Brutalised by official terror, their land ravaged for private greed, the pristine beauty of the dense forests in the Dangs is an epic narrative of lost hopes and devastated lives

Prabhat Sharan Dangs (Gujarat)

"The history which has emerged has, more often than not, provided a traffic chronicle of uncompensated expropriation of common resources, of arrogant and unsympathetic administration by the colonial State, of loss of livelihood, cultural trauma and great suffering for the forest people. The process often led to resistance and revolt, invariably quelled with harshness." David Hardiman, Powers in the Forest: The Dangs 1820-1940 Fifty years later.

Dang, Kosimda, November 21, 1991:  In the weak autumn light of the setting orange orb in this hamlet, casting shadows through the dry leaves, an anxious adivasi woman walks on the sloping pebble strewn path towards her home. A shot ricochets through the burnished fields, hills and forests. The woman collapses. The foggy, flickering hurricane lantern glistens on the blood spray snaking into rivulets on the dung caked grassy soil, with trigger-happy,  stone- faced forest guards weaving the spell of terror on the children of the forests. They watch Tarabai Pawar in pain as shards of silence die.

That was 17 years ago. The scenario in the Dangs, the dense forest district in Gujarat, continues to be a grim jungle of lost hopes and devastated lives. On paper, in January 2008, after much reluctance, the Indian government accepted the legitimate existence of the adivasis (tribals) and issued a notification of the Forest Rights Act.

Dang, Motidaba, October 2008: Scores of forest guards storm into a 10 acre field. At dusk, the field cultivated by 60-year-old Ramubhai wore a forlorn, mangled look. Ramubhai, on returning next day, found his sister sobbing in front of his demolished house with his little possessions floating in a nearby stream. Tarabai was not the first victim of State repression and terror. Nor will she be the last. Like Bram Stoker's insatiable Dracula, the forest department (read Indian State) often in collusion
with big business houses, continue to haunt, plague and terrorise the poverty-stricken tribals.

Here, the political economy did not change in post-1947 India. The Indian State did not deem it necessary to ask the Dangi people whether they wanted to be a part of India. Probably, this was because big business profiteers and the State, like colonial rulers, were eyeing the rich forest produce and the mineral treasures which comprise 97 per cent of the region. Prior to circa 1812, the forests were freely cultivated by the adivasi folks and the concept of private holdings or landed property was absent. Post-1842, the Britishers, in order to plunder the forest wealth, started demarcating the jungles into reserved and protected forests. This was the first time that the Dangis -- the original inhabitants of the forests -- who had been cultivating and hunting since centuries, faced the onslaught of exploitation and repression by outsiders and the State. The forest produce collectors, food-gatherers and tribal farmers were forcibly turned into wage labourers. In 1948, the Dangs, which was treated as an independent territory under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act, was brought under the Indian Union. Tribal acquiescence was taken for granted.

The exit of the British changed the face of the State. But the onslaught continues till this day, donning a new face. The forests are a source of wealth and "that is what matters to the big industrial houses and government," says Bharat Pawar, general secretary of the Dangi Mazdoor Union. "Till yesterday, our very existence was branded as ‘criminal' and criminalised. We have grown up in the forests but they did an official survey (1951-1969). They not only took away our legal, natural and inherited rights to our forests, rivers, streams and land, but even hounded us out from our own homeland," he says.

Activist and lawyer, Irfan Engineer, who has been closely associated with the tribal rights struggle since 1990, the Adivasi Bhumiheen Hakk Samrak, says, "Though the act has finally accepted the legitimate existence of the forest dwellers, the issue has now become more tenuous. The forest department does not want to lose its hold over the jungles. Big business is involved. Evictions, assaults and threats have increased after the Forest Rights Act."

The first ever recorded revolt in the Dangs took place in 1829. The uprising was led by Shilpat Singh Pawar who challenged the curtailment of tribal rights over forests and forest resources. This revolt was followed by 14 cases of unrest by tribal people, challenging the dictatorial and alien structures on their lives and social system, while throwing them out of their homeland by declaring it ‘reserved' and ‘protected'. Post- 1948 witnessed several small uprisings, crushed by the State.

The 1991 killing of Tarabai was an outcome of a simple demand made by the tribals. A new survey and settlement of forest land and regularisation of the forests after it is cultivated. The government did not take it lightly, nor did the forest department and police. "Till then, they were used to free meat, food, liquor and crops forcibly extracted from the locals. Bribery was rampant and so were beatings and assaults," says Pawar. "Most of us took it for granted that we have to pay the officials for cultivating our small piece of land."

It is not surprising that in 1991, when the tribals stopped paying bribes, the department reacted in a demonic manner. Curfew was clamped down and Tarabai, who had dared to go home, was shot dead. The killing was not a knee-jerk reaction of a nervous gun-toting forest guard. It was a message that was loud and clear. Surprisingly, the tribals reacted by burning down forest department offices. Heavy police reinforcements were rushed in. The crackdown followed. Over 400 people were picked up, thrashed and tortured.

Following this episode and Gujarat High Court strictures in 1993, instructing the forest department not to interfere with local cultivation, the state government came out with a government regulation (GR) stating that any cultivator, "who has been cultivating the land prior to 1980 and has a fine receipt issued by the forest department vis-à-vis cultivation," would be entitled to stake a claim. Tribals were at a loss since majority of them never had anything in writing nor were they in possession of receipts. The result: majority of claims to forest rights were rejected.

Sixty-year-old Sangibhai Ukhadia from Kosimda, displaying his twisted forearm, says, "They broke my right hand and my back hurts so much that it pains whenever I walk. This was because I had staked a claim on eight acres in Jamlapada. They assaulted me and my friend Chandresh Shilpat." Physical violence against Ukhadia and Shilpat are cases in point in a region where average land holdings are so small that the class differentiation based on landholdings is also minimal. Analysis of the arable land occupational structure reveals that the forest department -- widely seen as totally corrupt -- controls 53.11 per cent of the total 1.17 lakh hectares of cultivable land. Thus, 87 per cent of the population has to make do with only 32 per cent of the land with the land-person ratio working out to a mere 0.38 hectares and average land/household ratio to 2.16 hectares.

Small land holdings coupled with isolation from minor forest produce has forced the Dangis to migrate as seasonal workers. Around 40,000 Dangis migrate to Surat and Valsad districts every year to work as cane-cutters in the sugar cooperatives. The little money they save - Rs, 3,000 to Rs 5,000 - goes into repaying loans or in the cultivation of fields. The forest department uses this period to swoop down. The repression is two-fold: first it creates fear and helplessness; after seeing the destruction of their farms, the tribals are compelled to work at abysmally low wages. Second, the department wants to wrest back its control over the forests and dissuade the indigenous people from staking claim over their ancestral land.

Pawar explains: "This has to be analysed logically. The pulp mills are fast mushrooming all over the district. The owners want to own the forests and ravage it. Bamboo, the most lucrative forest produce, should belong to the adivasis. We oppose organised denudation of the forests and this is not liked by
the mill owners and the government. They want to throw us out from our homeland in the name of protecting forests. But for us, the forest is a sacred grove which sustains us...

"There is hardly any home which has not been touched by hunger. Farmers outside the forests have rights to their land, city dwellers have the right to purchase any kind of wood, submerge the forests for electricity, or build tourist resorts for relaxation, but we don't even have to right to live our ancient way of life. Our relationship (animistic) with the forests is under threat. The laws and official terror stops us from hunting and growing crops. They want us to procure food from the open market at a high price. This is not part of our food habits or social fabric, nor do we have any money. But there it is, you can see for yourself, we are homeless and hungry in our own homeland."