Siwal in Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district has Adivasis belonging to the Barela, Bhilala and Bhil communities, who moved to the forest region in the 1970s like many others. For over six decades, the dense and rich Sagon forest region has been their home. However, despite the enactment of the “recognition of rights” law, FRA 2006, forest rights elude communities that have lived in the region for over 50 years. Worse, is the attitude of the forest and local administration. Since October 2022, JADS alleges that the region has lost over 15,000 acres of forest cover. This, an Adivasi collective alleges, would not have been possible without the connivance of the forest and other state bodies.
Today senior activists from among the Adivasi communities and others participating in the struggle for land are facing repression, false cases and externment orders. A Delhi-based group, Janhastakshep had approached members of intelligentsia and social and political activists belonging to different organizations to lend their support to an open petition addressed to the Hon’ble President of India on the issue of attack on Adivasis asserting their forest rights and opposing atrocities against them for opposing illegal felling of forest in Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh.
“In order to crush the struggle of the Adivasis the local administration has externed the leader of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), Madhuri from the district. Around 150 signatories from India and abroad have signed the petition both in their individual capacity and also on behalf of their organizations. The petition sent to President Draupadi Murmu’s Secretariat, along with the signatures has been also released to the press.
Activists have alleged that these attacks by the forest department and other authorities are a continuance of the repression allegedly suffered by forest dwellers and Adivasis for over four months, since March 2023. Antaram Awase, a young Adivasi activist, has spoken to the media recently of the crackdown on villagers, filing multiple cases citing encroachment and deliberate disobedience of government orders. The most recent in the list of atrocities perpetrated against them, the villagers say, is an externment order against the human rights defenders who have been actively questioning the state in the region.
Strangely, even though a large part of the Burhanpur district is earmarked as a scheduled area, the tribal communities living there have for long been bereft of forest rights. Villagers of Siwal, along with residents of 15 other villages in the district, have been demanding they be recognised as forest dwellers and their rights under the Forest Rights Act be protected.
Four months ago, in March 2023, two Adivasi activists associated with the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) had claimed that they were threatened with arrest during police questioning following the arrest of 35 other Adivasi activists after a face-off with the Forest Department in Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur region. The two had also then been called for questioning.
The region has seen a history of violence against Adivasi communities by the notorious Forest Department. The Forest Department periodically attempts to illegally “evict” Adivasis of Pachayat Baldi from their land by using force, sometimes employing violence and intimidation tactics such as illegal detention, physical assault, and even money extortion. This is a violation of section 4 (5) of the Forest Rights Act which does not recognize eviction at all. These section of the emancipator law states that forest dwelling persons from a Scheduled Tribe or other traditional communities should not be evicted or removed from the forest land they occupy until the recognition and verification procedure is complete.
In a statement released by JADS then, they detailed the following: JADS activists received a call from the locals of Baldi Panchayat on February 2, 2023 informing them about the illegal arrest of four people – two men and two women. They were picked up from their homes and taken to an unknown location with no information given to their families, a violation of settled law and jurisprudence. At this stage when this happened, JADS activists immediately contacted the DFO (District forest officer) and District Collector, Burhanpur, asking them to intervene in the matter and ensure that due process of law was followed. Anxiously looking for those who were picked up, other villagers went to the Range Office in Burhanpur and heard shouts and screams and other sounds of torture from the office building. Thereafter there was a reported clash between villagers and the forest staff after this. It was after this ‘confrontation’ that around 20 men and 15 women were arrested by the police while they were on their way back to their village.
The very next day, Antaram Awase, a young Advissi activist, and Nitin, a graduate from TISS, went to meet the DFO, SP and District Collector, to find out what had happened. Instead, they found themselves implicated in the conflict for merely speaking to the arrested villagers on the phone. The two were in fact not in Burhanpur at the time.
These two activists, Antaram and Nitin have been working with JADS for over five years and are at the forefront of the campaign to spread awareness about legal Forest Rights. JADS, currently active with tribals across four districts in MP – Barwani, Khargone, Khandwa and Burhanpur – is a community led organisation and plays an important role in highlighting illegal fellings of trees on Adivasi land and underhanded attempts to suppress their forest rights. The attempt to implicate the two JADS activists can only be read as an attempt to suppress this campaign. It was in 2018, that this struggle demanding legitimate rights had intensified. So did the state’s crackdown.
A protest and its aftermath
In April this year, over a thousand women and men – all belonging to tribal communities – staged a three-day protest against the tacit support given to widespread and illegal tree felling by the Madhya Pradesh government, emphasising that felling at such a scale is impossible without the implicit support of the state government itself.
While the officials didn’t relent to the villagers’ demands at all, JADS accuses the forest and state administration of illegally evicting many eligible FRA claimants. The district has over 10,000 FRA claims pending, some even belonging to those illegally evicted, the villagers allege.
Every act of protest, the organisation claims, is met with state repression, they stress.
Among the state actions earlier this year was the externment of Madhuri Krishnaswami of the JADS. Krishnaswami, who has been actively involved in organising the community and agitations in the district, has been booked in as many as 21 forest offence cases for alleged offences between October 2022 and January 2023. It is these cases that the protests were against. However, Krishnaswami’s name was added only in May, after the protests.
Krishnaswami is additionally named in five police cases out of which two have been disposed of already and others are pending investigation. These cases, mostly accusing her of unlawful assembly, have triggered her externment from the district.
Rights activists from the region call this part of the administration’s tactic to break the movement. “They are going after the leaders one by one. Many Adivasi women, who are at the forefront, are also getting targeted by forest officials. Like the Britishers, the Madhya Pradesh government too is hellbent on criminalising the community for fighting for their rights,” Awase said.
Adivasi activists allege that, since 2019, there have been multiple instances of human rights violations in the region. Between August and September 2020, several persons from the region – all belonging to the Adivasi community – were picked up under alleged false charges, detained by the forest officials and allegedly tortured. In one such incident, two Adivasi youths were handcuffed to a window railing and allegedly beaten up all night, before they were produced in court.
Those booked in multiple cases mostly work as farmers or farm labourers. Appearance before court means missing out on a day’s earnings. “As it is we have been spending a great deal of time organising and agitating against the state’s unjust attitude towards us. And now we have an additional challenge of appearing before the court every other week,” said an activist, who too has been booked in multiple cases.
The villagers’ demand as lawful claimants of the forest land gets complex with the government’s allegation of felling of trees. The region over the past decade has witnessed deforestation on a massive scale.
Awase says that he, along with other members of the organisation, had moved to notify both the forest and the district administration about the large-scale destruction of the forest cover. “These are all Sagon trees. They sell for crores of rupees. As some people from nearby villages indulged in the criminal act of destroying the forest cover, we wrote to the officials. No action was taken against those involved,” Awase alleges.
Those allegedly involved in the felling of trees also belong to the tribal community, activists say. This, Nitin explains, is a parallel phenomenon seen in the region where many from the Adivasi communities make a desperate attempt to claim stakes on the land. “If the state were serious about implementing the FRA law in the region, destruction of forest cover could have been brought under control,” he adds.