On June 8, 2018 Sokalo, a Tharu tribal woman from Uttar Pradesh, was returning to her village by train with two friends after bringing their grievances forward to authorities. Their villages and huts were attacked by the Uttar Pradesh Police and Forest Department in contradiction to their legal rights to live in and use the forest. Suddenly, at the end of the long journey home, at Chopan Railway station, Sokalo was seized by police, and forcefully withheld from speaking to her family, lawyer, or the press. She was arrested on completely false charges, indisputably because of her position as female, tribal, activist. Sokalo’s name did not even appear in the police FIR when her husband finally found her in jail (Malik & Setalvad, 2018). Sokalo was jailed for 5 months.
On June 19 & 20th, I had the privilege of attending a general meeting of the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP) in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. It was here that I met Sokalo, and heard her story of being imprisoned (multiple times), and how her community organized to form a samiti (council), and eventually unionized. Tharus continue to face harassment despite progressive legislation which upholds their rights, such as the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA), not to mention basic rights as guaranteed under the Indian Constitution as Scheduled Tribes. While my research focuses on the Van Gujjars (nomadic, Muslim pastoralists – see my other posts here) and forest rights, Roma and Ashok from AIUFWP work in related circles. AIUFWP are key actors in assisting Gujjars like Chopra Ji file claims for land rights, holding legal trainings, and answering the endless questions of social researchers like me. AIUFWP was founded in 2013 with the aim of asserting the collective identity of forest workers and their right to dignity of labour:
“AIUFWP will seek to build solidarity among forest working people in India by organizing and uniting the adivasi and dalit forest workers. The fight for sovereign and traditional rights of the forest people who predominantly comprise of marginalized and oppressed communities cannot be fought in isolation” (South Asia Citizens Web Press Release, 2013).
One of the cornerstones of AIUFWP is to work with and for women, especially through self-empowerment. The meeting last week in Saharapur was an exceptional opportunity to understand how women are at the forefront of some of the most violent battles for forest rights and resources in India. The question of ‘gender’ and Van Gujjars is shrouded in complexity that no researcher or activist has yet to really address. Roma and I both hoped that ‘kuch baat karte hain’ (‘having a chat’) and listening to the lived experiences of Tharu activists could help understand how to mobilize other women from forest communities.
Tharus are a Scheduled Tribe in India residing primarily in the Terai region along the border of Nepal. The majority of Tharus are small scale farmers who also rely heavily on their surrounding forest for non-timber products such as kindling, honey, and fish. People from their community were deeply implicated in bonded labour (especially within Nepal, known as kamaiya). Some journalists today report that in the Indian Terai, begar (unpaid forced labour) is still practiced by the Forest Department (FD), forcing locals to clean roads and perform manual labour, as well as other horrific acts of caste-based violence.
In the meeting, a Tharu man named Rajinish highlighted the importance of the end of colonial rule for governing Tharu land relations. When British rule ended and the Zamindari system collapsed, massive amounts of land were lost to the government. Within this system, Tharus, to this day, have to pay galla (bribes, or a parallel tax) to the FD– often in bushels of wheat, pulses, or other agricultural and forest products. These bribes are entirely illegal, and unlike some ‘charai’ bribes paid by Gujjars which are receipted, Tharus have no paper trail to prove their payments (receipted bribes can count as legal evidence of residence). Bonded labour had officially ended, but the systems of power, control, and payment remained intact. Nivadha, another Tharu activist from Dudhwa National Park area, was badly injured on her forehead while collecting firewood after being attacked by a forest guard (you can see a video here, but the content is disturbing). She told me that once her community formed the union, they were strong enough to stop paying illegal bribes to the FD. This angered the FD because other villages continued to pay, but not those in the union. According to Nivadha, the FD is purposefully trying to break women’s unity by filing claims against them, using scare tactics, and randomly arresting their leaders like Sokalo.
Collectivizing under AIUFWP allowed these women in 2011 to successfully file claims for Community Forest Rights under the FRA, and receive official rights to over 600 hectares of forest for both Surma and Golbhoji villages (Fanari, 2019). This is a formidable achievement, not only because many Tharu villages were forcefully evicted from Dudhwa Park during its creation in 1977, but also because these women are mothers, working long hours in agricultural subsistence, and are illiterate.
To me, illiteracy was a perceived barrier to social mobilization and understanding the complexities of Indian litigation. For anyone who has read the FRA, the process of filing claims is a complicated, multi-step process, and even more complex for those seeking community rights instead of individual rights. I assumed these women must be some lucky few who had gone to school, or were of higher socio-economic standing and had free time. Sokalo, Rajkumari, and Nivadha proved me very, very wrong. None of them can read, and all of them can recite the relevant chapters of the FRA. Rajkumari told me indignantly:
“Ask me anything. I know all my rights. The police they tell me ‘what do you know, you just cut grass in the fields’, and I told him fine, you come and tell me about the forest rights. We even give them copies of the Act. But he couldn’t tell me anything, he hasn’t read it. I know all my rights on the FRA which I hold – I could give him a lesson in the FRA!”
Roma laughed, and said the 2 massive file folders of hundreds of pages of evidence for Chopra Ji’s claims could be arranged by Rajkumari – she knew the process better than anyone!
Meeting, speaking, and oral trainings have been massively successful for mobilizing women like Rajkumari. I asked Nivadha how she possibly had time to travel 400 kilometres for a meeting – what about her children and household duties? Her personal safety? She told me that sometimes people are hesitant, but when her village won their FRA claims, and when women were able to enter the forest and take products that earn income, their respect in society increased. Without their battles the economic viability of their villages would be in a dire state. In the (paraphrased) words of Nivadha: “We women walk into the forest first, we tell our men to stay at home. We are the bravest and we know the Forest Guards can’t touch us. We will fight for our rights”.
I left the meetings on the second day, but Nivadha, Sokalo, and their comrades were brainstorming how they could unite to completely stop hafta across Dudhwa Park and stop exploitative relations with the FD. This is crucial, because even holding Community Forest Rights since 2011 did not stop the violence unleashed by the Police and FD in the Village Lilasi, of Sonbhadar District, on May 21, 2018. The police barged into Tharu houses, supposedly acting on false allegations that tribals had ‘cut trees and destroyed the forest’. Many women were badly injured. Despite the fact that Sokalo lives in a different village 30kms away, it was this event that was cited for the reason of her arrest at Chopan Railway station one month later (Malik & Setalvad, 2018). Her courage to continue traveling hundreds of kilometres to meet other women, and mobilize for social justice, is astounding in the face of adversity. This bravery hints at a different future for India’s forests and forest-dwelling people, one situated in solidarity and empowerment.
Aakbhar Productions. Dudhwa National Park: Van Vibhag Jangal Chodo. 24 Jan. 2012 Available online at: https://youtu.be/RLZ-sxtLO34
Fanari, E. “Dudhwa National Park and the fight for forest rights, UP, India”. 24 May 2019. Environmental Justice Atlas. Available online at: https://ejatlas.org/conflict/struggle-for-forest-rights-into-the-core-of-dudhwa-national-park-uttar-pradesh
Malik, R. & Setalvad, S. Letter: From All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) Re: Illegal arrest of tribal women and activists. 22 June 2018. Journal of People, Peasants, and Workers. Available online at: https://journalworker.wordpress.com/2018/06/22/letter-from-all-india-union-of-forest-working-people-aiufwp/
Press Release: Founding Conference of the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples. 10 June 2013. South Asia Citizens Web. Available online at: http://www.sacw.net/article4699.html
Shrivastava, K. “Grassroots victory: FRA emboldens tribals in Dudhwa to demand control over grass. 17 August 2015”. Down to E arth. Available online at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/grassroots-victory-33094
Villatt, N. “Will injecting petrol into anus of dalits help save the royal bengal tiger?”. 28 June 2016. Narada News. Available online at: http://naradanews.com/2016/06/will-injecting-petrol-into-anus-of-dalits-help-save-the-royal-bengal-tiger/
Villatt, N. “After getting sarkari mohar I’m not afraid about khaki anymore: Nivadha”. 7 July 2016. Narada News. Available online at:http://naradanews.com/2016/07/after-getting-sarkari-mohar-im-not-afraid-about-khaki-any-more-nivadha/
More Information about Sokalo:
CJP Team. “Sokalo Gond: Adivsai Warrior Who Defends her People”. 14 June 2019. Citizens for Justice and Peace. Available online at: https://cjp.org.in/sokalo-gond-adivasi-warrior-who-defends-her-people/
Sushmita. “Where are Forest Movement Leaders Sukalo and Kismatiya?”. 13 July 2018. Citizens for Justice and Peace. Available online at: https://cjp.org.in/where-are-forest-movement-leaders-sukalo-and-kismatiya/