Uttar Pradesh's Tharu Adivasi women resist systemic usurpation of their forest land, rights by local authorities
The Tharu women’s front continues to ensure forest protection and management, besides standing up to repeated assaults on the community by the local police and forest departments.
During COVID-19 lockdown, Tharu Adivasi communities — of Kajaria village along the India-Nepal border in Lakhimpur Kheri district of eastern Uttar Pradesh — have been continuously resisting the Forest Department’s restrictions put on them to access their community forests and also violent attacks. This period of brutality finally resulted in them filing a FIR against officials of the forest and police departments.
On the evening of 1 July 2020, a Tharu woman, Virmati, filed a FIR at Gauriphanta police station, Lakhimpur Kheri district, accusing forest ranger Alok Sharma, deputy ranger Sunil Sharma, forest guard Narendra, and sub-inspector of Gauriphant station Shankadhar Bhat, under Indian Penal Code Sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 504 (intentional insult or provocation), 506 (criminal intimidation), 354 (assault or criminal force to a woman), 392 (robbery), 376 (sexual assault), 511 (attempt to commit punishable offences), 364 (kidnapping for murder) and under 3 (2) (v) SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. The FIR of 1 July came after a series of incidents of confrontation and violence by the Forest Department towards the community during the lockdown, despite the fact that the villagers were only exercising their community forest rights.
On 6 June 2020, the Forest Department of Bankati block brought in JCB excavators to dig a huge trench around Kajaria village. While the community has been cultivating these lands for many years, the Forest Department claimed that these forest lands were under their control. The trench that they proceeded to dig not only prevented people from accessing their forests but also disturbed the natural drainage cycle of rainwater, and resulted in flooding that destroyed fields of the villagers. Women of the Tharu Adivasi community, organised as the Tharu Mahila Adivasi Mazdoor Kisan Manch, immediately confronted the forest department officials, and a long verbal battle ensued, in which the officials threatened violence and declared that the women could not enter the forests.
A few weeks later, early in the morning on 1 July 2020, women were at work in their forests when forest officials showed up to create trouble again. According to the FIR filed, the officials drove into the village carrying arms, and beat up a village youth, Suvendar — who had been farming in his field — with their belts. When Virmati, the mother of the youth, tried to protest, the forest ranger reportedly used vulgar and casteist language to shame the woman, and proceeded to violate her bodily, attempted to rape her, and left her blouse badly torn. The officials continued assaulting the son and beat him up badly. As more and more women came together to protest, the officials even fired gunshots in the air. When the police-in charge of the Gauriphanta police station, Shankadhar Bhatt, arrived, the forest officials accused the women of stealing their weapons. Later, instead of protecting the women, the police and forest officials ganged up to threaten and verbally abuse all the Tharu women. Alok Sharma, the forest ranger, allegedly even stole some of the women’s traditional jewellery.
The fact that Tharu women had implicated both forest and police officials in this FIR stirred the corridors of power in the district. Soon after, the forest department officials used a 2019 order issued by the Superintendent of Police to get an arrest stay. The order states that local police stations must take permission from higher authorities before initiating any actions against government officials.
Roma, Deputy Secretary of the All India Union of Forest Working People, stated: “The order of the SP being used clearly proves that the local police stations and forest staff are taking action on eviction without informing the higher officials. Since the Forest Department on their own has no right to evict people, the forest staff locally build up the case against forest locals and involve the police to intimidate them. Due to this, one can see that across the forest areas in our country, the criminal cases under IPC and forest laws are filed together, in order to implicate forest inhabitants with a criminal history. It is unlawful and unconstitutional to book people in one case under two laws. The incident in Kajaria shows that women from the forest area will no longer entertain the violence and unlawful practice of police and Forest Department”
Sanjay Kumar Pathak, Chief Forest Protection Officer of Dudhwa National Park stated: “Our position is to follow due process. The Forest Department is not operating for anyone person’s wealth, however, it is to protect the common resources. In Kajaria village, people have been encroaching on the forest lands for a long time and doing their agriculture. Our department has built a trench around to protect wild animals and human infection-spread and conflict. On 1 July, our officers had gone to inform the community that they could not be using these lands, when the women came together in numbers. The issue is that nowadays more people stand up for what is wrong. The women stole the forest officer’s gun, tried to hit him on the head and one woman tore her blouse herself.”
Rajneesh, a member of the Tharu Mahila Kisan Mazdoor Manch, and a representative of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) asserted that “Tharu women have been working in a democratic manner, following the amendments made in 2012 to the Forest Rights Act, in order for 25 villages to submit claims for their community forest rights in 2013. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, women have sensibly thought of not heightening their demands on the Forest Department in this moment of crisis. Yet, even in this lockdown, the Forest Department has acted violently towards the community. In this entire situation, the only solution is that the community’s forest rights be legally recognised, as per the law. The actions of the Forest Department not only violate the Forest Rights Act, but is also illegal during a pandemic as per the National Disaster Act”.
The right and authorities for forest conservation and management are vested with Adivasi and traditional forest dwelling communities, such as the Tharu community, ever since the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (2006). Further, the amended rules of 2012 mention that the Gram Sabhas can exercise the legal powers for management and use of the forests, once communities claim their community forest resource rights (Rule 12 (1) (g)). Tharu Adivasi communities of Lakhimpur Kheri filed claims for their community forest resource rights in 2013, which empower them to use and manage their forests.
Although the struggle, both physical and legal, against the Forest Department is more brutal this time, it is tragically not a new occurrence for Tharu Adivasi women. In 2012, when many villagers entered the forests along with their bullock carts, they were attacked brutally, and Nivada Rana, a Tharu Adivasi woman leader, was badly hurt. The recent incidents of 2020 have added to the list of brutalities that the Tharu women are collectively — and each time, with more strength — resisting. The women’s front continues to ensure forest protection and management, besides standing up to repeated assaults on the community by a seemingly rogue Forest Department.
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