Guest post by AGRIMA BHASIN
“We won’t beat you at your house, we will beat you in the bazaar, in front of everyone!” A common caveat, often hurled at a dalit by an upper caste. But in this case, they were dalit men who spat this warning at a tribal family. A group of dalits in Alampur village, Sagar district, Madhya Pradesh are forcefully asserting their rights (since 2003) over a belt of forest land belonging to Balram, a tribal resident and his family. The family have farmed the five acres of land for 40 years and were finally awarded forest rights over it by the state government of Madhya Pradesh in 2009.
“Harijans in our area are agitating over the grant of forest rights to us, adivasis. They want forest rights for themselves,” said Guddibai, Balram’s mother, a frail woman, who appeared concerned yet determined. Guddibai was present at the inaugural event of the ‘Maila Mukti Yatra’ (‘A journey to be free from manual scavenging’) organised by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (RGA or National Dignity Movement) at Ravindra Bhavan in Bhopal on 30 November. The event, graced by State Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh and Swami Agnivesh among others, sought to celebrate the liberation from manual scavenging of 500 women, who on 1 December embarked on journey across 140 districts in different states to motivate other women to shun the practice.
The members of Garima Abhiyan claim that a total of 11,000 women in MP have spurned manual scavenging (including Guddibai, since she was present at the event). “But I still manually handle human waste,” Guddibai confessed, realising the irony of her presence at the event. But she knew she was not alone; many other women seated there too were engaged as manual scavengers, still.
At Ravindra Bhavan, as CM Chouhan walked towards the stage, Guddibai too cut through the gathering and walked in the direction of the stage to handover a letter of request to the CM. Expectedly, as she reached the front row of women, she was intercepted by several men, who discouraged her from going any further, lest she interrupt Swami Agnivesh’s speech. It was then when the author sat her down and learned about the case of potential adivasi land grab by dalits in Alampur.
The content of the letter in her hand, which she desperately desired the CM to read, detailed the public harassment and death threats faced by her family, in addition to the illegal farming of her family’s land by the dalits. It named each of the offenders and urged the CM to instruct local police to take action against them over illegal grabbing of land awarded to them by the state government. “The local police officer did not even register our complaint and strangely, the tehsil court issued us an initial summon, accusing us of disrupting the peace in the village,” added Guddibai, grieved at the deplorable indifference of the state officials over the last decade.
Tears in her eyes, she pointed to the scabs of slowly healing wounds on her right elbow and forearm; wounds given by dalit men who publicly hit her and others in her family. “They ridicule us,” she pushed back her tears and continued, “they have no proof. How can they take away our forest land?” and furnished carefully laminated documents that clearly stated their family’s rights over the land belt. Moreover, she was even armed with a letter (dated 22 October 2009) from the CM, himself awarding and acknowledging the grant of forests rights to the family and hoping the land becomes more fertile with the latter’s care in the coming years
The above is a clear case of unchecked violation of rights that Balram and family have over the forest land. The case also foregrounds another distressing situation – of landlessness among dalits in the region and the accruing violence against tribals.
[The author, an independent researcher based in Delhi, who was present at Ravindra Bhavan for the event has summed up her encounter with Balram and Guddibai to possibly request activists, reporters and concerned organisations in Madhya Pradesh to explore the case in further detail; especially, the point of view of the accused dalit party.]