CJP webinar on Forest Rights: Testimonies from Grassroot Activists In Part 3 of our report on the CJP webinar, activists strike a hopeful chord

15, Sep 2020 | CJP Team

In the concluding part of Day 1 of CJP’s webinar, grassroot activists, many of whom work closely with our partner organisation All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) shared stories of small victories that helped end the day on an upbeat note.

Nivada Rana: We have been facing oppression since the days of my ancestors

CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad then introduced Nivada Rana, an activist from the Akhil Bhartiya Van Shram Yojna and a part of one of the recent protests by the Thaaru Adivasi community in the Dudhwa National Park against state repression. She said, “People in my community have been facing attacks for decades. First it was my ancestors, and now even my generation is facing oppression.” But Rana is determined to carry on with the struggle for forest rights. They will keep working to provide employment to all the youngsters in the family in order to be economically independent. An example of her determination is that she recently brought a land for herself for cultivation. She has also filed an FIR against the forest department of Lakhimpur Kheri in connection with an incident of violence against forest dwellers.

Among its four pillars of action, the land and livelihood rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers, is one. CJP, with its expertise in navigating cases of human rights violations in the courts and beyond has been active on the issue; partnering with the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) since 2017 to battle any setback to these rights in the courts. This includes legally fighting back against malicious prosecution of leaders of the community and defending the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Supreme Court. We stand with the millions of Forest Dwellers and Adivasis whose lives and livelihoods are threatened. Please support our efforts by donating here.

Rani ji: Our women get arrested for planting trees!

Next came a testimony from Rani ji from Chittrakoot who told the webinar audience about how women in her region had been practicing community farming. However, they have had to face the wrath of local authorities who often arrest them for bizarre reasons like planting trees. “Recently in June, when they planted trees there was a rampant opposition from the authorities and absurd threats like cutting the women’s hair! The women fighting for their rights filed a complaint against this, there have been times when the officials have refused to pay heed to the women and asked to call their husbands. But we were adamant to fight for our rights on our own.”

Despite the repression from the forest department they stand tall for their rights. Due to corona they haven’t been able to file a response. People are really scared because once they start planting trees, they may get arrested and it may be difficult to get rescued. But it is only when they get arrested, that they get permanent papers. It is a curious conundrum.

Munnilal ji: Repeated attacks on Gujjars

The next speaker was Munnilal ji, a veteran member of AIUFWP. According to him, the attack on Mustafa Chopra is not an isolated incident. There have been repeated attacks on and atrocities committed against Gujjars. In 2008, the people of the community had moved court when their children were taken away and left at a far-off place in a jungle! “The children were found only after five days of search,” says Munnilal ji. In Mustafa Chopra’s case, Munnilal ji says, “Despite the clear medical reports, no proper action is taken. But is is possible that the new committee, whose member Manoj Chandran visited Mustafa ji, will take some action on that account.” He said that he along with Tarun Joshi will be present there and will put forward their points.

Munilal ji also shared another instance of land being usurped from Shivalik Van Gujjars. Forest land is being made into a firing range! But he also highlighted that this violation of rights can be dealt by drawing an example from the forest dwellers of Saharanpur, where with one protest with the support of CJP and AIUFWP, the Adivasis got their rights back.

Other speakers

Tongyak, a singer-activist, said that without people’s support the forest cannot be saved hence all the people displaced from the jungle should get together and form a strategy for the future. Advocate Anita was present at the webinar and highlighted the difficulties faced by the migrants during the lockdown and the problems of unemployment. She added that as the central government advocated for an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, they should also work toward making the forest dwellers self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency can only be achieved once everybody gets their claim of rights. She further highlighted that Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees everyone the equal rights; hence everyone should follow the principles of the Constitution to ensure everyone their rights.

The final speaker was Jimmy Patel from Gujrat who said that at the time of the lockdown when all the other business was shut, only farming being essential was allowed. But he alleged that Section 144 and Section 188 CrPC are being misused by officials to harass people during these testing times. He put forward the following five issues and expected to find a solution further in the webinar. The issues being:

1) In 2008 the Adivasis had filed an appeal for their rights which got a stay on the authorities since 2013 from the Gujrat HC to not interfere in the tribal land. But despite the stay, the forest officials resorted to violence and destroyed land and burnt houses. To this, a case for contempt of court has been filed but no action is taken since then.

2) There have been false complaints against the forest community that they have been violating the court order and for which they have been receiving summons. But the people have presented full proof of their innocence and hence they want lawyers to help them counter these false allegations.

3) In many villages, DFO and RFO with the Panchayat have been allegedly cancelling the claim of the Gujjars on their land, despite clear evidence of no violation of court order. All kinds of physical and verbal pieces of evidence have been submitted, but the officials are still trying to dismiss the claim on the ground of lack of evidence. To this, an appeal has been filed to the collectorate, High Court lawyers were called to represent the tribals. But the officials refused to grant entry to the lawyers during the proceedings and all the claims got dismissed. What can be a solution to this?

4) The next issue is about a village named Chaud situated near the Statue of Unity. In 1961-62, the government had taken over the land but no project could be formed on it, so the tribals were in possession of the land. But during the lockdown, the government started fencing work on it. So, can the tribals claim the land under the FRA?

5) The last issue is that the tribal Bhil community have been farming on the land since long, but have not yet filed any form claiming their rights over it. So, what is the procedure to claim rights?

With these questions, the convener called it a day with enthusiasm to have a collaborative discussion on the following day with some of the well-known lawyers and academicians.

For proceedings on Day 2 of the webinar stay tuned for part 4 of our report.



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