Monday, March 3, 2008


Targeting tribes

in Sabarkantha

The conflict over forest rights in many States claims its first tribal victim in Gujarat. Text and photographs

IN the empty courtyard of Sajabhai Bodat’s hut, there is nothing but a white, plastic chair propped against a mud wall in faded green. The chair holds a framed photograph of Sajabhai, who was recently killed by a police bullet. On the cow dung lined floor under the chair are two steel urns that hold his ashes. Sajabhai’s family is in mourning, still trying to figure out why he was killed and is afraid to speak up.

Early on the morning of February 13, the police stormed into Sajabhai’s house and arrested him, says his brother Lakshibhai. “At around 4 p.m., the local Member of Parliament Madhusudan Mistry came to the village [Vajepur in Sabarkantha district] and asked his son Suresh to come to the hospital to identify his body. There was a bullet in his chest,” says Lakshibhai.

Sajabhai’s death has stirred up a controversy in Vijaynagar taluk, a forest area in northern Gujarat, close to the border with Rajasthan. The police claim that they did not arrest Sajabhai. “He was part of a huge armed crowd of Adivasis who stormed into our Dholwani Range Forest Office at Antarsumba Ashram soon after we arrested six people for uprooting more than 600 saplings from our plantation and trying to occupy the land illegally,” says M.J. Parmar, the District Forest Officer (DFO). “Since we could not control the mob, and they had already injured eight of our staff, the police had to fire to disperse the crowd. Unfortunately, Sajabhai was killed in the firing. He was not arrested, even though he was on the list of people we wanted to arrest,” says Parmar. But Sajabhai’s relatives say that he was killed in police custody.

This is just one of the many inconsistencies this correspondent encountered while trying to unravel what led to the police firing and the deaths of two Adivasis. Besides Sajabhai, a schoolteacher who was in the bazaar near the range office was also killed by a stray bullet.

Sajabhai is perhaps the first casualty of the murky conflicts intensifying across the country soon after the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was notified in January 2008, giving Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities rights over the land that they had been occupying before December 13, 2005 (Cover Story, Frontline, February 29).

Clashes between Adivasis and Forest Departments are erupting as the latter are reluctant to let go of land under their control and political groups and vested interests are behind tribal people’s attempts to stake their claim over land. Adivasis can claim land rights under the Act by filing an application with the Gram Sabha, which will decide whether the claim is genuine. State governments are yet to implement the Act.

In Vajepur and nearby villages, Adivasis were accused of forcefully taking over plantation land belonging to the Forest Department. “On February 5, a huge crowd occupied our plantation in Vajepur and destroyed 640 saplings in seven hectares [one hectare is 2.5 acres]. They also cut 81 trees in the reserve forest in Abhapur in Polo [forest area in Sabarkantha]. They constructed a hut to claim that they were already settled there,” says Parmar.

“Only a few families from Vajepur were involved. The entire village did not support them because this is a common property where they graze cattle, collect grass and minor forest produce like mahua and medicinal herbs,” says the DFO. “Around 500 to 600 people from outside, armed with axes and bows and arrows, occupied the plantation. Over several days we tried to convince them not to chop down the trees but they threatened us.”

“There is a lot of politics involved,” adds Parmar. “Members of the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) were behind this. They have been organising meetings in the area, telling tribal people to claim their rights over the forest. Madhusudan Mistry has been holding such meetings too. He had one at Vijaynagar on February 3, and people occupied this land on February 5.” The Forest Department filed a case against key local leaders and arrested six of them on the morning of February 13. But Sajabhai’s family has a different story to tell. “Where is the plantation they are talking about? Go and look. There wasn’t a single sapling there. It existed only on paper. We used to grow maize there for 30 years before they fenced it off for a plantation,” says Lakshibhai.

When this correspondent reached the site, there were no saplings, and no sign of them being pulled out of the mud. There were square pits filled with dry leaves and a few burnt stumps of khakhra and ratanjyot trees that were cut. There was a frame of a hut being built on the site. Govind Parmar, president of the BAMCEF’s Gujarat unit, refused to comment, while Madhusudan Mistry dismissed allegations against him as politically motivated. “I have been fighting for Adivasi rights since 1986. The Chief Conservator of Forests wants to silence me so that the tribal people don’t demand land. If I am responsible, why haven’t they arrested me?” says Mistry.

“If the Forest Department feels that people have cut down trees, it should punish them according to the law. It does not have the right to kill people,” says Babubhai Damore, a local activist and member of the National Scheduled Area and Scheduled Tribes Committee. “For the first time, Parliament has passed a law to protect the rights of the tribal people who have been living in the forests for generations. There are 67,000 claims of people living in the forest even before 1980 pending with the Gujarat government, but it has not sent these to the Central government to be processed.”

“For the past few months the Gujarat Forest Department has been issuing press notes with no factual basis, stating that the Forest Rights Act is encouraging encroachments into the forest. They have been trying to spread this propaganda,” says Amrish Mehta from the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties. “In Vijaynagar, people started erecting huts because they were anxious that they may not get the land that they have been cultivating for 30 years. However, if the BAMCEF or others had informed Adivasis correctly, they would have known that they can get the rights to their land under the Act even if they were dispossessed of it; so they have no need to worry,” says Mehta.

The Forest Rights Act is criticised by wildlife activists on the grounds that it will hasten the destruction of forests. Vijaynagar and Polo have the best virgin forests in northern Gujarat. But even forest officials such as Parmar admit that these forests are in a good condition because people have access to them and preserve them. Several other forests controlled by the Forest Department are not as healthy.

Since the Forest Rights Act has come into force, the Forest Department has been aggressively trying to deny people their rights and political groups have been trying to stir up trouble. But it is local Adivasis who face the consequences. What Sajabhai’s family has lost cannot be replaced by a photograph on a chair.

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