An idol placed under a banyan tree passes for a temple in Masna village in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. Surrounded by dense forests, the village is inhabited by the “primitive” Baiga tribe. “The government has taken over our land and enclosed it with barbed wire fencing,” says Bajrahin Bai, a villager. “The officials say we are Naxalites and harass us in whatever way they can.” To oppose what they claim is a sustained assault on their rights to the forests where they have been living for generations, the Baigas from Masna have been waging a “jungle satyagraha” movement since 9 August 2012.
However, their protests have not yet made it to the headlines in the national media. Few people know that hundreds of Baigas have been observing relay fasts over the past 16 months. Baiga women are at the forefront of the protests, and even children have been taking part.
The government has acknowledged the Baigas as a primitive community and granted them the status of a “national tribe”. The intention behind the move was to project the tribal community as an integral part of the diversity that characterises Indian society. In 2006, while announcing the promulgation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted that tribals and other forest-dwellers have historically been subjected to various forms of injustice.
In order to address the special needs of the fast-declining population of three primitive tribes in the state — the Baigas, the Baharias and the Sahariyas — the Madhya Pradesh government set up separate development authorities for each of them. However, despite the efforts of the Baiga Development Authority, the Baigas continue to be ignored in the mainstream discourse on development.
Under the FRA, like all tribals who depend on forests for livelihood, the Baigas, too, are entitled to rights over forestland. However, according to Adivasi Ekta Manch activist Dhruvdev, even after the FRA was in place, the forest department took over the land of 41 Baiga families of Masna village. “In August 2011, the Baigas presented their case before the gram sabha (village council) claiming forest rights. The village council approved their demand and forwarded it to the district administration for further action. But the administration refused to accept the Baigas’ claims over the forestland,” says the activist.
The FRA states that the government cannot intervene in the matter of a disputed piece of land until a final decision on claims under the Act. Yet, the tribals allege that their huts and crops were set on fire in August 2012. “We approached the police but they refused to file an FIR,” says Susheela Bai, one of the protesters. Instead, the police detained 24 men and eight tribal women at the Mandla police station on 6 August 2012. But the protests did not stop. On 3 May 2013, six more Baigas were arrested and kept in jail for three months.
The ongoing struggle of the Baigas brings back memories of an earlier era when tribals had responded to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for civil disobedience against the British rulers in 1930. In fact, the genesis of the concept of “jungle satyagraha” can be traced to the nationwide movement that was spawned when Gandhi broke the British- imposed salt law in Dandi town on the Gujarat sea coast. As the central Indian forests were far away from the sea, making it impossible for the tribals to participate in the movement by making salt, the local leaders thought of a novel alternative: the tribals would violate those forest laws imposed by the British that had an adverse impact on their livelihood. “Jungle satyagraha” had thus begun as a local variant of the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Despite their contribution to the freedom struggle, it is unfortunate that today the tribals are left with no option but to resort to “jungle satyagraha” to protect their rights to land and forest resources. And ironically, this time, it’s their own government that they have to fight against.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman