(Excerpts from an investigation report)
From newspaper reports, e-mail messages and through friends it was learnt that that the police and civil administration of Devas, a district in the central part of the state of Madhya Pradesh, had fired on tribals in the village of Mehndi Kheda and had shot and killed four persons. The police and administration had unleashed a reign of terror and thousands of adivasis had fled their villages and were hiding in the forests while the police-administration ransacked their villages, destroyed houses and arrested some of them. Rahul Bannerjee, an activist working in the area was also arrested. A fact-finding and support team went from Rajasthan to look into the matter. The following is the report of the team.
The investigation team comprised four persons:
1. Ms. Srilata Swaminathan – General Secretary, Rajasthan Kisan Sangathan
2. Mr. Mahendra Chaudhary – Rajasthan State Secretary, CPI-ML
3. Mr. Khemraj Chowdhary – A senior member of the voluntary organisation PRAYAS in Chittorgarh Dt.
4. Dr. Narendra Gupta - A senior member of the voluntary organisation PRAYAS in Chittorgarh Dt.
The four-member team left for Indore on 12th April where it met Shri Anil Trivedi, Advocate, who is familiar with the affected area, has represented many tribals in legal matters and is also Rahul Bannerjee’s lawyer in the present case. He confirmed the reports that police had killed four persons of whom three were tribals, broken innumerable houses and had let loose a reign of terror in the area.
The team, accompanied by some tribals, visited villages on the night of 12th in Khargone District and spent the night at village Akya of Vadva subdivision. This area borders Devas District and is only a few kilometres from the village where the police firing and repression took place.
Late on the night of the 12th and into the early morning of the 13 April, around ninety adivasi men and women from six nearby villages came to meet the team members and showed them notices that had been served to them by the Forest Department of Khargone division to evict them from the forest land supposedly encroached by these families. Fear and terror was clearly visible on the face of every single man and woman present in the meetings. Careful examination of the notices showed that all these families had been served notice under the Section 80 of the Forest Act. However there was no mention of the size of land and the revenue number of this land. All these families have been asked to appear on 16th April at Vadva to file replies or else to face immediate eviction. The gathered adivasis said that the forest officials when serving these notices to them said that this was a very clear and stern warning that they would also be harshly dealt with as has been done in the villages of Bagli Tehsil of Devas District.
On the morning of 13th April the team first went to village Kanad of Bagli tehsil in Devas District and met the family of Jerma, an adivasi, whose son Balram, a 25 year-old youth, was shot down and killed by the more than 400 police and forest department combined team in village Mehndi Kheda on 2nd April 2001. Balram was a second-year college student and was also working for a local NGO called Samaj Pragiti Sahyog. He was married a year ago and his wife Parvati is expecting a baby. Jerma and many others narrated the entire episode. The team also met the Chhotu Singh, father of Patthan, aged 30, and father of four children, who was also killed in the firing. In Kanad we spoke to around thirty people.
In Kanad there is a Christian missionary institution that runs a school and self-help programmes. The team was able to talk to Fr. Anthony who was in charge.
From here the team went to Jamasindh village and saw the destruction and then proceeded to Mehndi Kheda where the main attack on the adivasis on 2nd April by around 400 armed police and forest guards had taken place along with the loot and destruction of the homes. The team next went to Patpadi village where fourteen houses including the house of the sarpanch, Shri Gangaram, had been destroyed and he has been arrested and was still in jail. Lastly, the team went to village Katukia where the most houses had been destroyed.
In all, the team was able to visit seven villages and talk to hundreds of tribals who were still in a state of intense shock and fear. But when they saw that we were accompanied by trusted tribal leaders they rapidly crowded around us and poured out their stories.
The team then went to the tehsil headquarter town of Bagli and proceeded to the jail where Rahul Banerjee, sarpanch Gangaram and a youth called Binoo were being held. Unfortunately, the team were unable to see any of them.
The team also met Shri Mihir Shah of the Samaj Pragiti Sahyog who has also written a report of the whole operation with detailed lists of villages, houses destroyed, material looted or broken.
1. From the 28th. March the district administration of Devas, without holding talks or giving any prior notice of any kind, began a concerted drive to destroy tribal houses in some villages in Bagli Tehsil. The administration, police and forest department came in formidable strength with over 400 armed police in about 32 vehicles that roared into specially targeted villages. The first village that was targeted was Kadodia where four houses were raised to the ground on 28th. March. On 29th.March eleven houses in village Potla, on the 30th. March two houses in Jamasindh, on 31st. March fourteen houses in Patpadi, on 1st. April twenty-one houses in Katukia and on 2nd. April two houses in Mehndi Kheda were destroyed. In every village at the sight of the convoy men, women and children all fled in terror into the surrounding forests.
2. The tribals in all the villages of this area were appalled by the government’s action and on 31st. March they tried to protest by peacefully sitting on a mud road that led to the villages. They continued this protest for three days and then on the 2nd. April they all gathered at village Mehndi Kheda, which was to be targeted that day, to try and stop the destruction of houses in that village.
3. At the sight of the large police-administration convoy most of the men, women and children ran away from the village and they were chased and fired upon. The police and administration officers fired on the tribals without any talks, warning, notice or attempt to disperse the anxious tribals by peaceful methods. They used tear-gas and then bullets. The firing began at 9.00 a.m. and went on without respite till 12 noon. Some of the tribals ineffectively threw stones with their gopans (slings) but were forced to retreat in the face of such overpowering rifle fire.
4. Four men were killed in the firing – Balram s/o Jerma, Village Kanad; Patthan s/o Chhotu Singh, Village Kanad; Bholu s/o Ida, Village Jamasindh and Nemichand Jaiswal of Village Bisali. They were all shot in the neck and head. While we had heard a rumour that a ten-year old girl had also been shot dead we were unable to find anyone to corroborate this. There were many tribals however, who gave eyewitness reports in the case of the other four deaths.
5. From the 28th. March thousands of tribals fled their villages in fear and panic and till the day of the team’s investigation many had still not returned to their villages.
6. The whole procedure was directed and carried out by the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police of Devas District who were present throughout and directed operations. They were doing this to, ostensibly, recover wood that the tribals had taken from the forests and to stop the tribals from further illegally felling of forest trees for building their houses. All the houses that they destroyed were supposedly new houses built with illegal wood.
7. In all the villages the team visited there were reports of wanton damage, looting and plunder. The houses that were broken were also ransacked and grain and lentils, silver jewellery, brass and steel utensils, a TV set and other things were stolen and taken away. Poultry were also taken while the most uncalled-for damage was done with roofs, doors and windows smashed and the wood taken away, all the tiles deliberately broken and reduced to rubble, household and agricultural implements, mud pots, grain bins, a sewing machine, charpais etc. all systematically broken to smithereens. In the village of Savalgarh motor pumps were ripped off their cement foundations and thrown into the wells while the pipes and cables were chopped into pieces. In the house of Phoolsingh Bodiyar in Mehndi Kheda not only was 32 kg. of arhar dal stolen but poisionous pesticide was deliberately mixed with the wheat in his grain bin. In Katukia even the standing crops of many tribals had been intentionally destroyed by tearing down the fences and driving cattle into the fields. In this village a shop was also looted and plundered.
8. One house in village Jamasindh that was destroyed had been constructed under the Indira Aavaas Yojana and the owner, Mansingh s/o Mangilal had been sanctioned Rs.20,000/- of which he had only received Rs.14,000!
9. The team interviewed many tribals, tribal leaders and others to find out the reason for this state repression and the causes given by the local people was surprisingly consistent with no contradictions and were mainly that:
–the tribals in this area had since 1996 slowly formed local organisations called Adivasi Morcha Sangathan and Adivasi Shakti Sangathan in order to resist exploitation by the forest department, corrupt government machinery and usurious moneylenders. These organisations had attracted hundreds of adivasis and were gaining political influence so that in the recently held panchayat elections a Sangathan member, Shri Nandu Ravat had won by more votes than his rival Congress and BJP opponents put together and been elected to the Zila Parishad. In the Bagli Mandi Committee another Sangathan member defeated both the Congress and BJP contenders to become President. Three sarpanches and many ward members also won with the backing of the Sangathans. All this created a lot of political tension and both the Congress and BJP were unhappy with the Sangathans. Both the District Collector and the SP were new to the area and had publicly announced in Udaynagar on 13th February that they were going to totally destroy the Sangathans and leave no trace of them.
–in this whole area the officers of the Forest Department had traditionally, and illegally, raked in huge profits by making the tribals pay Rs.10,000/- for every hut built and had fixed rates for every beam and pole used in house repairs. The tribals also had to pay a fixed annual amount for every animal that grazed in the area e.g. Rs.20/- p.a. for every goat. Over the past three years the Sangathans had protested against this loot and corruption and had told the tribals not to pay these bribes so the officials of the Forest Department and the other District officials were furious as they were being deprived of a lucrative source of funds. The government had also formed a Van Raksha Samiti as an alternative to the Sangathan and were forcing tribals to join it but without much success. All the houses that were destroyed belonged to leaders of the Sangathan while no member of the Van Raksha Samiti had suffered even if he had built a new hut.
–The Sangathans had also taken a strong stand against the usurious rates of money lending which was between 30 and 60 percent interest and over 300% for seed given at sowing time. They had decided to stop giving such high interest.
The team was told that these were the reasons for the reign of terror and that its main aim was to destroy the tribal Sangathans by branding them as naxalites so that the government could repress and destroy them with impunity.
10. We were told by tribals in the villages and by others in Indore that Rahul Bannerjee was not active in the area for the past two years and was not even present in Devas during this whole episode. The Collector, however, says he is guilty of ‘criminal conspiracy’. Rahul was living in Indore, had married and become a father and was getting a research grant from the MacArthur Foundation. He was arrested in Indore on the 3rd. April when he went to the hospital where the bodies of Balram and Patthan had been taken for post-mortem.
11. The team discovered that the tribals had not filed any F.I.R.s regarding those who had been shot and killed, or those who had lost property etc. On enquiring into this the team learnt that no adivasi dared go to the police station for fear of being arrested, tortured and further victimised.
Tensions between adivasis and the government had been growing in the past one-year due to the brutal killing of a tribal called Roop Singh of village Katukia on 23 September 1999 by the forest department. Till now no one has been arrested or been brought to book for this crime.
1. It is clear that the reason for this brutal attack on the tribals is because they have formed their own organisations that threaten the ruling parties and the corrupt system. The accusation levelled on them of plundering forests, ‘criminal conspiracies’ or of ‘naxalism’ is a mere ploy for wiping out these organisations and maintaining the political domination and rule of Congress and BJP at all costs.
2. The unjustifiable destruction, specially targeted houses, looting and plunder makes it amply clear that this operation was not merely to collect the wood that had been illegally felled.
3. It does not seem possible that such a green recruit like the present District Collector could have taken such extreme action without the go ahead from the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. Hence, the Government of Madhya Pradesh is culpable and responsible for the whole outrage.
4. The notices now being served to tribals in Khargone district seems to be a belated attempt of using legal procedures to evict and harass tribals who have not only been living in this forest area for a long time but who even have government schools, hand pumps etc. given by the state government.
5. The case against Rahul Bannerjee for ‘criminal conspiracy’ and attempt to murder has no locus standi whatsoever especially as he has not been working actively in this area for the past two years and was not involved in the events that took place. This is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public from the real cause.