Trigger Happy Police Shoot to Kill Tribals in BJP-ruled Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand

If we compare the police conduct in tackling violent mobs in the state like Haryana, Gujarat or Bengaluru we can easily draw the conclusion that the behavior of police in tribal/forest areas has been consistently dominating and violent.

The killings at Badkagaon, Jharkhand

In the last few weeks there were at least three gruesome incidents of killing of tribals or forest dwelling persons in different parts of the country.

In the first incident two persons from Muslim community were killed in police firing near Kaziranga National Park (KNP) of Assam on September 19, 2016. These people were peacefully protesting against their eviction drive carried out by local administration, which was implementing the judgment of Gauhati High Court related to evictions.

In the second incident two young boys were killed by police in the Bastar area of the Chhattisgarh, and following the long tradition of all such killings, the police claimed that they were Maoists.

The third incident occurred on October 1 in the Hazaribagh, Jharkhand where the police used its brutal power and killed four persons in an open firing. These people were peacefully protesting against land acquisition for a Thermal Power Plant, which would cause their displacement.

It is should be asked that why the State used its brutal power against one of the most marginalized sections of the society?

It is should be asked that why the State used its brutal power against one of the most marginalized sections of the society? Was firing on these unarmed and, at least in two cases, peacefully protesting tribal and forest dwelling people necessary? Could it be claimed by the state authorities that they fulfilled all constitutional obligations in the context of the demands of these people, in other words, could it be claimed by authorities that their demands were absurd and unconstitutional? Or would it be more correct to underline that tribals represent the marginal voices of the Indian nation-state, and mainstream notions of ‘national interest’, ‘internal security’ and ‘development’ have meager or no space for their claims or rights?

The background of Kaziranga killing is related to the orders of Gauhati High Court (1), which was based on its concern for the wildlife protection in the KNP. After hearing a suo motu case and many other related cases, the court ordered on October 9, 2015 that human population living near and within the KNP must be evicted. In its decision the High Court treated revenue villages settled near the KNP as part of the Park (i.e. as forest), but did not accept the argument to follow Forest Rights Act (FRA) to settle the rights of these villagers, most of them were Muslims.

Interestingly, the court used the idea of ‘national interest’ and since they were living near and KNP they constitute a ‘suspected community’ for the killing of wild animals. The court directed the villagers that  to follow their constitutional obligations (to protect wild life) they should leave their claims for the betterment of KNP and wild life. Following the court order, the administration issued notice to the villagers, who were ready to move to some other places but demanded a proper rehabilitation or at least alternative arrangement. They were peacefully opposing eviction drive by the administration. The administration, however, did not pay any attention to their genuine demand and the police opened fire to end their peaceful protest, which killed two persons.

It is also noteworthy that since most of the villagers were Muslim, the administration was more hostile to them. Indeed, the demand for a proper rehabilitation before eviction was a just demand. The FRA also presents a clear procedure for the relocation of the population from the Park area. The court, however, overlooked its provisions and followed the provisions of Forest Conservation Act 1980 because its provisions are suitable for the protection of predominant idea of ‘national interest’ within the forests. It should also be noted that BJP government of Assam took extra interest in this eviction drive because the residents of the villages were mostly Muslims, who had settled in this area before notification of the formation of KNP.

On September 23, 2016 the police killed adolescent students in the Burgum police station of the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. The killed students Sonaku Ram Kashyap 16, and his friend Bijlu Kashyap, 13 were resident of Gadhda village in Dantewada, and went to Sonaku’s aunt house, 20 km away from their own village, to inform her about the death of one of their family members. They were killed by the police in an ‘anti-Maoist’ operation, which claimed that both of them were Maoists.

These killings were not new in the Bastar area of Chhattisgarh, where in the name of controlling the ‘biggest threat of internal security’ and to ensure ‘national security’ the police have been continuously killing young adivasis in ‘encounters’, for the last so many years. Earlier the Chhattisgarh state administration used, ‘Salwa Judum’ to contain Maoists; in that period too, the police force along with Salwa Judum militia used brutal power against tribal villagers, compelled them to leave their villages, killed many young adivasis on the mere suspicion of their linkage with the Maoists and many incidents of sexual violence against women also come up in different fact finding reports. Even though the Supreme Court declared Salwa Judum illegal and unconstitutional, the state government continued it as an ad hoc arrangement.

The most pathetic thing is that after such killings the police personnel get rewards from their department. In the above mentioned incident both the students were not trained terrorists, they were unarmed and could be easily arrested. The police, however, preferred encounter, which is a clear case of rampant human rights violation. It should be remembered that the people of Bastar, and many other Maoist affected tribal areas are compelled to live in a continuous situation of war on the name of ‘internal security’.

The third incident of the use of police force against forest dependent and tribal people occurred in Badkagaon, Hazaribagh of the Jharkhand. Here, people were protesting against the land acquisition by NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd). It had proposed to start the mining in the Karanpura valley, in East Singhbhum of the Jharkhand, over an area of 47 km. The idea of the land project and land acquisition for this purpose emerged in 2004.

Residents of this area opposed the acquisition of their land for the purpose of the project. Due to their incessant opposition the NTPC could not start its work. However, this year the forest department agreed to give 2,500 acres of land, out of proposed 17,000. The Forest Rights Act, however, gives local STs and OTFDs power to protect and conserve their land. It requires approval of the gram sabha in order to acquire forest land. The local communities had chosen innovative methods of protest. On the May 31, 2016 the villagers of this area started the Chita Satyagraha opposing the land acquisition without their consent. At that time the Government officials promised them to resolve the matter.

However, when no concrete steps were taken by the government they started Kafan Satyagraha. Their demand was to scrap the forest land acquisition by the NTPC because the procedure established by the law was not followed. The killings in Badkagaon happened in this context, when on October 1 the protesters were sitting peacefully in front of NTPC machinery. In the police firing four people were killed (though many unofficial sources claimed that at least seven persons were killed ) and more than 40 persons were injured.

In all three cases, the Indian State did not follow its constitutional and legal obligations towards the forest-dependent or tribal communities.

In all three cases, the Indian State did not follow its constitutional and legal obligations towards the forest-dependent or tribal communities. In the Kaziranga killings case, the demand of the protesting villagers was that a resettlement package should be given to them. Even if we overlook the legal contradictions of the Gauhati High Court judgment, it is very clear that without giving any other space to resettle, the forced eviction of villagers was entirely against the basic values of our constitution. In the case of Bastar killings too, it is clear that rather than following the more humane and reformist methods, the Chhattisgarh police followed the method intimidation, torture, rape and fake encounters. In Badkagaon, Hazaribagh the people were demanding very simple and genuine thing that authorities should follow the provisions of FRA before any kind of land acquisition. The state, administration, however, was not ready to follow the law passed by the Parliament.

It is also strange that though in all three cases the police firing could be easily have been avoided, it was not. In Kaziranga and Badkagaon the protesters were doing their protest in peaceful manner and there was no need of firing. Similarly, Chhattisgarh police could easily arrest unarmed adolescent students, but the resorted to the method of fake encounter and killed them. If we compare the police conduct in tackling violent mobs in the state like Haryana (Jat violence for reservation), Gujarat (Patel’s violent movement for reservation) or Bengaluru (violence on the issue of Cauvery river water distribution) we can easily draw the conclusion that the behavior of police in tribal/forest areas has been consistently dominating and violent. My point is that the police must work with restrain and self-control. However, the fact of the matter is that in tribal areas police has been continuously working with more violent and inhuman methods.

The Modi government's policies for tribal areas are more aggressive than its predecessor.

It should also be noted that the Modi government policies for tribal areas are more aggressive than its predecessor. It is true that on the question of Maoist violence, the Modi government is following the policies of its predecessor. The present government has been, however, promoting more antagonistic stands toward peaceful movements too. It has given clearance to many investment proposals in forest areas and deliberately worked to make the FRA weak and redundant, particularly in the context of community rights given in this Act.

It is not a coincidence that BJP is the ruling party in all three states where these forest dwelling peoples were killed.

It is obvious from the above description of the three recent incidents that in tribal/forest areas the Nation-State works with its dominant idea about ‘national interest’, ‘development’ and ‘internal security’. In these dominant notions tribal or forest dependent communities have no place and Nation-state treats them as ‘suspected’/’dangerous’ communities, who could work against ‘national interest’ or create dangers for ‘internal security’ or work as the greatest obstacles on the path of ‘development’. Apparently the Modi government is more committed towards the idea of ‘national interest’, ‘development’ and ‘internal security’ and since tribal are suspected communities for all these three aims, they are on the receiving end of state violence.

1. Gauhati High Court (GHC) Judgment in the PIL (suo motu) 66/2012, and WP(C) 648/2013 and 4860/2013.

(Kamal Nayan Choubey teaches political science at Dyal Singh College of Delhi University).

This article was first published on Kafila.



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