New Delhi: Amid slogans of liberty, freedom and rights, Rakesh Narsing Dawar of Siwal decided to narrate the story of his only travel outside home.
“It was a difficult and tiring journey,” he said about the last two days as he travelled 1,038km from his village in central India to reach the national capital.
The farmer from Madhya Pradesh had embarked on a long and dusty trip out of his hamlet and changed three trains to reach Delhi. From Nepanagar to Khandwa to Etarsi and onwards. However, his arrival in the national capital, unlike the thousands who visit the city every day, was not welcomed. For, Dawar was here to protest.
“History has made this city. It unfolds in its streets, corners and minarets, so I have heard. This city will not remember us, but history will. Who are we to be welcomed?” he said, looking at the barricades and policemen around.
Dawar is one among the thousands of adivasis and forest dwellers, belonging to more than 60 organisations from across the country, who thronged to Delhi on Thursday to stage a massive protest against the BJP-led government at the Centre.
Led by CPI(M) veterans like Brinda Karat, Hannan Mollah (a former MP from West Bengal) and Jitendra Choudhury (ex-Tripura parliamentarian), the tribals were demanding that the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, be implemented properly.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or FRA was enacted to acknowledge the historical injustices meted out to forest dwellers.
The law legally granted forest rights to Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs), given that they make “sustainable use” of forest resources and strengthen forest conservation programmes. However, no committed effort has been made to properly implement the law at the ground level.
Forest dwellers like Shiva Shunuwa of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFW) in Darjeeling are stuck between the demand for Ghorkhaland and existing Ghorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) legislation that do not classify their land as revenue land and hence, not eligible for permanency claims under the Act.
At the protest site in Jantar Mantar on Thursday.
On the other hand, there are Dawar and his brothers, all small maize, jowar and bajra farmers, whose produce and home were destroyed by the forest department. “They bulldozed surrounding homes and dug shallow pits in our farmlands with 11 excavator trucks,” he said.
Mohammad Shafi, a farmer of the Van Gujjar community in Uttarakhand, recalled a similar experience. In 2015, his home and farm were destroyed by the forest department without notice. He continues to fight his case in the court.
The Forest Rights Rally, as these demonstrations are called, is against a Supreme Court order passed on February 13, 2019, that directed the displacement of traditional forest dwellers from their natural habitat.
Their claims of individual forest rights, community rights and community forest resource rights were rejected by the forest department. Eviction action called under the order was put on hold until July 10, 2019, by the court, thus saving 11.8 lakh forest dwellers from being forced out of their homes.
However, a certain amount of damage had been done by then. Antram Awasai, a farmer from Sival and associated with the Jagrat Adivasi Dalt Sangathan (JADS), shared his tale of horror about the day when the forest department used pellet guns to shoot members of the Barela adivasi community.
“The day was July 9. I told the forest officials that the farmland we grow our produce on belongs to my father. I told them we claimed this land to the government, and that it was illegal to displace us from there until a decision is taken in this regard. But our pleas to protect our land was met with violence,” he said.
Awasai was witness to pellets tearing through the neck and face of a villager. His journey to Delhi is like preparing for a war without any actual fight, he said. “It’s a strange feeling to travel this far to protest. Can’t they hear us or don’t they want to hear us?” he added.
Ahead of the next date of hearing on the petition by environmental organisations on November 26, peasant leaders, farmer and land rights activist have mobilised themselves to come up with a strong opposition to the government’s methods of handling those coming from the margins of society.
Madhuri Krishnaswamy of the JADS, an organisation instrumental to the adivasi land rights movement, led a group of more than 600 farmers and forest dwellers from Madhya Pradesh. She told News18 that the aim of the protest is to ask “the government to defend the Act it has passed.”
“The order of eviction goes against the Act both in letter and spirit. There have been protests in every state. It’s difficult for people living in the forests to travel to Delhi, so they have been gathering in their district headquarters, state capitals and so on. This is not one protest, but an ongoing movement,” she said.
Much talk in these protests is about the legality of rejection of the permanency claims to land. P Krishnaprasad of the All India Kisan Sabha said that “over 20 lakh claims to land have been rejected by the bureaucracy” who have no such power to do so.
“All claims must go through the adivasi sabha or gotra sabhas, the panchayats of a particular tribal area. Claims must be examined and checked and there should be sensitivity towards the rights and local realities,” he said, alleging that the BJP state governments are hand-in-glove with mining corporates.
According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, about 41 lakh claims have been filed and 42 lakh hectares of forest land have been granted so far.
Krishnaprasad claims there is a review petition in the Supreme Court, filed by corporates, to get the FRA annulled so that no further land is granted.
The Supreme Court has taken cognisance of the alleged loopholes in the land granting mechanism. It had earlier given state governments time to file affidavits by July 24 on whether due process was followed before claims under the Act were rejected.
Despite the legal measures taken, Karat said “evictions are part of the BJP’s policy to grab land for the corporates.”
“BJP leaders are using tribal land to forward their own agenda. They are fulfilling international commitments as far as planting of trees and creating carbon neutral areas is concerned on adivasi land. The BJP’s policy direction is in the service of corporates and within that, adivasis are the target because of the land they have,” the CPI(M) leader said.