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No co-incidence: Tree felling, 'attack' on JADS activists taking place in Forest Minister's area

Counterview Desk 

India’s top civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), in an open letter to the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, has demanded that the authorities must stop “targeting of Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) activists who have been “demanding action against rampant tree-felling and timber-smuggling in the Burhanpur and Khandwa forests.”
It regretted, “This is happening in a region from which the State Forest Minister hails”, which seems to be “no coincidence.”
Seeking withdrawal of “all false cases and charges” and “end to state repression and tree felling”, the letter said, there has been “mass violations of adivasi and forest rights” in the state, underlining, “Instead of taking timely action against the tree-felling mafia and responding to the peaceful protests of thousands of adivasis, who are struggling to secure forest cover, the administration has been weaponizing the law against them.”

Text:

We are writing urgently, with regard to the completely unjust targeting and harassment of adivasis and activists associated with the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), for demanding action against rampant tree-felling and timber-smuggling in the Burhanpur and Khandwa forests of Madhya Pradesh. It is well-known that JADS has been working relentlessly for the past 25 years in the western adivasi region of MP, securing the rights and dignity of adivasis on a range of issues including employment guarantee and livelihoods, food security, forest rights, health care, pensions, education, labour and human rights etc.
For almost seven months now, JADS has been exposing the massive, state-enabled deforestation over 15,000 acres in the Burhanpur Forest range, and has also gathered information about the involvement of certain village-level gangs, officials of the civil administration and forest department in the same. However, despite repeated complaints at all levels (including to the State Home Minister and CMO) and mass protests, there has been little concrete action to end the tree-felling. It was only after some of the gang members reportedly attacked a police station on 6th April and took away an arrested person, did the police wake up and arrest some of the gang leaders, as on 25th April. This too, after clamping down on about a thousand homes of adivasis in Vakadi and Siwal villages and causing immense hardships to them. It is also being feared that the police may extract false confessions from these persons in custody against JADS members.
We wish to highlight here that instead of taking timely action against the tree-felling mafia and responding to the peaceful protests of thousands of adivasis, who are struggling to secure forest cover, the administration has been weaponizing the law against them, resorting to crackdown on and intimidation of the sangathan, on a mass scale. That this is happening in a region from which the State Forest Minister hails, seems to be no coincidence.
As per the latest information available, the SP of Burhanpur has indicated to the press that at least 50 JADS activists including - Nitin Varghese, Bhimsing, Dilip, Sursing, Ramdas, Remla, Pyarsing, Ganpa, Ramesh, Tersing, Kunwarsing, Reva, Sukhlal, Kartap, Bhangi, Sonar, Malu, Gorelal and others would be arrested. Notably, around 24 cases [including of ‘tree-felling, ‘extortion’, offences under (SC & ST PoA) Act, 1989] have also been filed against Madhuri, social activist who has been associated with JADS since its inception and has invested her entire adult life in securing rights of adivasis and marginalized communities.
The allegations of ‘extortion’ in the process of filing forest rights claims under Forests Rights Act are completely unfounded
On 30th April, an adivasi leader, Antaram Awase (President of the Gram Sabha of Siwal village and elected Secretary of Forest Rights Committee) was arrested and reportedly made to sign some blank papers in police custody. We have learnt that some of the unfair charges against him are in the context of a) forced eviction of FRA claimants in 2019, which led to protests including by Antaram, firing on adivasis and transfer of the then DFO, SDoP and Ranger and b) case where forest mafia attacked forest officials, but ironically, Antaram who informed the Forest Dept of tree-felling has been implicated. The Sangathan claims that many other adivasis (Vill Siwal, Nepanagar), were also made to sign on blank papers before they were let off from police detention on the late night of 1st May.
It is amply clear that the State government is now in an offensive, ‘damage-control’ mode and this vindictive crack-down on a decades-old, democratic sangathan is only to conceal its own connivance in Burhanpur’s deforestation. The allegations of ‘extortion’ in the process of filing forest rights claims under FRA are also completely unfounded, given how JADS has always remained a unfunded, adivasi-led people’s movement in the region.
National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) unequivocally condemns this unjust harassment and malicious criminalization of a public-spirited organization and a grassroots adivasi movement, truly safeguarding ecology and adivasi rights in Madhya Pradesh. We are deeply concerned about the safety and rights of adivasis and activists who have been fearlessly questioning the State and have been in dialogue with, assisting the state officials to implement the law and Constitution.

We demand:

a. An immediate end to the spree of repression on JADS and withdrawal of all fabricated cases filed against its members – adivasi leaders and social activists.
b. Immediate release of FRC member, adivasi leader of JADS, Antaram Awase.
c. A high-level, independent inquiry into all the allegations of tree-felling, timber smuggling and action against the responsible persons and agencies, including the forest mafia and officials involved, as well as the role of the State Forest Minister.
d. Immediate suspension of the District Collector, SP and DFO, Burhanpur pending inquiry into the said allegations of high-handedness, inaction and complicity.
e. Instructions to the district police to abstain from extracting false confessions from persons in custody, against JADS members.
f. Full compliance of the provisions and procedures under FRA, 2006 and PESA, 1996 in the Schedule-V areas of MP.
Looking forward to your urgent intervention, in the interest of justice.
---
Letter signed by Arundhati Dhuru, Ashish Ranjan, Chakradhar, Dorothy Fernandes, Gabriele Dietrich, Meera Sanghamitra and Suhas Kolhekar, among others on behalf of NAPM

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