10, Oct 2018 | Sushmita
Roma of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) received a reply from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on September 20, 2018 regarding a complaint jointly filed by CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad and herself on May 30, 2018. The complaint was filed in the aftermath of incidents of police brutality and harassment in Lilasi village, Sonhbhadra, Uttar Pradesh (UP). Roma has now sent a detailed reply to the NHRC highlighting how its intervention has been inadequate and will have no bearings for those harassing and exploiting Adivasis in the area with impunity.
On May 18, 2018, police detained several villagers from Lilasi village and left them after a day long ordeal. Later, on May 22, 2018 the police forces entered the village and brutalized the villagers, men, women and children alike. Several villagers were fatally wounded. However, in turn the villagers were not allowed to get their medical done. Moreover, the harassment of the Adivasis continued with several of them getting arrested, namely Executive Committee member of AIUFWP, Sukalo Gond, Forest Rights Committee (FRC) head Kismatiya Gond and several others. Kismatiya and Sukhdev were released on bail after several months of incarceration on fabricated charges. Sukalo is yet to be released. The habeas corpus petition filed by CJP had helped them seek judicial remedy, after which their bail applications were filed in the courts.
CJP has been closely following how Adivasi women of Sonbhadra are being systematically bullied and harassed. Many of them face fake cases filed on false or trumped up charges. We are 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.
But the systemic abuse of Adivasis continues and is likely to worsen as they have risen time and again against any kind of abuse. Equipped with the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the Adivasis have been filing community resource rights claims over forest land.
NHRC investigation: Incomplete and insignificant
Roma’s response to NHRC highlights that the responsibility of the investigation was delegated to the same authorities against whom the complaint was lodged in the first place! She said, “We are in a conflict with the police authorities, and yet they were trusted with the responsibility to investigate the incident as reported in our petition.” She added, “This is a contradiction in itself which makes it clear that neither will the truth emerge nor will the oppressed get justice in the matter.”
There was a time lag of four months in the reply from NHRC. Expressing concern over the delay, Roma says, “This delayed process will ensure that once again the same forces are emboldened which are perpetuating exploitation on us as they are aware that the NHRC keeps sending many such letters and that all this will have no consequence. And hence, the more the delay, the better it is.”
Disturbing questions, unanswered
The letter raises some pertinent issues about the incident of police violence and brutality that took place on May 22. It says, “The said incident didn’t take place in forest or forest land, but in the village. The police reached the village in the morning and entered Sukhdev Gond’s hutment and started beating him up. Why did the police reach there early morning? As per the police report, it is said that the police had gone to the forests to discuss with the forest dwellers about not cutting trees. From where does the question of cutting trees arise, if the villagers were, in fact, in the village and not the forest?”
The people of Lilasi village had submitted their claims under Community Forest Rights over forest land to the District Collector in Robertsganj in March, 2018. It is since then that the violence against Adivasis has stepped up. The letter, hence asks, “Wasn’t it the responsibility of the the District Magistrate that he should have intervened in the matter between May 18 till May 22. Also that he should have vouched for a higher level inquiry?”
The letter draws attention to the constant struggle between the villagers, the forest department officials, the feudal forces in the village, police etc., which are hell bent on terrorizing the people of Lilasi village, who were removed from their ancestral land eight years ago.
After the May 22 incident, the Station Officer of Muirpur was removed. The letter questions, “If the police was correct in its actions, then why was he removed from his post?”
String of Fabricated cases against Adivasi HRDs
The case has seen several other such manipulations. For example, Kismatiya and Manju’s names were interchanged in order to make it look like Kismatiya was involved in violence. “Why didn’t the court investigate into this crucial matter of interchanging of names?” the letter asked.
Roma also strongly questioned her criminalization by the police and state authorities. It is notable that there is mention of an alleged “criminal history” in the answer of the NHRC filed by the police. Roma asks, “If I have not been convicted in any of the cases, how can I be branded to have a criminal history in their reply?”
The letter also draws attention of NHRC to the several false cases in which Roma has been implicated and serially targeted and harassed.
A highlight of the letter is its Special Report on Jail Conditions
Roma was sent to the jail twice on fabricated charges. Despite the fact that Sonbhadra was carved out of Mirzapur district in 1989, till two years ago the prisoners from Sonbhadra district were taken to the Mirzapur jail, which is at a distance of 80 kms from Sonbhadra. She asks, “If a jail is already there in Sonbhadra then why are people regularly taken to Mirzapur jail?” The jails are overcrowded in Mirzapur and filled much beyond their capacity.
She highlights the scarcity of basic amenities. She says, “There is only one barrack in the Mirzapur jail for women. It has a total capacity of only 30 women but as many as 100 women are lodged there. The food isn’t adequate, there is no proper place to sleep, no bedding etc. When the women raise their voices against this condition, and also the fact that there is misappropriation of jail ration by the staff, they are beaten up and tortured.” She highlighted in the letter that Sukalo sent a message that she was terrorised due to an everyday conflict like situation in the jail.
She also highlights how sanitation facilities are not only inadequate, but also pose a health risk. She says, women inmates have to go the bushes in order to relieve themselves. Many women get infections of various kinds due to these prevailing conditions. “The condition within the jails is inhuman and calls for a higher level inquiry. The prisoners and under-trials should be treated in a humane way and a clean and hygienic environment should be provided for them. The prisoners belonging to Sonbhadra should be kept in the jail at Sonbhadra.
Drawing strength from Justice Chandrachud’s minority judgment in the case of a PIL filed in the Supreme Court, in which he says, “17. Fundamental Rights occupy a place of pride in the Indian Constitution. Article 21 provides ‘no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law’. Personal liberty, thus, is a sacred and cherished right under the Constitution. The expression ‘life or personal liberty’ has been held to include the right to live with human dignity and thus it would also include within itself a guarantee against torture and assault by the State or its functionaries.” (Justice Dr. D Chadrachud in Romila Thapar Vs Union of India). Roma urges that a high level inquiry of the violence at Lilasi village should take place. The arrests of Sukalo Gond and Kismatiya Gond also need to be investigated and they should be compensated for their illegal incarceration for four months.
The entire letter may be read here.