27, Jul 2021 | Vallari Sanzgiri
After watching a rampaging mob destroy their homes and loot their property on July 10, even as Forest Department and Police officials deployed at the spot stood by, Adivasi villagers of Madhya Pradesh’s Negaon-Jamniya village are now demanding justice. They shared their heart-rending stories at an online press conference co-organised by Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), and the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP).
JADS members such as Madhuri Behn, Antaram Awase, Ashabai Solanki, Ratan Alawe and residents of Negaon-Jamniya village gathered on Monday to recount the illegal eviction and demolition of their homes, by a mob of people from neighbouring villages who appeared to operate with the blessings of the Forest Department and police officials present on the spot.
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.
“That day, there were more villagers than official personnel. We have already heard claims that forest officials trained villagers for the attack around five days before the incident,” said Alawe.
Villagers say that 40 families comprising a total of 212 people, including at least 60 children were left with shelter amidst the rainy season with the Covid-19 pandemic raging unabated. Now, they are forced to live in makeshift tents, often just a piece of tarp strung to two tree branches… hardly any protection from the rain.
212 लोग हैं हमारे। पानी में, परेशानी में, बच्चों को सुला देते हैं धरती पे। खटिया भी चली गई। कुछ सामान नहीं बचा हमारे पास। पन्नी लगा के रह रहे हैं अभी। – नेगाओं – जामनिया रहवासी
One of the women recounted how she saw an army of villagers approaching their houses in the morning. People did not have the time to save their belongings, their food or even themselves. Stones were pelted at the villagers, who fled in different directions. Due to this, the next two days were spent desperately hunting for a child who was lost in the confusion.
सुबह एकदम से पूरी फौज बन के आई और पत्थर फेकने लगे। हम भागे और सब अलग हो गए। एक बच्चा गुम हो गया। दो दिन में मिला। धुंड-धुंड के, रो के परेशान हो गए। ऐसे हमें भगाया इन लोगों ने। – नेगाओं – जामनिया रहवासी
Another woman recalled how her husband was forcibly taken away when he tried to reason with the goons.
हमारा आदमी जब उससे बात करने गया तो उसको जबरन उठा लिया। हमने बात करने की कोशिश ही नहीं की। जब हमें फिर से पत्थर मारा तो हम भाग गए। – नेगाओं – जामनिया रहवासी
The mob also looted the villagers’ belongings such as foodgrains, utensils, cattle, mobile phones and vehicles. The situation was so dire that the Adivasis were able to escape with just the clothes they were wearing. It was only because of the involvement of NGOs such as JADS that provided foodgrains and some other kind-hearted but equally impoverished people from some other villages that the ousted Adivasis could get 60 quintals of food. Villagers say that when they approached the administration for help, there was deafening silence.
संगठन के लोगों ने मदद की। सरकार ने कुछ नहीं दिया। राशन मांगा, एक भी दाना नहीं दिया। किसी ने हमारी मदद नहीं की। – नेगाओं – जामनिया रहवासी
JADS revealed that the incident was not an isolated incident but a part of a pattern of violence involving systematic violation of their legal rights.
A history of apathy, oppression and exclusion
JADS member Ashabai talked about past eviction attempts in 2012, 2010 and even before 2005. At every instance, villagers approached local police stations but officials refused to file their complaints, and pointedly asked them to either write the report themselves or educate their children enough to write the report.
हम थाने में जाते हैं तो वो रिपोर्ट नहीं लिखते हैं। बोलते हैं तुम अपनी रिपोर्ट खुद लिखो। अपने बच्चों को पढ़ाते क्यों नहीं? लेकिन वो बार बार हमे उजाडते रहेंगे तो बच्चे पढ़ेंगे कैसे? और वो रिपोर्ट क्यों नहीं लिखते? – नेगाओं – जामनिया रहवासी
Ashabai has a lot of pertinent questions, “How are we to live and educate our kids? Police officials tell our children to write the FIR. Then they ask why our kids are not educated enough to write an FIR. How are we to educated them if we constantly evicted? And why can’t they write the report?”
Villager Ramlal said his community members lived peacefully in Negaon-Jamniya and cultivated land. When the mob came, he tried to reason with them. But Ramlal was taken away by the police and allegedly abused in custody. He says it has become rather routine for Adivasi men and women to be picked up by the police on false or trumped-up charges.
हर साल हमें प्रताड़ित किया जा रहा है। घरों को गिराने, खेतों में काम करने वाली महिलाओं, पुरुषों को उठाने का काम किया जा रहा है। – नेगाओं – जामनिया रहवासी
It is noteworthy, that Khandwa is the home district of State Forest Minister Vijay Shah, who despite regular appeals has allegedly not responded to Adivasi grievances.
JADS asserted that it will continue to demand the just rights of these tribal communities and correct the systemic error.
An account of Adivasi repression
JADS member Ratan Alawe shared how officials blamed Adivasis for all environmental issues and illegal tree-cutting incidents in the state. Khandwa-Burhanpur region especially regularly reports clashes between forest officials and indigenous groups.
“Forest officials act like bullies,” he said. “The Superintendent of Police and the District Collector assure justice but nothing changes. Nonetheless, tribals assert their forest rights under the Forest Right Act (FRA) 2006 despite the non-bailable offences and alleged illegal confinement used against them,” said Alawe.
Madhuri Behn shared an instance of November 26, 2020 when police men nabbed and tortured an Adivasi man who was just carrying fodder for his cattle. “Gyarsilal Awaye was walking alone when forcibly picked up and taken to the Asir range office. There he was bound and beaten with rods and pipes for carrying Jowar (sorghum) stalks from his field as fodder for his cattle,” said Madhuri Behn. Following protests by villagers, Awaye was released and his injuries recorded. However, the police took no further action.
Many such incidents took place in the last two years alone as detailed in this compilation by JADS:
Villagers condemned such behaviour as hooliganism. They said the governmental officials acted the same as dacoits.
Madhuri Behn asked, “Is it administrative strategy to pit people from one village against another? This isn’t procedure. This destruction and loot is an example of dacoity! Which government department allows a mob to attack villagers?” She further said, “When the administration does not listen to our demand for forest rights, it makes us feel that this government does not care about Adivasi rights,” she said.
Legal protection for Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh
As per the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, Adivasis can file Community Land Claims and cannot be evicted from their land of residence until all claims pertaining to claims on land are verified. So far, 72 claims have been assessed from Burhanpur village. In all of Madhya Pradesh, only 13 percent of claims have been assessed, accepted and cleared, and at least 50 percent were deemed invalid.
JADS claimed such delays and rejections are part of a scheme to give forest land to big companies. Madhuri Behn said that last year, 40 percent of forest land was allegedly offered to crony industrialists. However, the move was stalled albeit not dismissed following strong opposition.
“We keep citing our forest rights but the government is silent. Now, our Adivasis are on the street. The administrative officials should be ashamed that so-called ‘illiterate’ Adivasis are teaching them about laws,” said Madhuri Behn.
On top of existing laws, the Madhya Pradesh High Court issued Covid-guidelines that explicitly barred any eviction of tribals anywhere regardless of claims. But even this direction was violated with impunity!
Similarly, a Grievance Redressal Authority appointed by the Supreme Court in 2015 to look into complaints of atrocities against Adivasis, found that the community was repeatedly subjected to evictions, despite legitimate claims. The redressal called for an investigation on the then Divisional Manager/DFO and his apathetic attitude towards the law and Court directives.
“This is what we have been saying for years but people don’t take us seriously. We receive assurances during election. But post-election, the same pattern continues,” said Madhuri.
AIUFWP general secretary Roma Malik lauded the Adivasis for standing strong despite all pressures. “This needs to be highlighted on a national level. The government should not get the impression that Adivasis will tolerate the injustice,” said Roma. Pointing to the virtual erasure of Adivasis from mainstream news media reportage, CJP secretary and human rights defender Teesta Setalvad said, “I appeal to national news media to cover stories of injustice against Adivasis. Their voices are often not heard by the rest of the country.”