Part 3: Whither Justice, My Lord

Tribals in Telangana are fighting for basic land rights
Tribals in Telangana are fighting for basic land rights

There is a silent but ongoing state-sponsored attack on tribals and Dalits in Telangana.

In a three-part ground report, The Lede reveals how the lands of tribals and Dalits in Adilabad district are being indiscriminately snatched away by the Telangana government.

Worse, the state, in the form of its Forest Department, the police and local administration, is unleashing violence and harassment on poor tribals and Dalits who have cultivated their land for over three decades.

It does not seem to matter to the Telangana government that the tribals have land documents and some, even pattas, given to them by the government itself.

“Targets,” we were repeatedly told were more important than the livelihood and liberty of these tribals and Dalits.

Stories of extreme suppression of tribals and Dalits usually emerge only when these communities have been destroyed and broken beyond recognition.

But this is a story of repression and violence, of violation of basic human and land rights, unfolding in front of our very eyes. This is something that can be stopped before it grows bigger and more violent.

In India, there is no greater emotion than land. When this is taken away by force, especially from those with little else, anger brews. This is exactly what The Lede witnessed in all these areas.

And all of this for what? The chief minister’s “prestigious” Kaleshwaram irrigation project requires compensatory afforestation – cut down trees in one part of the state and plant them in another.

In the final part of this series, we tell you how following assault by the state, tribals face apathy from the courts.

State Assaults, Courts Look Away

On June 30, as The Lede reported earlier this week, Forest Range Officer C Anita and her colleagues along with the police had resorted to violence against the villagers and tribals of Sarsala in Komaram Bheem district of Telangana.

The villagers retaliated, raining blows on her with sticks. Thus far, only Anita’s version had been imprinted in public memory.

The accounts of brute force against tribal women and other villagers, in which a pregnant lady lost her baby thanks to a callous kick from the Forest Officer, have largely remained under wraps.

Part 1: Sarsala’s Untold Truth 

The Lede travelled extensively to tribal hamlets across the district, visiting not just Sarsala but other villages where the aggression of the Forest Department and their lack of respect for the laws, has resulted in similar incidents of violence.

Tribals and Dalits of Komaram Bheem district have been dispossessed of their lands and anger over this is evident across the region.

Part 2: Tribals & Dalits Under Attack Across Adilabad 

With the state as the active perpetrator of violence and crime, tribals turned to the courts hoping to get due justice.

But the courts have been aloof toward their grievances, unwilling to engage with the Forest Rights Act of 2006, the key legislation protecting the rights of Scheduled Tribes across the country.

First, The Supreme Court

After the violence in Sarsala, villagers registered a case against Forest Officer C Anita under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The FIR was filed by the Easgaon DSP but an interlocutory petition was filed in the Supreme Court the very next day of the attack by Amicus Curiae ADN Rao in the case of TN Godavarman Thirumulpad versus the Union of India.

The original litigation praying for safety for forest officers was filed in 1995.

Quoting news reports from the Times of India and Hindustan Times, the Amicus Curiae argued that there is “grave danger” to the lives of forest department officials and asked the apex court to direct the Telangana Chief Secretary to “file an Action Taken Report with regard to the incidents of ASSAULT/beating the Forest Range Officer (FRO) on 29.06.2019 and Forest Officers on 02.07.2019.

The Supreme Court, on 19 July, ordered a stay on the FIR filed against Anita under the SC/ST Act.

In the aforesaid peculiar circumstances, we stay the proceedings against the forest officer in the said matter.

In future, police protection be provided to women forest officers as and when required by them and the concerned Superintendent of Police of the District to ensure that police protection is provided to women forest officers whenever it is sought for in the State of Maharashtra and Telangana.

Let the Chief Secretary of the State file the action taken report, ensure compliance of order and propose how to protect the officers from such assaults,” read the order.

Unfortunately, there were no representatives of the tribals of Sarsala or any of the other villagers whose lands had been taken over by the Forest Department unlawfully and by force.

Lawyers helped the tribals of Sarsala file complaints with the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes as well as to the National Human Rights Commission.

We all have begged and pleaded with her (F.R.O.Anitha Chole) to stop the activities with the sole hope of protecting our existing crops which is a lifeline to our survival,” reads the petition sent to both Commissions from one of the petitioners, Naini Bhudevi of Sarsala.

We have also tried to convince her to stop the above work by showing her our documents to ascertain our ownership over the lands. In response to our pleas the said forest range officer has started abusing all of us publicly as “manyam lanja mundallara” (uncivilised whores), and humiliated me by saying that this land is not your father’s Jagir (estate) and the members of my caste are not fit for agriculture and instead should work only as coolies,” it states.

At least six other tribal women from Sarsala have filed similar complaints to both Commissions.

The NHRC had a cursory response – “These complaints be transmitted to the concerned authority for such action as deemed appropriate. The authority concerned is directed to take appropriate action within 8 weeks associating the complainant/victim and to inform them of the action taken in the matter.

It is unclear as to which authority the NHRC is referring to and what action they recommend.

The ST Commission is yet to respond at all.

And Then, The High Court

On July 09, tribals from other villages, having heard of the violence in Sarsala approached lawyers in the area asking for help in protecting their lands from the Forest Department.

Two separate petitions were filed before the Telangana High Court, one representing 79 tribals from the villages of Regulaguda, Utpalli, Pochamaguda, Charigram and Wadiguda and the other representing 67 tribals from the villages of Ankusapur and Vanjiri.

Providing details of their pattas, the villagers stated they “have already sown cotton and paddy crops for their survival” and that over the past few days the Forest officials had been warning them “from entering into their farm land and the officials are causing hurdles to the day to day agricultural activities of the petitioners.”

The petitions also stated that “in few villages the District forest officials have also threatened to seize the ploughs and hired tractors of the petitioners herein whenever they try to enter inside their agriculture land for the purpose of ploughing the land.”

As a result, “with great difficulty” the villagers had “sown the cotton seeds by digging the soil (ploughing) with their hands.”

The villagers also feared that they would be dispossessed of their lands, because “for the past few days the district forest officers with the help of the entire state machinery have been encroaching into the agricultural lands of pattadars of Kagaz Nagar Mandal, Kumaram Bheem Asifabad, District and affixing the saplings by destroying the existing crops.”

The petition said that these villagers “are apprehending similar kind of threat to their livelihood.”

On July 11 the High Court passed orders on both petitions taken together.

The Court took, at face value, the submissions by the government pleader for the Forest Department, who claimed that there were several encroachments into forest land and that “Forest Department is taking steps in accordance with law and due opportunity will be afforded to such of those persons who claimed to be in occupation of forest land.”

The Court observed that the “apprehension by the petitioners is not valid.”

The Court also ordered that the Forest Department must “follow due process” and not “harass” any petitioner.

The Court, however, did not go into the details of those tribals who, despite possessing pattadhar passbooks, ‘hakku pathram’ and other documents, had already been dispossessed of their lands in Sarsala and other villages before them.

The judge did not enquire into detail about the claims of violence against villagers by the Forest Department and how the laws had been flouted by them.

Rather, the Court treated it as a small issue about land ownership, when in fact it should have been dealt with seriously as a question of livelihood and the rights of some of the most vulnerable communities in our country.

The Court, in fact, did not even refer to The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forests Rights Act for short) to make the distinction between tribals and non-tribals and accord the former the intrinsic protection they are entitled to.

Displacement Of Tribes

Wankidi is a small town in Telangana, sharing a border with the neighbouring state of Maharashtra.

Here, 16 families, belonging to the Gond Scheduled Tribe, languish in two empty government schools.

The buildings are derelict, with the roof falling apart in chunks.

When it rains, water enters all the classrooms, leaving no place dry.

These families have a dozen goats with them which run around the compound, bleating.

They have been provided with some provisions by the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) – some rice, pulses and vegetables. But this is not their traditional food, they say.

So what are they doing in a “hostel” in Wankidi since June?

The answer circles back to the Telangana Forest Department yet again.

“During the cotton sowing season, Forest officers came early in the morning, and razed all our homes using tractors and poclain,” says Sidam Bhimbai, 50, a Gond tribal who had eight acres of land under podu cultivation in the village of Kolam Gudem in the forests.

“When we asked them why they were destroying our homes, two-three Forest officials picked me up by my knees and threw me into a jeep,” says Sidam Paavu, 70 who cultivated five acres.

“Our Goddess Muthala Thalli is still there in our home,” laments Bhimbai. “Our cattle, our belongings, everything is there. We want to go home,” she says, forlorn.

When asked whether they have ‘hakku pathram’ the families show The Lede their forest land rights documents given to them by the state government.

“Anitha madam forcefully threw us into a jeep and brought us. They wanted to plant saplings on our land. They said that we cleared the forest but we did not. It is our old bhoomi. We have lived there for fifty years,” says Bhimbai.

Kova Bhimu, 50, owner of seven acres of land in Kolam Gudem, is upset. “They brought 12 jeeps, five tractors, one bulldozer. None of us knew what was going on. We were taken to a timber depot (in Kaghaznagar) and we did not even have a roof over our heads,” he says.

Next door in another school, Athram Madhubai, 25, rocks a sleeping baby boy in a uyyala (cradle) as she sews an old torn pair of jeans. “I was born in the forest and we moved to Kolam Gudem village about 10 years ago,” she says. “The court told us we will get our land back but we have not got it yet.”

The court battle over the Gond families was dramatic.

As local tribal rights organisations heard about the aggressive displacement of the 16 Gond families, they contacted lawyers who filed a Habeas Corpus petition on behalf of 67 members of the families before the Telangana High Court.

On June 15, the High Court bench comprising Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan and Justice Shameem Akther ordered the Forest Department to produce the heads of families before it.

A Telangana Tourism Department bus was engaged and Sidam Paavu, Kova Bhimu and others were brought before the court to testify.

The Court had also requested two professors from Osmania University to be available at the hearing the next day to help the court understand the Gond tribal language.

The government pleader for the Forest Department told the Court that three eviction notices had been given to the tribals of Kolam Gudem and that they had voluntarily packed their bags and left.

To this, the Court observed in its interim order dated June 15 – “lnterestingly, while the State claims that Mr Sidam Pavu and six others had encroached upon the forest land, according to the list submitted by the respondents, these 67 persons belonging to 16 different families, they are being kept at the depot. T

hus, it is unclear whether the other nine families were ever given eviction notices or not? Moreover, would the other nine families voluntarily leave their hearth and home and come to stay at the depot, is equally unclear?

Therefore, this Court is not convinced by the story being narrated by the learned counsel for the State.

On June 16, Sidam Paavu and other heads of families of the Gond tribe deposed directly before the bench.

The final order though did not consider the key aspects of the Forest Rights Act 2006 at all.

The order observed that the Gond families had been living in Kolam Gudem for at least five decades and that they did not even speak Telugu, but conversed in their own language, unique to the tribe.

Sidam Pavu claims that he, his family, and others have been cultivating the forest land for the last 50 years. He further states that although notices were given earlier to him and to his few families, since the notices were in Telugu language, a language unknown to the tribal population, they could not understand the contents of the notices.

Moreover, prior to 12.06.2019, they were informed that they will be entitled to land and compensation, and they were asked to put their thumb impression on the notices.

Therefore, they placed their thumb impression on certain documents, whose contents were not understood by them,” reads the order.

The court went on to observe a key facet enshrined in the Forest Rights Act of 2006, that Scheduled Tribes are in fact a part of the forests and cannot be separated from it.

Undoubtedly, a large portion of the tribal population lives in the forest area, where they and their ancestors have spent their lives for decades, if not for centuries. Since the tribal population is rooted in the dense forest and in the mountains and rivers of the State, they are wedded to their land, both physically and psychologically.

For their tribal beliefs, and faith emanate from their surroundings. Hence, their entire life revolves around the forest, and its wildlife, and its environs.

Ideally the court should have taken this judgement to its logical conclusion – that the Gond families should be taken back to their land and left undisturbed as the Forest Rights Act dictates.

Instead, the judges missed an opportunity to right a wrong that is being perpetrated not only with these 16 families but with tribals all across Telangana and the country.

The final order by the two-judge bench stated that the state government and the Forest Department must settle them in Wankidi and within six months provide them with alternate land and housing, roads and irrigation.

The court said that during these six months, the state would have to take care of food, medical, education needs of the families and ensure that they are taught new vocations. The state was also asked to provide cattle to the families.

“But we only want to go home,” says Kova Mengubai, 45, as she attempts to soothe a crying child. “We cannot live anywhere else. We want our land back,” she says.

“They Are Encroachers”: Forest Department

Forest Range Officer C Anita, who also oversaw the displacement of these 16 Gond families, told The Lede that these tribals had come to Kolam Gudem only in 2013 and that their claim of having lived on the land for five decades was a lie.

“They are originally from Wankidi mandal from different places,” she says. “Sidam Paavu brought other relatives with him. There are three habitations nearby.”

Anita claims that the tribals illegally cleared 40-50 acres of land. “We served them with three eviction notices but they did not vacate. So we decided to clear the land. We have satellite maps that show they arrived in the area only in 2013.”

It is of course anybody’s guess how a Gond tribal living in the forests would be able to read eviction notices in Telugu, a language alien to them.

Unending Harassment

Whether grabbing of lands, displacement from traditional forest land or even obstructing tribals from grazing their cattle, collecting firewood, Telangana’s Forest Department appears to be on thin ice with the locals.

In Sarsala, Marthadi, Sirisha, Dabba and Wankidi, tribals and small and marginal farmers told The Lede that they had been punched in the gut repeatedly by the Department and its officers.

Faced by state repression and judicial aloofness, they are caught between a rock and a hard place.