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Human Rights

Tribals at the receiving end in Madhya Pradesh 

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Tribals at the receiving end in Madhya Pradesh 

Rampyari Bai, the tribal woman who was set on fire over a land dispute in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district on July 2. She succumbed to her injuries on July 8. (A video grab.)

Rampyari Bai, the tribal woman who was set on fire over a land dispute in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district on July 2. She succumbed to her injuries on July 8. (A video grab.) | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Perpetrators roam free; authorities in no hurry to bring them to book.

On July 2, the Internet was flooded with visuals of the public immolation of a tribal woman, Rampyari Bai, in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district. The video captured the horrifying violence that is a common experience for the tribal people of the State though they form a sizeable part of its population (21.09 per cent) and enjoy the consequent electoral clout that comes with this. There are 46 recognised Scheduled Tribes across the State’s 52 districts. Of these, six major tribal groups—Bhil, Gond, Kol, Kurku, Sahariya, and Baiga—account for more than 90 per cent of the 1.53 crore tribal population.

Rampyari Bai and her family, who live in Dhanoria village and belong to the Sahariya tribe, which is identified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, were at loggerheads with two brothers, Pratap and Hanumant Dhakad, over a patch of land that had been endowed to the tribal family under a welfare scheme of the erstwhile Digvijaya Singh government. Dhakads are usually small landlords who are involved in agricultural work.

Despite the local administration settling the dispute in favour of the tribal family in May, the harassment continued, forcing Rampyari’s husband, Arjun Sahariya, to seek police protection; his pleas fell on deaf ears. On that fateful day, Pratap and Hanumant, along with three others, allegedly poured diesel on the victim and set her on fire. Rampyari Bai succumbed to her injuries on July 8.

The National Crime Records Bureau’s 2020 report.
The National Crime Records Bureau’s 2020 report.

Atrocities against tribal men and women are increasing in Madhya Pradesh; 2,401 such cases were registered in 2020, an alarming 25 per cent jump from the 2019 figure as per the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2020 report. Madhya Pradesh registered 33,239 cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) from 2018 to November 2021, which represents a steep climb of 15-20 per cent in the crime figures every year.

In most cases, police protection eludes families and individuals even when they fear an assault. When it does occur, justice is hard to come by.  This generates a sense of impunity among the perpetrators who are often from upper-caste or dominant Other Backward Classes communities.

Nemawar mass murder

The June 2021 Nemawar mass murder case demonstrated the administration’s apathy towards the sufferings of tribal people. The decomposed bodies of five people, missing for over 45 days, were recovered from a pit in Nemawar tehsil of Dewas district. The discovery created a political storm in the fractious State that has seen many inter-caste clashes, which have grown in number and ferocity after the March 2018 ruling of the Supreme Court that put safeguards against the immediate arrest of a person booked under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Act), 1989.

As politics over the Nemawar incident swelled, the police arrested nine people in connection with the gruesome murders and demolished the house of the main accused.

Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra. With reference to the rising crime graph in the State, he recently said: “The data show that police record every case in MP, and every person gets justice in the State.” 
Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra. With reference to the rising crime graph in the State, he recently said: “The data show that police record every case in MP, and every person gets justice in the State.”  | Photo Credit: A.M. FARUQUI

Initially, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan promised Bharti Kasdekar, the tribal woman whose family members were killed, speedy justice. But it was soon evident that the Nemawar incident too would end up fading away in the record books. In January, a disillusioned Bharti set off on a 200-kilometre justice march, with her surviving brother, Santosh, from Nemawar to Bhopal; they covered the distance in 11 days. In Bhopal, Governor Mangubhai Patel denied their request for a meeting. Bharti had hoped that Patel, a tribal person himself, would facilitate the handing over of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation, but this did not happen.

Madhya Pradesh has also earned notoriety for recording the highest number of rapes of tribal women in the country. Grisly attacks on tribal men and women are so common that newspapers now tend to relegate them to the inside pages. The government defends itself by saying that the increased crime graph means that the police impartially records complaints, including those made by disadvantaged sections.

“Madhya Pradesh has earned notoriety for recording the highest number of rapes of tribal women in the country. ”

Narottam Mishra, the State’s Home Minister, recently said: “The data show that police record every case in MP, and every person gets justice in the State.” The Bharatiya Janata Party has also attempted to assuage anger by coming up with the Gangster Act, which is tailored to curb crime against tribal and Scheduled Caste people, women, and the poor.

Effective implementation

But experts point out that what the State needs is not an array of new laws but effective implementation of existing laws such as the SC/ST Act that guarantee adequate protection to people from the marginalised sections and provide for speedy, punitive action against wrongdoers. The continued targeting of tribal people attests to the fact that these laws are not implemented in letter or spirit. On December 31, 2021, on the basis of a rumour of conversion by some tribal villagers in Devra, 50 kilometres from the Satna district headquarters, a mob of 25-30 people stormed into the house of one Sardar Vaskale, ransacked it, and then beat the villagers.

A pregnant Leela Bai was repeatedly kicked in the stomach, which eventually caused fatal injuries to the foetus. A video of Leela narrating her ordeal went viral on social media. No enquiry was initiated, even as late as two months later. Some newspaper reports stated that some of the assaulters were associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In March, over a thousand Adivasi women held a demonstration in Barwani demanding justice for Leela Bai. Women leaders from several Adivasi organisations such as the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, JAYS (Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti), the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, the Adivasi Chhatra Sangathan, and the Shehari Mazdoor Sangathan complained to the media that the government and the police were shielding the accused.

Phoolwati and her son Jai Prakash on May 20. Phoolwati’s husband, Dhansa, and Sampat Batti, another tribal man, were lynched in Seoni district’s Simaria village earlier in the month by a group of 15-20 people who suspected them of cow slaughter.
Phoolwati and her son Jai Prakash on May 20. Phoolwati’s husband, Dhansa, and Sampat Batti, another tribal man, were lynched in Seoni district’s Simaria village earlier in the month by a group of 15-20 people who suspected them of cow slaughter. | Photo Credit: FARUQUI AM

In March, three men were arrested on the charge of sexually harassing a tribal woman in Alirajpur district. In May, two tribal men, Sampat Batti and Dhansa, were fatally assaulted in Seoni district’s Simaria village by a group of 15-20 people who suspected them of cow slaughter. As a hue and cry from political circles followed, particularly from the opposition Congress, which alleged that the perpetrators were affiliated to the Bajrang Dal, some 20 people were booked.

Even when an initial arrest is made, conviction remains a daunting challenge, an outcome of the partisan role the police and the administration play. As per the data provided by the State’s Home Minister, the conviction rate in cases of violence against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes stands at a meagre 36 per cent.

Not violence alone

Apart from the violence, many questions also need to be raised over the effectiveness of the distribution of government endowments and welfare schemes to tribal communities. Consider, for example, entitlements under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The FRA is aimed at recognising the ownership of forestlands of Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have inhabited and resided in the forests for generations. Fewer than half the applicants have received titles under the Act, as per the data maintained by the Tribal Affairs Ministry. As of August 31, 2020, Madhya Pradesh had the dubious distinction of rejecting the highest number of title claims, at over 57 per cent.

At the “Adivasi Hunkar Yatra”  organised by the Jal-Jungle-Zameen-Jeevan Bachao manch in Bhopal on November 17, 2019, on the issue of tribal people’s right to water, forests, and land. Fewer than half the applicants in Madhya Pradesh have received titles under the Forest Rights Act, as per the data maintained by the Tribal Affairs Ministry. As of August 31, 2020, the State had the dubious distinction of rejecting the highest number of title claims, at over 57 per cent. 
At the “Adivasi Hunkar Yatra” organised by the Jal-Jungle-Zameen-Jeevan Bachao manch in Bhopal on November 17, 2019, on the issue of tribal people’s right to water, forests, and land. Fewer than half the applicants in Madhya Pradesh have received titles under the Forest Rights Act, as per the data maintained by the Tribal Affairs Ministry. As of August 31, 2020, the State had the dubious distinction of rejecting the highest number of title claims, at over 57 per cent.  | Photo Credit: FARUQUI AM

Instead of addressing the everyday violence that tribal people face or addressing issues such as land ownership, the Madhya Pradesh government appears to be keen on distributing sops in a bid to assuage tribal anger and gain political dividends.  In November 2021, in one such move, the Chief Minister announced that the Patalpani railway station near Indore would be named after the tribal icon Tantya Bhil. Before that, Bhopal’s Habibganj railway station was named after Rani Kamalapati, a tribal queen.

Diverting attention

Madhya Pradesh Congress spokesperson Abbas Hafeez.
Madhya Pradesh Congress spokesperson Abbas Hafeez. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The Congress dismisses these measures as ornamental and questions the poor conviction rate when it comes to crimes against SCs and STs. Speaking to Frontline, Abbas Hafeez, spokesperson of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, said, “The tribals are being increasingly victimised, but where is the punitive action from the government against the perpetrators?” Hafeez said the BJP’s nomination of a tribal leader for the President’s post was also a ploy to divert attention from the real problems the community is facing. “The BJP is selling Draupadi Murmu’s candidature as an epoch-making event for tribal emancipation, but have you ever seen the candidate talk about atrocities against tribals?” The Congress said that the tribal votes in the State shifted in significant numbers to its fold in the November 2018 Assembly election, and that the trend would continue no matter what overtures the BJP made to the community.