The Massacre at Sonbhadra
Ten adivasis, including three women, were massacred and nearly 14 others wounded in a bloody attack by the feudal caste forces, led by the village headman, in Ubbha village of Ghorwell sub-district, district Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh. According to reports appearing in newspapers, accused YogduttBhurtiya, his two brothers and 23 other people have been arrested out of the total 73 accused. On the morning of July 17, 2019, at around 10:30 – 11:00 AM, they raided the village in about 33 tractors, carrying large quantity of ammunition with them. At that time, the Gondadivasis were tilling their land. The Sunday Indian Express reported an eye witness account:
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“We thought some officials had come to hold talks. We gathered and headed towards the disputed land. It was then that we realised that the pradhan had come with at least 100 other people in around 20 tractors. They were armed and started firing around 11 am. We were shocked and could not fight back because they were carrying at least 10-12 guns,” said Basant Lal Gond, 35.
Various reports have come in to describe this barbaric and brutal repression by the feudal forces who, along with the administration, have been cheating the Adivasis in their own land. Sonbhadra is a mineral rich district with several thermal power plants. Just 100 kilometer from Varanasi city, it is a green belt with beautiful landscape. It is not that Sonbhadrahas witnessed these kinds of unrest for the first time. Adivasis are an easy target when they protest to protect their land. Mining and timber forest mafia operate in the district with impunity, in close connivance with the authorities.
Political parties often engage in blame game after any incident. Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, immediately blamed the Nehru government in 1950 for this. Interestingly, since the passing away of Nehru, in these 54 years, we have seen two full terms for BJP governments in the Centre – this is the third one – and several terms in the state government, but none of them tried to undo what ‘Nehru’ had allowed to happen.
Let us go into the details of this incident and find out what was the root cause of the violence by the village headman, YogduttBhurtiya, and his criminals. And what we find is a story of the betrayal of the rule of law and manipulation of the ignorant and innocent Adivasis by the power elite,duping them with the intimidation of ‘knowledge’ and ‘constitution’. We all swear by the constitution but as Baba SahebAmbedkar, father of modern India, warned us, any good constitution can be demolished by unfaithful people. India’s caste supremacists actually used constitution and their legal knowledge of it to deny India’s millions of Adivasis and Dalits their legitimate constitutional rights to own land. This Sonbhadra story is the narrative of India’s brahmanical elite usurping the lands of the Dalits and Adivasis, which they have been tilling for generations, and I can say with full conviction and authority that such stories exists in other parts of Uttar Pradesh, in Bihar and other statesas well- in fact, in all those states where all the ‘legal’ provisions were used to keep landholding outside the purview of the Land Ceiling Act. The politicians know it well and the bureaucrats, except for very few, were party to this loot.
Who are the real culprit of Sonbhadraviolence?
The GondAdivasis of village Umbha have been tilling the land since before India’s independence. Infact, the Adivasis’ rights over land and forests have been acknowledged for long but the politician – bureaucratic feudal-castenexus of the cow-belt brahmanical leaders ensured that all the provisions remainedon paper. In the heartland of Uttar Pradesh, two regions,apart from the hill regions, had vast forest land. These were Kaimur, Bundelkhand and Tarai of Uttarakhand. Both the places were originally inhabited by the Adivasis but the authorities and big politicians grabbedvast tracts of fertile land from them. The best way was to keep these communities out of the Scheduled TribesList. So, Kols and many other communities of Uttar Pradesh, who were a majority in Bundelkhand, Mirjapur as well as Sonbhadra, were out of the List and hence, legally, they lost their rights over forests. There are many communities, who are Adivasis in neighbouringChandauli district but not so in Sonbhadra. Secondly, both the regions of Kaimur and Tarai were flooded with outsiders, who dominated and benefitted from the innocence of the Adivasi communities. This is the case everywhere including inChhattishgarh and Jharkhand. The Indian state cleverly planted people from outside, including the immigrants after Partition,in these areas. However, people belonging to both the sidesdid not mix with one another. The demographic changes are visible in these areas and non Adivasis have not only hijacked economic resources but also become powerful politically. The non Adivasichief ministers of once Adivasi-dominant states like Chhattishgarh and Jharkhand are the best examples.
Let us understand how the brahmanical elite ‘legally’ stole the Adivasi land.
It was the year 1952, when major Indian states followed the Central law on Zamindari Abolition. According to a report in The Times of India, 639bighas of land belonging to the erstwhile Raja of Badhar, AnandBrahmSahoo, came under the law and was declared infertile (banjar) bhumi and marked for the village Panchayat or as ‘gaonsamajbhumi’ by the administration.Actually, the Gondtribalshad been cultivating this land before that, as most of the land owned by the various kings were tilled by their subjects without much objections from them but since 1952, this land came under the village Panchayat or what we, in Uttar Pradesh, call Gram Sabha. In 1955, MrMaheshwari Prasad Sinha, a resident of Patna, Bihar, formed a society in Sonbhadra and nameditAdarsh Co-operative Society. He, then, got this land transferred in the name of Society. It would not have been possible without close connections with the powers that be, as Sinha had no right to take land in Uttar Pradesh since he was a resident of Bihar. But then,Sinha was the father-in-law of Mr.Prabhat Kumar Mishra, who happened to be the district Collector of Mirjapur district during that period. (Sonbhadra was a part of Mirjapur district at that time.) Mishra easily pressurized the officials and got them to sign on the documents.Prabhat Kumar Mishra’s wife, Asha Mishra, who was the daughter of Maheshwari Prasad Sinha, was made the manager of the society of about 463 bighas of land. The land was transferred by the tehsildar, a low level revenue officer,whocould not have done such a thing on his own, but would have definitely worked under the ‘orders’ of ‘Collector sahib’.
According to a report in The Times of India, on September 6th, 1989, the sub district magistrate[SDM) transferred 200bighas of this land to the wife Asha and daughter Vinita of IAS officer, Prabhat Kumar Mishra. We do not know what were the ‘reasons’ for this transfer and it should be a matter of investigation as to how he could do this. After the dust settles on this issue; the caste friends of the Mishras will surely protect them, as there are many land-sharks like them in the bureaucracy who are protected by both the caste and class interests. Here, parties don’t matter. Dominant castes adopt parties to protect their interest and Congress BJP accusations on each other do not matter. Most of the corrupt leaders cleverly switch their loyalties to the ruling parties and then abuse their former parties.
In the year 1989 itself, about 144 bighas of land was sold by the Mishras to the village sarpanch,YogduttBhurtiya, allegedly for about Rs. 2 crore, which was equivalent to USD 290,000. The villagers knew about it and objected to it, but their objections have never mattered to the authorities.It is shocking to hear that a village Sarpanch had this much money in those days. This is another aspect which needs investigation. The world over, we see campaign to protect ‘immigrants’ rights’, but if we look at the issue of the Adivasi zones, it is the ‘immigrants’ who run the show and rule the state. The question is, whether the village Pradhan Yogdutt came to Sonbhadraon his own or did he come here for political reasons?
It is reported that police knew about this possible attack, as information of the Sarpanch’s movement and aggression was well known. Infact, according to the Indian Express report, a policeman was trying to discourage villagers from protesting against him. When the goons and criminals attacked Umbha village on July 17th at around 11 am and fired on innocent and unarmed villagers, a villager called the police, which reached the venue while the firing was still going on. But they could do nothing as they were far outnumbered by the people accompanying the Sarpanch. Reports suggest that the police did nothing to protect the people and about five persons were killed in the presence of the police. This incident showsa clear lack of will on the side of the police and the administration on this issue.
This incident raises many questions. When the states in India have an upper limit of ceiling on holding of agricultural land, then how did the district official transfer 142 bighas of land in the name of the wife of Prabhat Kumar Mishra, IAS. Why is it that when the Dalits and tribalsask for their genuine land rights,so many finer points are raised to deny them what is rightfully theirs? How did the 1955 order happen and why did the subsequent governments or district administrations keet quiet on it. If there is a proper land survey and mapping, a fair investigation into the land deals ofKaimur region, Bundelkhand region and Tarai region will completely expose the nexus between caste supremacists and the Indian political system and how they deny the legitimate rights of the Dalits and Adivasis. It will show how ‘legality’ has been used as an instrument to deny India’s indigenous people a right in their own land and have made them virtually aliens there.
Failure of the Land Ceiling cases
After the Zamindari Abolition Act, it was realized that in the name of ‘land to the tiller’, new zamindars were being created since there was no prescribed upper limit or ceiling to landholding. Indians, adept at finding new methods to circumvent the law, used it to further their interests. It never benefitted the most marginalized, particularly the Dalits and Adivasis in Central India. So, the government brought about Land Ceiling legislations in 1960 and then amended them in 1972 and imposed a ceiling on 12.5 acres of irrigated land, which could be held. The 1960 acts had set a ceiling of 40 acres, but they had so many gaps that the power elite found way to circumvent it. That apart, the powerful people transferred the land in the names of their bonded labours, family members and even distant relatives. When they could not accommodate their landholdings even among these, they created fake names, or gave the names of their cats and dogs.The biggest stealing of land came from the false trusts created to protect the interests of the big landlords. Land Ceiling Act’s biggest failure was to allow land holdings in the name of ‘religious trusts’, temples, mutths, gaushalas, ‘educational institutions, agricultural institutions etc. These provided the easiest way to evade ceiling laws. In Uttar Pradesh, these trusts belong to all forms and shades of savarna leadership in the various political camps. Ofcourse, Christians and Muslim religious institutions, too, have their fair share in the prime locations.In addition, the cumbersome processes of revenue courts ensured that the matter remained in the courts for a very long time. With the authorities showing no will to file reviews or speed up the process,the officialdom connived with the accused landlords and kept the matter pending in the files.
How government officials don’t acts on court summons.
There are many instances that the landlords have used the courts to protect their misdeeds. When a plot of land is declared as ‘surplus’under the Land Ceiling Act and it is challenged in court, the state has to respond in most of the cases. After the summons are issued or the court orders maintaining of status quo, the administration never really feels the need to keep its legal counsel under pressure to pursue the cases. In many such instances, the legal counsel provides information to those accused, who have violated the law.
Recently, I came across several cases from 1992.The High Court had asked the government to file its response within a month and to maintain the status quo. However, the authorities did not respond adequately, giving ample opportunity to the feudal caste forces to circumvent the law, and file multiple petitions under various namesas well as religious trusts.They also continue to use the landwhile people who got the land entitlements are still roaming around landless.
I was actively involved in a case in ShaheedUdham Singh Nagar for 1167 hectare of land declared surplus in the 1990s. We pursued the case diligently,due to which the so-called owner could not hoodwink the law. It happened after the failure of the district administration to pursue it properly. Later, the administration used its ‘power’ to actually misinterpret the judgment of the Supreme Court. Nothing happens to the government or officials if the cases are delayed or not pursued. Vulnerable people blame it on their luck while many start questioning the motives of those who fight for them.
Land Related cases are never pursued and most of the violence on Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized people in India is related to land disputes. Many a time, the criminal feudals have allowed the usage of their land to the Dalits, Adivasis and backward community persons. This is to create a division among them and use them in filing cases in the court.They also use this fact to protect themselves from the Prevention of Atrocities on SC-ST Act.
Special Courts and Time bound Resolution of Land Ceiling Cases
If the government is really interested in resolving these issues once and for all, then it is time to make a serious effort in that direction. Resolution of land related issues will pave the way for normalization of relations and democratization of society. Political democracy in India will never succeed as long as land issues remain unresolved.
The government must investigate the land owned by big farm houses, religious trusts, gaushalas, ashrams and put a ceiling on them. Land Ceiling laws are not redundant but need to be sharpened to achieve the target of social justice, as envisioned in our constitution.
It is time for the government to form special courts at all levels and ask the Supreme Court and High Courts to monitor these cases on a regular basis. An India with unresolved land disputes will never be able to live in peace and harmony. It will continue to give rise to tensions and violence as attempts will be made to deny people their legitimate rights. Democracy will be in peril if Indian society is not changed. Social justice cannot be achieved if rural power equations are not changed and that is only possible through radical land reforms. All talk of land reform will remain bogus and farcical if the land ceiling issues are not resolved and settlement of land is not done in favour of the landless Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized sections. Blame game will not work and no one can stop the powerful governments from enacting pro-people legislations. If possible, it should make amendments to the Land Ceiling laws and bring all those exempted from it, under the purview of ceiling laws. If the government and the political parties in Opposition are sincere, then the time has come for a consensus on the issue,rather than waiting for another massacre and then makinga hue and cryover the deaths of the innocents. Let the government act and make an honest initiative which can bring permanent peace to the villages and democratize them. Will they have the honesty and ideological strength to do so?