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Friday, April 20, 2001

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Tribals in MP teak forest face govt wrath over ‘naxalite’ curse

On April 2 a task force for checking illegal tree felling killed four tribals in firing but Mehndikheda village hardly looks a terrorist den

Yogesh Vajpayi

Dewas (MP), April 19: A silence of questions unanswered and unasked hangs over Mehndikheda in Bagli tehsil in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh. It’s here on April 2 that a task force of police, district administration and forest department fired on and killed four tribals. What remain are demolished houses and roofs, smashed earthen grain baskets and rubble. And unanswered questions.

District Magistrate Ashik Barnwal maintains that ‘‘Armed tribals instigated by outsiders fired at the government task force on April 2 when it went to conduct an operation against illegal tree-felling in Mehndikheda village.’’ It’s the MP government’s case that naxalites are running a parallel government in parts of Malwa and Nimar, and that the tribal belt of Bagli tehsil is a terrorist den. Reports appearing in sections of the local press too speak of huge arms dumps and landmines in this region, of tribals being trained in guerrilla warfare by ‘‘outside experts’’.

But so far, the only weaponry the police have laid their hands on are a wooden gun-butt and five 12 bore cartridges from Kakutia village and a wooden ‘training gun’— which has no barrel and to which no barrel can be attached — from Jamsingha village.

‘‘A katta (countrymade pistol), recovered from Bholu of Mehndikheda, was perhaps the only thing that could fire,’’ admits Dewas Superintendent of Police Sanjeev Shami.

The police also claim to have the nabbed the kingpin beind the firing: Rahul Bannerjee, leader of the Adivasi Morcha Sangathan who has been in jail since April 7. An IIT-Kharagpur graduate, Bannerjee moved to Dewas in 1997 after years of working among the tribals of Jhava, Khargone and Khandwa. He is married to Subhadra, a tribal from Chamra in Bastar.

Bannerjee had even earned the praise of the Supreme Court for his work after a police crackdown against tribals in Alirajpur in MP in 1992, an operation that was censured by the apex court. But part of MP’s leadership is convinced that Bannerjee and the tribals are naxalites. The police also say they have ‘‘incriminating documents’’ against Bannerjee: four books he’s authored
was shot by four forest guards one morning. Though the government tried to pass it off as ‘‘an operation against illegal tree-felling’’, a public outcry forced them to register a murder case.

The events that led to the April 2 incident actually started on March 28, says the tribals. ‘‘A large number of policemen came in trucks and jeeps and most villagers fled in panic,’’ recalls Sahiri Bai of Potla village.

‘‘The policemen fired at the fleeing men to scare them away and then returned to destroy our houses one after another.’’ The district administration admit this, but says this was done to ‘‘reclaim illegally felled timber’’.

‘‘Balgi tehsil contains one of the richest dry deciduous teak forests in western MP. The tribals traditionally use forest timber to construct their huts but they have been rarely involved in commercial tree felling,’’ says a senior forest department official. ‘‘It is not the poor tribal but the politician-official-timber mafia nexus that’s responsible for illegal tree felling,’’ he says. The naxalite balloon may have been floated to mask the mafia’s activity in this area, he says.

But the clamour to crack down on the ‘‘naxalite menace’’ is only growing louder. None other than Deputy Chief Minister Jamuna Devi has accused Chief Minister Digvijay Singh’s advisor Sharat Chandra Behar of ‘‘sheltering’’ these ‘‘terrorists’’. While BJP leader and Union Minister Uma Bharati has her own swadeshi take to the story: ‘‘The tribals are also being incited by Christian missionaries whose anti-national activities are being ignored by the MP government,’’ she said after a visit to the spot.

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© 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.