In the concluding part of the four part investigative series on violations of Forest Rights Act (FRA) in Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa National Park, Nidheesh J Villatt critically analyses two alleged murders of traditional forest dwellers.
In the first case, Jamalluddin, a lower caste Muslim was allegedly murdered by forest officials after torture. His family’s dogged pursuit for justice has landed them in many a trouble. His son Ameen’s vehicle– a source of livelihood for the family–had been seized illegally, and petrol injected into his anus.
The second case pertains to the alleged murder of Narottam Singh, an Adivasi youth in Kanmp Tanda village. Singh was allegedly shot dead by forest officials because he fought the land and timber mafia that the national park on the Indo-Nepal border.
Nidheesh concludes his article by arguing that injustice in forest areas can only be stopped by proper implemention of FRA.
Custodial Death of Jamalluddin
“I was picked from my village by a team of forest officials led by Ramkumar. They started beating me from there. On the way to the forest range office, they stopped the vehicle near Suheli River. They forcefully immersed my head in the river at frequent intervals. I was struggling to breathe. They would lift my head when I was about to die. After giving me a few seconds to breathe, they would again repeat the torture,” recalled Ameem, a lowercaste Muslim traditional forest dweller in Dwarak Purva village of Dudhwa National Park.
I was talking to Ameem at his home. Listening to her son’s traumatic experience of ‘ducking’— a favourite torture method of foresters in Dudhwa–Najmun, his mother burst into tears. Ameem asked Najmun to move away so that he could continue narrating his horrendous experiences.
“I was tortured continuously for three days in the forest office. Most painful was the petrol torture. After stripping me, they injected petrol into my anus. While I was crying in pain, forest officers were pressurising me to withdraw the case against them. They threatened to kill me at the same spot where they killed my father,” Ameem told me.
Professor Steven Miles, an international expert on torture, would later tell me “all torture are multi-modal” and “15 percent of all torture victims are subjected to asphyxia”, a condition, which results from the denial of oxygen to the body.
Going by the logic of Miles, “torture is a craft”.
Like Dalits of Rampur Bandhya village, Ameem was subjected to ducking in Suheli River. Most often the same victims are tortured further by injecting petrol into their anus. But why?
“UP chief minister and all top bureaucrats should know the reason why Ameem had to undergo this kind of barbaric torture. Ameem is tortured just because he decided to challenge forest officers who murdered his father in custody. They have been flooded with innumerable representations from the family. But if they act, the forest bureaucracy that carries out custodial torture and fake encounters in Dudhwa would be exposed,” points out Mohammad Haider, a Lucknow based lawyer who is actively involved in helping the victims of Dudhwa’s jungle raj.
Ameem is the son of Jamalluddin, a poor sugarcane factory worker who was killed by the forest officials.
As per official accounts, Jamalluddin was picked by the forest officers in the evening of 20 January 2008 when he had gone to collect firewood from his field. Hours later he was found dead in the lock up in Sonaripur forest range office on the intervening night of 20 and 21 January. Forest officers say that Jamalluddin committed suicide by hanging using the naada (string) of his pyjama.
Sounds hard to believe? Most of the experiences narrated by the forest dwellers and Adivasis are hard to believe for a city dweller like me.
The threat of being convicted for Jamalluddin’s alleged murder does not deter the forest officials here.
Ameem claims he was ducked in the river and injected with petrol in 2012.
“All of our family members are threatened on a daily basis. Their only demand is to withdraw the murder case that we have filed against forest department,” Ameem says.
As pointed out by Mohammad Haider, even if this murder happened in 2008, the continuing denial of justice to the victim’s family as well as the harassment of family members who were fighting for justice makes this case relevant even now.
I came to know about the details of the Jamalluddin’s murder and harassment of his family when some Tharu Adivasis asked me “Do you believe that a man with average body weight can commit suicide by hanging himself from his pyjama’s naada (string)?”
Sensing my confusion, they said “Your science may not agree…but you go and ask our forest sahebs in Dudhwa. They would swear that a simple pyjama naada can be used to commit suicide”, Ramchander Rana, Adivasi chieftain told me.
“Our people have heard it directly from the mouth of the Ishwar Dayal, then forest warden of Sonaripur range. Every time he got drunk, Dayal used to boast about how he and his colleagues tortured and murdered Jamalluddin while in custody,” Rana added.
Later when I met Jamalluddin’s family and villagers they would share how casually forest officers, especially Dayal used to narrate the details of the custodial torture inflicted on Jamalluddin. Several villagers testified that Jamalluddin was severely beaten up and paraded publicly. “Whenever they tortured me brutally, they referred to it with perverse pleasure,” Ameem said.
After speaking to relatives, lawyers, revenue officials, village officers and forest officers who claim to have first hand information about the case, it looks like that Jamalluddin was not killed for some specific revenge. But as a villager pointed out, Jamaluddin was killed for “fun, to satisfy perversion of the forest officers and probably to get promotions”.
“Farzi (fake) range cases are indiscriminately filed against traditional forest dwellers. It depends on your sheer luck which case would be slapped on you. Officers who ‘crack’ cases are rewarded with promotions. So they are keen to register farzi cases,” points out Syed Maqsud Ali, former block panchayat president of Nihasan.
“By the time I reached forest office, my father’s body was taken to the district hospital in Kheri for post-mortem. I could only see his sandals. Dead body was not accompanied by a single police officer. I was then told to bury the body and forget everything,” Ameem says.
“When forest officers started boasting how they killed my father, we decided to pursue the case. Police also threatened us. But we went to court and got an order which forced police to register a FIR after 45 days.”
Ameem and family had to face serious consequences for “transgressing the invisible line”, for not “compromising”with forest officials who murdered his father. His life shows how an instrument of State can deny basic human dignity to citizens in India’s hinterlands.
After the death of Jamalluddin, Ameem had purchased a Scorpio SUV after selling a bigha of land they possessed. There was a bank loan worth INR 3,50,000 too.
“Fighting legal cases require huge money. I thought I would support the family by plying taxi. When they failed to prevent me from pursuing the case they appropriated my car. Forest officers kept the carcass of a wild deer in the vehicle and implicated me in a wildlife case. Their intention was to ruin my source of livelihood,” Ameem told me.
He also said that two other villagers were also framed in the case.
“As per the case filed by the forest department, Bharkat Ali, a young worker in sugar factory was driving the car. He cannot even drive the car. Another villager Haneef Ali who was framed in the case was actually in Delhi for treating a kidney ailment on the day of the alleged crime”.
Forest officials and police have used all tricks in the book to prevent the family from pursuing the case.
“He was so innocent. I still don’t understand why he was tortured and murdered in custody. At any cost, we shall ensure that guilty officials will be punished,” Jamalludin’s wife Najmun told me.
The family has recently written to Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, asking for further investigation of the case by “any other branch of the state police outside the jurisdiction of Lakhimpur Kheri district”.
“Forest and police officials threatened my elder brother Shameem and forced him to give a statement that our father had committed suicide. We fear that police is trying to submit a closure report of the case,” Ameem says.
When contacted over phone, Sanjay Kumar Singh, then director of Dudhwa National Park refused to comment about the allegations of custodial torture and encounter killings against the forest officials.
Will the government listen to them?
In interior villages of Dudhwa, villagers told me about several missing people and unnatural deaths. There is a belief that several of them are “killed” by forest officials. Because of several limitations, I couldn’t independently verify the allegations.
However I did go to a village called Kanmp Tanda, which is part of Dudhwa tiger reserve to investigate ‘death’ of an adivasi youth Narrottam Singh.
Kanmp Tanda village is situated in the banks of the river Sharda.
Adivasis, Dalits and other back ward communities (OBC) constitute the population.
There is conflict between traditional forest dwellers and the mighty land mafia who encroach their lands with the help of corrupt forest officials.
Narottam Singh, an Adivasi youth was active against the land and timber mafia and the struggles to implement FRA.
On 6 September 2013, when the land mafia tried to encroach more land by destroying their crops, villagers resisted.
Villagers allege a forest team led by ranger Mukesh Bhatnagar of Samboorna Nagar also accompanied land mafia. “Forest officials were trying to evict adivasis and Dalits in the name of Project Tiger,points out Krishna Adhikari, a political activist who works in Dudhwa.
“When villagers and goons of land mafia were arguing, Mukesh Bhatnagar shot my son Narottam Singh from close range without any provocation,” Narottam’s father Lakhan Singh alleged.
All villagers with whom I spoke reiterated that Narottam was killed to finish off the land rights movement in the village. When I investigated more it was evident that people with strong connections to land mafia were included in key positions in Eco-Development Committees (EDCs), which is part of Joint Forest Management (JFM) project, an initiative pushed by the forest department to sabotage Forests Rights Act.
“It was a cold blooded murder. But soon after the murder, police came to the village and threatened that if villagers pursue the case, more people would be killed in fake encounters or implicated in false cases,” says Ramsevak, a close friend of the Narrottam.
Villagers say that police was forced to register FIR against accused forest officers after they agitated.
“They filed a weak FIR. But they also ensured that many of the villagers are framed under Goonda Act”.
Very interestingly, the forest department depicted this cold blooded murder as a natural response to a ‘violent mob’ that were preparing to attack its officials.
“Villagers attacked forest officials with firearms, sharp edged weapons and heavy sticks without any provocation,” New Delhi headquartered news agency PTI had quoted the then Divisional Forest Officer KK Pandey as saying.
“They have killed my son…my son won’t come back…my son was passionate about farming,” Narottam’s mother Velavathi told me in between her inconsolable wailing at the spot where her son was killed.
“She is still severely depressed. The sight of khaki uniform intensifies her turmoil,” her husband Lakhan Singh told me.
Will Velavathi and Lakhan Singh ever get justice?
As an elderly Tharu Adivasi woman told me, proper implementation of FRA and especially community rights will only ensure that justice is delivered to the poorest of the poor here.
Traditional forest dwellers of Dudhwa and elsewhere in India who were historically oppressed will be looking to a future, which is beautifully articulated by Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi in his famous poem “Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi”.
Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi ( that morning will come sometime)
Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi ( that morning will come sometime)
In Kaali Sadiyon Ke Sar Se ( after all these dark ages)