Nidheesh J Villatt |
Forests officials in India’s hinterlands are a law unto themselves. Hand in glove with poachers and timber mafia, they are accused of implicating forest dwellers in fake cases, barbarically torturing villagers in secret chambers, which some times result in custodial deaths. There are allegations of fake encounters too. In the first of an investigative series, Nidheesh J Villatt takes a close look at the alleged criminal activities of forest officials in UP’s Dudhwa National Park

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, commonly known as Forest Rights Act (FRA) passed in 2006 sought to “correct historical injustice” meted out to the most marginalised sections.  The law, captured the imagination of social activists world  over as it intended to give land rights and other resources to traditional forest dwellers.

Coming as it did at a time when  almost the entire policies of the government was focused to facilitate the smooth movement of  capital, this legislation along with some others  like Right to Information(RTI), was welcomed with great enthusiasm by those committed to social justice.

The law was intended to make the conservation of forest more transparent without impinging on the rights of the traditional forest dwellers.

Despite its progressive and democracy deepening clauses the FRA was criticised on two fronts.

First by the ‘developmentalists’ who view forest as an area which must be exploited to enhance the GDP. The other, the more sophisticated ones argued that giving rights to traditional forest dwellers would mean felling of trees!

Ten years down, is the FRA working? What are the changes it has brought on the ground?

Our special correspondent Nidheesh J Villat wanted to begin his piece with Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh.

What started off as a routine story threw up startling facts. The forest officials are a law unto themselves. They hold sway over the 490 square kms park on the Indo-Nepal border.

Forest officials find the FRA as an affront to their supremacy. They seem to have a finger in every pie. They are accused of conniving with lumber jacks and poachers in plundering the natural resources. The slightest act of assertion by forest dwellers are dealt with intimidation and torture.

All vested interests are aligned against the Scheduled Tribes, Dalits and lower caste Muslims who constitute a majority of traditional dwellers. Those who try to question are often illegally taken into custody, and in some cases subjected to extreme forms of torture.

To divide those fighting for their rights, forest officials have even formed vigilante groups under the garb of protecting forests.

During his investigations, Nidheesh was told that fake encounters were staged to snuff out resistance from locals. No inquiries are done. The deaths of  the poorest of poor are said to be passed off as ‘unnatural’ deaths.

NaradaNews  exposes the macabre activities of forest officials in the badlands of Lakhimpur Keri that skirt the country’s border with Nepal.

We hope this report, being published in four parts, will put a spotlight on the barbaric acts in Dudhwa National Park. We believe this would be the first step in ending such savagery.


“After removing our pyjamas they cut the elastic of the underwear with a country knife and threw it away. We were forced to lie down. They filled a veterinary syringe with petrol from the forest department bike. After this they  forcefully parted our legs and injected petrol into our anus. Some  had cotton soaked in petrol pushed it into their anus, ” Tulsi Ram, a frail young man told me.

Sounds barbaric?

“All of us started crying in deep pain. Petrol had started working. Because of pain I thought my stomach would burst. I pleaded for some water. Instead of giving water, they started beating us with a big wooden pole till it broke. We fell unconscious. After some time, some of us regained consciousness. Then officers came and poked us with big laathi and asked us…’you Chamar (a Dalit subcaste) bastards came here to sleep? After Chamar Mayawati came to power you guys are arrogant,” Tulsi recalled.

I was speaking to a group of Dalits and other lower caste traditional forest dwellers in Rampur Bandhiya village in Dudhwa National Park.

I went thereafter hearing about the unconstitutional methods used by the forest department to evict the traditional forest dwellers — Adivasis (predominantly Tharus), Dalits and lower caste Muslims — from the villages situated inside and in the buffer zone of the  National Park.  (See Video)


Jungle Raj | Photo: Vijay Pandey

Braving the morning chill, Tulsi and his friends recalled with horror the day (22 September 2011),  they were picked by a team of forest officers, while they were grazing cattle.

Their crime? They refused to pay the parallel tax–locally known as galla orhafta collected illegally by the forest officers to permit grazing of cattle.

The monthly hafta is Rs 500 here. In some other villages, a family have to pay an yearlygalla consisting of one quintal of rice, 20 kgs of wheat, 25 kgs of mustard and several litres of honey.

“None of us were having money that day. So we couldn’t  pay. We were picked and were beaten throughout the journey from village to Belarayan Forest Range Office. This continued in the ‘torture room’ of the Range Office,” Dorei, an elderly man recalled.

I spoke to Steven Miles, professor of medicine and Bioethics at Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesotta, US, about the torture methods of the forest officers in Dudhwa.

Miles is an expert on internal medicine and specialises in medical consequences of the torture. His book, Oath Betrayed:America’s Torture Doctors, “examines military medicine in the War on Terror prisons”.

He says that injecting petrol into the anus or rectum will have serious medical consequences.

“Torture is an impulsive and largely improvised practice. The painful introduction of material or air into the rectum dates at least back to the middle ages. It was used in the ‘War on Terror’ by the US as rectal feeding. Pepper being put in the rectum has been sporadically practiced around the world and the use of other caustic substances including gasoline (petrol) is not surprising,” Miles pointed out.

“Torture techniques are a craft. Rectal and sexual traumas are very common in the torture of men. It would be unusual if rectal gasoline was the only method used. I would not be surprised if brutal and painful rectal rape with a stick or baton or even fluorescent light bulb was done first to open the rectal sphincter. At that point, gasoline (petrol) could be instilled.  Gasoline is enormously and instantly painful on rectal tissue and the inflammation alone could cause rectal fissures and fistula connecting the rectal cavity to the bladder, intestines or freely into the abdomen allowing stool to pass into the abdomen and causing septicemias. The risk of perforations and fistulae would be greatly increased by preceding trauma and rectal tears caused by a baton or from the trauma of a tube inserted into the rectum to administer the gas.

Gasoline is toxic when it gets in the blood, usually by inhaling and occasionally by oral ingestion.  That toxicity includes convulsions, kidney failure, heart failure and shock.  I think it is unlikely that significant gas would be absorbed through the rectal wall,” says Miles.

Dudhwa National Park Story (9)

Suhaeli river is used to torture forest dwellers by ‘ducking’.  | Photo: Vijay Pandey

When I told him about ‘ducking’ (forcibly immersing the head in the river) of Dudhwa victims, before they were subjected to anal torture, he commented that “all torture are multi-modal”.  Threatening, beating and denial of drinking water would be common in almost all cases of torture, he says.  “15% of the torture victims are subjected to asphyxia” (a condition which is the resultant of the denial of oxygen to the body).

“It is highly probable that victims were tightly bound in a way to stretch or compress ligaments. It may be that when the petrol was inserted, that they were threatened with ignition”, he adds.

Arun Ferreira, noted human rights activist, who was arrested by the Maharashtra police (after branding him as Maoist) details about petrol torture in his prison memoir Colours of the Cage. He says that there was a police officer whose “expertise” was injecting petrol in anus/rectum.

Ghulam Hassan Lone, a Kashmiri Muslim youth was allegedly subjected to similar torture in mid 1990s. He was accused of being a militant who was waging war against India.

Dudhwa National Park Story (13)

Forest office or torture chamber ? | Photo: Vijay Pandey

Begar (unpaid forced labour) is common here. After monsoon, forest officers force villagers to clean roads and do other related work. Funds earmarked for such work would be siphoned off by them. The reluctance of some villagers to do begar has made forest officers furious”, village head Yashpal Singh alleged.

Dudhwa National Park Story (8)

Victims of fake cases   | Photo: Vijay Pandey

“This is early 2016. Why is this kind of a brutal torture not yet news?” I asked Singh.

“Journalists from Delhi and Lucknow need wildlife safaris. Local journalists are completely dependent on the economy controlled by forest department,” a rights lawyer who accompanied me pointed out.

Interestingly in another village, a Tharu Adivasi elder gave a vivid picture of  journalism in India’s  hinterlands where class and caste inequalities unfold crudely.

“If we go and collect firewood, which is a constitutional right under FRA, journalists report this as massive wood theft. On a few occasions villagers have blocked vehicles smuggling  huge quantity of timber to Nepal which occur with the connivance of forest officers. But next day’s newspapers would report that the huge logs smuggled as mere waste wood.”

Key Facts of Forest Rights Act (FRA) 

Act: Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, popularly known as FRA

Parliament Nod:  2006

Replaced:  Indian Forests Act

Important Features

1. Land Rights

The Act grants people title deeds to forest land that they have been cultivating prior to December 13, 2005.

Those cultivating land but don’t have documentary proof can claim upto 4 hectares, as long as they are cultivating the land themselves for a livelihood.

Those who have a prior title or a government lease, but whose land has been illegally taken by the forest department, or whose land is the subject of a dispute between forest and revenue departments, can claim title to those lands.

The land cannot be sold or transferred to anyone except by inheritance.

2. Use Rights

The law provides for rights to use and/or collect the following

minor forest produce such as tendu leaves, herbs, medicinal plants etc.

3. Grazing areas and water bodies

4. Right to Protect and Conserve forests

5. Right against Arbitrary Relocation

Source : Shankar Gopalakrishnan’s chapter in the upcoming book ” Elgar Handbook on Environmental Law”

Delving into the tale of Dalits who were brutally tortured by injecting petrol into the anus (peeche lagana in local parlance) and accompanying caste abuse hints that forest bureaucracy in the hinterlands are steadfastly following the colonial era of forest governance.

FRA was a direct threat to the clout of the department, veteran trade unionist Ashok Choudhary points out.

“During the last Mayawati government, there were some serious efforts to democratise forest governance by implementing FRA. Forest bureaucracy, eco-tourism mafia and local elites opposed it violently. State violence against Adivasis and Dalits should be seen in this larger context.”


My travel to the interiors of Lakhmipur Kheri gave me an idea about the atrocities of forest department.

“They run a parallel government. They indulge in fake encounters and custodial rape. They also loot natural resources by collaborating with the mafia. They also develop indigenous methods of torture,” a senior IAS officer with several year administrative experience in the district told me.


Kinjal Singh IAS, the former collector of Lakhimpur Kheri was transferred to Faizabad district for challenging the powerful forest bureaucracy.

Kinjal Singh, the collector of the district till recently, had incurred the wrath of the powerful forest mafia for questioning this parallel system of governance.

Acting on several complaints received from Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers about the alleged criminal activities happening inside the Dudhwa park as well as in the buffer zone, the young officer ordered surprise checks by police and revenue department.

During some surprise checks she conducted, Kinjal had found massive uprooting of rare species of trees (which fetches huge money in the market) in villages like Pachpeda Richhaya, Kundanpur, Khairigargh (all falling in core area of Dudhwa) as well as in several villages situated in the buffer zone.

During these visits, she also stumbled upon several spots inside the park which were notorious for brewing illicit liquor. All these illegal activities were done in active collaboration of forest officers.

Kinjal also started inquiring about several cases of encounter killings, custodial deaths and sexual assaults  allegedly carried out by the forest bureaucracy.

This made the bureaucracy vindictive and they started a hate campaign against the collector with the active help of local media persons who were allegedly receiving a share of the spoils.

In an unusual development, forest employees in the Dudhwa Tiger reserve had even boycotted work  for several days demanding transfer of Kinjal. The UP government transferred the collector to Faizabad, another district citing huge revenue loss caused by the strike of the forest staff.

“The move by Kinjal to implement FRA made the department furious. Forest officers are a part of mafia associated with timber smuggling and wildlife poaching. Once Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers enter forest, mafia operations would be affected. So they wanted to ensure that FRA is not implemented,” Rajnish, a trade unionist active in this area, pointed out.