“…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.”
– Bhagat Singh (1931)
The state-sponsored oppression of the women who successfully defeated Naxalism in Sonbhadra continues but not a single word has been reported by the mainstream media. Repression by sate-corporate nexus is not new, but when it is ignored by media, it becomes dangerous for democracy.
General secretary of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Roma and tribal leader Sukalo are in jail for the past two month. They along with six other activists were arrested on June 30 from their office at Robertsganj, Sonbhadra district, Uttar Pradesh. Another tribal leader Rajkumari and her co-workers are behind bars since April 21. Their crime — Opposing state repression and illegal land acquisition in the Kanhar valley for construction of a dam and demanding action against those responsible for the police firing on peacefully protesting villagers in Sonbhadra on April 14 and 18 in which several persons were injured.
However, instead of acting against officials, the authorities have booked tribal, forest dwellers and activists for vitiating peace and provoking people to break law and order during agitation against Kanhar dam. As this was not enough, old cases lodged against them in similar agitations earlier have been opened. As a result, they have to take bail in each and every case to get out of jail. Some who got bail do not have enough resources to submit bail bonds. Activists from across country have written to the government and a delegation even met chief minister Akhilesh Yadav seeking justice but nothing has been done as yet.
Roma (50) is a Delhi University law graduate and known face among activists in India and abroad. Sukalo (53) and Rajkumari (45) are poor tribal homemakers. For the past 15 years, they have been mobilising tribal, Dalits and forest workers, who have been suppressed for ages, for peaceful mass struggle for their rights (68 years after independence) guaranteed under the Constitution and the Forest Rights Act 2006.
This is not the first time that they have been arrested. In the past, several criminal cases, including serious offences like rioting, illegal tree cutting, and obstructing government work among others, were slapped against them. Sukalo and Rajkumari, in fact, are facing over a dozen criminal cases. Roma was booked under the National Security Act in 2007 for having links with Naxals but was released later when police could not produce any evidence in the court.
Not only these three women, but hundreds who are women members of Kaimur Kshetra Majdoor Kisan Mahila Sanghrsh Samiti (KKMKMSS) are facing number of serious criminal cases for demanding their rights. Led by women, the KKMKMSS is an association of forest dwellers which includes tribals, Dalits and backward class and minority communities dependent on forest for livelihood in Sonbhadra and adjoining Chandauli and Mirzapur districts of UP. The association continues to challenge the nexus of corporate, feudal elements, forest department and politicians exploiting forests despite innumerable and unspeakable atrocities. They display revolutionary zeal of Bhagat Singh and work with peaceful Gandhian means of struggle.
The area comes under Kaimur hill range and has the highest tribal population in UP and is home to 16 scheduled tribes which include Agariya, Chero, Gond, Dhuriya, Nayak, Ojha, Rajgode, Khairwar, Kharwar, Pankha, Panika, Parahiya, Bhuiya, Bhuniya, Pathari and Baiga.
Since tribal constitute less than 2% of UP’s population, they are not considered as vote bank by any party, hence they have to fight to get their rights. That’s the reason why they joined hands with Dalits and other communities dependent on forest and brought them under KKMKMSS umbrella.
Almost every individual in the entire population of forest dwellers in the area is facing one or another criminal charge which include illegal tree cutting, encroachment, threatening and assaulting forest personnel and obstructing government work among others. Some have been labelled as Naxal sympathisers.
Forest dwellers argue that jungles were sources of their livelihood since ages. They were the owners but were converted into slaves when the British rulers created the forest department in 1865 for using forests for commercial purpose. Though the country got freedom in 1947, there was no change in the status of the forest dwellers. Over 55,000 hectare of arable land in the Kaimur hill range was also handed over to the forest department. The Zamidari system was abolished but the feudalism continued as the dominant castes grabbed huge swathes of land and made forest dwellers work in farms at a pittance and a little space for shelter.
As this was not enough, in late 80s, forest dwellers were declared encroachers and driven out of forests by the forest department in the name of forest conservation. This was the time when Naxalism started spreading its tentacles in the region and reached its peak between 2000-05. Many youth joined People’s War Group. In the meantime, KKMKMSS was formed in 2000 with the help of National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), now known as All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP).
Initially, the KKMKMSS had handful of members who set out on a mission to create awareness among forest dwellers and dependents about their rights. Gradually, majority forest dwellers chose peaceful mass struggle (jan-sangharsh) over armed revolution by organising themselves under the KKMKMSS. Today, the association has thousands of members.
Naxals took advantage of the poverty and sufferings. Over two dozen violent Naxal operations were reported during 2000-05. But Naxals had no ideological commitment. They turned into criminal gangs and started exploiting tribal at the behest of upper caste landlords. In fact, a few Naxal leaders turned criminals and their major business today is extortion from contractors and illegal arms trade. No major incident has been reported from the area after 2005 when a PAC truck was blown up killing several security personnel. Whatever, we see in the about arrests of Naxals and encounters are exaggerated version of police.
The mass struggle on the other hand got a push with the introduction of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act in 2006 and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Parliament passed the Forest Rights Act in 2006 but notification was issued in January 2008 after two years of debate. People realised that the struggle within the democratic frame work is more effective. They also realised that the strength of mass movement in which women, elderly and even children can participate and people’s unity is stronger than State’s repression. And, as people shifted to mass struggle, Naxalism died.
The forest dwellers and tribes are entitled to maximum four hectare of land under the FRA. Traditional forest communities like Dalits and backward classes, which are dependent on the forest, have to prove that they were residing there for 75 years for individual land rights. The FRA also has a provision of community rights over forest land.
However, corruption and red tape crippled the two legislations which gave right of employment and land. As a result, between 2008-2009, forest dwellers started reclaiming empty forest land and began cooperative farming. In Sonbhadra, over 20,000 acre of arable forest land in around 25 villages was reclaimed by these forest dwellers. The produce, mainly foodgrains and vegetables, through cooperative farming is shared by all. It is not enough for luxury but takes care of basic needs. Forest produce such as bamboo and grass is used to make household items.
Contrary to perception that the forest dwellers harm forests, they protect their sources of livelihood. In fact, they are a hurdle in illegal tree cutting by mafia. Between 2009 and 2012, during Mayawati rule, FRA picked up pace and land titles were distributed to 10-12,000 families. Some criminal cases slapped on forest dwellers were also withdrawn. But the process has stopped after Samajwadi Party came to power in 2012. So far, of the five lakh population of forest dwellers in the area, only 10% have got land rights. Today, they are not just fighting for land rights but also against projects like Kanhar dam which threaten to snatch away whatever little they have.