Debating India


A standoff in the forest

Saturday 21 May 2005, by CHOPRA*Suneet

Tribal people resist the Madhya Pradesh government’s drive to evict them from areas they have lived in for decades.

ON April 16, the small town of Nepanagar, not far from the historic fortress of Asirgagh in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh, witnessed a rally of nearly 10,000 tribal people under the banner of the Adivasi Unity Platform. They had walked long distances to protest against the illegal and arbitrary drive of the Bharatiya Janta Party-led Madhya Pradesh government to evict as "encroachers" tribal people settled in villages now declared forest land.

The savage methods of eviction were evident from what this writer saw in three villages of the district: Kharkhari, Ambakhera and Singhot. The first is on the main road. On April 2, armed forest personnel descended on the village in some 10 vehicles, drove the residents away and destroyed homes built over a generation ago. The residents came out of the forest on April 24, when Lakshman Seth, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament, visited the villages. They showed him evidence of their long stay in the village - ration cards, voters’ identity cards and even hand pumps set up by the government. Sixty-one houses were destroyed and everything was looted: millet and coarse grain, forest produce, goats, cattle and chickens. The local school was razed to the ground.

Nahar Singh, the village headman, said: "We are not encroachers. We have been living here for 35 years. We came from nearby Potla village where our ancestors lived before. Now they are trying to starve us out. But you can see people who were born here do not want to leave. Still the forest officials are threatening us daily that they will come again to drive us out once and for all. This is our home. Why should we leave?"

At Ambakhera, a few days later, the forest officials came armed, but this time they had learned their lessons from the attack on Kharkhari. They razed the village to the ground and destroyed any evidence the people may have had of their residence there. Women and children were not spared. It is alleged that a woman who was being delivered of a baby was dragged out of her house and it was set on fire. Forty-nine houses were gutted. Forty-one were destroyed in nearby Singhot.

No first investigation report (FIR) could be registered as the local police station would not allow it. When this writer met Abdul Hamid Khan, the officer in charge of Pandhana police station, he said no FIR had been registered as the government had ordered an inquiry. The message was that once an inquiry was ordered there was no need to register the facts. On being reminded that it was his duty to do so, he remained silent. He refused to answer when asked whether the State government had issued instructions not to record FIRs.

The next day this writer visited the villages in Indore district from where reports of eviction came, with Arun Chauhan, State secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). Arun Chauhan said: "This eviction drive is not restricted to Khandwa district. In Indore, too, a number of villages are affected. At Khandwali, 28 people holding title deeds of Madhya Bharat of the 1950s, have had them revoked. A number of other villages such as Tappa, Sandal-Mandal and Surtipura are being threatened. The tribal people - Bhils, Bhilalas and Barelas Tadvis - are resisting. They have resisted the British. They can resist the BJP."

Sunilam, MLA and Samajwadi Party leader, said: "The BJP government claims it is implementing the directions of the Supreme Court, but it is doing nothing of the sort. Moreover, it is lying openly in the Assembly. This whole exercise has no legal basis."

Sunilam cited the reply of the State Minister of Forests to his calling attention motion of March 2005. The Minister categorically denied that evictions were taking place. He asserted that in accordance with a government circular of August 20, 2004, committees had been constituted under the chairmanship of the District Collector, with the village headman and one representative (panch) from each affected village as members, to ascertain the titles in the area by March 31, 2005. However, none of the villages this writer visited had such a committee functioning. Nor were the people aware of its existence. Evidence produced by those being evicted was not being recorded.

Moreover, the Minister admitted that the government had failed to keep the promise the ruling party had made during the last Assembly election campaign, to regularise all possession of lands before 1990. To cover up the unfulfilled election promise, he said the Central government was yet to take action upon the previous State government’s 1995 demand to regularise tenures. He cited a Supreme Court order staying a circular of the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment that sought to legalise all possessions up to December 31, 1993, as a basis for not regularising possessions before 1980.

However, he did not address one question. If the matter is under the Supreme Court’s consideration, why is the stay being violated by evicting and brutally attacking the Adivasis? The Madhya Pradesh government has announced a policy of handing over forest land to corporate houses. India, as a democracy based on adult suffrage and equality before the law, cannot deal with the problem of handing over natural resources to corporates and multinationals the way it was done in the United States centuries ago - by exterminating Red Indians. Moreover, since the Indian tribal population has grown at a faster rate since Independence than under British colonialism it cannot be wished away at one go. So the Madhya Pradesh government is trying out a piecemeal approach, hoping it could be covered up that way and not become a contentious issue. But it has, and the AIKS and the other organisations are planning mass campaigns in various districts of the State from April 24 to May 19.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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