Clashes have erupted across the country as the forest authorities and other agencies move to crush those who are trying to uphold democracy, people’s control over resources, and the law. In Gujarat, Assam, UP, and Orissa, people are being falsely arrested, police opening fire and houses being burned (on March 21st, March 30th, March 16th and March 30th respectively).
They have asked for nothing except their legal rights over their resources, and they have been shot at, beaten up, jailed and killed. Is the government’s favorite phrase – the “rule of law” – to mean that the police should act as hired gunmen for the Forest Department and companies?
In Gujarat, Avinash Kulkarni and Bharat Powar are in jail, accused of sedition, conspiring to wage war against the State and membership, support for and funding a terrorist organisation. Kulkarni and Powar are activists of the Dangi Mazdoor Union (DMU), a democratic organisation that for 15 years has engaged in mass struggles for people’s rights. They are members of the Gujarat-wide federation Adivasi Mahasabha (affiliated to the Campaign for Survival and Dignity), which has been engaged in the struggle for the Forest Rights Act and for democratic control over the forests.
But for the Forest Department and those who benefit from their control, the law itself is the problem, so anyone who speaks of the law must be a terrorist. Indeed, the FIR against them does not describe a single incident or criminal offence; it is a rhetorical description of “increasing Naxal activity” in south Gujarat. In normal times it would be thrown out, but today, this is enough to land someone in jail indefinitely. The situation is so outrageous that even the Congress party walked out of the Assembly in protest on March 25th.
In Dhemaji, Assam, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a people’s organisation, organised a protest of 12,000 people on March 30th. Their demands? Implement the Forest Rights Act, clean up the PDS and halt the construction of big dams. The government’s response? The CRPF fired in the air, used tear gas and lathi charged the protesters. More than 100 were injured and 23 admitted to hospital, of whom two are in critical condition. The district KMSS president was arrested and slapped with various false non-bailable cases. The KMSS general secretary, Akhil Gogoi, is facing a series of false cases and has been described by the government as – what else? – a “Maoist.”
In Sonebhadra, Uttar Pradesh, on March 16th, the Forest Department and local goondas attacked adivasi protesters (organised by the National Forum of Forest Peoples and Forest Workers) who were reclaiming lands from which they had been illegally evicted in August 2009. The forest guards were armed and beat the protesters. Many were wounded, including a pregnant woman, who miscarried as a result of the beating. All the wounded were denied medical treatment. Four people, who were wounded themselves, were arrested and are still in jail. In fact it was the August 2009 eviction, not the protest, that is the criminal offence.
In Kalinganagar, Orissa, the site of the massacre of 14 adivasi protesters in 2006, the police have gone on the rampage again. On March 29th, the day after the District Collector agreed to hold discussions with the Bistapan Birodhi Jan Manch on the construction of a road on their lands, the road construction was begun anyway. When the people protested on the 30th, 29 companies of police were deployed and went on the rampage. They were joined by goondas associated with the BJD and the Tata Group. One protester was shot in the legs, more than 50 have sustained injuries; houses were burned, property looted, and cattle killed. The attackers even desecrated the memorial to those killed in 2006. The police have cordoned off the area and are blocking entry.
Meanwhile, Operation Green Hunt leaves a trail of death and destruction across central India. For anyone who values democracy, law and basic humanity, these should be days of outrage.