11, Jan 2021 | CJP Team
In yet another display of impunity, Uttar Pradesh Police have allegedly physically assaulted women forest workers in Lilasi village of Sonbhadra district. The police whisked the women away from the protest site on Thursday, January 7, and then allegedly beat them up in custody.
Speaking to CJP, Shiv Prasad, a villager said, “For two days (January 5 and 6), women forest rights defenders were peacefully protesting an unauthorised construction on forest land. The police arrived on January 6 for security purposes, but left. They came back on January 7, beat up the women protesters!” He added, “They were taken to the police station and beaten again. Then they were beaten yet again after taking them to the hospital!”
CJP is working to defend Adivasi human rights activists who have been targeted with false cases, merely for standing up to fight for their rights, and to secure forest land that is rightfully theirs. We stand with them in the struggle for forest rights; to support our campaign, please donate generously here.
According to Shiv Prasad, some of the women who have been detained are: Sukhwariya Nandu, Sarita Nandu and Anita Nandu (the family of Nandu Gond who is president of Forest Rights Committee (FRC), Lilasi area), as well as Ramdasiya Jokhu, Phulwak Balsundar, Sukhwanti Mahinder Pratap, Kalawati Ramsunder, Hirawati Shiv Prasad and Manju Shankhlal.
Lest we forget: Umbha massacre
This latest incident brings back memories of a chilling incident that took place in Umbha village, also located in Sonbhadra district. On that day, village strongmen owing allegiance to the village headman opened fire on Adivasis protesting the illegal takeover of forest land by private players. 11 members of the Gond tribe were killed and dozens injured. All this while police and local administration officials allegedly did nothing to stop them.
The land in question was previously owned by a ‘society’, but later a retired IAS officer Prabhat Mishra and his family had purchased the land from the ‘society’ and then sold it to village headman Yagya Dutta.
Following the Umbha massacre, an enquiry was ordered by the government. In its 1,100-page investigation report, a six-member committee headed by Additional Chief Secretary (Revenue) Renuka Kumar, revealed that over 1,000 acres of land have been illegally usurped in the region. Out of this 650 acres was illegally taken over by forming co-operative committees. The report pegged the value of land thus usurped at Rs 700 crores! This report was based on documents from 1952 to 2019.
Following the publication of this report, the Uttar Pradesh government had ordered departmental action against 21 government officials for dereliction of duty. They were: then DM Ankit Agarwal, then SDM Vijay Prakash Tiwari, assistant registrar of cooperative societies Vijay Kumar Agarwal, then SDM Vijay Prakash Tiwari, assistant registrar of cooperative societies Vijay Kumar Agarwal, then ASP Arun Dikshit and then DSPs Rahul Mishra, Abhishek Singh and Gopal Krishna Singh.
Correlation between land claims and atrocities on Adivasis
Women forest leaders from the Adivasi and forest dwelling communities have been at the forefront of defending forest rights in Sonbhadra and have been filing community claims to forest land under provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Lilasi village and its brave women forest rights defenders are not new to police brutality. They had been attacked in May 2018 as well when police stormed into the village and brutally beat up women and broke huts. After some key members of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) met key government officials to convey their grievances, police illegally detained Sokalo Gond and Kismatiya Gond and kept them behind bars for months. The two were only released after a sustained campaign by CJP, where we moved a habeas corpus petition for production of Sokalo and Kismatiya Gond before the Allahabad High Court.
It is noteworthy that Nandu Gond too has been previously targeted by the local police and forest department officials. All he had done was stake claim to community forest rights as per provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. But at that time police booked Nandu under sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertaining to rioting and attempt to murder (sections 147 and 307) among others. Then in October 2018, police pasted a notice on his door and in February 2019, police demolished his home, destroying everything from earthen pots to his daughters’ school books! Now Nandu’s wife Sukhwariya and daughters: Sarita and Anita, have been picked up by the police.
It, therefore, appears that filing of community claims to forest land is causing hurdles for the powerful nexus of local police, forest department officials and private players eyeing forest land for construction and ‘development’ purposes.
Police blame Adivasis, dub them ‘Naxals’
When we spoke to the Sonbhadra SP, Amarendra Singh about the arrest and assault on women in Lilasi on January 7, 2021, he confirmed the arrest, but denied the assault. Singh said, “Yes, we have arrested the women under provisions of CrPC section 151 for disruption of peace, and produced them before a magistrate. We did not beat up anybody.”
CrPC Section 151 deals with “Arrest to prevent the commission of cognisable offences” and says, “A police officer knowing of a design to commit any cognisable offence may arrest, without orders from a Magistrate and without a warrant, the person so designing, if it appears to such officer that the commission of the offence cannot be otherwise prevented.”
SP Singh denied any assault on the women, and dismissed the entire incident as propaganda by Naxals! He also attempted to discredit Nandu Gond saying, “Nandu Gond is a known Naxal in the region and he is the one who uses these Adivasi women as a front in his extortion schemes.” Singh further said, “The land on which construction was being carried out for a school was personal land of one Anandi, and not forest land. Nobody can do any construction on Forest Land. The Forest Department will never permit it!”
But local Adivasis and forest workers claim that the land on which construction was taking place was not only forest land, but also one for which they had filed community claims.