A division bench of the Supreme Court has ordered a CBI inquiry into the alleged kidnapping of a minor tribal girl by officials of the Betul forest range in Madhya Pradesh. In its order, the apex court has confirmed that harassment of denotified tribes by police and forest officials is rampant in the state.
The bench, in its order, has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the whereabouts of 14-year-old Rajnandini Pardhi, who has been missing since February 10, 2011, and submit a report within six months. The order comes after the state forest department failed to produce the minor girl before court in response to a habeas corpusapplication filed by her uncle Alsia Pardhi.
Rajnandini was picked up by the forest officials from the local fish market on February 10, 2011, along with another resident, Kusum Pardhi. While the two were being taken to the forest office in a Jeep, Kusum managed to jump from the jeep and escape. Since that day the minor girl has been missing.
The Supreme Court in its order has expressed concern over the fact that the investigation in the case has been blatantly partial. Both police and the Jabalpur bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court, before which thehabeas corpus petition was first filed, believed the version of the forest officials verbatim and ignored the account of eye-witness Kusum.
Two other women picked up illegally
The court order comes on the heels of yet another incident where forest officials picked up women and children without observing proper procedures or informing their families. On December 6, deputy ranger Jugal Kishor Kahar of the Borpani range office in Harda district, accompanied by some women forest staffers, took away 55-year-old Phoolwati Gawli, resident of village Lodhidhan, her 27-year-old daughter-in-law, and the latter’s two infants aged 12 months and two years without explanation and without informing anyone in their family or village. Phoolwati’s husband and son were away from home at that time.
The women were allowed to return home late at night only after Shital Gawli, Phoolwati’s son, filed a complaint with the commissioner of police, Harda.
About a year back, a forest offence was registered against Sumran Gawli, a tribal resident of village Lodhidhan in Harda district of after a stack of driftwood was found in his house by the officials of the Borepani forest range. Gawli informed Lakshman Nalge of the forest rights group Samajwadi Jan Parishad had collected the wood to construct a house. Gawli was fined Rs 1,03,800 for the “offence”, a sum he could not afford. Later, says Nalge, for unexplained reasons, officials declared Gawli absconding and slapped a case on Phoolwati.
In the past two or three days, range officials had visited Gawli’s home and asked Phoolwati to sign some documents in the absence of her husband. She refused to do so. This was followed by the incident of December 6.
On her return, Phoolwati is reported to have said that she was asked to sign some papers which she could not decipher, being illiterate. She also said she was subjected to abusive language and threats by forest officials.
Divisional forest officer P S Champawat of Harda division said that Phoolwati had been taken to the range forest office for a court challan procedure. Since the procedure could not take place, she was given bail and sent back. On being quizzed regarding the manner in which the women were picked up without requisite procedure, he said that female forest staffers were present at the time. He, however, could not explain why the family and neighbours were not informed, and why Phoolwati’s daughter-in-law and her two infants were also picked up. Deputy ranger Kahar could not be contacted.
Nalge informed Down To Earth that such random picking up of tribals is a common affair in the district. “Many times men and women have been picked up from the forest and thrown into lock-ups and their families did not know where they were for days together,” he said. Slapping false cases on people on refusal to pay a bribe is also common.
The Gawlis’ case itself is a case in point, he said. “With the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in force, it is not a crime to collect wood for house construction, but officials have filed an case against Sumran all the same,” he said. “What is more, they slapped a fine which a poor tribal like him can never pay, and finally, they slapped the same offence against his wife in a most arbitrary manner. And now they have labelled the man an absconder despite the fact that he is very much in the village.”
Shamim Mody, forest rights activist from Samajwadi Jan Parishad, said the forest department action amounts to kidnapping, and demanded that criminal cases be registered against the officials responsible. Mody said that a Grievance Redressal Authority set up by Supreme Court orders,specifically to deal with atrocities on tribals in the highly backward Harda and Betul districts, is non-functional.