On 19 April, in the remote Ghateha village in the Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh, located on the M.P.-Uttar Pradesh Border, a large contingent of M.P. police and forest departments descended on some 1,500 landless tribal families who had settled on a stretch of some 1,000 acres of land near the village and evicted them using firing and tear gas. Four police personnel were injured, while six tribal settlers are reported by local people's groups to have been hit by bullets. Most of the tribal families evicted from the land are reported to be absconding for fear of police persecution, and the injured are out of reach of medical assistance for the same reason.
Dubasia Devi, with the injury above her left knee, taken ten days after the eviction. She was rammed with the end of a stick, and has received no medical attention. Pic: Aparna Pallavi.
Different and contradictory 'versions' of the incident are in the air. In the initial days after the incident, local media reports quoted the police as saying that the evicted people were naxals, and this version has now been withdrawn. While the state police and forest departments now maintain that it is a case of fresh encroachment on forest land, people's groups and also some elected representatives have questioned the very status of this land, and by extension, the locus standi of the forest department on clearing encroachments. This, on land which is still in a state of dispute between the state forest and revenue departments.
The local group Birsa Munda Bhumi Adhikar Manch and activists of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers have claimed that the settlers have been on this land since 2003, which makes them eligible for encroachment regularisation under the new Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. The local forest officials have denied this latter point, stating that the settlers had moved on the land only a month back. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests V R Khare, meanwhile, has taken a 'middle of the road' position. He has been quoted in The Hindu as saying that the tribals had made attempts to settle on this land repeatedly in the last four years, and had been removed several times.
Whose land is it?
To be called forest land, a piece of land has to be notified under sections 20 and 29 of the Indian Forest Act, which pertains to reserved and protected forests respectively.
Revenue land is land located within the boundaries of a village, and is governed by reveue laws.
The first question to be raised in this case is on the status of the land itself. I talked with Anil Garg, a well known expert on forest affairs in M.P. The position of village Ghateha is somewhat unique. On 12 July 1974, 2512 forest villages all over Madhya Pradesh were denotified and given revenue status. The denotification work has not yet been completed, as 294 villages in the state are still awaiting denotification, of which Ghateha is one. All the land around the Ghateha village has been denotified. What is more, demarcation of land and updating of records in the forest and revenue departments has still not been done, and disputes between the two are common.
Going further back, at the time of Independence, the area of which Ghateha village is a part was registered as revenue land. But in 1961, the Forest Department notified this land under the Indian Forest Act 1927, and even this notification process has not been completed! According to Garg, "The notification itself has been done in an arbitrary manner, in violation of the people's traditional and customary rights." Garg's reasoning is that much of the land thus notified did not, and still does not, have any forest cover. It was mostly village commons which were notified. The land in and around Ghateha falls under this category.
Now the question is, given this mess surrounding the status of the land, does the forest department have the right to evict people?
The land demarcation situation in the state had first been raised in the state Assembly by MLA Jamuna Devi (Pukshi, Dhar district) in March 2004. Following this, in July 2004, the government issued an order to the forest and revenue departments to update their records and complete demarcation in accordance with the denotifications. That was not done, and has not been, till date.
On 7 November 2006, M.P. forest minister Himmat Kothari had declared in the state Assembly that no evictions will be carried out till the records have been updated according to denotifications. On 24 February 2007 the state chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan himself had said in the Assembly that tribals will not be evicted from those lands. The eviction drive at Ghateha clearly violates all these injunctions.
Nature of encroachment
There is a marked difference in the way forest officials at different levels have defined the encroachment. While local police officials have maintained that the encroachment happened on 16 March 2007 before which the tribal settlers had never been in the area, the state PCCF V R Khare has said that the said land "cleared of encroachments over the last three-four years, was encroached upon again."
Interestingly, the statements of the tribal settlers and local activists establish a link between both versions. Says Dubasia Devi Advasi, who was injured during the 19 April incident, "We had gone to live on the land four years back. Every year we tried to cultivate the land but could not due to drought. Left with no livelihood option, we were forced to migrate for work. Every year when we left, the forest officials and the 'Thakur-Bamans' (powerful local upper-caste people) would come and demolish our dwellings."
The remains of a dwelling after the 19 April eviction. Since the dwellings were reconstructed recently, they were already pretty fragile and insubstantial. Pic: Aparna Pallavi.
Matadayal, 45, of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), who had been working closely with the local organisation Birsa Munda Bhumi Adhikar Manch, (BMBAM) says that the tribals had been repeatedly demanding land allotments from the government since 1965. He notes that a few years back some people had been issued pattas of land in the Charnoi Bhoom area of the tehsil, and had even paid hefty sums for the papers, but they were not given possession. "Lacking any other source of livelihood, these people decided to settle on this piece of land. But since they were being repeatedly uprooted by an upper-caste-forest-department nexus, this year at a meeting of the BMBAM it was decided to occupy the land formally. Accordingly we staged a rally and occupied the land on March 15-16," says Matadayal. Matadayal comes from the kol community which has tribal status in the state, but socially kols are treated as dalits.
Manner and timing of attack
Whatever the nature of the encroachment, one thing is clear. According to the tribal settlers and local activists, no eviction notice had been issued to the settlers before the action of 19 April. No offences had been registered against them under Sections 26 and 32 ? pertaining to reserved and protected forests respectively ? of the Indian Forest Act, nor was any show-cause notice issued under Section 80 A ? which deals exclusively with M.P.
"All we received from the officials was threats," says Dadulal Adivasi (kol), a local leader among the settlers. According to Dadulal, the forest officials visited the settlement many times between 16 March and 19 April, but all they did was to threaten and coax the people to leave. On 18 March they even staged an abortive eviction attempt, and on 5 April, eight people were arrested. At the time of writing, they are still in custody. Eight more people were arrested on 19 April.
No eviction notice had been issued to the settlers before the action of 19 April.
No offences had been registered against them under Sections 26 and 32 ? pertaining to reserved and protected forests respectively ? of the Indian Forest Act.
Nor was any show-cause notice issued under Section 80 A ? which deals exclusively with M.P.
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"The attack of 19 April was sudden and illegal," says Munnilal, convener, NFFPFW. When contacted, the Rewa Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Ashish Verma refused to comment on the plea that he was "not authorised" to make comments. Rewa Superintendent of Police Ravi K Gupta, from whom the DFO had requisitioned police force for the 19 April eviction, said, "We received a written requisition and supplied the force. It is not our job to check on other departments unless specially instructed to do so."
Even the Rewa collector D P Ahuja was evasive on the question of whether proper legal procedures were followed in the eviction drive. "The FD had issued a POR (primary offence report)," he said. "People had been arrested and challans were issued." Specific questions on procedural issues drew a blank.
Scuttling official procedures
The way the attack was timed is also significant. Just one day before the attack, a group of activists and tribal settlers, led by Samajwadi Party MLA K K Singh (Sidhi, M.P.) had met collector Ahuja. "We pointed out to him the disputed status of the land and other legal facts. We acquainted him with the Forest Rights Act, under which no evictions have till date been ordered," said Singh. According to Singh, the collector had assured that no action will be taken, and asked the group to file an application to this effect.
"Actually we were preparing to file a formal application on the 19th, when the attack happened," he says, "The first point I want cleared is why the attack happened on 19th, when we had already had a talk with the collector and were preparing to carry out official procedures," asks Singh.
Interestingly, when I asked collector Ahuja to respond, he first that the 18 April meeting was not about Ghateha village. But after I cross-checked with Singh and informed Ahuja that the MLA was planning to bring an insubordination notice against him in the Assembly, the latter became defensive and refused to talk.
Another fact that emerges from talks with the tribal settlers is that the meeting of the gramsabha of Ghateha village was scheduled for 21 April. Says Dadulal, "We had prepared to move a gram sabha resolution to allow the settlers to stay (the Forest Rights Act gives the gram sabha the power to initiate the process of nominating beneficiaries in the process of determining rights), but the attack happened before we could take these measures."
"It is very clear that the forest department was going out of its way to ensure that the tribal people did not get a single chance to consolidate their position legally," says Singh, "Not only did they violate procedures themselves, they also attacked without giving the tribals a fair chance to defend themselves."
Why the haste?
Finally, the most important question in the entire case ? why did the forest Department have to go to such lengths to carry out an eviction that is illegal on so many counts? Different sources point to a single, very disturbing answer.
"The dominant caste people in the village did not want these settlers," says a low-caste man who lives on the outskirts of the village, on condition of anonymity, "The Thakurs and Bamans had an interest in the grass that grows naturally on this land. Dada Pathak and Shankar Pathak from the village had a contract to supply the grass to the military farm in Bargadh (nearby village)." The grass is used as fodder for horses of the military.
Ramesh Shukla of the NFFPFW confirms this. "These contracts for grass are worth lakhs of rupees and are dominated by the upper caste people in the village. Tribal settlers who faced the attack allege that the Thakurs and Brahmins of Ghateha and neigbouring villages were behind the ranks of the police when the attack happened. "They were firing charras (gun pellets) at us," says Chandramani Devi Advasi, "In a village where I was hiding, I saw a boy hit by a pellet on his head. Tell me, do the police fire charras? It was those Thakurs and Bamans."
While vehemently denying these reports, collector Ahuja unwittingly dropped a hint that the eviction did have something to do with the local dominant people. "You see," he said, "the new Act does not give any rights to the forest department, only to the gram panchayat. These people (the tribal settlers) had antagonised the local panchayat." (The Ghateha panchayat is dominated by the upper caste people.) Asked if that was the reason for the eviction, he evaded an answer.
So is the forest department acting merely as another tool to perpetuate the feudal system of upper-caste control of resources that has been a feature of these areas for centuries? Officials appear to have instinctive sympathy for the dominant class. This was borne out when I asked SP Ravi K Gupta about an incident of a bomb found in the settlement on 9 April. "Oh, it was an innocent brahmin man," he said, "The tribals had caught him and forced bombs into his hands." It was only after being pressed for clarifications that he admitted that this was the allegation of the upper caste residents of Ghateha and that he had himself not verified the allegation.
As of now, the situation in Ghateha continues to be tense. For several days after the attack, the police and forest forces maintained siege of the disputed land, making it impossible for people to return to their homes. Injured and starving tribals, who had run into forests for cover at the time of attack, are hiding in terror. The entire tehsil of Tyonthar appears to be wrapped in an eerie silence. People are especially terrorised because riot charges have been slapped against 600 people, and under this, just about anyone can be picked up.
It was with great difficulty, after searching village after village for two whole days that I managed to speak to a few tribal settlers who have survived the attack. "For three days after the attack we hid in the forests with no food or water," says Dubasia Devi, "There were children with us too. After that we realised that we would starve. So we moved out in search of quarry work, as it is impossible for us to go home." Says Ramesh Shukla, "We have managed to locate some injured people, and they are in dire need of medical help. But they are unwilling to be hospitalised for fear of the police."
"Villagers told me that they (the police) have been making inquiries in my home in Saroi village every day. They are terrorising our families," says Ramgarib Kol, who has joined some stone quarry workers in another village."
Ironically, the police, while terrorising people into hiding on the one hand, is also using this fact against the people and their organisations. "The police are challenging us to produce the injured in full knowledge that their own activities are preventing people from coming out," says Shukla.
"We do not know where our people are, whether they are alive or dead," says Munni Devi, whose family is among the missing, "The forest department and the zamindars are out to destroy us. We do not know for how much longer we can stand this." ⊕
By Aparna Pallavi
(Aparna Pallavi is a journalist based in Nagpur, and writes on development issues.)