25, Feb 2019 | CJP Team
India’s indigenous peoples, most commonly called ‘Adivasis’, which means ‘original inhabitants’, are under attack in various areas of the country. With the rising looting and exploitation and mounting corporate greed and the thirst for mineral-rich land, India’s Adivasis are increasingly being displaced from the very lands they helped cultivate and fertilised for generations. Not only are they dispossessed of their lands, their dissent is also criminalised.
One such example is that of the Adivasis and Dalits in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, who are fighting to reclaim their lands and dignity in the face of the Kanhar Dam project that threatens to encroach on the land that is rightfully theirs. Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) is working with and for these Adivasis to safeguard their right to protest the loss of their land, and to reclaim it.
The key area of CJP’s intervention in Sonbhadra, UP have been the apparent false cases that have been imposed on several members of Adivasi and Dalit community. Many of these are fierce human rights defenders, and mostly women. Many of the activists CJP is working to support and defend are members of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), which is our partner on the ground. AIUFWP is a pioneer organisation working to organise indigenous people and tribals in northern India.
CJP’s intervention in this issue began in September 2017, when retired Supreme Court Justice P. B. Sawant, retired Bombay High Court Justice BG KolsePatil, and CJP Secretary Teesta Setalvad wrote a letter to Shri Pramod Kumar Upadhyay, District Magistrate, Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, and Shri Ram Pratap Singh, Superintendent of Police at Churk, Sonbhadra intervening to protest and record the apparent false cases,expressing concern about the repression, violence and harassment that the Adivasis and Dalits of Sonbhadra, often reportedly hand in glove with the local police.
CJP is not only bridging gap between the indigenous population and the judicial process, but is also mapping the distance in a more literal sense. Our Secretary Teesta Setalvad has made multiple visits to the area to understand the situation on the ground, and is in the process of cultivating sustainable, long-term ties. CJP is fighting for the human rights defenders in court, and also intervening in everyday episodes of institutional violence in the area. Please donate generously to support these efforts.
The letter also pointed out that the people who have organised themselves into the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) are facing re-doubled violence and repression because of the collective strength of their struggles to reclaim rights and dignity as now statutorily granted under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
Outlining the details of the alleged false and frivolous cases used to target Adivasis involved in the struggle for their rights, the letter noted that the people implicated in the cases are harassed every week or ten days, and asked to report either to the court or the police at great personal cost. Moreover, it also highlighted allegations that the police and powerful vested interests are threatening the leaders of the forest rights movement because of their struggle for forest land that belonged to their ancestors.
All about the spurious cases
Cases have been imposed on them dating as long back as 2007, an year after the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 came into power.
In its letter to the District Magistrate, CJP along with others, highlighted these cases and the fact that these were false.
Sections of the draconian Indian Forest Act, 1927, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and even the SC/ST Act have been imposed, posing a serious challenge to the Adivasis, who largely remain unconnected from the outside world, in terms of securing legal aid or even communication through mobile phones etc.
In the first case, there are 20 accused, all implicated under sections pertaining to clearing of forests (Section 5/26 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927), forest offences in which the said forest officer was said to be convinced that indeed such an offence was committed (Section 3/52 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927), etc., sections of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, that prohibit entry into a sanctuary (Section 27 of WPA), destruction of the sanctuary (Section 29 of WPA). Adivasis have been implicated with Section 50 of WPA which gives powers of detention, arrest etc. to the Director or other officers authorised by him.
In another such case dating back to July 21, 2007, AIUFWP General Secretary Roma, Shyamlal, Lalti and Ram Naresh Agaria were implicated along with “200 others” under Sections pertaining to rioting (Section 146 of IPC), rioting with deadly weapons (Section 148 of IPC), mischief causing damage of uptoRs. 50 (Section 427 IPC), intentional insult to provoke breach of peace (Section 504 of IPC), and several other serious sections namely 506, 120 (B), 34 (IPC) – common intention, 7 CLA (Criminal Law Amend Act), 5/26 2/4 (WPA) and the Indian Forest Rights Act, 1927.
CJP has highlighted that how, Shyamlal and Lalti “rightfully reclaimed 55 acres (under the law) that belonged to their ancestors are being harassed by the sections of the police and the forest mafia.”
The letter had drawn attention to the concern that why, when the matter was being adjudicated in a Court of Law, did Police come in the picture? It also drew attention to the repeated Police visits to the homes of activists and thereby issual of threats.
Other such fabricated cases range from a variety of reasons such as robbing/ stealing diesel, engines and robbery (dacoity).
Similarly, Shobha, one leader and activist of the forest rights movement, a human rights defender and a survivor of rape, has been embroiled in three frivolous cases, one of which has reportedly been filed against her husband, Ram Ratan. All three cases involve charges under sections of the Indian Forest Act and the Wild Life (Protection) Act. Shobha has suffered ongoing harassment, with her minor son having been detained overnight by the police in December 2017, presumably on false charges and without a thorough investigation.
In another stark case of sheer malicious intent to embroil Adivasis in the unending spiral of fabricated cases, a case from 2015 accused them of ‘creating a jam on the roads’, ‘attacking a public servant’, ‘not following orders’ etc. and sections of IPC 143, 146, 342, 353, 181, 283, 504, 506 of the IPC and Section 7 of the CL Act were imposed. These have been vociferously challenged by the defenders with CJP’s help. There are four accused including Smt ROMA, Rajinder, Pankaj Mishra and Shyamlal.
|Life-Cycle of a case:|
Six-Eight Months on Ground to Understand the Issues, Collate Data, Stories, Narratives and Communications on the Cases.
Three-Six Months for Specific Collections of Documents from Lower Courts to enable filing of petitions in higher courts. These are bulky and include FIRs, Charge Sheets, Records of Court Hearings (Case or Court Diary), Lower Court Orders etc. Every court has a different rule and procedure including costs and this is an exacting process.
Two Months for Preparations of Petitions Before Filing.
Duration of Cases: Once Filed the effort is to get early hearing for some immediate interim relief in the case. This can be orders of the court to the police to stop harassment, implement rights protection, even stay orders. Once a Court Order is obtained this does not mean it will automatically be implemented. For this protests, delegations etc are needed.
Typically a case can go on anywhere from three to five years, at least. This is why we need your sustained support. In the Courts and Beyond.
Explaining the conflict in Sonbhadra and Adivasi struggles for Forest Rights
The major point of conflict in Sonbhadra, UP has been the Kanhar Dam project, which was approved in September 1976. The implementation of the project would involve the submergence of 111 villages on 4,131.5ha of land in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. People’s protests successfully led to the abandonment of the project until 2012, when the foundation stone was laid. Construction officially commenced in December 2014.
Adivasi and Dalit villagers in the area, who would lose their entire way of life if the project came to fruition, refused to accept this, and activists staged a dharna in December 2014. However, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) interfered. Clashes ensured after the tehsildar assaulted a young man named Atiq Ahmed, prompting FIRs in which 16 named and 500 unnamed individuals were implicated. Nevertheless, the villagers persisted with their peaceful protest, even as construction continued.
In April 2015, the villagers decided to move their dharna closer to the site of the dam. There, the PAC opened fire, and an Adivasi named AkkluChero (Cherwa) from Sundari village was hit by a bullet. 39 people were wounded, 12 of them critically. The PAC increased its deployment to 500-1000 jawans. Days later, several people were seriously wounded in a second round of police firing, and key leaders of the movement were arrested.
Increasing repression and CJP’s onward march to defend Adivasis’ rights
In the course of their struggle Adivasis have not just been mired in the legal system, but have also suffered institutional violence. On Friday, May 18,, police reached Sonebhadra’sLilasi village, and picked up villagers without arrest warrants, keeping them in the Nevarpurthana. Since villages in the area are remote and far-flung, no media houses reported on this unwarranted detention. Our team made multiple calls to exert pressure so that the Adivasis detained could be released. CJP also questioned the supposed afforestation project that police authorities quoted as the reason for the arrests. The police alleged that the Adivasis had cut trees that had been planted recently; in fact, Adivasis have always been natural conservationists and protectors of the land. Why would they be cutting trees?
Days later, on Tuesday, May 22, police unleashed unprecedented and brutal violence in Lilasi when they entered the village and began attacking the villagers, especially women and girls who were occupied with their daily chores. CJP monitored the situation closely, and issued multiple communications garnering support and aid for the Adivasis.
CJP, along with AIUFWP wrote to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to seek an investigation into the violence perpetrated on the Adivasis as well as the false cases in which they have once again been implicated. The NHRC immediately took note of this and the Chairperson Mr. Dattu assured the team of action. It is in the process of issuing a notice to the District Magistrate of Sonbhadra, asking him to submit a report on the incident of violence within three weeks. It also assured that it will be sending an independent team to probe the incident.
Land and survival
The question of land for Adivasis is not merely one of identity. It is linked to their survival and livelihood. The passage of the Forest Rights Act in 2006 was a significant development, as it guaranteed Adivasis community and individual rights over land and forest produce.
However, in spite of this, most state governments seem unwilling to implement the Act in its true sense. Even states like Maharashtra, which has stood out in terms of recognising Community Forest Rights (CFRs), have also achieved just 18% of the full potential in terms of the Act’s implementation. Moreover, the law has seen various dilutions, contradictory policies, as well as litigations challenging its constitutional validity in the more than ten years that it has been in force. The forest bureaucracy and non-state actors, with the complicity of the state, have not only posed major challenges to the implementation fo the Act, but have also perpetrated immense violence on the indigenous people. Their harassment is palpable through false prosecutions.
Through its interventions, CJP seeks the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and also to defend and support those who are at the forefront of the struggle to reclaim land that is rightfully theirs.
(*This story was originally published on June 5, 2018. It has been updated since then.)