26, Oct 2020 | Shubhda Chaudhary
When Suvash Singh – hailing from Kharwar Adivasi Community of Kaimur District in Bihar – helped in mobilising thousands of tribals on September 11, 2020 against the Forest Department officials, little did he know what lay ahead.
Along with teaching Philosophy at a State College in Darbhanga, Suvash had been vociferously fighting for the Rights of Tribals (Adivasis), especially in the context of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Meanwhile, the upcoming State Elections have failed to even take cognizance of the fact that this Act has never been implemented in Bihar.
As a member of Kaimur Mukti Morcha (KMM) – an organisation that demands the land rights of Kaimur dwellers since the 90s – Suvash believed in teaching about Constitutional Rights to the villagers.
But it had not been an easy journey for him.
Recently, the Bihar Government had identified Kaimur forests for establishing a second tiger reserve in the State – after the Valmiki Tiger Reserve.
This sudden move aimed to uproot thousands of Adivasi families living in these forests for the past several decades. The timing of this decision, especially during the pandemic had further worsened the grievances of the villagers.
The Forest Department Officials of Adhaura Block in Bhabua subdivision of Kaimur District blatantly ignored the growing objections of the villagers.
Since March 2020, they had started encroaching upon the agricultural lands of the Adivasis, digging pits in their farmlands and looting their livestock.
“Forest Department is now planting trees. Our great grandfathers have been farming here for decades. Since the late 80s, the Forest Department has been looting our land,” Balkeshwar Kharwar stated.
“The intention is to uproot us in the name of development. Villagers can’t stay here, only tigers,” exclaimed Rajalal Singh Karwar from KMM.
Forest Department officials had also destroyed 50 houses of the Agariya Adivasi villagers in Sarainar. Village dwellers of Gulu, Goiyan, Dighar, Bahabar, Pipra, Sodha lived in constant fear of eviction.
Villagers were even not allowed to sell forest produce like Mahua, Chironji and Tendu Patta.
Meanwhile, lack of medical help along with erratic electricity and no government help, the Adivasis from 108 nearby villages decided to organise a sit-in strike.
Along with taking permission from the Police, Suvash and several other tribal village dwellers had decided to organise a two-day strike on September 10-11 2020.
All legitimate procedures were fulfilled, thousands of Adivasis participated.
Instead of listening to their demands, the Bihar Police opened fired and lathi-charged the peaceful Adivasis.
Seven were arrested, while court cases were charged against 22 other protestors.
Prabhu – a Adivasi from Chaphana village – was shot in the ear, leaving him injured. Men, women and children were brutally beaten. Few suffered fractures. Many such stories are currently unreported according to activists.
“Why were unarmed protestors shot? Why can’t people demand the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (2006) in Bihar?” questioned Roma Malik, Deputy General Secretary of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP).
In an effort to thoroughly investigate the September 11 incident, a four-member Fact Finding team visited Kaimur district from September 23 to 27, 2020.
The team included Matadayal, a Dalit activist who hails from Bundelkhand (All India Union of Forest Working People), Raja Rabbi Hussain (Delhi Solidarity Group) and Aman Khan (Advocate, Supreme Court).
The finding of the Fact-Finding Report was later released online on October 23 by Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) and Vice President of Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch.
While releasing the report, Karat questioned the continuous manner in which the voices of dissent are being brutally crushed in the country.
“This Report demands justice and proper investigation. Strong action should be taken against the officers of the Police and Forest Department who carried out this act. The fake court cases against the Adivasis should be repealed,” she said.
The palpable sense of fear and anxiety within the villagers was even felt by activists in the Finding Mission.
“The villagers have strong knowledge about their Forest Rights. But the imbalance of the power equation between police and forest officials against the villagers is worsening,” said Advocate Aman Khan.
“The village women give enormous importance to their natural bond with the forest. They will die but not let Forest Department evict them,” he further added.
“How long would we suffer fake charges, court-cases after court-cases?” Matadayal asked.
Meanwhile, the Police and Forest Department Officials have negated the incidents of September 11, 2020.
The peaceful protestors have been termed as ‘Maoists’ to demean their image.
As the Bihar Elections approach, it is still unclear if a change in leadership would translate into empowerment for the always ignored Adivasi community in Kaimur.
The Online Press Conference to release the Fact-Finding Report was organised by All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Citizens for Justice & Peace (CJP) and Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG) on 23rd September 2020. It was moderated by Teesta Setalvad, Civil Rights Activist.
The original piece may be read here