Whose Forest is it Anyway?

BLATANT INFRINGEMENT OF HUMAN RIGHTS SPANNING OVER DECADES IN THE KAIMUR DISTRICT OF BIHAR HAD MADE PEOPLE’S STRUGGLE LARGER THAN LIFE.

Written by Khwaish Gupta 

Illustrated by Purvi Rajpuria

This wasn’t a mobilisation riding on a social media wave that would be short lived. It’s a struggle larger than life itself, spanning across generations, for something more fundamental- collective identity.

In the ninth month of a humanity-certified toughest year, a gross violation of human rights was in the making in a small area of Kaimur, Bihar and no one was to have any idea. Pellets and lathis were to be rained, activists falsely implicated, family members harassed, and basic human rights still nowhere close to being met.

 

On September 10, in the Adhaura Block of Kaimur which consists of 108 revenue villages, thousands of Adivasis gathered for a peaceful two-day strike in front of the forest department office. The demand was nothing outrageous-- for something that was rightfully theirs-- the forest. Kaimur Mukti Morcha (KMM), an activist organisation fighting for the birth and constitutional rights of the distressed tribals had effectively mobilised this sit-in dharna and had demands such as-- implementation of Forest Rights Act, 2006, administrative reorganisation of Kaimur Valley, abolition of the proposed Kaimur Forest Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve, declaration of Kaimur as a scheduled area, and scrapping of the colonial Indian Forest Act, 1927.

 

Most people find it extremely unusual that tribals are fully aware of their rights and are protesting for their implementation; yet there is a sad, dramatic twist to it. When few representatives from the protestors approached the officials in the forest department office for a dialogue, they were manhandled. In no time, the police and CRPF personnel reached to unleash human right offenses, indiscriminately. The police opened fire at and lathi-charged the innocent protestors, severely traumatising and injuring many of them. One extreme case was of Prabhu, an adivasi who was shot; the bullet went through his ear, taking a chunk of his ear’s muscle tissue with it.

Atrocities on the adivasis continued even after the protest had stopped. The Adhaura office of KMM was ransacked. 36 activists were falsely charged and implicated out of which 7 were arrested. Families and friends of these activists were continuously harassed even if they hadn’t participated in the protest. For example, Subhash Singh Kharwar, a lecturer of philosophy at a state-run college who is also an activist defending Adhaura’s forest rights, has been accused as per FIR No. 71/20. His mother Ganga Jali Devi and sister Phulan Kumari were the only people at home when the police (all men) barged in without any warrant or document- violating fundamental rights again. In another heartbreaking encounter with Pappu Paswan’s mother Shradha Devi, the latter begged for the fact-finding team to release his activist son from jail amid the pandmeic.

 

Although the activists were granted bail on October 16, a gross misconduct of justice had taken place nevertheless.

 

The consequences of this protest and the atrocities carried in its aftermath haven’t only limited trauma to individuals or family levels. This has gone to antagonise villages. One of them was Prabhu’s village. When the fact-finding team reached there to get to the truth of it all, they refused to speak at all because of suspicion, anxiety and fear that surrounded the days of protest. It was after hours of effort that the team gained their trust that the villagers were able to share the details of the sheer brutality that the officials unleashed on them.

They easily brush aside the concept of co-existence as if it was never successfully practised. They forget that tribals and forest dwellers have always, beautifully and peacefully, existed in a mutual symbiotic relation.

The issue then transcends from a solution-seeking movement to a game of dirty politics where both sides lose their temper and the lines are blurred between right and wrong. Collective patience is as tough to maintain because emotions are always heightened when shared.

This wasn’t a mobilisation riding on a social media wave that would be short lived. It’s a struggle larger than life itself, spanning across generations, for something more fundamental- collective identity. Forests and its resources are not just a means of livelihood for the tribals but a part of their identity that is more important to the community than their lives itself. Many villagers vocalised how police brutality and barbarity of forest officials is a routine thing, most times also subtle and systemic. According to Pramod Oraon from Gulu Village, they have to bribe forest department officials to be able to cultivate their own agricultural fields and face repercussions upon refusal. Ganga Devi, Subhash’s mother, had also spoken of questionable behaviour of the forest department- imposing unreasonable fines, snatching of tools and taking their livestock without consent.

 

“The government wants to sell our land to the big corporates but I shall inform the

government that until my very death I will fight for my land, forest and water.” Ramraji Devi, (Adivasi Woman from Bardiha village, Adhaura Block, Kaimur).

 

Kaimur Mukti Morcha has been working effectively for quite some time on issues pertaining to land, forest and water rights of the tribals. On this particular issue, the working secretary of KMM said that the government is trying to snatch the ancestral land of the tribals because of the Kaimur Wildlife Sanctuary which is on the verge of becoming Valmiki Tiger Reserve. He also goes on to make an interesting yet deep remark on the proposal of this Reserve:

 

“Despite spending most of the time in these dense forests every day for years, none of us have ever sighted or confronted a tiger here. The proposal to declare the sanctuary as a tiger reserve is nothing but an attempt to grab our land and evict us from here.” Raja Lal Singh Kharwar, Working Secretary, KMM.

 

What is also worth considering is that the government proposes protection of wildlife at the expense of minorities and communities of thousands. They easily brush aside the concept of co-existence as if it was never successfully practised. They forget that tribals and forest dwellers have always, beautifully and peacefully, existed in a mutual symbiotic relation. Especially when it comes to tribals, it must be remembered that forests and the wildlife there are an integral part of their identity and living. Depriving them of both is a gross violation of their birth rights. “Even if there were traces of  the presence of tigers in this forest, we are not afraid of it, as we have historically co-existed with wildlife. We won’t allow anyone to displace us. It is a do-or-die situation for us,” says Raja Lal Kharwar.

These issues become even more complicated when the law has recognised them but there is a lack of implementation on the ground level due to attitudinal hindrances and under-the-carpet negotiations and motives within the government. One wonders why the forest department, despite being in the same area as the community, acts like an outsider, an alien who would never understand the language of the tribals, let alone converse in it. It is most probably the government regulating their behaviour but to what extent? This inexplicable contradiction will inevitably lead to the displacement of the tribals and push them in a void of uncertainty, a fate that most of them endure across the country.

 

Now as time progressed and little was being done, the Kaimur Mukti Morcha announced that they will boycott the elections in case of inaction. That raises other concerns about the cost of a fundamental right. They have to compromise on one constitutional right to get another one they are entitled to by virtue of their existence. What is also upsetting is that on the outlook, when media reportage of the actual polling during Bihar Assembly Elections happened, things seemed fairly normal and calm, nothing out of the usual.

 

Issues like these which go on for decades become extensively layered. While civilians or the government may put out their said motives out there, directly, we must be critical enough to acknowledge the egos glueing these layers. The issue then transcends from a solution-seeking movement to a game of dirty politics where both sides lose their temper and the lines are blurred between right and wrong. Collective patience is as tough to maintain because emotions are always heightened when shared. In this particular case, we saw the community standing up in union for their rights. They had taken all necessary permissions from local administration well in advance for the venue of the dharna and to ensure peace, law and order during the demonstration. Imagine if they hadn’t done this, the state would’ve found a way to ignore their demands and take action against them for a minor mistake. It’s almost ironic that the oppressed are expected to be righteous in every step they take, and each step taken becomes an added responsibility, a burden for them.

 

The atrocities by the forest department have always ranged from passing derogatory remarks like “jungle tere baap ka hai kya?”, taking bribes, pressing false charges on tribals, lathi-charging and opening fire on innocent dissenters.

 

At this point, one cannot help but feel numb and the words of Urdu lyricist and poet, Rahat Indori come to mind, echoing the tunes of dissent, struggle and hope.

 

Jin charaghon se taasub ka dhuaan uthta hai

In charaghon ko bujha do toh ujale honge

(The lamps from which rises the smoke of prejudice

Extinguish them to create light and justice)