolithic chert flakes and weapons along the riverbank in Chaibasa, the district headquarters of West Singhbhum district. The Chinese traveller and Buddhist monk Xuenzang  passed through the region in the seventh century. By the fifteenth century, the region was ruled by the Surawaks and Saraks.  This is the point from which British histories begin.
Kolhan is the traditional homeland of the Ho or Kol people. They came to be called the Larka Kol—the fighting Kol—by the British, as an homage to their bravery in battle. The name ‘Ho’ is reserved for the branch of the tribe indigenous to Singhbhum. This group was remarkably exclusive from the beginning, barring aliens from holding land near their villages and opposed to outsiders settling in Kolhan.
The Ho who settled in the Chotanagpur region took on the name of Munda. (Munda is literally the word for ‘head,’ and also refers to the village headman in this community). The Ho mundas created a tribal union of their own. A group of around 12 villages comprised a patti, and the strongest of the mundas in this union was made the chief, or ‘manki,’ of the patti. 
Over time, the mundas’ periodic tributes to the manki came to be seen as rightful dues, and the offices of the munda and the manki became hereditary. In every village, a council of elders known as the ‘panch’ provided administrative counsel to the munda and also served as the tribunal that would decide disputes by custom. Inter-village disputes were arbitrated by the panch of the patti, headed by the manki. 
This is the system that Wilkinson’s Rules protect, if precariously.
For as long as memory stretches back, the tribal peoples of Kolhan were invaded or claimed by warring rajas, none of whom belonged to indigenous communities.  In the eighteenth century, a new set of warlords entered the fray: the British East India Company.
Just a decade after its victory at Plassey in 1757, the Company advanced west into the interiors of Hindustan. The armies annexed Porahat and Ghatsila before they were forced to slow down by the dense forests of inner Singhbhum and the resisting Ho people.
For decades, no outsiders, not even intelligence agents, appear to have penetrated the forests. It was only in 1820 that the northern villages of Kolhan were invaded, and that took a full Company battalion: artillery, cavalry and infantry.
True to form, the Ho fighters put up a fierce resistance with their arrows and axes before being subdued. They asked to be ruled by the British, but were forced to accept the Porahat satrap, who was by now a Company underling. This marked the end of Ho sovereignty: outsiders could now pass through and settle in Kolhan. 
This was simply the consequence of colonial rule in the nineteenth century, during which British subjugation became synonymous with landlordism for the vast majority of Indians. Agricultural labourers, tenants and small peasants, who had found ways to survive the caste system and successive imperial tax regimes, were crushed by the new, consolidated zamindari system. For Adivasi groups like the people of Kolhan, it meant being inflicted with tax and rents that pushed them into cycles of generational poverty and humiliation.
Once the Company had achieved a degree of presence across the Chotanagpur plateau, it set about reorganising its administrative apparatus. After much back and forth, the four districts of Hazaribagh, Ranchi, Palamu and Manbhum were redrawn as the South-West Frontier Agency—a counterpart to the North-West Frontier Agency (Pashtun country) in the west and the North-East Frontier Agency (tribes of the Eastern Himalayas) in the east. These were run by an Agent, with a Governor-General at the helm.
Singhbhum was later included in this arrangement in 1837, with the hope that this would enable the Company to manage the Kol rebellion which had broken out a few years previously. The Kol people were resisting the influx of non-tribals and the economic exploitation under the Company’s systems of land revenue and taxation.
This resistance petered out only in the late 1830s, and that too only after sustained pressure from the British. Thomas Wilkinson, the Agent for the South-West Frontier, took the view that forcing the Ho to accept the authority of the Raja of Porahat was pointless, and recommended that Kolhan be completely occupied by British forces.
Accordingly, British troops entered Kolhan in November 1836. By February 1837, all the mankis and mundas of Kolhan had sworn allegiance to the Company. To appease the Ho, Wilkinson wrote a set of rules that would maintain the traditional justice system.
ules for the administration of civil justice within the jurisdiction of the Agent to the Governor General under regulation XIII of 1833’: that was the original official title on the handwritten rules. Wilkinson’s name appeared on the later printed version.
As a Captain in the Governor-General’s army, Wilkinson led the charge and subdued the Ho in Kolhan during the insurrection of the early 1830s. When he became Agent of the South-West Frontier, one of his main tasks was to maintain the peace by settling disputes between various chiefs.
The rules he authored codified the operation of tribal customary law under the munda-manki system, but with British oversight.  Its jurisdiction extended to the 5000 sq.km of Kolhan, comprising 911 villages and a population that was two-thirds Ho.
It was these Rules that created the Kolhan courts and laid down the procedure for institution of civil suits of small values before the munsif,  who would then refer the dispute to a tribunal of local chiefs—the munda or the manki, depending on the nature of the case.
The Agent and Assistant Agent were empowered to entertain other suits. After the defendant joined the proceedings, they could also refer them to a tribunal comprising three to five people known as the panch. A tribunal system was to decide boundary disputes between villages.
The Wilkinson’s Rules regime created a unique legal artefact for their time. They were based on the customs of a particular tribe and applied to a specific region in the Bengal Presidency. In the north-eastern states and in village councils throughout the subcontinent, customary law was codified only after the British Crown took over from the Company. The provenance of the Rules was also striking. They were framed by an individual agent of the Governor General and not by the Governor General in-council.
Centuries later, it is these Wilkinson’s Rules and the Kolhan courts that continue to govern the administration of civil justice in the region. In any other part of Jharkhand, a suit for, say, the recovery of money, would lie before a civil court in accordance with India’s Civil Procedure Code. In Kolhan, it would be decided under the Company-era Wilkinson’s Rules.
That, in effect, is the history that connects the mankis of the eighteenth century and Ramo Birua in 2017.
Challenges, interventions, dissents
ince the establishment of the Rules, the body overseeing Kolhan Government Estate has changed twice. The Crown took over from the Company in 1858, and independent India took charge in 1947.
Almost two decades after the control of British India passed to the monarch of England, a law was passed in 1874 for the creation of Scheduled Districts where laws existing on the date of enactment in such areas continued to operate.
Simultaneously, by way of the Laws Local Extent Act, 1874 the scheduled districts, including Chotanagpur Division, were excluded from the applicability of the general laws which were applicable to the rest of British India. As Kolhan Government Estate was situated within the Chotanagpur Division, the Wilkinson’s Rules continued to govern civil justice and procedure there.
The Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) was enacted in 1908 but was not made applicable in Kolhan, as the Code exempted Scheduled Districts from its purview.
The first potential challenge to the Wilkinson’s Rules came only in 1951, after independence. It was when the CPC was amended to extend its application to all of India except the tribal areas of Assam, Scheduled Areas of Madras, Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur.
Singhbhum was not specifically excluded, despite being a majority tribal region. But the Governor of Bihar saved the Wilkinson’s Rules by declaring that the amendment to the CPC would not be applicable in Singhbhum except to the municipalities of Chaibasa and Chakradharpur. 
Perhaps surprisingly, the real challenges to Wilkinson’s Rules have not come from the top-down homogenising tendencies of central and state governments but the more localised concerns of serving bureaucrats and querulous litigants in property and money disputes.
In 1955, the question appeared before the Patna High Court in the case of Dulichand Khirwal vs State of Bihar and others.  Giving its judgement in 1958, the court remarked that all it had seen was a typed copy of the Rules and that there was no evidence to demonstrate that they had been framed by the Governor-General under Regulation XIII of 1833.
But it also noted that there was no evidence to demonstrate the contrary.  Wilkinson’s Rules had to be presumed valid, the High Court considered, because it had been in use for more than 120 years to administer civil justice in Kolhan.
Some years later another Patna High Court judgement did manage to suspend the functioning of the Kolhan courts, until legislative intervention brought them back. In J.N. Roy vs ACC Ltd, the Court held that the Kolhan Superintendent was not authorised by law to exercise the power of the munsif under Wilkinson’s Rules. But then the Kolhan Civil Justice (Regulating and Validating) Act, 1966 updated the Wilkinson’s Rules to the extent that a local bureaucrat was to be considered as the munsif court, empowered to hear suits of value up to ₹5,000.
Where suits were once entertained by an ‘Assistant to the Agent,’ the Rules now made mention of the ‘Deputy Commissioner or Additional Deputy Commissioner of Singhbhum.’ All references to the Agent were changed to the ‘Commissioner of the Chota Nagpur Division.’ The postcolonial state made these enactments retrospective, so that past judgements were saved—and so was the tribal community structure.
But the Rules hit another roadblock soon after. A judgement of the Patna High Court in December 1969  held that, prior to the Kolhan Civil Justice Act of 1966, Additional Deputy Collectors and other subordinate officers—essentially, land revenue officials from the state services—did not have jurisdiction to entertain suits under Wilkinson’s Rules without proper authorisation from the District Commissioner. 
In 1962, a Patna High Court judgement actually managed to suspend the functioning of the Kolhan courts until legislative intervention brought them back.
Since these subordinate officers had been deciding cases since 1941 without authorisation, all trials from 1941 till 1966 were declared to be without jurisdiction and their outcomes deemed invalid. Yet another round of legislation had to get around the decision, and in 1978, the Bihar government enacted the Bihar Kolhan Civil Justice (Regulation and Validating) Act to bless all past trials under Wilkinson’s Rules.
For two decades, this state of affairs held, until the question came up again before the court. A three-judge bench overruled the 1958 judgement: the Rules may have been in use for a century and a half at this point, they held, but in the form of customary—and not codified—law. Despite this finding, they added, past decisions made under the Rules would remain valid. Since there were no suitable substitutes, the Rules would continue to hold good until the government framed appropriate laws.
One judge dissented from this majority view, noting that the Rules would now be considered outdated and deficient to cope with the present system of life in Kolhan. He issued a direction to the government to amend the Rules within a period of three months from the date of the judgment: by April 2000.
The government missed that deadline, and then history intervened and saved the Rules. In November 2000, Jharkhand state was carved out of Bihar. The successor government of Jharkhand is yet to comply with the Patna High Court’s direction in the January 2000 judgement.
The current state government, led by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, has reportedly prepared a draft law to substitute Wilkinson’s Rules, meant to legitimise the system with some modifications. In March 2021, it launched a trial project  by establishing a tribunal called Nyay Manch in two villages to adjudicate some pending civil disputes. The village munda is to be the chairperson of the tribunal with the disputing parties nominating one member each.
But the draft law has not yet seen light of day. Wilkinson’s Rules continue to operate in this limbo.
n 1 November 1977, an organisation called the Kolhan Raksha Sangh (KRS) was formed by Narayan Jonko, Christ Anand Topno and K.C. Hembrum. Jonko, who used to be the head clerk at the Chaibasa Deputy Commissioner’s office, was declared head of the Kolhan government.
The KRS grew in popularity and soon had thousands of members from the Ho tribe. When the KRS organised a rally in Chaibasa on 30 March 1980, people kept joining as the day progressed. This was the first time that a demand for a separate Kolhan nation was articulated—separate not just from Bihar, that is, but from the republic of India.
This movement ran in parallel with what former parliamentarian Shailendra Mahato called the third phase of the movement for a separate Adivasi-majority state of Jharkhand.  There was no common ground between the two movements.
The letter declared that “Kolhan owes allegiance to the Crown and the Commonwealth countries.”
Bagun Sumbrui, who was a leader of the statehood movement and represented Singhbhum in Parliament, had disassociated the Jharkhand movement from the ‘independence’ movement of the KRS. He felt that the people behind the KRS were separatists who had no interest in the region’s economic development.
The KRS did not stop at demonstrations. In September 1981, Jonko, Topno, who was KRS’ chief legal advisor, and a man named Ashwani Kumar Swaiyan travelled to London to meet representatives of the British Government and the Commonwealth.
They’d earlier sent a letter demanding that Kolhan be accepted as a member of the Commonwealth and invited representatives to visit Chaibasa on 2 December 1981. That was the day they were going to announce the formation of an independent Kolhan nation. (2 December, the date on which Wilkinson’s Rules were introduced, is observed by some Ho people as Kolhan Day.) The letter declared that “Kolhan owes allegiance to the Crown and the Commonwealth countries.” It was signed by Jonko as ‘Chief of the Government of Kolhan.’
After the London trip, the delegation visited Geneva to make a case for United Nations membership. Back home, the three were charged with sedition on the grounds of fomenting a secessionist movement.
Topno and Swaiyan went back to London and Geneva in November, only to be duly arrested on their return to India. Jonko reportedly fled to the jungles of Kolhan to evade arrest.  Topno and Swaiyan were eventually released on bail by the Supreme Court in June 1984 as no charges were filed against them. 
The parliamentarian Kailashpati Mishra raised the issue of the attempted secession in the Rajya Sabha on 30 July 1984. Ram Dulari Sinha, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, acknowledged the situation and alleged that the KRS had been killing Adivasis who did not support their demands: 17 people had been killed and 49 abducted.
Sinha’s statements were met with scepticism by some members of the House. Her opponents were of the view that the central government was not fully aware of the situation in Kolhan whose Adivasis had been ignored by governments since independence. Basic amenities and infrastructure like roads, water and schools had not reached the region. Yet, most Adivasis did not support the demand for a Kolhan nation and were now facing reprisals from the KRS and its militant arm.
Other members of Parliament spoke up. Biswa Goswami questioned the continued use of Wilkinson’s Rules, which he felt gave the people of Kolhan a reason to believe in their autonomy. Ram Chandra Bharadwaj apprised the house that the KRS was announcing its intention to establish an Oxford-affiliated university in Kolhan.
Hukumdev Narayan Yadav advocated the formation of a commission to inquire into the issues in Kolhan, while also stressing on the need to take strict action against violent secessionists. On the other hand, Chaturanan Mishra suggested restraint. ”Repressive measures are not the solution,” Mishra said. “It will cause rebellion like what happened during British rule.”
In the months after this discussion and after his release from prison, Christ Anand Topno held a press conference. In a complete turnaround from his previous stance, he declared that the KRS had never demanded separate nationhood and would never do so in future. All it wanted was the protection of Kolhan in accordance with the Constitution and Wilkinson’s Rules. When journalists brought up Ram Dulari Sinha’s remarks in Parliament, he refuted them stoutly. There was nothing secessionist about the KRS, he said.
That more or less marked the end of the secessionist movement. But it soon turned out that the KRS had turned its attention to a different agenda at the ground level. In the 1990s, the KRS refocussed its energies on leading a movement to reclaim forest land and bring it under individual cultivation. There was more to this than met the eye.
Dr. Utkarsh Kumar,  who conducted extensive field research between 2014-2015 in the mining hubs of the West Singhbhum District, found that the KRS exploited its popularity in the region to create a cadre of karyakartas, or workers, and started to actively collude with mining companies in the region.
These karyakartas employed violent, intimidatory tactics to subjugate local villagers in exchange for petty contracts from mining companies. When the mining companies refused to accede to their demands, the karyakartas would organise blockades and obstruct the transportation of minerals.
In a final act of defiance, the frail 84-year-old called for a sheet of paper and proceeded to grant himself bail as the ruler of Kolhan.
Dr. Kumar, now an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Delhi University, called them “ambidextrous activists.” He argued that the KRS, which started as a vigilante group, was in an “enforcement partnership” with mining companies that faced local resistance.
His research suggests that the KRS went from being champions of autonomy to an oppressive organisation which turned on its own for economic gain.
After the demand for nationhood had been dropped in 1984, there was hardly any talk about it until Ramo Birua revived the call in 2017. Birua managed to evade the authorities for about six months. On 1 June 2018, acting on a tip-off, police from three different stations arrested him after surrounding his daughter and son-in-law’s house in Chaibasa. 
In a final act of defiance, the frail 84-year-old called for a sheet of paper and proceeded to grant himself bail as the ruler of Kolhan.
Putting on his trademark wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses, he went with the police to Chaibasa District jail. Twenty days later, he fell seriously ill while in custody and died on the way to the hospital.
The movement for a separate Kolhan nation died with him; at least, for the present.
n 23 January 2022, violence took place between members of the Ho tribe and the local police in Chaibasa. There was a lathi charge and tear gas shelling by the police. Mainstream media organisations were quick to report that the proximate cause of the incident was the revival of the demand for a separate nation. 
Later, it emerged that the violence was the culmination of a strange scam playing out over the previous few months.  Some Ho individuals had been organising fake recruitment camps in West Singhbhum. In return for an application and insurance fee, they were promising Ho people government jobs as Ho language teachers and village chiefs. The employer, the organisers claimed, would be the ‘Kolhan Government Estate.’
Several young Adivasis fell for it, and the organisers allegedly collected lakhs of rupees as ‘fees.’ On 23 January, the police raided one of these mass recruitment camps and arrested the organiser and some applicants. That is what had triggered the day’s violence outside Chaibasa police station, where the accused had been taken.
The alleged mastermind of this job scam was one Anand Chatar. The title he had assumed was ‘Khewatdar No 1.’
Chitranshul Sinha is a Delhi-based lawyer and author. He is a Partner in Dua Associates, and has written The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India (Penguin India, 2019). He is a regular contributor to print and digital publications on law-related topics. He tweets @Ghair_Kanooni.