Women forest dwellers recount struggles, stories of resistance in Mumbai event

By Daisy K, TwoCircles.net

Even though there exist laws to protect forest dwellers in the country, residents, especially women, continue to face severe forms of harassment at the hands of officials, said women activists from Sonbhadra District of Uttar Pradesh during an event in Mumbai.

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They recounted stories of resistance and struggles in their attempts to secure land during an event organised on Wednesday by Citizen of Justice and Peace (CJP), along with All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP). The event saw the participation of women leaders of AIUFWP including Roma Malik, Sokalo Gond, Kismatiya Gond and Rajkumari Bhuiya.

Speaking on the occasion, Roma Malik traced the struggles for land claims. “This struggle is not just for the Adivasis but for the entire civil society. There is no law here in India which talks about the protection of jungles and the protection of people’s livelihoods. The British made all the laws, they looted our jungles and then they bought in the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. After that, they bought in the Indian Forest Act in 1927 and people were then called “encroachers” of forests.

“The Forest department post-independence became one of the biggest landlords in the country by appropriating land through the Gazette of India. This went on from 1947 till the 1970s. After that came the Wildlife Protection Act which began the rhetoric that the people are harmful to the jungles. Further, the entire system of Zamindari dislodged the actual cultivators and caretakers of the land and the jungles,” she said.  She added that the AIUFWP had reclaimed more than 20,000 hectares of land which is now been collectively cultivated by the women.

Senior activist Sokalo Gond pointed out the importance of collective work in the community. “We always come together and cultivate the land, it is not something that the family does on an individual basis. We as a community come together and till the land,” she said.

The FWP (Forest Working People) have staked claim to land under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, known as the FRA. It is applicable to the forest regions across India. Even though the act has been enacted for 12 years, people, especially women, face brutalities at the hands of the police.

Rajkumari Gond, a senior forest rights activist from her community, recalled her arrest in 2015 from her village Lilasi, located about 80-90 kilometres from the Robertsganj district headquarters. The village is a cluster of 300-400 homes. “I was taken to jail some 100 Kilometres from my village, I was not allowed to inform anyone about my arrest. I refused to eat any food which they provided me, this was our struggle, I could still feel a sense of power, I never lost my faith,” she said.

The activists added that many villagers have been implicated under the cases of cutting trees under the FRA wherein, the Act, which was a form of protection, has now also been utilised to victimise the people who are staking claim to the land.  Teesta Setalvad, who is part of the NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace, said they have been working on a project called Jail Ke Pare which deals with the treatment meted out to the prisoners in women.

Sukalo Gond further spoke about the arrests and attack by the police in her village. “The state took away our land which was taken care of by our forefathers, we are here to seize the land which they have captured. We have built a school in our village and whatever the land we have been able to seize back from the Forest Department, we have named it as Birsa Nagar after Birsa Munda.”