In A Madhya Pradesh Village, Stone Pelting Is Not A Crime
The Madhya Pradesh government makes arrangements for the smooth conduct of the stone pelting fair, every year. The same government has demolished homes of alleged stone pelters.
Bhopal — Off late, Madhya Pradesh has come to be known for its 'rule of bulldozers' as the state government demolished houses and shops to punish alleged stone pelters. However, a hamlet in Chhindwara district of the same state has been celebrating stone pelting for years.
Every year, the residents throw stones at each other as part of a 'ritual'. Some believe it has been centuries since the tradition began. They call it Gotmar mela, that translates to stone-pelting fair. Every year, 350-400 people suffer injuries during the celebration; some have died too.
And yet, the government has done little to intervene to change the format of the celebration so lives are not lost.
What Is This Stone Pelting Ritual?
The practice of throwing stones in the villages of Madhya Pradesh is seen as an act of brave defiance, almost David vs Goliath being played out in real life.
About 70 kilometers from Chhindwara district headquarter in 'Pandhurna' tehsil, a unique fair called 'Gotmar Mela' is celebrated every year on the second day to 'Bhadrapad' - New Moon day which usually falls in August-September.
The fair is celebrated by the residents of — Sawargaon and Pandhurna — the two villages located on either side of the Jam river, a senior official told BOOM.
After worshiping the sacred 'palash' tree — commonly known as Flame of the Forest — a villager of Sawargaon erects the tree in the middle of the river and hoists a flag on top. This is the signal for the residents of both the villages to gather on either flank of the river, and start pelting stones.
The villagers of Pandhurna try to bring down the tree while villagers of Sawargaon attempt to defend it with stones.
The stone pelting starts around 11 am and continues till 5 pm. If the villagers of Pandhurna bring down the tree before the deadline, they become victorious. Otherwise, Sawargaon claims the winner's title.
The winner then goes to the nearby temple of 'Chandika Mata' to seek blessings, with the flags and the palash tree - considered to be a symbol of sacrifice.
"The injuries caused by stone pelting are considered as 'blessings' of 'Chandika Mata' and devotees apply vibhuti (sacred ash made of burnt dried wood, burnt cow dung) from the temple for speedy recovery," said an organiser Manoj Dinkarrao Gurte.
But the question remains, why do they celebrate stone pelting?
The residents of the two villages in Madhya Pradesh have different folktales for the origins of the stone pelting ritual.
A love story of a boy from Pandhurna and a girl from Sawargaon who were caught by the villagers when they were eloping is the one that grab plenty of eyeballs. Many of the villagers believe that their forefathers from 300 years ago stoned the couple to death. Out of remorse, the villagers then pulled out their bodies from the Jam river and took them to the 'Chandika Mata' temple.
The legend goes that it was to mourn the young couple's death that they began celebrating Gotmar mela.
The other story dates back to the 16-17th century when the Gond tribal king Raja Jatba Shah (1540-1620) ruled the Devgarh Kingdom (Spread in today's Chhindwara, Betul, Seoni, Balaghat to Nagpur) and established the Gond kingdom in Central India.
According to locals, Jatba, an ally of the Mughals, had a fort on the bank of the Jam river which was attacked by the Marathas a day after the full moon. The unequipped Gond army was caught off guard, but the high tide in the Jam river stopped the Maratha army across the river.
To stop the Marathas, the Gond army devised a plan to attack with stones and gofan (projectile weapon, typically used to propel small stones).
Unprepared for this combat technique and seeing no hope of victory, the Maratha army retreated.
"The Gotmar Mela is a way to remember Gond king Jatba's victory over an advancing Maratha army with just stones," an organiser of the stone pelting fair said.
Jatba died in 1620. His mausoleum and the ruins of his fort still exist on the bank of the Jam river in Pandhurna tehsil, pointed out a local. A ward in Pandhurna is also named after Raja Jatba. His grandson Bhakt Buland Shah who succeeded his father embraced Islam and was known as an architech of today's Nagpur city.
"The story of a couple's death in stone pelting has no relevance or historical backing. I don't know why the media links it to a love story," clarified Manoj Dinkarrao Gurte, President of Chandika Mata Mandir Samiti which organises the Gotmar fair.
Reward Or Punishment For Stone Pelters?
The Madhya Pradesh government makes arrangements for the smooth conduct of the stone pelting fair, every year. It is the same government that has demolished homes of alleged 'stone pelters' in Khargone, Indore, Ujjain and others for doing the same.
On December 27, 2020, the Ujjain district administration demolished the two-storey home of Abdul Rafeeq (50) over an allegation of violence. His tenant was reportedly caught on camera pelting stones from the roof during a clash that broke out between the two communities after provocative slogans were raised at a Ram Mandir donation rally passing though Begum Bagh on December 25.
The donation rally was carried out by BJP's youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morch.
A day before the demolition, Home Minister Narottam Mishra said, "Jis ghar se patthar pheke jayenge, us ghar se patthar nikale jayenge (Stones will be taken out from the homes that throw stones)".
Considering stone pelting as a serious offense, the following year, the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government passed a law for stone pelters. It has provisions to recover losses of public or private properties from an alleged stone pelter through a 'Claims Tribunal'. Under the newly passed Madhya Pradesh Prevention and Recovery of Damage to Public and Private Property Act, 2021, the 'Claims Tribunal' can order to recover the losses from the accused even before the lower court declares them a convict.
The law was challenged in Indore High Court by a woman resident of Khargone last month who said that it was against the principle of natural justice and fundamental rights prescribed in the Constitution of India.
Several demolitions also took place across the country over the allegations of stone pelting in Uttar Pradesh and in Delhi. For years in Kashmir, stone pelters were responded with pellet guns causing vision loss to many.
What Happened This Year At The Stone Pelting Fair?
The Gotmar mela which continued in both the lockdowns was observed on August 27 this year.
Over 700 police personnels including special forces, Forest and Police officials, home guard of the district were deployed to control the crowd of over 15,000 people gathered from the nearby villages either to pelt stones or to witness the unique fair.
According to a senior officer of Chhindwara police, maintaining law and order when thousands of people are going to pelt stones on each other is challenging. Therefore, the administration deployed three Assistant Superintendent of Police, 11 Deputy Superintendent of Police, 16 town inspectors. They were equipped with CCTV and drones. Besides, 18 checkpoints were set up to control the flow of liquor and use of gofan, prohibited in the fair.
The authorities claim that stones from the river bed and the surrounding locality is cleared out the night before the event. And yet, there is no dearth of stones on the day of the fair.
"A few devotees of mata Chandika donates trucks of stones for the event hoping that the deity may fulfill their wishes," said an organiser. "Besides, many players bring their own stones which they collect for days."
To provide first aid to the injured, a team of 29 doctors and 130 nurses were deployed in temporary medical camps setup in each village. As many as 12 ambulances were also kept on alert to ply the gravely injured. Besides, divers and ships were also deployed to save the players from drowning in the Jam river.
"Just like every year, the palash tree was erected at 5 am with flags on top. The crowd began to swell by 8-9 am and after offering prayers at Chandika Mata Mandir at 10 am, the stone pelting started at 11 am," said Pritam Singh, a senior police officer who was a security officer in the fair this year.
By 3.40 pm when the players of Pandhurna managed to bring down the tree with flags, over 330 people were injured.
Nikhil Dabre and Fakeer Lukiya of Pandhurna village reported leg fractures and were referred to Nagpur, said a police officer.
"I don't know the historical relevance of the fair, but with time it became a deep-rooted tradition of the region. Bigger than any festival. People of all castes and religions take part in this without holding any grudge and enmity against one another," said Kewal Singh Parte, town inspector of Pandhurna police station.
Once the tree fell, the village of Pandhurna was announced victor and the stone pelting ended. Subsequently, residents of both the villages went to the Chandika Mata temple.
"Everything goes back to normalcy after the one day show. No one demands to lodge FIR for hurting or loss of property in the stone pelting. There is no enmity between the residents of two villages over Gotmar mela," the police officer said.
According to locals, over 12 people have died so far in the incident of stone pelting since 1955 when local police began to keep the records. The last death was reported in 2011 when Devanand Vaghle, a resident of Pandhurna died of a head injury.
Mourning his brother's death, P Vaghle said over the phone, "He was on the Jam river bridge when a stone hit his head and he fell into the river. There wasn't anyone to save him. His body washed away and was later found on the outskirts of the city."
Vaghle said that the stone pelting ritual should be banned. "Not only my brother, participants develop various diseases such as headache, vision loss and others after the event which are caused by stone injuries. This must stop."
A senior officer of Chhindwara police explained that several attempts were made in the past to put an end to this custom but in vain."District administration tried to replace stones with balls (plastic / rubber) and also offered to organise a cultural festival instead of stone pelting but it was met with stiff opposition. Locals pelted stones on ambulances, police vehicles and caused damage to the public property forcing police to fire teargas shells to control the unruly mob," he told BOOM.
"Owing to their deep-rooted belief, locals even refuse to report casualties. As a result, the death cases also go unpunished," the officer said, adding that even "educated people came from nearby villages and towns just to throw a couple of stones with a wish that Chandika Mata may to fulfill their wishes".
This year, sitting MLA from Pandhurna assembly seat Nilesh Uikey also pelted five stones on Sawargaon and extended his support to the organisers.
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