Sometime in the middle of June this year, journalists from two prominent Hindi dailies went to meet a Dalit marginal farmer, Rama Shanker, in the remote village of Basauli in the south-eastern corner of Uttar Pradesh. As a native of the mineralrich Kaimur region in Sonbhadra, the most ‘backward’ district of India’s most populous state, Shanker is no stranger to rampant corporate, feudal and State violence against Adivasis and Dalits. So, he was not as surprised as an urban middle-class professional would have been when the journalists, who like the majority of Indian journalists were uppercaste men from traditionally landowning families, showed up at his door with an officer of the intelligence wing of the UP Police.
Shanker had just returned from an agitation against Narendra Modi’s controversial Land Acquisition Bill in Lucknow and the journalists were there to threaten him. The police officer was there to add to the seriousness of the threat by his very presence. “Why are you risking your life by fighting the State?” the journalist duo told Shanker. “How dare you challenge the Forest Department and police officials? Do you imagine that by doing all this, Adivasis like you will get to cultivate the forest land you have encroached upon? If you continue with your campaign of encroaching upon forest land, we will make sure that you land in trouble. We can easily slap a number of criminal and forest cases on you. You will spend the rest of your life fighting those cases.”
Then they offered him a monthly “salary” if he “mends his ways and stops mobilising Adivasis and Dalits for land rights”. To drive the point home, the police officer “advised” Shanker to listen to the “learned journalists”.
“Our experience with journalists is no fairy tale,” says Shanker. “Most of them shoot vicious words at us while others who share their feudal moorings threaten us with guns and even kill us.”
Why this fury from the merchants of news? Are they just zealous journalists going out of their way to help the State protect the environment from “encroachers” like Shanker?
“They are threatening me because I have been actively participating in the forest rights movement under the banner of the All India Union of Forest Working People (aiufwp) and the Kaimur Khetra Mahila Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti (kkmkmss), an organisation of Adivasi and Dalit women,” says Shanker. “We are not encroachers. As the Indian State is not keen to implement the Forest Rights Act and protect the rights of the traditional forest-dwelling communities, we have reclaimed around 20,000 hectares of land in the Kaimur belt and have initiated collective or cooperative farming. This has infuriated the dominant classes and the State.”
Thousands of Adivasi and Dalit families have organised themselves into agrarian collectives and are cultivating several varieties of food crops on this reclaimed land. After keeping a part of the produce for self-consumption, the rest is sold in the market and the earnings distributed among the cultivators.
The story of this grassroots experiment opens a window to a world where the battle for survival of the poorest of the poor pits them against a repressive State.
The Kaimur belt is spread across the inter-state border areas of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Some social scientists have argued that this mineral-rich region was divided among various states so that all of them have a stake in the revenue it generates, and this was done in total disregard of its possible consequences for Adivasi livelihood and identity.
The 29th sc/st Commission report, authored by the then commissioner BD Sharma, acknowledges that the Kaimur belt in UP comprising the districts of Sonbhadra, Mirzapur and Chandauli demonstrates the duplicity of Indian ruling classes when it comes to the question of redistribution of land. The Sharma report documents how feudal landlords and the forest department appropriated Adivasi and other common land by fraudulent practices.
According to the report, the Zamindari Abolition (ZA) Act was violated in every possible manner. For instance, the very notification of the za Act was delayed for several years in Sonbhadra district, benefiting the upper-caste landlords who wielded tremendous influence on political parties and the media. Moreover, conniving with the revenue and forest departments, the landed aristocracy got them to invoke certain draconian provisions of the colonial Indian Forest Act of 1927 to alienate the Adivasis and other traditional forest-dwellers from their land. With shrewd clerical work and brute force, the Forest Department succeeded in turning the dispossessed Adivasis into landless bonded labourers for the landlords.
The appropriated Adivasi land was given to big business groups that invested in such as mining, power generation and cement manufacturing. Apart from cheap land, big business also benefited from cheap Adivasi labour. No wonder the conditions were apt for political mobilisation by the Maoists. However, the State turned the fledgling Maoist presence, too, into another excuse to crack down on all forms of resistance by the Adivasis.
As the Adivasi elders say, Sonbhadra saw Adivasis dying of starvation as well as in fake encounters. Besides the brute force of the State, World Bank-funded programmes such as Joint Forest Management projects were brought in to whittle down the sharp edges of Adivasi assertion.
“The State and its agents are furious that traditional forest-dwellers opted for militant democratic struggles such as reclaiming traditional land in the spirit of the Forest Rights Act (FRA),” says Roma, deputy general secretary of the AIUFWP and a trade unionist who played a major role in mobilising Adivasi women. “Cooperative farming is the Adivasis’ response to the forgotten promise of land reforms and the zeal now being shown by the government to give away land to the corporates. The upper-caste journalists in this belt have always opposed the political assertion of the subaltern Dalits and Adivasis. That is why they are trying to brand them as encroachers.”
In villages where the Adivasis are doing collective farming, one can clearly see why the dominant classes want to brand them as criminals. (In fact, the branding of Adivasis as criminals has historically been used by the ruling classes to subdue workers and peasants evicted from their habitat.)