Print edition : November 06, 2009
in Harda and Betul

Shamim Modi. Her decision to contest the Assembly elections had brought her into confrontation with political bigwigs.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE day started out as usual for the social activist Shamim Modi at her Vasai residence in Mumbai on July 23. It was hardly a month since she moved in there from Harda in Madhya Pradesh to join the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) as an assistant professor. It turned out to be a day of terror when the watchman of her apartment barged into her house in an alleged attempt to kill her. Her throat was slit, her hands were broken and her head was smashed. Her husband, Anurag Modi, says it is only her will power and courage to fight that enabled her to survive. Shamim had to have 118 stitches all over her body.

The police initially tried to pass off the incident as a case of robbery. But Shamims political background indicates that there is much more to it than meets the eye. Her decision to move base from Harda and Betul in the tribal hinterland of Madhya Pradesh itself was a deliberate one, to ward off the unwarranted attention she was getting in her efforts to organise the Korkus and Gonds (the two majority tribes in the region) under the banner of the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan (SAS). For the past 13 years, the SAS has been enabling the tribal people to fight for their land rights and to protest against their exploitation by Forest Department officials.

The SAS entered urban space last year by helping sawmill workers and hammals (porters) unionise against the exploitative industrial nexus in Harda, which has the largest number of sawmills in India. The timber industry thrives in the area because of its dense forest cover. With more than 50 per cent of the population in the region being tribal, it was easy for the rich, who belong to the upper castes, and the settler Gujarati business community to employ dirt-cheap labour. The SAS made it possible for sawmill workers to organise and protest against the denial of basic rights such as minimum wages and mishap costs.

The Modi couple, who were also among the leaders of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, faced stiff resistance from forest contractors and industrialists and also the district administration and the Forest Department. That Shamim contested the elections (twice to the Assembly and once to the Lok Sabha) on the Samajwadi Jan Parishad ticket from Harda made the resistance worse.

The administration slapped several charges on Shamim and Anurag, including that of preparing the ground for naxalite activity. Recently, stating lack of evidence, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed a report of the District Judge that accused them of breeding naxalism in the region.

Like the Modis and other dedicated SAS activists, the tribal people who showed any kind of sympathy to the SAS, too, could not escape the wrath of the administration. Shamim had to move to Mumbai in order to proceed with the movement more tactfully, Anurag said.

Shamims decision to contest the Assembly elections had brought her into direct confrontation with Kamal Patel, the local legislator belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Kamal Patel, a former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader, is known to be a powerful Jat leader. He later became a four-time MLA from Harda and was once the Revenue Minister in the State. He is known to secure the interests of Jats and Gujjars, who form the bulk of the landlords.

Anil Bansal, a resident of Harda, recently filed a public interest petition against Kamal Patel, accusing him of amassing assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. To this Kamal Patel replied that he owned only 200 acres of land (one acre is 0.4 hectares). Bansal then filed another case under public interest litigation (PIL), accusing him of violating the Land Ceiling Act. This is only one of the highlighted cases against him, said Hemant Tale of the Congress, who contested against Kamal Patel.

SUPPORTERS OF THE Samajwadi Jan Parishad, on whose ticket Shamim contested the elections, holding a rally in the jungles of Harda.-

The SAS movement, Anurag said, apparently jolted Kamal Patel as it not only disturbed the balance of the exploitative status quo but also encouraged the tribal people not to exchange votes for cash. Anurag said Shamim had lodged a complaint with the local police after receiving death threats.

Matters worsened between Kamal Patel and the SAS during the November-December elections in 2008 when Natwar Patel, a close aide of his and president of the sawmill owners association, was detained by an order of the Election Commission for threatening Shamim and preventing her supporters in the sawmills from campaigning for her. A few months later, when the mill workers, under the SAS, called a strike for their basic rights, the mill owners association told the District Collector that the mills would be closed down unless Shamim was arrested in 48 hours. The very next day Shamim was arrested and was detained for more than a month on charges as old as two years instigating the tribal people and organising a dharna at the collectorate. She was shifted to the Hoshangabad jail, in the neighbouring district, and was allegedly tortured mentally and physically.

Kamal Patel could not be reached despite several efforts by Frontline.

She was attacked earlier twice in 2007. We explained this at the Manikpur police station in Mumbai. Yet they tried to pass this off as a robbery case. I came to know of this when I visited the police station on July 27.

The senior police sub-inspector wanted me to sign on a paper which read, My wife informed me over phone that the watchman attacked her for money. This prompted me to check my wifes statement, and I got to know that it had been doctored. With pressure from the activist Medha Patkar, Chandra Iyengar, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) of the Maharashtra government, and a delegation from TISS, her actual statement was recorded on August 3. And only recently was Section 307 [attempt to murder] invoked, because of the interference of the Mumbai High Court, said Anurag. The watchman is still absconding.

The Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), TISS, and the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), which sent their own fact-finding teams to the region, came across the exploitative nexus between the industry and political powers. According to them, the district administrations at Betul and Harda were using exclusive and specific repressive measures against the SAS, other social action groups working for human rights, political and social activists, and the tribal people, who were denied their rights to land, water and forest.

So much so that the provisions of the Madhya Pradesh Rajya Surakshya Adhiniyam 1990 (generally described as a black law) were invoked against political and social activists, including harsh measures such as externment from six to nine districts for a period of one year.

The political platform that the SAS had set up in the region must have provided enough reasons for the attack on Shamim. The investigation until now has lacked direction.

IN WHAT THE police say is a case of robbery, Shamim Modi was attacked brutally and suffered serious injuries.-

The rising number of incidents of exploitation in Harda and Betul over the past decade has been drawing public attention, thanks to the SAS. Thus, it has been found that the age-old systemic exploitation of the tribal people in the forests is slowly getting converted into incidents of torture and false criminal charges.

This correspondent travelled to two such forest villages, Dhega and Ucchabarari. Destruction of agricultural fields and torture have allegedly been repeated by the Forest Department despite the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which grants the tribal communities the right to forest land. Both villages are situated in difficult hilly terrain. For the villagers, the authorities simply mean an exploitative combination of nakedaar, hawaldaar and patwari (forest guard, police guard and the lowest-level revenue inspector). The residents have been strongly opposing the arbitrary practices of the forest administration.

In some cases, tribal people charged under bailable sections or booked for compoundable offences have been denied bail. In some instances, the Indian Penal Code section regarding destruction of public property, which the Forest Department is not permitted to invoke, has been added to make the charge non-bailable. The nature of offences varies from encroachments of forest land to the use of forest resources.

This is despite the fact that the Forest Rights Act has given them the right to use their land and forest resources if they have been staying in a forest village since December 13, 2005. To establish that right, the gram sabhas have to put their claims with the district administration, which, after due verification, has to grant the land rights to the forest-dwelling people.

On July 13, Sunita, a 15-year-old, was allegedly beaten badly and dragged into a vehicle by forest guards while she was working in the field. When my uncle Subedar objected, he was arrested and he is still in jail, she said. Later, the guards came to know that she was the only tribal girl to have passed the Board examination with first division in Class X. They did not arrest her because her name had been publicised in the local media. However, she is still traumatised and too weak to return to school.

In a similar incident on July 20, in Ucchabarari, an activist of the SAS was surrounded by forest guards when he was going for a meeting, and beaten and arrested. He is in jail.

In both these cases, the family members are unaware of the charges made against them. Such denial of basic information makes it impossible for any accused to defend himself or herself.

SHAMIM MODI ADDRESSING a rally in one of the villages in Betul district.-

Some villagers complained that the seeds of jatropha and babool shrubs were thrown into their fields so that the Forest Department could establish that these lands were not cultivated by the villagers. The Department has apparently put a band of watchers in the village community on its payroll to prevent cultivation on encroached lands.

The administrations apathy towards the tribal cause seems evident despite the State Cabinets decision in 2007 to dismiss around 4.5 lakh petty cases against the tribal people. Section 4 (5) of the Forest Rights Act also strictly instructs that no tribal village be dispossessed until the process of verification is complete. From what can be seen in Harda and Betul, it is apparent that the Forest Department is violating the Act by evicting villagers from their own land.

Under such circumstances, the politicisation of the tribal people by the SAS posed a threat to many. In a strange turn of events, the District Collector, the Superintendent of Police and the District Forest Officer in Harda were transferred within 15 days of the attack on Shamim. So, though Harda District Collector Renu Pant said she would look into the matter, she pleaded innocence of all the happenings in the past.

Sub-Divisional Officer of Police Jitendra Singh Pawar, however, told Frontline: There is no need to see this incident in a sociological context. The villages are run in a certain tradition and they cannot function in a new way. The SAS has been instigating people to encroach on forest lands, which we cannot allow.

The attitude of Forest Department officials in the State capital, Bhopal, was also one of denial. There is no exploitation of people in the villages. The forest guard system is one of the best in forest management. It is our job to prevent the girdling of trees, which the tribal people often do. Encroachments will not be tolerated. Rights have been an excuse for the villagers to encroach on lands. We have a grievance redress forum meeting every Tuesday. Why dont these people come there and complain? said R.N. Saxena, the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests.

Asked about frequent resettlement of these villages by the government being cited as one of the reasons for such encroachment, he said the department would address the problem in due course.

Major resettlements in 1977 and 1980 and smaller ones later have left the forest-dwellers with no choice but to cultivate new lands. In 1977, the government recognised the forest dwellers right to land and decided to grant them pattas, or title deeds. While the intention was to settle the villagers in their original places, the process of giving pattas was fraught with discrepancies. So, many villages had to change their location. This happened again in 1980.

Now the Forest Rights Act recognises the right of traditional forest-dwellers to claim forest land held before December 13, 2005, but the fear of being left out in the verification process and faulty issuance of land rights lurks again. The historical injustice that the Forest Rights Act intended to remove has been cropping up in various forms.

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