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MP: Multiple Cases Against Forest Rights Activists, Charges of Murder, Abetment and Extortion by Officials

Neelam Gaur |
Activists belonging to Jagrit Aadivasi Dalit Sangathan alleged that officials were trying to fabricate charges against them as they acted as whistleblowers in recent cases of tree felling.
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Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

In Madhya Pradesh's Burhanpur district, more than 50 forest rights activists associated with the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan have been charged with multiple cases of abetment of forest nuisance, theft and attempt to murder. The organisation claims to be fighting for adivasi rights in the Nimad region of the state.

Among the charged activists are two persons -- Atmaram Awase and Madhuri. 

Awase is both a forest rights activist and secretary of the forest rights committee in his village, which was established under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. On April 30, he was arrested by the police. Madhuri has reportedly been charged with 24 cases, including violation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, according to the sangathan.

However, police officials provide a different account of events. They alleged that individuals associated with the sangathan had a "history of inciting" local adivasis to cut down forests and establish agriculture and schools on the land, in a bid to stake false claims in the future. They cited that  Awase was arrested in a 2019 case in which a group of tribals led by him allegedly destroyed and looted forest property and attempted to kidnap a forest official. According to the First Information Report (FIR) accessed by NewsClick, Awase has been arrested on charges of attempted murder in relation to the same case.

The recent incident in Burhanpur represents a culmination of events unfolding in the area over the past year. According to the sangathan, instances of jungle cutting began in October 2022, and  Awase and the sangathan had informed both forest and police officials about it. A memorandum submitted by sangathan to the District/Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) is available with NewsClick. The sangathan claims that many people have been cutting down jungles in the Burhanpur district since October 2022 and requests have been made that the officials concerned take action. The memo also alleges the complicity of forest and police officials in wood and timber smuggling associated with this cutting.

Madhuri, an activist associated with the sangathan, told NewsClick over the phone that "The destruction of Burhanpur forests is entirely due to the corruption and collusion of the state government and officials with the timber mafia. Adivasis who have courageously stood up against this, despite threats of violence from the tree fellers and the government, are now being arrested and harassed. The sangathan will not bow down to such tactics and will continue to fight for forest rights and against deforestation. Hundreds of Adivasis from other districts have joined the protests, courting arrests. This number will only increase in the coming days."

Burhanpur district is in the southern part of Madhya Pradesh, bordering Maharashtra. The sangathan has been working in the Nimad region of the state, which includes four districts, including Burhanpur. Nimad has a history of multiple confrontations between tribal communities, rights activists, and government officials.

Superintendent of Police (SP), Rahul Kumar Lodha, said the police have also filed a case against the sangathan for allegedly extorting money from tribals to help them clear their land claims. 

“The recent arrests and cases filed against the sangathan are the result of a long investigation into various encroachments that have taken place over the last 5-7 years. The Sangathan and its members have a history of involvement in encroachment, looting, and disturbing law and order,” he told NewsClick over the phone. 

He denied the sangathan's allegations that innocent people being framed in the cases.

According to Indian Forest Services (IFS) officer Vijay Singh, enacting the Forest Rights Act 2006 in the Nimad region has been complex for tribal communities and forest officials. Singh noted that the jungle area in the region had decreased by over 30% since 2007, alleging that some blame is attributable to the sangathan for encouraging locals to encroach on forests.

“The sangathan is filled with Nemad Patels who misguide tribals about their rights and that the forest has been destroyed in the name of legal rights,” he alleged. He also accused the Sangathan of  "suspicious activities", such as "holding meetings in jungles, arson, looting, and misleading locals."

Madhuri, an activist associated with the Sangathan, however denied these charges and claimed that the government's ultimate goal was to give this land to corporations. She said the sangathan was being targeted because it educates people about their rights, which "conflicts with the government's policies".

Meanwhile, the National Alliance of People’s Movement, has written to top officials in the MP government against the “unjust targeting and harassment" of about 50 adivasis and activists associated with the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) for demanding action against "rampant tree-felling and timber-smuggling in the Burhanpur and Khandwa forests of Madhya Pradesh."

In a press statement, NAPM said instead of taking timely action against the tree-felling mafia and responding to the peaceful protests of thousands of adivasis, who are struggling to secure forest cover, “the administration has been weaponizing the law against them, resorting to crackdown on and intimidation of the sangathan, on a mass scale. That this is happening in a region from which the State Forest Minister hails, seems to be no coincidence.”

NAPM also called for withdrawal of all fabricated cases filed against JADS members – adivasi leaders and social activists, immediate release of Awase, a high-level, independent inquiry into all the allegations of tree-felling, timber smuggling and action against the responsible persons and agencies, including the forest mafia and officials involved, as well as the role of the State Forest Minister, among others.


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