Shobha: A Dalit woman’s struggle for Forest Rights in Sonbhadra Human Rights Defender Profile
22, Mar 2019 | Sushmita
Located in a peculiarly odd terrain, Badi is a set of small huts spread across small hillocks on uneven land just adjacent to National Highway 39, connecting Robertsganj and Renukoot. Badi falls in the Chopan block of the Robertsganj taluka, Sonbhadra district. A long stretch of land lies bare, baking in the blazing sun. Families here live in abject poverty.
Dry patches of land give way to fragmented hutments. This land, on which Adivasis live, is desired by many, including the Jaypee Group, one of the largest companies for cement production. Per ground reports, the Jaypee Group has been eyeing the land since 2010, mainly because of its easy accessibility and connect with the highway. The area is rich in minerals like limestone, marble and iron ore.
The silence of this vast expanse of land, with the sky closing in on you, melts into the bitter and bloody conflict for land between Adivasis and Dalits, and the police police, mining mafia and state forest department. And women from marginalised communities are at the forefront of this conflict.
CJP has traveled to Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, and is working to help forest rights activists there secure land. We are also providing legal aid to those who have been mired in false cases for the simple act of making claims to land that is rightfully theirs. Please support our efforts as we deepen our understanding of the Forest Rights Act, and stand with human rights defenders who are also conserving our forests by donating here.
It is in this context that the remarkable struggle of Shobha, a Dalit woman, stands out. In her fifties now, Shobha has struggled for four bighas (around one acre) of land for twenty years in Badi village. Her husband Ram Gharib has been with her in this struggle. Both worked as stone crushers in and around Badi and, years ago, slowly started clearing a small piece of land. Apparently, this angered the other communities.
In 2006, Shobha was sexually assaulted by a member of a dominant caste. Although she immediately went to the Chopan police station to file her complaint, the case wasn’t registered. It took two years for the police to lodge an FIR. In the course of attempting to get the complaint registered, Shobha traveled to Allahabad, and even Delhi. Finally, a lawyer, Mr. Vinod Pathak, met her and connected her to Roma, general secretary of the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP).
Joining the union in 2010 was the beginning of an emancipatory journey for Shobha, who started meeting with, and organising landless women. They took up various issues such as ration cards, police brutality etc. Meeting regularly, they were able to identify 150 bighas of farmland, and 500 bighas of land overall, by looking through land maps and court records. They called this the Durga tola, based on popular deity Durga mata, who is seen as a symbol of strength by various communities.
Facing retaliation for her activism
Shobha’s successes in organising the women in Badi tola threatened the vested interests that have had designs on the land for a long time. She faced a fatal attack in 2015: her house was reportedly set on fire.
Shobha narrates the ordeal, “The villagers gathered outside my house and started abusing me. While the women were right outside my house, the men hid themselves behind the small hillocks located near my house. They were throwing stones from there. The men must have been more than a hundred in number, and all of them were drunk. I locked myself inside with other women. My children and I hid under the bedding as they were attacking us from all sides. Still hiding under the bedding, I called police. The attack continued even in the presence of the police. Once the attack stopped, someone heard the Section Officer from Obra talking on phone that nobody had been hurt in the attack. However, the reality was that many women were hurt. There was an attempt to set my house on fire. Around six policemen were present during this incident. We were then taken to Churu Kand hospital, and were examined there. Afterwards, the police took us to Mirzapur jail, more than a hundred kilometres away, by pretending to take us home. When we asked the police to stop, they threatened to slap us.” Shobha says they were not told where they were being taken.
Shobha alleges that this incident was an attempt by the police and forest department to break the unity between the Dalits and Adivasis in the village, as many of those who attacked her house were Adivasis.
A fact-finding report compiled by the Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG) in July 2015 on the issue included following observation, “Though the issue is being portrayed as the clash between two communities, the origins of this conflict lie in the fact that the state government and the forest department want the real claimants/stakeholders of the land and forests (Adivasis and Dalits) to stay deprived of it.”
Despite the attack on her and several others, Shobha, her husband Ram Gharib and 18 other women were arrested on the basis of the FIR registered by the villagers. “They got witnesses to say that we hurt ourselves”, Shobha recalls. Her daughter lodged a reverse FIR against Yashoda, an ex-Block Development Committee member, and 14 other women. The police arrested Yashoda, who was reportedly one of the key people responsible for orchestrating the attack on Shobha’s house, and the other 13 women involved. However, the main culprits behind this–Kalwant Agarwal, the leader of the local mafia, and Dr. Mishra, a member of the ultra right-wing group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)–remained free. The villagers believe that Dr. Mishra was very interested in the land as he wanted to open a clinic there.
Recounting her days in the overcrowded Mirzapur prison, Shobha said, “They took our phones. They took our money [whatever little we were carrying]”. She added, “We had to sleep next to the bathroom in the cold, the blankets were torn. Our plates were made from cow dung.” After two days, Shobha and other inmates mounted a protest. “We demanded better sleeping space, blankets, better food,” she recalls. Shobha and other women fasted for two days.
The women were released on February 20, 2015, after the AIUFWP staged a protest at the District Magistrate’s office in Sonbhadra, around 80 kilometres from the jail.
The impact of reprisals against Shobha does not stop with her
When Shobha was incarcerated in 2015, her older daughter was the one who drafted the letter for her release, and led several movements for her release. However, when she came to the forefront of the struggle, those planning vicious attacks against her said, “She’s a bigger neta than her mother.”
When her home was attacked in 2015, Shobha’s elder daughter was in the 10th standard, with her other daughter in the 9th standard. Her son was in the 7th standard. Because of the constant repression that followed her afterwards, none of them returned to school. Shobha laments that they have been deprived of education out of fear. Many other families are also in a similar situation.
After was forced, against her will, to stop going to school, Shobha’s daughter started going to work, picking up bottles etc. from a nearby construction site. However, she would constantly hear sexually coloured remarks and feared that she would be sexually assaulted.
“My daughter has stopped going out. Whenever they step out of the house, I am constantly afraid if my daughters will reach home safely,” says Shobha. Her daughter says, “I don’t have the mental strength to step out of the house now. I will not study further. I will stay at home.”
However, the physical and emotional attacks on Shobha haven’t stopped there. Every now and then, she gets threats to leave the area and go somewhere else.
Recounting a more recent incident of her son being tortured, she says, “They took him and stood on his legs. As police officials filmed him, they asked him to say on recording that Shobha had employed her daughters as sex workers (“dhandha karti hai“). Afterwards he was beaten viciously.” He could escape captivity because of his presence of mind. But the episode scarred him, both physically and mentally. He emerged from the incident badly injured, and it took months for him to heal.
Shobha’s family lives in a permanent state of fear of threat and attacks. Shobha said her son, who started a small stall in the Badi area, was attacked again and threatened not to work there. He was forced to stop going to the stall.
Badi, forgotten, but for its resources
Apart from the struggles over land itself, the other women in the Badi area live in precarious situations. No government schemes reach here, and funds allocated are devoured by corruption and misappropriation, apparently by the same forces. For instance, many women have accused Yashoda of embezzling funds that would reach the Gram Sabha for pension schemes for widows and the elderly. Women reported a strange scenario in which Yashoda would allegedly ask married women to act as widows and would demand a considerable sum of money from their government pension once they received the money. “I don’t get widow pension even though I am eligible,” 60-year-old Paro Devi told a CJP team when they visited the Badi area. Paro Devi faces harassment from her brother, who has expelled her from her own land.“ He didn’t even allow me to scatter my husband’s ashes in the nearby naala.”
However, even the extreme measures of torture, threats and attacks have not deterred Shobha from organising the women in the area. She acknowledges that being part of a union and a collective has given her a lot of strength. This was evident in how woman after woman spoke so highly of Shobha, how women were even willing to face the most brutal attacks with her. The women said firmly, “Come what may, and we have lost everything anyway. We are not losing our land for sure!”
Not surprisingly, the powerful state machinery consisting of the forest department and police, allegedly in league with the mining mafia, has often succeeded in pitting one section of the community against the other. This is a time-tested method of breaking the back of movements and leads to a plethora of cross-complaints and, thereafter, it is often Adivasis and Dalits who bear the brunt of punitive action. The individual plight of Shobha and many others –including the human rights abuses they suffer—are thus intrinsically linked with the implementation of legislation like the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006. Battling these abuses must also mean battling for implementation and accountability of this path-breaking legislation.
Dalit Forest Rights activist Shobha demands action against minor son’s illegal detention
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