22, May 2018 | CJP Team
On May 18, even as the Workshop on ‘Community Rights Governance & Forest Rights Act, 2006’ (organised by CJP’s partners the All India Union of Forest Working People-AIUFWP) was underway, at Lucknow, one of the human rights defenders received a frantic call from the villagers of Lilasi, a small village in Dudhi tehsil of Sonebhadra district, Uttar Pradesh. There was panic among the Adivasi villagers of this far-flung hamlet as they informed a local activist that 10-12 villagers, mostly women had been picked up from the village and taken to the Nevarpur thana.
This thana is at a distance of 20 kilometers from Dudhi, which in turn is 30 kilometers away from Lilasi, the village from where they were picked up!
CJP secretary, Ms. Teesta Setalvad, who was also a participant at the workshop, addressing a key session on Constitutional Rights, Forest Rights (the Law For and Against Empowerment of Adivasis) along with Roma, general secretary of the AIUFWP, immediately then contacted CJP team about these arrests, after which we swung into action. AIUWFP are working partners of CJP.
Immediately, the CJP team, divided tasks and called up the Nevarpur thana asking for:
- Confirmation of these detentions/arrests and
- Justification and reasons of the authorities for these actions.
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Police’s Version of the Turn of Events
The SHO, Mr. S. P. Singh confirmed that twelve villagers, ten of whom were women, were indeed arrested in connected with the “willful destruction” of a Forest Department “afforestation project”. He added, “Nearly 40 women of the ‘Van Samiti’ cut down over 400 trees on 14th May this year. When the Forest Guard tried to stop them they ran after him with axes.” This has been completely denied by Adivasi women who are clear that this unfair assault on their freedoms is connected to their movement –launched since April 23 this year–to claim community and individual rights over land, rights granted under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
Coming back to the police version. Those arrested, said the SHO, had been acted against, under section 151 of the IPC. Even as the CJP team spoke to him, he informed us that the people were undergoing medical tests after which they will be presented before the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM). He added, “We just want them to apologise and promise not to cut more trees”, he said. He was also brazen enough to state that if the team that of the villagers don’t give such an assurance, they could be charged under Sections 353 (assault on a public servant), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting armed with a deadly weapon), 149 (common object of every person who is part of an unlawful assembly), 186 (obstructing a public servant from performing functions) among others. In effect, he was threatening a far more serious case with non-bailable sections of the law being applied if women Adivasi leaders could not be pressurised! This is a clear threat that constitutes intimidation of criminal action by a public functionary against marginalised citizens pursuing empowerment and realisation of their Constitutional rights . Join CJP to prevent this misuse and abuse of state power NOW.
The SHO went on to add how the police do not have a problem with the Adivasis living on the land, but said that “a new group has been chopping trees in the plantation area of about 2 hectares in a bid to encroach upon it and ultimately grab the land.” He said that the land is currently owned by the Forest department and is being used for an “Afforestation project since 2015”. Interestingly, however, in the same conversation he also informed the team that this specific piece of land is a “prime land’ and “will fetch a high price given that it is next to an important crossroad”. He also suspected that “some politician is backing some group to grab the land”. He further accused the Adivasi villagers of wanting to build their huts on the same land, in place of an alternative piece of land that has been reportedly provided to them.
After about forty minutes, when the team called the Daroga (chief police officer) to enquire about the status of the arrests, he admitted that he was part of the team which went to arrest the villagers but added that since he was traveling and not in the police station (thana), he could not provide us further information about the arrests. He was well informed on other aspects though. He told the CJP team, “Oh, didn’t you see reports on social media? The pictures of those women cutting trees are going viral.” He insisted that the team must speak to SO to know the latest status behind the curtailment of fundamental freedoms.
The SO repeated the same version, but when questioned by us at CJP about the “Afforestation project set up in 2015” in connection with which the Adivasis had been allegedly arrested in the first place, he clearly said he didn’t know the details, nor who had approved this so-called ‘project’. When the CJP team persisted in their questions about the detention/arrests of women Adivasis, who, the team believed had been wrongly arrested, the SO informed that he would release them but after they sign papers that they would not cut trees.
Actual Experience of the Adivasi Women
CJP urges its members to remember that these villages are remote, cut off from the cities and towns, located at far off distances, and many a times comprise of population that doesn’t own or access phones or internet. Sometimes the only way to reach the villages is to walk for 20-30 kilometers into the forest.
Lilasi Kala, the village from which people were picked up, is a medium size village located in Dudhi Tehsil of Sonbhadra district, Uttar Pradesh with a total 201 families residing there. The Lilasi Kala village has population of 1160. The Adivasi women have a different story to tell.
On May 21, after she returned from Lucknow, a local activist visited Lilasi in order to make enquiries and get the latest updates about what really happened on May 18. What she found is an eye-opener about the situation on the ground!
The villagers said that the police officers suddenly entered their huts when they were busy with their daily, household chores. Some women were cooking, while others were taking care of their children. One woman was feeding her new born.
It was in that state, they were forcefully dragged out from their huts and asked to come along to the police station. At the mercy of the police, they were not given any time to garner defences, insist on their rights being protected, or respond promptly with calls for help. As it happens often with marginalised sections, especially Adivasis, due process of the law was allegedly subverted and not even arrest warrant was produced.
When the women were finally let off — in no small measure due to the interventions of the CJP team — and after continued intimidation of the women, they were not even dropped at their village Lilasi. In fact they were dropped at Dudhi, from where they walked barefoot for about 30 kilometers in order to reach their village!
Context behind these sudden arrests
Days before the arrests by the police, the Pradhan (the Village Head) of the village, who also belongs to the ‘Baniya’ caste group (an economically powerful section of village society) had been regularly visiting the huts of these Adivasis, goading them to sign some papers. For some months before, since these villagers had worked on NREGA projects for over two years –for which they hadn’t received their wages– this Pradhan mislead them into believing that if their signed these documents they would receive wages due to them. The villagers, who are largely illiterate, signed the papers. Only after the subsequent arrests –and utterly baseless allegations made by the police —they now realise that the documents they signed were not to accrue long pending NREGA wages as they were mislead into believing –but something else. They do not yet have a clue as to what papers they have put their signatures on.
Current Status of the Case
Local activists informed us that the police from Nevarpur thana called the villagers again today asking them to get their bail. They explained that accepting bail means accepting that “We have committed a crime. So why should we accept bail when we haven’t?”
“It is Adivasis who are actually protecting the trees, why are we then being hounded on false charges,” she asks. Explaining basic farming and plantation practices, she informs us that while looking after trees, often, unnecessary shrubs and undergrowth has to be weeded out, a practice most indigenous populations across the world are familiar with. Even on May 14, she says, what the Adivasis were doing was just this: weeding out the wild grass and bushes.
“But we were were falsely accused of cutting trees,” informs the activist, adding “People are well aware that Adivasis worship trees. We not only plant trees, we take care of them like our family, like our children. They are a part of our daily life. How can we be accused of cutting trees?”
Adivasis in the region say all this repression is a retaliation from the UP administration against Adivasis and Forest workers who have been organising steadily in Sonbhadra area to implement their rights over forest rights in the area. Just recently, the AIUFWP filed land claims on April 23 in Roberstganj district headquarters under the Section 3 of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
There was no public knowledge or record of the so-called afforestation project as the SO claimed. She also expressed apprehension that this was one of the first attempt by several players, one of them being a multinational company to eventually uproot Adivasis from their land.
Activists and Adivasis firmly believes that it is the growing collective strength of Adivasis to claim rightful ownership of their land that has shaken all the state and non-state actors, who seem to be in no mood to implement the Forest Rights Act in its true spirit.
On May 22, around 9.30 am, we received a call from Shanti* informing us that police had entered Lilasi village again and was assaulting the villagers. When the CJP team spoke to one of the villagers, Sukhdev, who was assaulted, he informed us that 3 vehicles of Police forces had arrived at the village and started intimidating the villagers and even entered their huts. After this, in the villagers’ words, the police went on a rampage and assaulted about 15-16 women which included two girls aged ten and fifteen years. The police forces had sticks as well as guns and even intimidated villagers with a revolver. They were constantly asking them, “Are you the owners of the forest that you were cleaning it?”
Despite assurances from the Secretary of the Forest Department, Mr. Sanjay Singh, the police forces returned to the village at around 2.30 pm and continuing intimidating the residents. CJP team is trying to contact the Secretary of Forest Department to request him to stop the unwarranted actions and assaults immediately. We await further updates from the villagers in Lilasi village. Several women have been taken to the nearby hospital for treatment of injuries sustained in the attack. When Roma, the General Secretary of AIUFWP tried to contact the SP, she didn’t receive a favorable response. We urge the concerned citizens to respond to this grave threat to the people in Lilasi village, Sonbhadra, UP.
* Name changed to protect identity