In the earlier parts of this investigative series on violations of Forest Rights Act (FRA) in Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa National Park, Nidheesh J Villatt exposed brutal violence unleashed by the forest department on traditional forest dwellers.
By narrating specific cases, he argued that Dalits and Adivasis are tortured and criminalised for asserting their constitutional rights.
In this third part, Nidheesh delves into the livelihood struggles of Adivasi women (predominantly Tharu), who have played a decisive role in conserving forests and natural resources in Dudhwa.
He argues that organised resistance by Adivasi women against non-implementation of FRA as well as violence including sexual assaults have sharpened the state brutalities.
In a gross violation of all constitutional values and rule of law, the forest department is trying to raise Pranthiya Rashak Dal, Dudhwa (PRD), a vigilante group to suppress Adivasi women using their own kin. Dudhwa’s PRD is like the Salwa Judum militia of Chhattisgarh, says Nidheesh.
“Dharu (liquor) and sex combines to form Tharu Adivasi women. Their sex appetite is high. My friends tell me I should have been here during my youth. I’m about to retire now and this is not the right time to be here,” a forest ranger told me with a wicked smile.
I was sitting in the courtyard of his Range Office inside Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa National Park. I had introduced myself as a journalist from Delhi.
”You should investigate why Adivasi women are more interested in sex and crime. I can help you,” the ranger told me.
“Are they criminals by birth?” I asked.
“Yes, they enter forests without permission. They take firewood and honey. They also catch fish,” the ranger replied.
“Don’t they have right to enter forests to do all these things? FRA ensures it,” I asked.
“What FRA? Are you suggesting that jobs of forest officers should be terminated and criminals should replace us? Forest is our territory,” he replied angrily.
Now cut to an Adivasi village called Suda. A group of Adivasi women and children are fishing in a pond. Arathi, a nine-year-old has tied her slippers to her waist while fishing. “Forest officers harass us while fishing. They steal our belongings like trinkets, slippers or purse if we keep it on the bank,” Arathi alleges.
The forest officials’ complete disregard for the laws of the land and a colonial mindset about Adivasi women’s ‘criminality’ and ‘sexuality’ is a fundamental cause of conflict here.
Take the case of the Suruma village. During the last months of the previous Mayawati government, this village situated in the core area of the Dudhwa National Park was granted Forest Rights. But the forest bureaucracy sabotaged the real implementation of the FRA, when the Samajwadi Party defeated Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party in 2012 to form the government in Uttar Pradesh.
The scuttling of the FRA started when people related to the non-Adivasi rural elite and forest department were enlisted as members of the monitoring committees to implement FRA.
“All of our attempts to repair the existing road to Suruma village and make it motorable using legal provisions in FRA were sabotaged by the forest officials. Women who face medical emergencies like delivery bear the brunt,” points out Ramachandhar, the former Pradhan.
No wonder I could meet couple of Adivasi children who were born in the bullock cart—locally known as Dunlop cart because of the Dunlop tyres being used on the ramshackle vehicle—on the way to the hospital 40 kms away.
“Two years ago, Lally, a woman died on the way to the hospital in Dunlop”, says Sariya Devi, who delivered her baby in the Dunlop.
Villagers complain that Primary Health Centres (PHC) refuse to admit women who have delivered on the their way to the hospital.
“Doctor and nurses say you delivered at home. So we cannot admit you,” Sariya claims.
Women as ‘firewood criminals’
“Criminalisation of entire communities in tribal areas is the darkest blot on the liberal tradition of our country,” wrote BD Sharma, then commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in his 29th report. This observation is very true when it comes to the Adivasi women of Dudhwa.
For instance, hundreds of Adivasi women are harassed and framed in wildlife cases if they enter forest to collect firewood or other minor forest produce.
“They seize firewood and burn it in front of us. Sometimes they come to village to collect grain, ghee and other minor forest produce. They would say you can come and take firewood. But if we go there with our children, they would cut our bicycles into two pieces with axe,” some villagers told me.
However the formation of Tharu Adivasi Tarai Kshetra Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch-known as ‘Union’ in the local parlance has pumped energy into the otherwise isolated incidents of resistance initiated by Adivasis, especially women in their strongholds.
“Our’s is an independent socialist union and we believe in militant democratic struggles. When Adivasi women started asserting themselves and demanding forest rights, State began branding us as Maoists”, says Roma Malik , who played a major role to mobilise women.
“Certain newspapers publish spicy stories by manipulating our slogans like Inquilab Zindabad and red colour of our union flag,” Nivadha, an active member of the union told me.
Nivadha and her friends showed me how a recent report by Navbharat Times branded them as Maoists.
The report narrated how Maoists came with red flag and took Adivasis to cities for training. It also quoted Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) officials confirming Maoist movement.
“Several of us had gone to Delhi to participate in protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Land Acquisition Bill. This was misreported as Maoist movement. Earlier SSB jawans used to unleash sexual violence on us. They used to brand all of us as smugglers. If we stock kerosene, they would say it’s meant for smuggling to Nepal. We were regularly asked to prove our identity. But with the strengthening of union activities, women started resisting sexual advances. So a section of corrupt SSB officials are eager to malign us,” a group of women told me.
Further investigations revealed that the Navabharat Times reporter who came from Lucknow, toured the area accompanied by the forest officials.
“If you say you are a journalist from Delhi or Lucknow, forest or SSB officials would arrange local conveyance and accommodation for you,” a local reporter said.
“When it comes to forest rights, forest department, police, landlords and journalists talk the same language,” Nivadha told me one evening at Adivasi chieftain Ramchandhar Rana’s house.
Showing me the mark of a deep wound on her forehead in the light of a campfire—what she calls as Sarkari mohar (government stamp)—she detailed how she was brutally attacked by a team of forest officers and police when they went to collect firewood.
“This happened three years before. Since forest officials harass us if we go individually, we went in a large group. We were blocked near railway cross at Buda village. Nivadha says, “They attacked us without any provocation. I was hit on the head with a big laathi (baton) till it broke into two. When I was taken to the nearest government hospital (which is about 40 kms away), they refused treatment saying that it’s a police case”.
“Three months after attack, I went alone to the Gorifonda police station to file an atrocity case against officials. Then the inspector asked me ‘are you not afraid to come alone to the police station?’ I told him that after getting Sarkari mohar (government stamp), I’m not afraid about khaki.”
This kind of politicisation is intensifying the conflict in the region. Take the case of the Kajaria village that shares boundary with Nepal. Villagers tell that there is government fund meant for pruning of trees.
“The contractors who do pruning are actually part of timber mafia with connections in Nepal. They actually cut trees. During every pruning season they smuggle timber to Nepal by colluding with SSB, forest and police,” Ramakumari, a villager points out.
“In 2014, we stopped two Dunlop carts containing timber which was being smuggling to Nepal. Forest officials who were accompanying the smugglers told us that they would shoot us. We called police and they were forced to give an assurance that forest officials won’t repeat it. Villagers seized the smuggled timber and used it as firewood for the mid-day meal scheme in the school,” Ramakumari said.
Increasing assertion of Adivasi women to implement FRA is countered by the forest department by encouraging Joint Forest Management projects (JFM).
“JFM which gives enormous power to forest bureaucracy is against the basic spirit of FRA. In Dudhwa, department has formed Eco-Development Committees as part of JFM,” Roma points out.
When I spoke to a few forest officers and NGOs operating in this area privately, it was clear that the intention of the department is to scuttle FRA by boosting JFM projects which doesn’t alter the power relations.
This area as well as other forest districts in Uttar Pradesh had a history of JFM committees becoming vigilante groups to criminalise poor Adivasis.
UP government is also collaborating with international donor agencies like JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency) to strengthen JFM.
“Forest department ensures that Eco-Development Committees are filled with their agents. Forest and JICA officials ask us to not to go to forest. They even promised to give us gas cylinders for cooking,” a group of Adivasi women told me.
Dalit and other lower caste women, who campaign against sexual violence and demand implementation of FRA are also targeted.
Shanti (name changed) from Ramaupur village is such a victim. To take firewood, Ramkumar, a forest official allegedly demanded sexual favours from her. One day while she was working in the field, Ramkumar is said to have approached her and insisted that she have sex with him.
She refused and the angry forest official took his service revolver and allegedly shot her.
“The bullet missed me and struck my pet dog Moti. The dog died on the spot. I have filed a case. But the police is trying to dilute the case,” Shanti said.
Incidentally, it was officials like Ram Kumar who were active in the strike that demanded the transfer of Lakhimpur Kheri Collector Kinjal Singh.
Forest officials had struck work for weeks protesting against Kinjal’s move to act on complaints of atrocities against Adivasis.
“Adivasi women can be countered only by Adivasi women”- Is Pranthiya Rashak Dal Dudhwa’s Salwa Judum?
“We (PRD) cadres were patrolling inside forest. I and Anju formed a team. We saw some women collecting firewood. We went there and told them not to collect firewood. They told its their right. Anju got angry and caught one woman by hair and pushed her to the ground. She was injured. Then they became angry and told us they would kill Anju. I was infuriated and threatened them if they touch Anju, I would kill four of them. Then they calmed down,” Chitravathi, a young Tharu Adivasi woman was boasting about her ‘bravado’ as a member of the vigilante group.
“Before some months Tharu Adivasi women affiliated to the Union were collecting firewood. I blocked them. They asked me ‘whether forest is my father’s property’. I replied no. But I added its neither your father’s property. We abused each other,” Chitravathi said. “People call me Van Daroga (forest guard)… I enjoy being called so. It makes me feel special,” she told me near her home in an interior village.
According to the official website of the UP government, “PRD was formed in 1947 to establish self-confidence and communal harmony among villagers, to inculcate a feeling of self-reliance and discipline among them and for self-protection and controlling crime.”
Legal experts point out that as per PRD Act of 1948 and the Government Orders of 1989 and 1991, PRD cadre cannot be deployed in forest or in “first line of defence”.
But then how were Tharu Adivasi women like Chitravathi and Anju deployed in forest as PRD cadre? That too in first line of offence?
“We have limitations to fight assertive Tharu Adivasi women directly. They are unionised. You need to have a devil on your side to fight devil. In conflict situations with villagers, they form the first line of resistance,” the forest ranger who lectured about the “sexual appetite” of the Adivasi women had told me.
“Adivasi women in PRD make our work easy. They also spread our message in the community,” P.P. Singh who was the then Deputy Director of the Dudhwa National Park told me over telephone.
“We are given special directions to discourage Adivasis to depend forests. But most of them won’t listen. When they enter forests for firewood or fishing, conflicts starts and sometimes it leads to physical fight,” Chithravathi says.
“Don’t you feel sad to physically assault your own people?,” I ask her.
“Duty is duty…I cannot compromise on it. I had to fight with my own relatives when they enter forests for fishing or collecting firewood. Sometimes verbal spats lead to physical fight. Initially, I was disturbed about it. But I had a frank discussion with senior forest officials. They convinced me I should not worry.”
Adivasis narrate that whenever there is a conflict between them and forest department,
“PRD is deployed in the first line of offence. Both Adivasi men and women are employed as PRD cadre in Dudhwa. But to target women led Union, forest department try to pick young girls from Union families,” says Phoolmathi, who is active in the struggle against forest officials.
Her description about the recruitment to PRD resembles the recruitment to the traditional vigilante groups in Adivasi areas.
“Firstly they focus on some women and convince them to join PRD. Then they force and persuade them to bring more women into PRD. There are several instances where salaries were denied when existing PRD cadre couldn’t recruit more women.”
When I met Adivasi PRD cadre, most of them were initially reluctant to talk. However with consistent persuasion, some of them talked informally.
“I worked two years in PRD. We were encouraged to physically assault Adivasis who demand the implementation of FRA,” says Sunitha (name changed). She adds that Adivasi male cadres in PRD were given hints that they can “assault Adivasi women active in Union.”
“More good looking women in PRD were forcefully employed as domestic helps of forest officials,” Sunitha says.
When I spoke to more PRD cadres, they shared several stories of forest officials assaulting Adivasi women.
Take the case of Raji (name changed) from Bandhar Bharai village, a PRD cadre who was also illegally employed as a domestic help in a forest ranger’s house.
In March 2015, when all other PRD women cadre went home for ‘Holi’ vacation, Raji and two of her friends were not granted leave. The ranger (the same officer who told me about the sexual appetite of Adivasi women) tried to sexually assault Raji on the night of Holi.
Raji tried to file a complaint at the nearest police station but was threatened by the forest officials and their goons.
“She came to me and told everything. But she could’nt stand the pressure and threats,” says Adivasi chieftain Ramchandhar Rana.
My attempts to trace Raji were futile. However a friend, also a PRD cadre, who witnessed the sexual assault corroborated the assault.
“The ranger was continuously knocking at our door. When we opened, he forcefully dragged Raji into his room. He was using brute force. Raji was threatened with dire consequences when she tried to register a case,” Raji’s friend told me.
Next: Watch how forest dwellers are killed in fake encounters…