By Amit Kumar, TwoCircles.net
Bokakhat: Residents of Agoratoli village, located on the outskirts of the Kaziranga National Park (Eastern Range) have alleged harassment and intimidation at the hands of anti-poaching guards, and said the incident once again highlighted the heavy-handed nature of the forest department towards the locals vis-a-vis conservation efforts.
On the night of June 5, four armed guards who were part of a patrolling team manning the embankment just outside the Kaziranga National Park entered a home on the pretext of “looking for poachers”.
As per the family, the patrolling team misbehaved with the residents including one Bitupan Pegu, a government school teacher.
Bitupan is stationed in Dhubri district of Assam but had returned home following the lockdown enforced in the country due to COVID-19 pandemic. Since he had to be in quarantine for two weeks, he was offered a place in the property which belongs to the Na: Diyal cooperative, an initiative of the residents.
Over the past few months, this space has played host to many village-level events, including the celebration of World Environment Day.
After the commandos threatened the two residents has greatly angered the locals, who have lambasted this extreme invasion of private spaces in the name of patrolling and a direct threat to their daily lives.
Speaking about that night’s incident, Nogen Kardong, a resident of Agoratoli whose house is located right next to the cooperative, told TwoCircles.net, “We never stopped them from doing their duty (patrolling the border of the Kaziranga National Park). What kind of work are they doing by entering our homes in the middle of the night? A cooperative built this place to serve the locals. Do they think the residents will host poachers?
It is important to point out that earlier this month, a rhinoceros was found dead in the Agoratoli range, following which an investigation was launched. Subsequently, the alleged poachers were arrested from the nearby hill district of Karbi Anglong. “The poachers were not local people. It is not just the forest department that protects the Park, we locals are equally committed, if not more, to saving nature. They patrol for a few days; we patrol every day. We do farming so that the animals of the KNP can eat. Deer, rhino, wild boars and elephants eat what we grow and we rarely get compensated for the same,” he said.
Questioning and harassing locals over something that they did not do was uncalled for, he added.
Another resident, Durna Kanta Patgiri, whose house is adjacent to the cooperative, said while commandos entering private property had not happened before, the forest rangers had off late been regularly questioning locals over daily activities. “About two weeks ago, however, I was patrolling my rice harvest since it is common for animals to come at night and destroy the standing crops. The forest guards questioned me, asking me what I was doing so late at night. I told them clearly what I was doing and that I did not trust them to protect my crops,” he said.
Following the altercation, residents of Agoratoli and other villages nearby staged a massive, six-hour protest outside the Range Office in Kaziranga. Among the protesters was Manohar Pegu, a student of Political Science at the Dibrugarh University and a resident of Agoratoli. “Our protest was to ask for justice against such behaviour from forest officials. We protested for six hours before the concerned officials who didn’t even bother to respond. We submitted a memorandum listing our demands but they had no response. We asked them to show what written order they had which prohibited locals from moving around freely, which they could not produce. This is harassment and intimidation on the part of the Forest officials. When we pressed them further, they asked us to come and meet them on Monday, June 8 but the meeting yielded nothing concrete.”
Speaking about the meeting on June 8, Prabin Pegu, Secretary, Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha, a farmer’s organization told TwoCircles.net that the intrusion of commandos was uncalled for to begin with, which the district administration and the forest officials have not acknowledged. “They were in the cooperative because this is the time when all locals are alert about protecting their harvests from wild animals. What is illegal about that? Who gave them the right to ask locals about why the light was switched on? How can they enter a house without any warrant and harass locals? Our ancestors have lived and protected this place for decades and today, a teacher is threatened? What was our fault that a rhinoceros was killed?” he said.
“The idea that locals are being questioned for being out at night is uncalled for,” Pegu added. “Several times, a cow or a buffalo goes astray and we have to look for them around the border of KNP at night. The embankment is our lifeline and it’s the only path that connects homes. If they begin questioning us for doing this, then what is next? They must not forget that locals own land on both sides of the embankments and even the embankment is built on our lands,” he said.
Pegu added that the forest department has never paid any attention to the plight of the locals and the issues they face. “Forest officials say things like ‘We have been issued orders by higher authorities’. Who has issued what order? Why can’t we be informed of the same? How can anyone stop locals from using the village road at night? Is this their attempt to force us out of our homes?”
District officials remain tight-lipped about the incident. A senior district official said they were looking into the matter and that the results of the investigation will soon be shared with the locals. The official dismissed reports that there was an order restricting movement on embankments in villages around Kaziranga National Park at night. “I can confirm that there have been no such orders. The only time we consider restricting movement on embankments is during floods, which is not the case. If the forest guards have said anything like that, we will surely look into this matter,” he added. The official added that the administration will speak with Forest Department officials to ensure that such incidents are not repeated in future.