REPORT OF THE INVESTIGATIVE TEAM ON THE DESTRUCTION OF TRIBAL HOMES, ASSAULT AND  FIRING  RESORTED TO BY OFFICIALS IN DEWAS DISTRICT, MADHYA PRADESH: APRIL 2001

Upon reports of police firing, preceded by the demolition of huts, looting and assault on the tribal inhabitants of the Bagli tehsil of Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, an investigative team comprising of:

       Dr. Vinod Raina, All India People's Science Network
       Dr.Suneelam, MLA(Independent), MP Vidhan Sabha
       Jhanak Lal Thakur (ex MLA) and Anoop, Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha
       Abdul Jabbar, Bhopal Gas Pidit Mahila Udyog Sangathan
       Nitya Ramakrishnan, Advocate, New Delhi

visited the area on the 10th and 11th of April, 2001. The following is the report of this team.

Profile of the Area

The tribal pocket of the Bagli tehsil of Dewas district where the action took place comprises 90 villages with a population of about 1 lakh people, 80 percent of whom belong to the Bhilala, Barela, Bhil and Korku tribal communities. This is one of India's most backward, drought-prone, exploited and neglected areas.  The benefits of development in the last 50 years have entirely failed to reach this region even though the Tribal Sub-Plan of the Government of India covers it. This is still one of the richest forest areas in western Madhya Pradesh, consisting of dry deciduous teak forests. The tribal communities, who are mainly dependent on subsistence agriculture, draw their wood for fuel, fodder, shelter and agricultural implements from this forest, which immediately surrounds their villages.

The Events Intervening 28th March and 2nd April, 2001

The district administration does not deny the fact that on the 2nd of April 2001, four people, all inhabitants of this area, 3 of whom were tribals, died as a result of police firing. The administration also admits that prior to this, beginning 28th March, a specially constituted Task Force carried out successive operations in various tribal villages which  included demolition of tribal dwellings.  Of these villages, we visited Potla and Katukiya and also Semli, one of whose inhabitants was killed in the police firing.

We held extensive interviews with the inhabitants of each village. It is significant that the versions of different villagers on the manner in which the administration conducted the operation tally in all  important aspects. We saw broken houses, pulverised roof tiles, shattered grain baskets and rubble all around, evidence of the complete devastation of the tribal habitats. There were also traces of poison in drinking water and flour. The obvious state of shock and the terrorised demeanour of the tribals was indicative of a viciousness in the use of state power which no circumstance can warrant.

Village Potla

In Potla village the operation took place on the 29th of March. According to the villagers, some time in the forenoon they saw several jeeps and trucks, carrying a large number of people including armed police personnel, driving into the village. Most of the villagers ran away in fear into the adjoining jungles but they were followed by rounds of firing. One tribal boy, Amar Singh, in his late teens, showed us the injury caused by a bullet, which grazed his left thigh while he was running away from the village.

Three women, however, stayed back in the village. They believed that they could plead with the officials. One of them Sahiri bai told us that for several hours she provided them with water even as they were engaged in destroying the houses. All the while she was trying to prevail upon them to desist. At one point this angered the officials who pulled her by her hair and assaulted her. Her face was still swollen and bruised when we saw her. The other two women who tried to intercede met with identical treatment and eventually all 3 women were pushed into a jeep and taken away to the police station. The women are unable to identify or name the police station. They were kept in custody until the 8th of April, when they were let off in Dewas. These women say that their thumb impressions were taken on several blank sheets of paper but are unable to throw any light on the nature of the proceedings contrived to keep them in custody. These women are illiterate and are emphatic that they were given no explanation as to why they had been detained.

We also met Chheda s/o Nanuram, large parts of whose house had been completely destroyed. We could see crushed remnants of the Morvi tiles that had formed the roof of his house before the police operation. Chheda told us that the marauding officials had taken 5 quintals of maize, all his utensils, clothes and agricultural implements away. From its general condition, the extreme poverty of his household was evident..

Chheda's brother, Redu's house, which we saw,  had also been destroyed. Redu told us that the officials had looted 2 quintals of grain, 1 quintal of mahua and all the clothes and utensils and Rs.500 that he had saved.

Village Katukiya

We next visited village Katukiya. Here the operation took place on the 1st of April.

The villagers of Katukiya too had run away at the approach of the official cavalcade and came back to a scene of complete devastation. When they came back, not only had all their implements been broken, their fowl had been stolen from their houses. Their water pots had been filled with some chemical and therefore were rendered unfit to use thereafter. This chemical had also been mixed in their meager food supplies. It was only the strong smell let out by the chemical that warned the tribals not to use them. In addition to everything else, a clear and present danger had been posed to their very lives by the poisoning of their food and water supplies.

The cattle of the village had been set free to destroy the standing crops in the fields. It is important to note here that when we say "standing crops" it is not to signify some extensive agricultural operation, but the barest subsistence agriculture on which these tribals rely. This year has seen the severest drought in recorded history in this area.

As we entered the house of Gopal s/o Chain Singh ,which had broken walls and no roof and around which the roof tiles lay crushed in a pile of rubble, we could see household utensils lying broken and scattered. Even the sacred totem poles had been sawed off. There was a little child, who at our approach, bawled in the most unnatural manner. Her mother said that this was the way the child had been since the day the officials came and laid waste their house. The trauma of this child is evocative of the destruction of whole lifestyles caused by a moment of administrative misadventure, which would take years to repair, if at all.

We next visited the house of Lalu s/o Chain Singh. The inner walls of his house had been completely broken as also the roof. The grain had been scattered all over the floor of the house. It was like a post-cyclone or earthquake scene. In all, 20 houses and 1 shop, which also housed materials for the local anganwadi, had been attacked and ransacked in this fashion.

We met the family of  of Roop Singh, who had been shot at point blank range on 23-9-99 by 4 forest guards in the village in the presence of some of his family members when he was returning from his morning ablutions. A report was lodged (FIR no. 134 of 99 dated 23-9-99) in PS Udainagar against Gond Nakedar, Vishnu Nakedar, Deputy Ranger, Punjapura Range and Ranger, Punjapura Range, alleging offences under Sections 302, 147, 148 and 149 of the Indian Penal Code. It is credibly learnt that all 4 accused are now out on bail. The trial is on. We shall revert to this incident later in our report.

Village Semli

Our third and final stop was in the village of Semli, one of whose tribal inhabitants, Balram s/o Jherma, aged 25 years, had been killed in the police firing on the 2nd of April. The firing itself had taken place in the village of Mehendikheda, which we passed on the way to Semli. We extensively interviewed several villagers who had been present at the firing. Their versions tallied and remained unshaken in the face of minute questioning and cross-questioning. This version is as follows:

A group of about 300 villagers belonging to this tribal belt had gathered near Mehendikheda village in a kind of a vigil from the 31st of March. This was because by now news of successive operations on various villages by the civil and forest officials accompanied by an armed force had spread in the area. They had gathered to prevent a similar occurrence in other villages. In the forenoon of April 2, 2001, a string of official vehicles which carried among others, the District Collector, Mr. Ashok Baranwal, the Divisional Forest Officer, Mr. M.S. Dhakad and the Superintendent of Police, Mr. Sanjiv Shami, surrounded by armed personnel, stopped short of the gathered people. The officials got down. The villagers protested and after a round of tear gas shells they resorted to firing in which 4 people died. Their names are:
     Balram s/o Jherma, village Semli                 -tribal
     Bholu s/o Ida Singh, village Jamasindh        -tribal
     Pathaniya, village Kanad                            -tribal
     Nemichand Jaiswal, village Bisali

We repeat that the death of the said persons as a result of police firing is not denied by the district administration.

District Administration's Version

The version of the district administration is derived from the following sources:

  • Newspaper reports and
  • Conversation with the District Collector of members of the investigative team

The administration's version is as follows:

The tribals are incited to fell trees by the Adivasi Mukti Morcha. The administration’s operations  conducted between March 28 and April 2,  2001 were aimed at reclaiming the illegally felled wood. In all, 23 houses had been demolished of which only 2 were inhabited dwellings. The firing on April 2, 2001 occurred because of initial attack by the gathered villagers using stones and firearms. The administration claims that 3 policemen were injured. The version however does not assert any recovery of firearms from either the spot or from the belongings of any villagers.

Findings of Chairman, National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and his Demands for Action Against Officials

In this context, the findings of Mr. Dilip Singh Bhuria, Chairman, National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Government of India, after visiting the area on the 6th of April, 2001 are very important. Describing the incident as a violation of human rights, Mr. Bhuria has demanded that:

  • proceedings against the Collector, SP, DFO and other concerned officials be initiated under the Atrocities Act, 1989
  • the Collector and the SP be immediately arrested
  • immediate relief measures for the affected tribals be started forthwith.

Additional Sources of Information: Interviews with “Samaj Pragati Sahayog” a  nationally recognised training institute for Watershed Development, working in the area for the last 8 Years

Members of this organisation had conducted an on-the-spot inquiry. They showed us video recordings carried out in 3 of the affected villages that document the destruction. They also conducted detailed surveys in 4 villages and have a tally of the houses destroyed in the operation as also the details of the looting that took place. This tally does not support the District Administration’s case that only 23 houses were destroyed and of these only two were inhabited. Their video footage provides evidence of legal permission having been obtained by one Rem Singh s/o Keriya, village Patpadi from his Gram Panchayat for the wood in his possession. The footage shows the written permission of the Gram Panchayat that provides full details of the wood in his possession. Despite this his house was demolished and the wood seized during the operation.

Conclusions

It is evident that no legal proceedings were initiated against any individual or group of individuals belonging to the tribal villages for illegal felling of trees. No notice was given to them prior to demolition let alone an opportunity of a hearing. The illegality of felling trees is not in issue here. What is relevant is that no circumstance can warrant wanton destruction by state agencies. Assault and threatening of life sources is a heinous offence. The illegitimacy of entering the villages, breaking houses, poisoning of water, destruction of food supplies and the illegal detention of 3 women after physically assaulting them is obvious. On this score alone, the district administration is culpable. In addition to these being penal offences under the Indian Penal Code, they are also offences under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. Even the Chairman of National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has, upon investigation found, that gross violations have taken place. As yet, no action has been taken against any of the errant officials although the incident has been brought to the attention of the highest functionaries of the state government including the Chief Minister . Even an individual committing murder can only be brought to book by the due process of law. It is evident that no legitimate process was resorted to by the administration including the Collector, the DFO and the SP. On the contrary, these important officials committed and incited others to commit serious violations of the law.

It also appears that the district administration followed no method to assess the whereabouts of illegally felled wood. The destruction of dwelling houses showed that there was no method to identify the origin and nature of the wood used. In fact, the team saw one of the remaining walls of a demolished house, actually bearing an endorsement made by health officials during a tapeworm eradication programme on 19th May 2000. This shows that the house is actually in existence and inhabited even before May 2000.

Due process was not followed during the seizure of material. Thus there is no record of what was seized after the operations, or the fact that it was seized in accordance with the law and that nothing other than what was absolutely permissible was even touched. It is clear that the officials and their conspirators could not afford to follow any due process of seizure and search, for, the entire operation was a brazen illegality as our investigations even otherwise revealed.

As a first step, there must be an impartial inquiry into the occurrence of police firing on the assembled people. The police version of attack by the people with firearms does not appear to be supported by any cogent material. In any event, any police firing, signifying as it does the readiness of the state force to injure and kill its own citizens must be firmly inquired into.

Offences already committed by the district officials require that they should be removed from office without delay and prosecuted. Such a course is also imperative for an independent inquiry into the incidents. The presence in office of the officials whose conduct is being inquired into, will not lend credibility to the inquiry.

It is the responsibility of the state to immediately compensate the villagers for loss of life, property and means of livelihood. As yet nothing has been done in this regard.

Madhya Pradesh boasts that it has a functioning Panchayati Raj system. There is however no evidence that the system was invoked at any stage to discuss or resolve the issue. On the contrary, during the weeklong operations, four sarpanches of the affected villages were put into jail, and the SP told an elected member of the zilla panchayat, Nandu Singh Rawat that he would be booked under the NSA if he tried to intervene. As for van samitis, it is significant that that houses built in the last one year by the members of these samitis were left untouched throughout the carnage, which indicates the nexus between the forest officials and these members.

Other Important Issues

The broader issue that this incident throws up must not be lost sight of. The special relationship of tribals with the forests that surround their habitat and evils of an an insensitive state policy, harming this traditional equation are well known. Attempts have been made to address this by various constitutional provisions for the protection of tribal interests. The wisdom of setting up community forest management and local self government institutions is obvious. However, nothing functional of this kind has happened in Madhya Pradesh, in spite of great claims. It is imperative that some coherent, just and viable policy must be formulated to regulate forest management and the use of forest produce by the tribals. Otherwise they will be left prey to the whims and fancies of officialdom, who are prepared to look the other way till bribes are paid. Once these bribes stop, they crackdown ruthlessly, which is the real story of Dewas.

We must add repeated references to a particular tribal organisation were made in the course of our conversations with the villagers and others working in this area. The officials have also referred to this organisation in their statements. In fact the Collector has been reported as saying that the aim of these operations was to finish off the Adivasi Mukti Morcha.

According to the tribals, it had become impossible for them to cope with the demand for bribes by the forest guards and others each time they went into the forest to pick up even the legitimate headload of firewood. Eventually they formed themselves into an organisation. This organisation addressed fundamental issues of tribal life. It aimed at controlling alcoholism among the tribals and had succeeded to some extent. It helped them to resist the pressures of powerful interests. As Jherma of Semli put it: "Before the Morcha, even if we wanted to lodge an FIR, we would have to wait the whole day at the police station. The thanedar would make us fetch water, clean the toilets of his house, get him liquor and other blandishments. He would abuse us and only then consider our request. The forest guards (nakedar) would demand large sums of money for even letting us pick up headloads. When the ‘Sangathan’ was formed, we resolutely refused to accede to any of these wrongful demands. This angered the nakedars. They started targeting active members of the sangathan. Roop Singh of Katukiya village was killed at point blank range by 4 nakedars in a jeep in the full presence of the villagers only to instill fear amongst us. The forest officials would round up individual tribals and parade them in the villages as an example of what would happen if we organised ourselves. The officials had warned us of dire action if we continued to be united in this organisation."

In this context, the statement of the District Collector, reported in the Nai Duniya of February 15, 2001 assumes significance. That a government official should publicly announce that his object was to finish off an organisation which has neither been declared unlawful nor found to have indulged in any illegality is itself a gross breach of fundamental principles of democratic governance.

This year has been the year of coupe felling in Bagli tehsil. This means that the forest department consciously fells trees for commercial exploitation. The volume of wood felled and transported is immense and completely unsupervised. We ourselves saw many trucks carrying such wood during our stay in the area. In this context, to target the poor tribals who have no other means of sustenance and to victimise them so brutally acquires a grotesque irony. It also appears to give the lie to the claims of the Madhya Pradesh government that it has made great strides in the formation of panchayat samitis and involve the people in the management of their own lives.

No attempt was made to engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue either directly with the people of these villages or with their panchayat representatives.


We demand:

  • immediate action against those responsible for the atrocities perpetrated on innocent tribal people. The immediate step in this direction should be the transfer of the Collector, SP and DFO out of Dewas district.
  • Compensation of a minimum of Rs.2 lakhs for the 4 people who died in police firing.
  • Immediate reconstruction of all houses destroyed in the action by the administation and an additional monetary compensation of Rs.10,000 to each of these families.
  • a multidisciplinary body to supervise and operationalise the objectives of community forest management and local self government.