Forest Rights and Covid-19: Through the eyes of UP and Uttarakhand grassroot activists Part-1 of CJP’s webinar reveals how authorities are abusing their power to usurp rights of forest dwellers
02, Sep 2020 | CJP Team
On August 7 and 8, 2020, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) conducted a two-day webinar titled Forest Rights Movement and Covid-19. The objective of this unique initiative was to provide a platform to forest rights defenders to share how officials of the forest department, police force and state governments were abusing their power to take advantage of the lockdown and further crushing a peaceful campaign for rights of various forest dwelling communities.
The webinar was moderated by CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad who has been working closely with AIUFWP to help empower on ground activists to use provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006 and demand what is rightfully theirs.
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.
Sokalo Gond and Rajkumari Bhuiya: We will never give up our Jal-Jungle-Jameen
The first speaker was Sokalo Gond, an advocate and premier for women’s representation in the forest rights movement in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh. Gond was forced to spend several months behind bars after being surreptitiously picked up by the local police. For months her whereabouts were unknown until CJP and AIUFWP moved court via a habeas corpus petition, demanding she be presented before the court. Always an advocate of peaceful methods to demand her rights, Sokalo Gond had also gone on a hunger strike. Sokalo Gond along with Nevada Rana have recently filed an intervention application in the Supreme Court regarding a controversial eviction order.
Sokalo Gond engages in collective farming with all other women in her surroundings and said, “Our environment friendly agricultural practices are helping conserve our jal-jungle-jameen and protecting us from Coronavirus.” She emphasises on the efforts of the women to keep the jungles safe which in return provide pure air to everybody and makes independent India worth living.
Gond was accompanied by Rajkumari Bhuiya, who said, “We have a right to out jal-jungle-jameen and the government cannot take advantage of the pandemic to hand it over to big corporations.” Bhuiya also said that the government has failed to ensure employment and basic rights to them. They concluded by emphasising that they will keep fighting for their human rights and no court of law can deceive them into backing out.
Mustafa Chopra and Noor Jahan: The struggle is not over yet
The next speaker was Mustafa Chopra who is from the Van Gujjar community and bore the brunt of police brutality and government atrocities on their community. The Uttarakhand government has repeatedly violated its own guidelines during the lockdown to capture land of the tribals; one such recent incident took place on June 16, 2020 when eight people from the forest department reached Noor Jahan’s home who is a fellow member of the Gujjar community and assaulted her. After a couple of days, the authorities came back and took them to the jail. “While all the other members of her family have been released, two of their children are still in the jail,” said Chopra who also thanked CJP and AIUFWP for their support and valuable insights on the technicalities of law, and the lawyers that helped them come out of the jail. He said, “The struggle is not over yet and there is a long way to go. But our priority now is to rescue the juveniles inside the jail and fight for their land and human rights till the forest officers stop exploiting them.”
Following this, Noor Jahan narrated her story. “I was pulled by my hair, dragged and extorted. Since the incident I have been receiving continuous threats to destroy all my belongings.” Around forty people including the police personnel who came to her house, vandalised it and arrested her. “When asked for the reason of arrest, no one answered me. Instead they resorted to violence and tried to rip off my clothes,” she said.
After this incident all the associations came together to protest, as a result the Uttarakhand government has set up a committee to look into this matter. AIUFWP have also written for their representation in the committee to ensure fair outcomes.
Tarun Joshi: Forest Department ignorant and politically influenced
Tarun Joshi who is connected with the Van Panchayat Morcha claimed that the Uttarakhand forest department is extremely ignorant and politically influenced giving way to corruption. “Since the lockdown, the department has linked the Gujjar community to the Tablighi Jamaat incident and made it as a reason to inflict violence upon them and prevent them from selling milk,” said Joshi. “But the efforts of people like Mustafa Chopra and the determination of the organisation lead the authorities to take a step back for the first time and actually start an investigation on the entire matter,” he added.
Joshi pointed out how the Gujjars have been subjected to systemic oppression over several decades; they have been denied Aadhar card, ration card, access to electricity and many other basic human rights. “Talks about rehabilitating the Gujjar’s are going on but the department is eager to break down the unity within the forest community and locate them in distant places,” alleges Joshi. The forest department after continuous opposition has offered 13 acres of land but the Gujjar’s refuse to take it unless their basic human and social rights are not met.
Meer Hamza: Forest Department trying to evade responsibility under FRA
Meer Hamza who was the next speaker elaborated on the situation of the Van Gujjar community that is spread across the region and has, since long, been fighting for rehabilitation under the Forest Rights Act. “As they try to spread their outreach to everybody in the community the forest department tries making plans for their reestablishment so as to evade their liability according to the Forest Act, 2006,” he said. “There is a stringent opposition to authorities not following the Forest Act because when they rehabilitate according to their discretion they allot limited land for both the person and the animals with them (as seen in Rajaji National park case) but under the Act rehabilitation is provided with complete right to grazing,” he explained.
Hamza narrated an incident about a Gujjar named Yamin in Tehri saying, “The people in that area are mainly migrants who used to go to Uttar Kashi. But due to the lockdown they had to wait in Hrishikesh where they faced a lot of discrimination due insinuations of connections to Tablighi Jaamat.” But that was not all. Gujjars have a special breed of buffalo that needs continuous migration for survival. “One such buffalo left Yamin and moved towards Uttar Kashi. The forest department got hold of the buffalo but when the owner went to ask them to return the buffalo to him, he was badly beaten till the point the department people thought he was dead,” said Hamza. “When his family got the information, they carried him for miles to a hospital, got him treated and his medical report was prepared to file an FIR. But the police refused to take the FIR stating that this was a matter of the forest and they will not engage in it,” he added. After this, the people sent a letter to the SSP which led the forest department to send an apology. This incident was not one of a kind, such incidents rarely come to the notice of the people. Though Mir Hamza said that he was happy that many people are connecting with them and trying to help them fight for their rights.
More on the CJP webinar coming up in Part 2 of our story.
CJP moves NHRC against police and forest officials in Dehradun for assaulting tribals
Forest Rights: Van Gujjar family released on bail, after custodial assault
Tharu women allege assault in Dudhwa, FIR registered
Adivasi women attacked in UP, CJP-AIUFWP move NHRC