As Bihar gears up for crucial Assembly polls on 243 seats in October and November, the interests of the indigenous population has taken a backseat. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal (United) alliance are battling it out with the Congress’s grand alliance over multiple issues, including a celebrity’s suicide featuring high on the poll agenda but for the adivasi population of Kaimur in Western Bihar, their only resort is to step out on the streets to make their voices heard.
Following the Supreme Court verdict to evict over a million tribals over the issue of their land claims, the adivasis in Kaimur have met with harassment, targeting and forced eviction by the Forest Department. Several affected villagers claim that the SC ordered stay on the eviction has gone unnoticed by the department which continues its eviction process unabated.
Tucked in a hilly nook bordering Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra, Kaimur remains largely disconnected from the state’s heartland. The Forest Department initiated the eviction process months ago, however, activists state that the drive intensified during the lockdown, causing severe distress to many, whose only source of belonging and livelihood is the land they have been inhabiting for generations.
Speaking to NewsClick, Roma Malik of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) said, “The residents have been battling the state’s apathy for a long time. They then decided to collectively launch a protest on September 10-11 by surrounding the premises of the forest department. But the next day, the department retaliated by firing in the air, which in turn injured three people.”
‘Standing up for our land – our only crime’
On the day of the protest, Dr. Subhash Chandra Singh, a lecturer was present on the ground. His name is now registered in an FIR for instigating riots. He told NewsClick, “I was present at the protest and was giving a speech about the protection of our lands and safeguarding our rights. Belonging to this land, I felt it is my duty to participate in the movement to protect it from the brutality of the eviction unleashed on us by the Forest Department.”
Also read: Dilution of FRA Repeat of Historical Injustices, Say Women Forest Dwellers
Many like Singh who participated in the protest were reportedly attacked by the Forest Department a day later, with over 25 FIRs registered against multiple persons and over 20 arrested so far.
Roma pointed out that the impending sense of distrust and anger has existed in the community for over a period of time. She said, “There is no sense of being heard or supported by the state. Successive governments have ignored tribal interests and demands. When one does protest they are met with a brutal crackdown. The adivasi dwellers fearing the loss of everything they owned put locks on the gates of the Forest Department and after that they were attacked.”
Singh added, “We don’t know what they will do by charging us like this. Anyone who is trying to get their voice heard is being accused of rioting.”
The protesting adivasis have been charged with grave charges under sections 147 and 148 of the Indian Penal code which refer to rioting and rioting with a dangerous weapons. Many have also been charged with section 307 (attempt to murder) under the IPC.
More than 11 lakh tribals and forest dwellers were thrust into an uncertain situation with the fear of eviction looming large after their claims to the lands that they have been living on for generations were rejected last year. In an order issued in February 2019, the apex court had specifically issued directions to the chief secretaries of 17 states to ensure that in all cases where land ownership claims have been rejected, eviction is to be carried out.
However, following protests across the country and a legal battle, the apex court had extended its stay on the eviction of lakhs of people from the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.
Also read: States Admit Due Process Not Followed While Investigating FRA Claims