Arrested-Tribal leader Sukalo Gond (Photo courtesy: CJP)
By Siddhant Mohan,
For more than a month, the Adivasis, especially women, of Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district have been facing police and administrative atrocities for standing up to their forest rights. The Adivasis have been trying to claim the forest land, on which they have been living since many years, however, local police and forest department have been arresting and detaining them for allegedly cutting forest trees and occupying forest land illegally.
It all started on May 18, when police personnel visited Lilasi village of Duddhi Tehsil of Sonbhadra, and picked up about 12 Adivasis from the village and took them to the Nevarpur PS. Out of these 12, ten were women.
Satyaparaksh Singh, the Station House Officer at Myorpur PS, attributed the arrests to “willful destruction” of forest department’s afforestation project in the Lilasi area. According to Singh, “About 40 women cut down over 400 trees on May 14. And when forest guard tried to stop them, they chased them away with axes and other tools.”
However, the Adivasis of Sonbhadra deny such acts and say that they are being targeted because of their campaign which started on April 23 to claim the land on which they have been living. According to one resident of Lilasi, “We were not doing anything illegal. We are just expediting our rights provided by the Forest Rights Act of 2006 which grants us to claim community and individual rights over the land.”
The arrested Adivasis were charged under Section 151 of the India Penal Code which deals with the people knowingly joining or continuing in assembly of five or more persons after it has been commanded to disperse.
The arrested people were, however, released after the quick intervention of Teesta Setalvad, the founder of Citizens of Justice and Peace (CJP). On May 22, Satyaprakash Singh again reached Lilasi village with a police force and manhandled the local women and children. According to the complaint filed by the Kismatiya Gond, the secretary at “Gram Vanadhikar Samiti” —an organisation for claiming rights on the land of village and forest, the policemen barged into her house and beat her with sticks. She has also claimed that police behaved in a wrong way with her two minor daughters.
The police harassment on May 22 lasted for a few hours in which police was beating anyone it could see in the village. Seeing police action, the tribal women chased them away from the village.
Lilasi Adivasis have alleged that this event has been followed by many covert and undocumented raids and police visits to the houses of Adivasis. However, police have been denying all such allegations and are saying that when police tried to stop the Adivasis from cutting more trees, they chased and attacked forest guards and police officers.
Adivasis have also alleged that police is using various means to threaten the Adivasis, and no administration official has yet visited the Lilasi village to talk to the villagers.
However, the police went a step ahead by arresting three Adivasi leaders-Sukalo Gond, Kismatiya Gond, and Sukhdev Gond-from Chopan railway station on June 6 when they were returning to Sonbhadra from Lucknow after meeting Dara Singh Chouhan, the state forest minister.
The arrested tribal leaders were not allowed to talk to their family members for more than 24 hours. In fact, it was only after the intervention by CJP and the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFP) that the police admitted that three tribal leaders had been arrested and sent to jail from the railway station.
What makes this arrest more dubious that Sukalo Gond and Kismatiya Gond were not even named in the police FIR, but they were arrested anyway without any charges. Nanhak Ram, the 53-year-old husband of Sukalo, told, “They (police) arrested her from the railway station. We were waiting for her in the village. And they neither informed us about her arrest nor allowed her to talk to us for more than 24 hours. We were sick worried about her, but that did not matter to the police.”
“Sukalo’s name is not even in the FIR …we fail to understand on which grounds has she has been arrested,” added Nanhak Ram.
Since the arrest of the 12 Adivasis on May 18, most of the women of Lilasi village are not returning to their homes fearing police violence and arrest. Bechan Singh, a resident of Lilasi village said, “The local women are forced to spend their day somewhere else because they think if they come to the village, they could be arrested or beaten by the police.
Rai Singh, the 21-year-old son of arrested Sukhdev Gond said, “We thought he would return and the problems would be resolved, but it was not like that.” Contrary to Sukalo and Kisamtiya, Sukhdev Gond was named in the police FIR, but according to his family members, he did not do anything which could be termed criminal.
Moreover, the police have not produced the arrested Adivasis in any court, contrary to the legal procedure which says that every individual has to be produced in court within 24 hours of the arrest.
On March 23, the Adivasis of the village handed over papers to the District Magistrate at Sonbhadra claiming land rights on more than 250 acres of forest land under Forest Rights Act, 2006. The piece of land was in dispute between the Adivasis and the Forest Department of the state. According to the papers, the forest department has been claiming the land piece as “reserved” while Adivasis argue that the Forest Department has not conducted any official mapping and measurement of the land.
Adivasis have also claimed that Forest Department officials gave the land to powerful and upper-caste residents of the village, which was used for building houses. In their application to the Forest Secretary of the state, the Adivasis named Ramvriksh, Pradeep, Ramsevak Yadav, Ravikant, Devendra, Kisan, Rajendra, and the local police department for the illegal forest land trading.
The police cases against the Adivasis are said to be a product of the same tussle between powerful land occupants and local Adivasis. The locals from Duddhi have accused the Forest Rights Unions and other organisations of using Adivasis to get a hold on forest produces.
Tribals of Sonbhadra’s Lilasi village (Photo: sources)
According to Roma Malik, the Deputy General Secretary at AIUFWP, a Habeas Corpus petition has been filed on June 27 by CJP and AIUFWP in the Allahabad High Court regarding immediate release of Sukalo and Kismatiya, who were not named in the police FIR. On June 29, a two-member bench of the Allahabad High Court issued a notice to the respondents in the case that include the State of UP (through the Principal Secretary, Home), Sonebhadra Superintendent of Police (SP) and District Management (DM) and Station House Officer, Myorpur Police Station. The court has now demanded an explanation for the detention from the SP and the DM. The court has also directed that both Sukalo and Kismatiya be produced before it at the next hearing on July 9.