On October 23, Brinda Karat, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) and Vice President of Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch, released a fact-finding report on the firing on Adivasis by Bihar Police in Kaimur. The firing had taken place on September 11, when the Adivasis were holding a peaceful sit-in protest in Adhaura. The report published together by All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG) looks into what exactly transpired on that fateful day.
The Adivasis had come together under the Kaimur Mukti Morcha and had placed six demands before the government:
- Implement Forest Rights Act 2006.
- Declare Kaimur as a Scheduled area as per the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 to be implemented effectively.
- The administrative reorganisation of Kaimur Valley.
- Scrap the 1927 colonial Indian Forest Act.
- Implement the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act.
- Abolish the proposed Kaimur Forest Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve.
However, instead of engaging in dialogue police opened fire on them. Seven activists were also detained in the process, though released on bail later.
The four member Delhi-based fact-finding team consisted of Amir Sherwani Khan (All India Union of Forest Working People), Matadayal from (All India Union of Forest Working People), Raja Rabbi Hussain (Delhi Solidarity Group) and Aman Khan an advocate from the Supreme Court. They visited the Adhaura Block, Kaimur District of Bihar from September 23 to 27, 2020.
The findings of the report were released in an online press conference attended by not only Brinda Karat, but also Roma Malik (General Secretary – AIUFWP), Teesta Setalvad (Secretary – CJP) as well as the authors of the report.
Shedding light on the group that was protesting Roma (who prefers to go only by her first name) said, “It is not as if Kaimur Mukti Morcha (KMM) is some banned organisation. They are an old and highly respected group that has been working tirelessly to help Adivasis and forest dwellers use all legal means at their disposal to stake individual and community claims to forest land. Their growing influence on the locals worried the forest department who began calling the group a Maoist organisation!”
Roma further explained that following the creation of Jharkhand, Kaimur Adivasis in Bihar suffered from a lack of representation since they became a minority in Bihar. As a result, their rights such as collection of herbs and wood from the forest were snatched away. The forest department levied restrictions on their sale of forest produce. Moreover, during the pandemic, officials invaded Adivasis fields and dug holes. While it is clear they did this to prevent the Adivasis from cultivating the land, the official reason given was that this was for a tiger reserve project!
“Forest-dwellers tried to talk to the District Magistrate and showed the Supreme Court stay order that recognised their right to live in forests, as well as the Forest Rights Act of 2006. However, forest officials said they neither recognised the law nor did they feel compelled to adhere to the stay order. Accordingly, many houses in Sarainar, Dighar, Gullu, Guiyan and many other areas were destroyed,” narrated Roma.
It was to protest this injustice, that Adivasis assembled in thousands at the Birsa Mundak Smarak Sthal in Adhaura block of Kaimur district on September 10. Protesters from as many as 108 villages simply wanted to talk to authorities. However, no official met with or spoke to them.
Frustrated women protesters padlocked the forest department office. They hoped that such an extreme step would make authorities acknowledge their complaints. However, instead of agreeing to talk with the Kaimur Mukti Morcha (KMM), forest officials broke the padlock at night, never bothering to approach the protesters.
This wilful disregard for Adivasi suffering angered the protesters to such a point that they proceeded to barge into the office. Police attacked them and fired at them. Three people were injured with one narrowly missing a fatal wound to the head. Many people were arrested and false cases under charges such as Sections 307, 353, 147, 148, 506, 504 and even Arms Act. No investigation was conducted yet 25 people were named. Member Viniyan Ashram’s office in Adhaura was destroyed and their motorcycles were taken away as well.
“It is surprising that during lockdown, when people’s livelihood should be protected, the forest department is disrupting their fields, barring their local business and attacking communities,” said Roma.
Moreover, the KMM had also boycotted elections, although they did believe in the electoral process. The fact that Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai had visited the area following this declaration is significant because Ministers seldom visited the area. Yet, the community’s claim forms continue to gather dust in administrative offices.
“All across India, forest department is violating laws and trying to intimidate Adivasi communities. Meanwhile, wherever forest rights were recognised, people faced no such atrocities. In fact, they were empowered enough to help out migrating labourers during the lockdown period,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kharwar Adivasi community’s Subhash Singh, a professor, who had participated in and witnessed the events of September 10 said, “They are lying when they say we did not seek permission. I personally ensured permission was obtained and all legal processes followed.”
Narrating the events of the two-day protest, Singh said, “We assembled at Adhaura block in Kaimur Pathar to hold a two-day protest. We wanted Kaimur hills to be declared a scheduled area as per Schedule 5 of the Constitution. Further, we demanded the implementation of the PESA Act and abolition of the tiger reserve project in Kaimur area. We wanted the 1927 Indian Forest Act to be withdrawn and the implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006 instead. Lastly, we wanted our forest rights to be acknowledged.”
Singh said that Adivasis had gathered to assert these demands during the peaceful protest but police opened fire on them and arrested seven people while 22 people faced false charges.
“In this way, the government refuses to listen to Adivasi demands. If we try to educate ourselves and demand our rights, we are called Naxalites. Even today, in Adhura, Adivasis live in a deplorable condition,” he said.
Subhash recounted how Kaimur Adivasis do not have proper houses, and the few that are there, are mud-houses that are destroyed by forest officials. He asks, “They say the houses are on forest grounds. But forest, land and water are our birthright. So where else will we live?”
Even today, Adhaura does not have health facilities, he said. Many people die enroute to the main district hospital which is nearly 70-75 kms away. As for the single government hospital in the area, it has been turned into a military camp.
“The hospital had 400-700 beds. But the government has now made it a camp because of which Adivasis can’t be treated there,” he said.
He also pointed out that there are no educational facilities in the area. There are buildings of schools but no teachers to teach there. Attendance exists only on register. He also said there is no electricity in Adhaura. Moreover, villages are yet to receive roads that connect the main district to their areas. The forest department does not allow this claiming they do not want trees cut down.
Lastly, he said there is no provision of telecommunications barring a single BSNL tower that all villages use. However, he pointed out that even this company, despite being a public-sector undertaking (PSU) was ignored by the government.
In this way, he concluded, Adivasis are still deprived of their basic rights. The KMM and communities are agitating for the realization of these demands.
Matadayal who talked about his observation during the visit to the six villages as a member of the fact-finding report team made similar comments about the area.
He recalled how many villagers in Adhaura were scared to talk to them because of police and forest department officials. People who had previously interacted with the organisations agreed to talk but the villagers, with whom members wished to speak, were apprehensive of the newcomers.
Gradually, people talked about the police firing. After listening to their accounts, Matadayal recommended levying heavy charges against police and forest personnel, just as the officials lodged false charges against Adivasis.
“Using SC/ST Act and Section 7 of the Forest Rights Act, we can lodge complaints. Right now, we are only in the dharna-phase. Also, while it is wonderful that the Supreme Court has taken up the case filed by CJP-AIUFWP, we also need to do the same at the district level where our women are harassed and members are attacked,” he said.
To this, CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad assured the community that CJP-AIUFWP would provide all necessary help to fight this legal battle.
After talking to Adivasi women, another team-member Amir Sherwani Khan, realised that people were well versed in matters of the law. “In many villages they talked about Schedule 5 of the Constitution. However, they could not oppose the authorities. Even after the firing, they had no information about their family-members who had been injured or detained,” recalled Khan and dubbed the administration as an “andha kanoon” regime.
“All women stood fast on their decision that they would die rather than giving up their forests. I remember an aged-woman there said that the forest department may attempt to bury us but we will not leave our forests,” he said.
On September 25, they tried to meet the man whose ear was shot during the firing. However, villagers hid the person on seeing visitors. As a result, the team failed to meet the victim although villagers narrated the entire incident. All of them complained about the forest department’s restrictions in collecting forest produce.
“I looked at MGNREGA numbers and saw that they did not benefit from this scheme during the lockdown. Nearly 5,000 people worked under this scheme for 30-40 days. This despite the fact that MGNREGA should provide employment for 150 days in tribal areas. So, while Adivasis were not allowed to carry out their traditional occupation, they also did not receive benefits of a public policy,” he said.
Khan also said that for eight months nobody had gone to school. Villagers said the area had become a sort of garrison where the community was surrounded by CRPF personnel everywhere.
Similarly, team-member, Raja Rabbi Hussain said he felt a fear within the community. He pointed out that the forest department was stealing their land under the guise of road construction. He was appalled that the department could not differentiate invasive species from plants from indigenous plants. Any plant was being planted along the road that affected that forest’s biodiversity.
Talking about empowerment, he said that people needed to be liberated to demand justice due to them from the administrative and judicial machinery.
CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad concluded proceedings by sharing how CJP had remained steadfast in its campaign to empower Adivasis even during the pandemic. Setalvad said, “For the last six months we at CJP have been using technology to conduct training programs and workshops via webinars to empower people with proper legal knowledge.” The webinars and workshops will continue in the months ahead.
The entire fact-finding report may be read here:
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CJP-AIUFWP move NHRC against firing on peaceful Adivasi protesters in Kaimur