Why has Dalit Patthargarhi movement seen revival? Hint: The SC order on forest-dwellers

Within a week of the Supreme Court stayed its earlier order on the eviction of 10 lakh forest-dwelling families of India, adivasis behind last year’s self-rule movement, Patthargarhi, are rumoured to have begun once again.

The imminent loss of land they have occupied for generations has reignited the indigenous exclusionist movement in several tribal-dominated areas of Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh Madhya Pradesh, four of the 16 states which received the final warning from the SC on February 13.

According to sources in security agencies, indigenous communities in these four states may soon attempt to create a parallel government, their own bank their private police force, as they did in Jharkhand last year.

State intelligence sources are also wary of the involvement of top Maoist leaders in the Patthargarhi, which had sent the government for damage control last year. The issue could also dent BJP’s prospects in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.

What happened in last year’s Patthargarhi movement?

The Patthargarhi movement, named after the symbolic act of laying at the entrance of a village, with an inscription declaring self-rule, has whipped up a storm among tribal communities since 2017; last summer, it swept hundreds of villages in central India and sent the government into a tizzy.

Centre’s failure in protecting and preserving adivasi interests propelled the movement. Although right-wing media calls it pro-Maoist, one can trace the Patthargarhi movement’s origins to Rajasthan in 1998; it came two years after the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas-PESA) Act, 1996, was enacted.

In July 2018, tribal dwellers in Udburu laid the foundations of “the main adivasi administrative office”, which they call “Kendriya Karyala” of their “central government” in Khunti, West Singhbum, and Saraikela districts of Jharkhand.

Besides, the adivasi-led gram sabhas issued identification documents, began to levy toll on non-adivasi visitors, raised force and issued credit from the ‘Bank of Gram Sabha’. They also founded medical hospitals based on way of healing and educational boards meant to teach -centric syllabi; this led to adivasis exiting government-run schools and clinics.

The spread of such initiatives immediately followed a massive crackdown on the movement’s senior leaders. It resulted in many arrests and even led to a few encounters that took out the top leadership of local Maoist leaders. Choking the poppy trade that allegedly sponsors such exclusionist movements reduced further confrontation between civilians and security forces.

Why has it staged a sequel?

SC’s controversial order on February 13 had followed a review of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006. Also known as the Forest Rights Act 2006, this gives tribal communities titles to forestland that they have historically occupied.

The Centre’s initial silence on the matter, which several tribal rights outfits criticised, was especially pronounced when it failed to send lawyers to defend the Act in court in January; which Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) believes this is what tipped the scales in the petitioners’ favour.

The final hearing on the eviction order this summer will determine if the agitation for land rights provokes a similar uprising; although, according to sources, a larger is likely on the cards this time.

According to CSD, the fifth schedule of the Constitution states that two-thirds of Indian forests are located on tribal-owned lands; this makes the top court’s ruling one of the biggest eviction drives in India’s history. It has fuelled instant and immense controversy among academic and activist circles across the country.

Even the Centre objected to the prosecution’s view that historical forest dwellers destroy forest ecology. A letter various conservation groups, scientists, and environmentalists, including Greenpeace India, All India Union of Forest Working People, and All India Forum of Forest Movement, signed has further refuted the prosecutor’s claims.

The petition and the outcome: A round-up

The original petitioners who demanded the eviction of forest-dwelling families, include Wildlife First, Satpuda Foundation and Tiger Research and Conservation Trust.

Believing that the Forest Rights Act, introduced by the UPA government in 2006, challenges the Indian Forest Act 1927 and Wildlife Protection Act 1972 that regulate activities and protect wildlife in these forests, the petitioners contended that human occupation there has caused widespread deforestation. The argued that rejection of an FRA claim implies that the claimant is an encroacher and not a bona fide forest dweller.

The apex court subsequently ruled on the eviction of nearly 23 million people on February 13 based on the 11.8 lakh claims it rejected. The bench also ordered the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to use a satellite survey to record the positions of these communities before and after eviction.

What happens in court next?

As the Centre came under fire, the Opposition took up the matter as a political issue, with Congress president Rahul Gandhi asking Congress-run states to file a review petition.

Within a day, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Gujarat government moved petitions in SC, seeking abeyance on the judicial order in the interest of the forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes (FDSTs) and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs).

On February 28, Justice Arun Mishra-headed three-judge bench gave the states four months to submit details on processing of claims over traditional forestland and subsequent rejections; it has posting the matter for further hearing to July 10.

Following the stay order, the court asked the following 21 state governments to review the status of tribals and explain to the Supreme Court how the FRA claims were accepted or rejected: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

The chief secretary of each of these states will have to collate data and file detailed affidavits, with regard to the processes followed in deciding claims and granting ‘’ by July 10.

The apex court’s revised stance to review the matter before final  gives a faint hope to India’s forest-dwelling indigenous communities. The top court has cautioned that it won’t allow those found undeserving, based on their respective state’s submitted responses, to continue with ‘encroachment’.

Law protecting OTFD rights is in peril

The Forest Rights Act 2006 was established to correct actions of British and post-independence governments, who unfairly seized land from marginalised tribal communities.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Centre on February 28, submitted, “The Act of 2006 only envisages an examination of the claims and not eviction… under the Act, the rejection of a claim does not ipso facto lead to eviction of a tribal. There is no provision in the Act that provides for eviction after a claim is rejected,” without giving them a reasonable opportunity to present their case.

The CSD further alleged that the Act explicitly requires the government to award legal recognition to lands (up to four hectares) that people are already occupying. This means that if a tribal is using only two hectares, they legally own those two; if they are cultivating 15 hectares, they will receive the deeds to a maximum of four. 

“As a result, millions of people are subject to harassment, evictions, etc, under the pretext of being encroachers,” says CSD. The latest order has caused grave concern among these communities, who view it as a green light for state-sponsored loot of resources, for corporate interests.

The latest data (December 2018) available with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), the nodal ministry for FRA, shows that out of 42.19 lakh claims made, only 18.89 have been accepted. Therefore, there are more than 23 lakh tribal and forest dwelling families who can still face eviction. 

As BloombergQuint‘s report suggests, many of these rejections were not communicated to the settlers which is why they could not appeal or re-apply. Such violations of the FRA include allowing forest guards to illegally decide claims and demands made by and asking tribals to furnish satellite imagery and non-existent 75-year-old records.

The exemplary case of the Soligas

Last October, however, the SC had been forced to  the rights of Soligas to the forest land in Karnataka. Renowned for their intimate relationship with nature, Soligas (children of bamboo) became the first tribal community in India living in the “protected” core area of a tiger reserve.

They were evicted and relocated in  after the forests near the Biligiri Rangana Hills were declared a wildlife sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. When the Soligas took the issue to court, the Forest Rights Act helped them in their legal battle. With the court ruling in their favour, in August 2010, about 1,200 families received that established their rights over the land.

In 2011, when the sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve, the Soligas once again contended that the announcement was without proper consultation and approval of the tribe that has had ancestral rights over the region.

Environmental experts and activists share a consensus that the symbiotic relationship between the cultural practices of tribal communities and the conservation of forests and wildlife helps sustain ecological balance.

They do not understand us: Tribals on eviction order

Even though the eviction order has till July 10, there is worry among indigenous communities.

Deep within the forests of Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh’s Gariaband district, there is anger that despite their struggle for documents, “the whims of government officials” have brought indigenous people to the brink of eviction.

According to the Indian Express, for now, villagers are glad that the new Congress government in the state has invited everyone whose claims have been rejected to re-apply. “But if the day does come when we face an existential threat, there is only one option left to exercise,” the villagers say.

“We will fight and raise our voices. In Delhi, they are so far away. Maybe they haven’t heard us,” says one.

Dangerous and avoidable: Why Patthargarhi matters

Several documents circulated through social media in the central Indian tribal belt, suggest the rekindling of Patthargarhi. Some of them in the possession of News18 include enrolment forms for the Patthargarhi ‘governments’, and pamphlets distributed by the women’s wing of CPI (Maoist), the Nari Mukti Sangh.

Followers of Patthargarhi movement do not government-approved identification, like voter ID or Aadhaar cards, and by extension, the sovereignty of Indian Parliament. Their raising of a private army, which will result in such anti-state measures to spread to adjoining areas quickly, is a chief concern for the various forces deployed in the valley, including the local police, units, and CRPF battalions.

According to intelligence reports about the inner developments with the Patthargarhi ranks last year, security officials found adivasis collected funds for instituting the ‘Bank of Gram Sabha’. “We realised after studying these documents that the Patthargarhi movement has advanced far more than what we had earlier estimated,” an official told News18.

Meanwhile, grassroots activist Mansingh Sisodia believes this movement to be within the constitutional framework. “The state first turned a blind eye towards the implementation of PESA. Now, it is desperate to dismantle the very Act by linking it to left-wing politics,” he notes.

In the shadow of eviction, these communities cannot be expected to remain bystanders, as the ground they worship and which nourishes them, is snatched from beneath their feet. In the event that the SC reinstates the eviction order, the government will be in for a tough tussle—between fundamental rights of the and peace in the heartland states—in a crucial election year.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Evictionforest dwellersPatthargarhi movement