Antaram Awase, 32, is the secretary of the Forest Rights Committee at Siwal village in Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh. He was in class IV when he saw his house burnt down by forest officials. Everything in their home was destroyed, including Awase’s mark sheets and school documents, forcing him to drop out of school.
Before this happened, he claims his father, like other villagers, had been paying forest officials for years because they were told that this was the law and the only way to get a patta for the forest land they cultivated. As Awase grew older, he realised it was just extortion money being squeezed out by forest officials, so his family stopped paying in 2018. Other villagers followed suit. This led to rifts with the forest department and louder demands by villagers for land pattas. According to the villagers, their defiance led to an exponential rise in atrocities against them: demolition or burning of homes, confiscation of farmlands and produce, and arrests and custodial violence.
Burhanpur in south Madhya Pradesh, over 300 km from the capital, Bhopal, saw some of the worst manifestations of the administration’s high-handedness. During travels to Burhanpur and neighbouring Khandwa district, this writer found a growing strife between the administration and tribal populations.
The fight for forest rights
Madhya Pradesh is home to 46 recognised Scheduled Tribes (STs), including the Bhil, Barela, Naik, Gond, and Baiga communities. Reportedly the forest rights claims under the incumbent government has increased. This directly impacts STs, 21 per cent of the State’s population, who are among the major claimants of forest rights.
According to the 2011 Census, 66 per cent of the STs depend on farming, pastoralism, and allied activities, making them deeply dependent on forest land. The absence of forest rights leaves them particularly vulnerable.
The 2011 Census information for villages having forest land potential reveals that granting forest rights would help secure the rights and livelihoods of more than 13.8 million forest dwellers.
The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, empowers gram sabhas in tribal regions. On November 15, 2022, the BJP government announced the implementation of PESA, with Governor Mangubhai Patel handing over the first copy of the PESA Manual to President Droupadi Murmu. But the Act never came into force.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra announced during her campaign in Mandla for the November 17 Assembly election that her party would implement PESA. Of the 230 seats in the State Assembly, 47 are reserved for STs; Burhanpur and Khandwa have one each.
The ST vote
In the 2018 election, the number of ST voters was around 1.05 crore, about 69 per cent of a total ST population of 1.53 crore. This makes them an important constituency, and both the main parties are actively wooing them.
Before the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, tribal communities across the country had no real rights over the land they had lived on for generations. The FRA, admitting the historical wrong, gave them a bundle of rights, including right of habitation, cultivation, and grazing.
“Without actual statutory rights over their land, tribal people are unable to get the benefits of various government schemes,” said Nitin Varghese, a core member of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), a collective that has been working for the rights of oppressed communities in Madhya Pradesh for over two decades.
In October 2022, when tribal communities in Burhanpur and Khandwa began to protest the felling of trees in the region, it was the JADS that led the protest. A series of dharnas and marches were held. The JADS alleged that the administration was hand in glove with timber smugglers acting in collusion with the forest department.
But Burhanpur District Collector Bhavya Mittal claimed that two surrender programmes were organised, in December 2022 and March 2023, to tackle timber smuggling. She said a four-day operation led to multiple arrests and confiscation of timber worth Rs.30 crore. In the process, several tribal activists were also arrested.
Bhavya Mittal said: “Section 4 of FRA was being misused by the tribals, leading to [forest] encroachment.” (Section 4 of FRA prohibits authorities from evicting people whose rights have not been reviewed.) She also said that JADS members were encouraging villagers to “occupy forest lands in order to strengthen their claims”.
The crux of the conflict
This is at the heart of the conflict. A series of FIRs, counter FIRs, and charge sheets filed steadily against tribal leaders and activists have resulted in a high degree of criminalisation and persecution of tribal communities in these two districts.
Madhuri Krishnaswamy, a JADS core member and tribal rights activist, pointed out that tribal people were invariably evicted or, worse, detained on charges of deforestation, but the same swiftness was never seen when the villagers complained of tree-felling by vested interests.
She said: “The delay in resolving the long-pending forest rights [issue] stems from the fear of the forest officials losing the dominance over the forest and the tribes. Sixteen years after the passage of the Act, around 10,000 claims remain pending in Burhanpur district. And when claimants oppose illegal eviction attempts by citing the law, they are accused of deforestation.”
This loss of control often translates into frequent atrocities against tribal villagers. On July 7, 2023, the Collector banished Madhuri Krishnaswamy from the district. An order, passed after examining witnesses including forest and police officers, found her guilty of destroying and clearing forest land. The challenge by Madhuri Krishnaswamy to this order is pending before the Indore Division Commissioner.
- Forest rights claims have increased under the incumbent government in Madhya Pradesh, impacting the 21 per cent of the State’s population who are Scheduled Tribes (STs) and depend on forest land.
- Tribal communities in Burhanpur and Khandwa districts have been protesting the felling of trees, alleging that the administration is hand in glove with timber smugglers.
- In response, the administration has filed a series of FIRs against tribal leaders and activists, accusing them of encroachment, deforestation, and violence.
Similarly, Awase, who is also a JADS member, was arrested on April 30 for an incident dating back to October 2022, when there was a clash between giroh (people who cut down trees) and forest officials. Awase said that he was arrested because he publicly denounced the inaction of the administration against the rapid felling of trees. Charges against him include rioting, assaulting public servants, and attempted murder. He was also named as an accused in a case of deforestation that he had complained about.
On March 3, over 40 tribal people of Guarkheda village in Burhanpur were arrested and detained for over two months. It followed a clash with forest officials who had arrested four members of one household in the late hours of the night. The villagers were charged, under Section 26(1)(h) of the Indian Forest Act (IFA), with cultivating forest land. The charges against them included assaulting public servants, inciting riots, trespassing, causing damage to property, and obstructing arrest.
Varghese was also implicated in July in the same case, on charges of conspiring and incitement, even though his name is still missing from the FIR. Devendra Patidar, Superintendent of Police, declined to comment on any of the FIRs, saying the cases were sub judice.
Criminalisation and persecution
Despite the two districts having a significant tribal voter base, the hounding of tribal villagers continues. A 2021 book titled Criminalisation of Adivasis and the Indian Legal System traces how Madhya Pradesh, through amendments to the IFA, has increased punishment from what was originally prescribed by the Centre.
As the criminalisation of tribal people increases, there is the fear that the land thus deforested will be opened up for the big corporations. The JADS estimated the deforested cover to be around 15,000 acres (6,070 ha) and cited the letter of invitation floated on April 8 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for a the review of the IFA in order to “remove difficulties in trade and transit of forest products”. The review notice invites organisations with over Rs.1 crore turnover but fails to even mention stakeholders such as local communities, academics, and researchers.
In its 2023 report, the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, an organisation researching criminalisation of marginalised communities, described how forest laws such as the IFA and the Wildlife (Protection) Act were being weaponised against forest dwellers in Madhya Pradesh. The study said that people from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Denotified Tribes, and Other Backward Classes formed 66.6 per cent of the accused in offences relating to wildlife and sand mining. In forest department investigations, close to 78 per cent of the accused were from marginalised communities.
While Madhya Pradesh boasts the largest forest cover and highest population of tribes in the country, it has also recorded the highest number of brutalities against tribal communities. National Crime Records Bureau statistics showed that the State ranked number one in crimes/atrocities against STs in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Madhya Pradesh is also the State that rejected some 3.5 lakh claims by tribal people under the FRA over traditional forest lands, the highest in the country. In February 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of all those whose claims were rejected but stayed it the same month after the Centre moved a petition. On April 24 this year, 3,000 people submitted a memorandum addressed to the District Collector Burhanpur and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan raising issues of long-pending forest rights, mass deforestation, and illegal plantations on lands occupied by tribal communities.
“We will protect the lands that our ancestors fought and sacrificed for, even if it comes at a cost,” said Awase.
Priyansha Chouhan is a legal research fellow at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change, and natural resource governance in India.