India: Broken Legacies of the Land and Forest Rights Movement

Ashok Chowdhury Teesta Setalvad

Kabhi o din bhiaayega jab hum swarajdekhenge Jabapni hi zameenhogiaurapnaaasmahoga Uruj e kamyabi par kabhihindostahoga

A day shall come when we will have self-rule The land will be ours and so will be the sky One day India will be at the peak of success) (Shaheed Ram Prasad Bismil)

To understand India’s agrarian structure and society is to comprehend the extent and depth of the disenfranchisement of vast segments of the country’s population from control, ownership and decision-making processes over the land they till. While as many as 70% of India’s people are engaged in production processes around natural resources i.e. land, water, forests and minerals and as much as 66% of agricultural produce is cultivated by these very landless, marginal cultivators, the fact that they, the actual producers have no ownership of the land, renders them open to primitive levels of exploitation. For this exploitation to not just end but for a genuine democratisation of economic, social and political resources to take place, key is the re-distribution of land.

Freeing a large section of the Indian people from captive labour and landlessness and returning control over the production processes is also crucial to ending starvation, unemployment and displacement in the country. Agricultural production activities are controlled by landlords/ farmers, capitalists, traders and the government bureaucracy today. Basically, there are four aspects related to agricultural production, namely land, labour, credit and technology and unless control of these shifts dramatically, real change cannot occur.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” Karl Marx

India’s transformation into an equitable society is incomplete, its productive forces remain tied down, due to which there has been a systemic increase in starvation and unemployment within the labour force which, instead of controlling land and the forces of production is today forced to migrate. The total area of the country is about 33 crore hectares, and about one fourth (24%) of this land area (7.5 crore hectares) is forest land, which remains mainly under the control of the government through the forest department, a creature within the bureaucracy legitimised by British rule and weaponised then and since. About 20 crores of India’s population (comprising scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, backward castes and nomadic cattle herders) are today dependent on forest land and forest produce but have been historically deprived of their rights over forest resources – hence, the issue of forest rights is closely linked to the issue of land rights.

This essay will primarily focus on the chequered history of India’s

land reform movement and demonstrate how this effort has been rendered incomplete by an absence of political will epitomised in the class and caste composition of India’s rulers under democratic rule.

Before Colonial Rule

Indian economy prior to the establishment of the British rule was largely agrarian with a significant artisanal sector (weaving, smithy, carpentry etc) linked to agrarian economy. There was no economic or social equality due to the prevalence of caste system and an exploitative state structure which extracted agrarian surplus. Despite widespread existence of cash nexus much of the rural economic exchanges were based on barter.

There were extensive forests and the entire system of forest management, like conservation, forest produce, land and water management, was under indigenous communities through rules and norms determined collectively. Some space then was available for traditional social equality and justice within tribal societies (Adivasis ,traditional indigenous forest dwellers). They treated their forests as their heritage, passed down by their ancestors. The Adivasi community was normally enjoyed autonomy and independence even though the neighbouring kingdoms often encroached upon their territories. Even the non-tribal villages had village forests to cater to their everyday needs and these forests were looked after by the labouring class and women folk of the village.1

The Pre-British Indian rural economy was being integrated into Mughal state and commercial networks but still retained considerable autonomy and self-sufficiency and forest communities had relative autonomy.2


The Arrival of East India Company, A Systemic Change

European trading companies, especially the English East India Co., lured by India’s agriculture, forest wealth and skilled handicrafts, started activities in the 17th century. As the Mughal empire declined, the English East India Company established its military and political supremacy over much of the subcontinent.

Traditionally there was a very limited notion of absolute private property in land, and hierarchy of rights and claims over produce of a piece of land being the norm. This the British considered not conducive to commercialisation of Indian agriculture and maximisation of production and land revenue. They wanted to convert land into absolute private property, and an exchangeable commodity.3 This gave rise to a new type of landownership. The Company introduced new forms of land relations, under which the cultivating peasants were landless, leasing in land from large landlords and had to pay a heavy land rent and also land revenue to the state.4 This was the first step towards both disempowerment and impoverishment of the Indian peasantry: peasants were unable to pay taxes due to insufficient cash, and their condition deteriorated. They were forced to borrow from moneylenders and thus fell into indebtedness. The new landlords started controlling the land and the production processes while most peasant cultivators suffered enforced alienation from their lands. These new landowners did not live in the villages, hence they were called “absentee landlords”. Simultaneously, contractors and landowners started interfering within forest areas also. For the first time in centuries, during colonial rule, agriculture and forest land moved out of the control of the producers and into the hands of a few influential people, who were in direct contact with the “Company Bahadur”. These were also the first steps towards the rapacious extraction of produce from land and forests for commercial gain while ordinary citizens were pushed towards destitution, eventually becoming victims of starvation, famine, environmental destruction and displacement.5

By 1840/50, the British, sourced and used raw material from forests for British industry and to enrich British coffers.6 The process required ease of transportation and export to the ports and led to the building of the railway in 1855.7 This intensified the colonial land acquisition; to lay sleepers for these railway tracks and for other industrial purposes, the precious Himalayan and sub-Himalayan forest and other large forests of the country were also cut down.


Company Consumes India’s Forests

India’s ‘Forest Department’8 was established to aid the colonial power’s systemic access and plunder of forests. Forests were not only exploited but rich mixed forests were replaced with single species plantations.9 Faced with multiple organised Adivasi rebellions from the start of the mid-1700s, laws were thereafter enacted to legitimise this control and plunder. Just as it used three kinds of land revenue systems to alter (read snatch) control over agrarian lands, to exercise its right of ‘eminent domain’ over the Indian forest resources, the British government set up the Forest Department in Britain in 1864 and passed the first Indian Forest Law the same year. This law effectively made the Department the legal owner of the land that had been held for centuries by the Adivasis and Forest Dwellers. Mass Enforced Displacement resulted. Soon after this, in 1894, the British also introduced the Land Acquisition Act. In order to use the forest resources to augment their treasury and to strengthen monopoly over the forests, the British authorities thereafter passed the Indian Forest Law in 1927. Under this law, forests were divided into three categories: reserve forests, protected forests, sanctuaries etc. All traditional rights of the communities who lived in and near the forests –India’s indigenous people – were struck down and instead, their rights over the forest resources were treated as concessions, i.e. now, these people were dependent on the Forest officials for their day-to-day requirements. This law had nothing to do with the conservation of forests.10 It in a sense criminalised the very lives of India’s Adivasis and Forest Dwellers.

Taungya System and Bonded Labour

Under colonial rule, India’s natural forest cover shrank rapidly and the British, while responsible for the depletion, needed more wood for fighting the First World War. They needed to augment India’s depleted forest cover, therefore they introduced the Taungya system’, which linked forestry to traditional shifting cultivation with a commercialised model borrowed from Burma. Landless peasants from the plains were lured with offer of land to cultivate. Taungya workers/cultivators were the captive labour of the department, given an acre each for shifting cultivation of trees and crops to be moved out after five years; they were not paid for this labour; instead, were supposed to sustain themselves from the crops grown. They were also supposed to take care of the pine and teak plantations of the forest departments on the same land. Taungya forest village settlements came up in the Terai and Shivalik regions of the Himalayas. Bonded labourers, affected by the zamindari system, peasant cultivators dispossessed from their lands, Dalits/Backward Castes and Muslims were lured with the promise of land and settled on forest land where they were employed in the work of tree plantation. Thousands of Taungya villages mushroomed from Assam to Uttar Pradesh. These Taungya villages had no official recognition and were deprived of civic rights like education, health, housing and drinking water facilities etc. Even after Independence, the governments of independent India ignored the constitutional rights of these villages until 1976 when the slow process of re-enfranchisement began.11 Similarly, a number of pastoral communities in the forests, who travel seasonally with their animals, received space and recognition for the first time only after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.12 Hundreds of thousands of people who had disappeared from the map of India have only now gained recognition. For them statutory recognition of rights took a long time in coming, even in Independent India.

Despite India attaining Independence in 1947 and becoming a sovereign democratic republic in 1950, it was only in 2006 that a land rights law for India’s forest workers, adivasis and forest-dwelling communities was passed and only in 2013 that the British introduced Land Acquisition Law was amended! Post 2014, there has been a systemic reversal of both under the BJP government.

First Challenge to Colonial Rule: Adivasi (Tribal) and Peasant Revolts

The adivasis or tribal people of India, along with cultivators and peasants13 were the first to rebel against this plunder of resources by the British. This history imbibed deep within popular movements and cultures is still uncelebrated within India’s caste and class-ridden citizenry, not finding any critical mention in India’s textbooks that deal with social sciences.

From the Chuar rebellion (1769-1805) in Jharkand, in resource-rich central India,14 to the Sauria Paharia (1784) and Ho Rebellions (182021);15 the peasant, Sanyasi Rebellion just after the Battle of Plassey, in the latter half of the 18th century (1770 onwards);16 the Indigo Farmers Uprising in 1821;17 the Kol Uprising (1829-48) in Bengal in 1831,18 the Santhal Hool Rebellion (1855-56) in east India19; the Second Indigo Rebellion (1859) against the Dadani system in Bengal;20 the Pabna Uprising (1873-74) in East Bengal;21 the Deccan ‘Riots’ (1875-1879) by farmers against moneylenders;22 this is only a few among the anti colonial revolts by peasants and tribal people. Thereafter in modern day Assam (Kamrup, Dirang) the non-payment of Land Tax Rebellion (1893-1894);23 the Adivasi revolt, in the Chhota Nagpur region (1895-1900) after which the British Parliament was compelled to introduce a law granting autonomy to the Chhota Nagpur Adivasi communities.24 Naga Rebellion (areas in the North East, 1879); Koya Rebellion led by Tamman Dora in Malkangiri, Orissa, 1880); Rampa Agitation (led by Alluri Sitarama Raju along the banks of the Godavari river (in the region of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa); Pakhtoon Rebellion (North West Frontier Province, 1897); Chenchu Uprising (Karnataka, 1898) etc. Almost every decade saw a revolt erupt in different parts of India.

It is India’s Adivasis and peasants who were the first to protest against

the loot and plunder of our natural resources by the British colonial regime. Women played an important role in these Adivasi rebellions, and worked side by side with their male colleagues in every area. The articulation behind these movements was for political and economic sovereignty (self-rule). The decisive movement was the revolt led by Birsa Munda. While the “mainstream national movement” passed a resolution asking for political sovereignty only 17 years later, theirs was the first struggle for Indian Independence. It is a history that still remains to be thoroughly documented and celebrated.25

Statutes Passed Under Pressure from Adivasi& Peasant Movements

While on the one hand the British used the law to control resources and land and weaponise the forest department, the British Parliament was also compelled, under pressure from these organised rebellions, to enact laws restoring autonomy to tribal areas. The 1908 Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act, (CNTA) under which forest and village land records of Chhota Nagpur (Ranchi and its surrounding areas) were maintained under the Munda Manaki or Panchayat not the District Collector was the first milestone in the history of forest and land rights movement, thereafter leading to another historic enactment, the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. This law was passed in 1912 and later amended in 1949. Third, in 1931, the British applied the Van Panchayat Rules or the Forest Council Manual, under which the ancestral rights of the community were recognised.26 Thus in early 20th century the British hold over its dominion was faltering and the colonial power was becoming more repressive. If the British were compelled to pass two laws restoring some autonomy to Adivasi and forest dwellers in 1908 and 1912, these steps were near nullified by the enactment of the overarching 1927 Indian Forest Act that restricted, even criminalised their traditional access to forests and forest produce. Similarly, other draconian laws such as the 1915 Defence of India Act and the 1919 Rowlatt Act that infringed seriously on civil and political liberties of Indians turned out to be pivotal in spreading discontent against colonial rule.

Resistance continued to build, however. Of the many inspiring examples is the Pagri Sambhal Jatta (Mind your turban) movement in the Punjab in 1907, which was led by the Gadar party leader, Sardar Ajit Singh (paternal uncle of Bhagat Singh).27 Similarly, there was also a movement in Champaran, Bihar in 1917, to protest against the British Administration compelling the cultivators –again – to grow Indigo, and this movement came to be known as the Champaran Satyagraha. In Awadhin 1920, under the leadership of Madari Pasi and Sahdev and the Bardoli Satyagrah in Gujarat in 1927, etc. there were two other important agitations against the British administration and the zamindari system. The Awadh Peasants’ agitation was in a sense unique because it was fought under the leadership of both Dalits and backward castes and around this time, a women’s organisation, the Awadhi Kisani Sangathan, was also formed. ‘Land to the Tiller’ was among the powerful slogans that emerged from these resistances.

As discussions arose within Indian political circles after the First World War about the political nature and course of India after Independence, internal schisms and contradictions also surfaced. At the 1931 Round Table Conference in London where discussions were initiated with the British regarding the transfer of power to Indians, i.e. political freedom, Dr.Bhim Rao Ambedkar also raised the ticklish issue of the freedom of exploited classes from within –that is, freedom from the higher castes. He also raised the issue of the social and economic independence of the Indian exploited castes from the dominant elites. His demands arose out of his leadership of India’s vast working and toiling millions, large sections of whom were especially disenfranchised because of a brutal and iniquitous caste system.28 While widely known for Dalit identity-based struggles like the Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar’s leadership and alignment of the Dalit peasants with other peasant and land rights struggles has been largely ignored. Establishing organisations such as Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha, Konkan Praant Shetkari Sangh (KPSS, 1931) and the Independent Labour Party, led him to shape the dalits, workers and peasants movement in the Konkan region in the decade of the 1930s. As a consequence, he was able to build a formidable organisation of peasants here that not only mobilised farmers across various caste groups, but also tried to emphasise that long-lasting peasants’ solidarity in India could only be achieved if and when other social questions (of discrimination) are taken up seriously.29 Behind this understanding lay an incontrovertible belief held by Ambedkar that ownership over land and produce (modes of production) was key to a final disintegration of the caste system that –apart from other indignities and structural denials – was a crude expression of exploitation of segregated labour. Similar issues had also been raised two years earlier, in 1929 in the declaration released by the Bhagat-Singh-led Hindustan Samajwadi Prajatantrik Association. Finally, this issue reached the Constituent Assembly, where representatives from different strata of the Indian society deliberated. After about three years of wide-ranging discussions, heated debates and compromises, the Constituent Assembly finally adopted the Constitution of India on November 26, 1949 that came into effect across the country from January 26, 1950.

The build-up to Indian Independence forged, first through the active

struggles of India’s indigenous peoples, peasantry and industrial workers, who strove to end the control of British colonial powers over natural resources (land-water-forests) and establish the political rights of all communities. India’s elite and urban dwellers undoubtedly joined and later dominated articulations at the penultimate stage but did not appreciate the depth and expanse of the responsibilities they carried and had hide-bound interests which they sought to protect.30 While the devolution of political, economic and social rights of all sections should have become the principal basis for nation-building in the future, the reality has been far from this.

The words of Dr. Ambedkar, while dedicating the Constitution on November 26, 1949 to the nation, display a haunting prescience:

“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”


The period of transition between when India attained Independence and when the Constitution came into effect also saw widespread protest assertions of peasants and people at large. One such, led by the Communist Party of India was an armed rebellion under the Kisan Parishad (Peasants Council) against the Nizam-ruled Telangana and the Razzakars, between 1946-51.31 While the newly formed Indian government intervened to take over the Nizam state and crush the Razzakars, Indian forces also simultaneously crushed the farmers’ movement and the Kisan Parishad.

In Bengal, it was the 1946-47 Tebhaga movement, an agitation to secure two-thirds of the produce for the exploited sharecropper (bargadar, tiller) that was the harbinger of lasting change. It spread to 15 districts out of a total of 28 districts of Bengal, especially in the North and coastal Sunderban regions. About 50 lakh peasant-cultivators participated in this rebellion, called by the Kisan Sabha; there was widespread support among agricultural labourers too.32 Only after this did the government propose to bring in the Bargadar Law as an attempt to quell the protests. Finally, in 1950, a Bill was passed and in 1955, the principles included in the Bengal Land Reforms Act.33 Under the Act, sharecroppers had to be given 50% of the produce. Later, in 1978, the Left Government in Bengal launched ‘Operation Barga’, under which the sharecroppers were given permanent cultivation rights over the land, the sharecropper could not be evicted from the land and this system was to continue in perpetuity generation after generation.34

Truth Tells: Post-Independence Land Reform

Zamindari Abolition Act, 1950, Forest Land out of the purview of ‘Land Reform’

To reverse the hunger and impoverishment caused by the exploitative system of agrarian production in colonial India, which essentially squeezed labour at unproductive rates for the profit of land-owners and contractors, and to increase the productivity of land, it was necessary to increase the productivity of labour. This could only have happened if inequalities had been reduced and enforced practices of indebtedness through usury curtailed. The first legislative enactment to this end was the proposed Zamindari Abolition Act, 1950.35

The creatures of British policy, the Zamindars not only held vast tracts of village lands but also forests. Ironically forest lands of zamindars over which Adivasis had traditional control was simply not included within the purview of the Zamindari Abolition Act, 1950. As a result, the land rights of hundreds of thousands of Adivasis and other traditional forest-dwelling communities occupying those lands were never recognised. During the heated Constituent Assembly debates the presence of voices like Jaipal Singh Munda and, of course, Dr. BR Ambedkar ensured guarantors of autonomy like the special provisions in the Vth and VIth Schedules of the Constitution for the protection of the Forest and Land rights of the scheduled tribes under the Constitution.36

In 1948 –even as the Constitution was being deliberated upon -top officials in the forest departments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (present day Jharkhand) colluded with the upper castes and ensured the passage of a new law, ‘Private Forest Bill’ passed by the then Governor General of India. Under this Bill, all non-government forest areas (like forests controlled by zamindars and princely states), which are in fact the forests under the Adivasis and village woods) were declared government forest areas and brought under the control of the forest department.37 Today, the forest department owns 24% of the country’s land, more than any entity in the world. Of this 9% is forests and the rest of the 24% consists of water bodies, grass lands, grazing grounds, agricultural lands, etc. All this forest land has been grabbed by the Forest Department and brought under its control only after Independence. A process of historical injustice, launched under a foreign colonial dispensation has been perpetuated and continued in independent India.

How could such an important issue be ignored at the time of the drafting of the Zamindari Abolition Act in 1950? While there is no legal provision under any of the revenue laws of the country for handing over lands to the forest department, how was this allowed to take place? This acquisition is and was illegal because, under the Zamindari Abolition Act, 1950 the village land cannot belong to anyone other than the village panchayat. The forest department literally grabbed all this land through announcements in the Official Gazette, steps which are contrary to both the Zamindari Abolition Act and to the Constitution. In the same way, the Gram Sabha (village council) land and forest land was transferred to big companies for a pittance. Conflicts between Adivasis, traditional forest dwellers and the administration only grew.38

The 1970s saw the use of ‘environmental protection’ and ‘conservation’, even in statutes like the Wildlife Conservation Act (1972) and the Forest Conservation Act (1980) to further alienate traditional forest dwellers and the indigenous people from their habitats and autonomous control over forest produce. This misplaced notion of ‘environmental control’ resulted in mass displacement, made worse by large projects.39 The issue was misrepresented as “Wildlife-People conflict”. After a decade and a half, as movements among the indigenous peoples grew and international attitudes changed, another vocal section of environmentalists more effectively articulated the fact that that it was impossible to conserve forests without securing the traditional land and other rights of traditional forest dwellers.

In terms of agrarian land, the first pushback from India’s privileged elite was witnessed with the passage of state laws often in contravention of the central 1950 Zamindari Abolition Act. Some states particularly took decades to get laws enacted and the interim period saw huge tampering with land records.40 This resulted in neither a narrowing of gap between the rich and the poor nor an end to starvation.

After the ruthless crushing of the Tebhaga and Telangana rebellions by the Indian state even the Communist Party of India backed away from such militant peasant-mass rebellions. By 1955-56, there was a sense that the process of land redistribution should be attempted only through the administrative system.41 In contrast to other states during the same period, under Article 370, the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950 (for the abolition of Jagirdari system) was passed in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which had no provision for compensation to the Jagirdars for the land taken away from them. The land was taken away from the Jagirdars by the government and redistributed among the peasant-cultivators there. As a result, the land was not concentrated in the hands of a few but was redistributed among the landless labourers on a large scale. This helped to end landlessness there.

It was also during this period, on March 18, 1956, speaking on the issue of land redistribution at a seminar for the backward classes, that Dr. Ambedkar had raised a seminal point: in order to give the landless their land right, the government should nationalise land. To counter the problem of the landless being denied land, he authored the rousing slogan, Joh zameen Sarkari hai, who zameen hamaaree hai,” (‘Public land is our land’). This conveyed the political sense of the unfinished agenda before the Indian people, if not the state (which appeared to have deserted its pre-1947 commitment). The slogan was an affirmative assertion that the primary tiller, the landless agricultural labourer – also the most deprived class had first right and claim over the vast tracts of common/ public land and that a movement should be launched to claim this right. Neither the government, nor any political party picked up the gauntlet. The result: most public land was grabbed illegally on a large scale by various companies and the powerful, as also by government departments and agencies.

In 1967, in West Bengal, for the first time, the United Front Government assumed power in the state consisting of opposition parties (in which the Left parties were dominant). Adivasis grew hopeful about getting their land. Led by the Kisan Sabha, they started taking possession of land in a village, Naxalbari hopeful of a sensitive ear from the new government. A violent push back and discrediting of this move led to police firing on a large crowd of peaceful farmer activists, leading to the martyrdom of seven protesting women. An armed revolt that became known as the ‘Naxalbari Movement’, was born. The traditional Left was divided on this development, especially when armed rebellions also arose in other parts of the country like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (modern day Chhattisgarh). Though these movements reflected the aspirations of the Telangana Uprising, the demands raised by these movements, regrettably, threw up no serious political deliberations; instead the Naxalbari Farmers’ Movement was merely seen (and discarded) as divorced from mainstream Left politics. What resulted was a dispersal of the Kisan Movement.

Some more efforts by the Indian state to attempt land redistribution

included the passage of the Land Ceiling act in the 1970s. Again, landowners put legal obstacles to its implementation.42 Another scheme for distribution of land leases to Dalits and Adivasis during the Emergency (1975-77), failed.43 We see therefore how, landlessness in the agriculture did not lessen but actually increased in most states after independence. Although there was some decrease in landlessness in the 1960s and 1970s – largely due to agitations by landless farmers who agitated and forcefully took possession of government lands, compelling state governments to validate these later after 1980 however, the Indian government gave up on any efforts at land re-distribution, stressing ‘poverty eradication’ programmes instead. In some exceptional states, like West Bengal and Tripura where the Left Front was in power, land distribution efforts continued for some decades.

Women’s Land Rights Movement in Bodhgaya

Some markers of struggle arose in the 1970s and 1980s. The women’s land rights movement at Bodhgaya (Bihar) was one such; it demonstrated how, even under hostile conditions, women’s economic rights can also be secured: women not only participated in large numbers but also played an important role in its leadership. The slogans were inspiring Zameenkenka? Jotedonkar! (Who owns the land? Those who till!) and Aurat, Harijanaur Mazdoor, Ab Nahin Rahenge Majboor! (Women, Dalits, Workers, shall not remain helpless)44 Its last and decisive battle was fought after 1978, under the leadership of the Sangharsh Vahini and finally, in 1987, during the tenure of the then Chief Minister of Bihar, Shri Bindeshwari Dubey, 35,000 bighas of land was distributed among the landless peasants, including women.

Dalit Land Rights Movement in Tamil Nadu

During British raj, a rule was passed in the Madras Presidency, reserving a portion of the village Panchayati land for use by Dalits.45 This reserved plot was called Panchama Bhoomi. However, in most villages, Dalits were unable to avail of this right; upper castes and the middle class had taken possession of this land. In Northern Tamil Nadu, in the 1990s, Dalits started an aggressive movement to establish their rights over these lands, again with widespread participation of women.46 This struggle that speaks of Dalit women’s land rights, resonates today.47

The Dalit Struggle for Land

Babasaheb Ambedkar, who understood the economics of caste discrimination, had argued48 that rural Dalits should be given cultivable land controlled by the government and commons, such as grazing land. At a rally at Marathwada in 1941, he had urged Dalits to capture public land in villages and cultivate these. By doing so, he said, they could become self-sufficient farmers. Seventy-two years later his demands were to prove prophetic. India’s failed land rights and re-distribution programme post-Independence paints a grim picture: Almost 60% of Dalit households did not own any farmland in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the India Land and Livestock Holding Survey.49 Nearly 70% of Dalit farmers are labourers on farms owned by others, according to the2011 Census.50

Today, across 13 Indian states, there are 31 conflicts involving 92,000 Dalits who are fighting to claim land; the wilful occupying of government land in Maharashtra has spread to Punjab, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, land titles given to Dalits over the years in land-redistribution programmes are useless because higher castes, who earlier owned the land, never ceded control.51

2006, a Breakthrough

Finally, in a political response to an upsurge of organised demands by India’s forest dwellers and Adivasis, Indian Parliament finally accepted that a historic injustice committed by the Forest Department needed to be statutorily rectified. Fifty-six years after India gave itself the Constitution, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act was passed. Before this, in baby steps the 1996 PESA Law was passed to secure the rights of the panchayats in the Schedule V areas. Some states have however still not passed the rules needed to give this law any teeth.

It was the passage of the 2006 law a moment of emancipatory victory for India’s indigenous peoples that was preceded by a policy shift. The growing impact of the Forest Rights movements of the ‘80s had impacted governance and the Indian government came out with a new Forest Policy in 1988. This, for the first time, acknowledged that the participation of the adivasis and the forest dwelling communities was essential for the conservation of forests.52

National Forum of Forest People, Forest Workers

The increasing conflicts between the communities and the forest department energised social movements to restore the traditional rights of the forest dwelling communities. In 1994, under an initiative of the National Centre for Labour (NCL) efforts were made to launch a national forum for the forest workers. At Dehradun in 1996, a decision was taken to launch a national campaign for the legal recognition of the traditional rights of the forest workers and a resolution was passed53 to set up a national forum to take this campaign forward. Thereafter, in September 1998, at a 3-day conference was organised in Ranchi, a national forum for forest workers, Rashtriya Van-Jan Shramjivi Manch (National Forum for Forest People & Forest Workers – NFFPFW) was launched.54 After extensive discussions on giving a legal framework to the traditional rights of the forest communities, the NFFPFW came out with a declaration, which raised the following crucial issues:

1.               Rights in National Parks and Protected Areas

2.               Rights of a forest village and a Taungiya village

3.               Rights over minor forest produce

These formed the basis of the 2002 Declaration of the NFFPFW at Nagpur attended by 350 delegates from 15 states. A historic proposal was passed to build a membership-based organisation. Later, in the Dehradun session in 2012 and55 in 2013, at the Orissa session, the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) was launched. The mobilisations across movements took place at a time of a tectonic shift in the policy of the Indian state, post 1991.56, 57

Draconian Order From the Forest Department in 2002

A dangerous order issued by the Inspector General of forest department in May 2002 when the NDA I58 was in power. Under the 2002 executive diktat, orders were issued to declare all those people (adivasis and traditional forest dwellers) living without proper documents in the forest areas as “encroachers” and to forcefully evict them. Such people were asked to leave the forest area by September 30, 2002. Widespread protests against the use of elephants to destroy human settlements and outrage compelled the NDA I government to withdraw the order. Amidst protest and resistance, a process was begun to bring all the peoples’ organisations on a common platform at the national level. In September, 2002, at the Nagpur session of NFFPFW, a strong demand was made to end the hegemony of the forest department and to make laws to secure the traditional rights of the adivasis and other traditional forest dwelling communities. Soon, this demand for a law turned into a movement at the national level. Keeping in mind the general elections and also assembly elections in tribal dominated states, in 2003, the NDA government, which was in power then, was compelled to commit itself to giving ownership rights to the forest dwelling adivasis on forest land. Strangely enough the “eviction” order passed by the Supreme Court,

17 years later in 2019, harks back to the forest department’s order.59 Widespread protests and legal action led to the staying of the court order.

2004 Foundation for Change

The defeat of the NDA I in the 2004 general elections brought in the UPA,60 under the leadership of Congress, forming a government with an alliance of Left parties. The Common Minimum Programme became the basis for governance. Due to the insistence of the Left parties, the Forest Rights Law became a significant promise in this Common Minimum Programme. This is how the historic process of formulating the law began.61 Finally, this emancipatory law was passed by both the Houses of the Parliament (Lok Sabha 15 December/Rajya Sabha 18 December) titled the ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act. This law is a recognition of rights law, it gives crucial constitutional rights to the Gram Sabha; it confers two kinds of rights – community (13) and individual (3). Most significantly it recognises adivasi and forest dwelling women’s right to deal and control forest produce, land control and ownership.62

This is the first law in the country which not only gives community right but also equal right to women over resources. Of all the laws passed since Independence, this is also the only law which recognises both the Taungiya community and nomadic tribes (a first) and makes provisions for their special rights. After being passed in both the Houses, its rulebook was passed on December 31, 2007 and it came into force on January 1, 2008.

Achievements of Forest Rights Act, 2006

The background of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 is linked, as mentioned above, with the 250-year long struggle to establish the sovereignty of the communities over their forests. In the Introduction to this Act, the Indian Parliament acknowledged as much. The main objective of this Act is to right this historical wrong done to the adivasis and the forest dwelling communities by giving recognition to their traditional rights over forests, forest lands and produce, rights which had been systemically snatched away.

This law was amended and made more rigorous in 2012. With this, communities were given full rights over the forest produce and the community members, working either through a co-operative or through the Gram Sabha, were allowed to trade in the forest produce. This was done to make the forest-dwelling communities economically independent. According to the available figures, the forest department has an annual turnover in forest produce of, at a minimum, approximately Rs. 50,000 crore. The actual control of local communities over this trade would ensure that they emerge as a strong economic and political force in the country.

It is now nearly 15 years since the passage of the Forest Rights Act and about 13 years since its implementation. Even today, its effective execution has not been achieved. More than half of all the personal and community claims submitted have been illegally rejected by government officials. According to the August 2020 report of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, a total of 42,53,089 claims (41,03,177 personal claims and 1,49,913 community claims) were filed, of which only 19,85,911 claims (19,09,528 personal claims and 76,383 community claims)63 were accepted. Even though, under this Act, there is no provision for the officials to reject such claims, that right is vested only with the Gram Sabha, there remain serious political impediments and tough challenges for the execution of this law. Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities continue to face violent evictions and barbaric state reprisals in their on-going struggle to assert their traditional rights legitimised under this law.

The tussle between concentration and abuse of power and its re-dis-

tribution has been going on for decades and continues today.

Over a period of time, a powerful nexus between the local mafia, police and Forest department officials has emerged, and they have, regularly and systematically, exploited and oppressed the forest-dwelling communities. This state of affairs has allowed the “historical injustice” to be perpetuated, despite the laudable and emancipatory objectives behind the law (FRA 2006). This is in clear contravention of the Introduction to the FRA 2006 (and its aims and objectives), which requires the State to act to mitigate the ‘historical injustice’ on the forest people. Legal training combined with informed community organising and para-legal trainings becomes also now a key to deepen the struggle.64 In September 2019, two Adivasi women, Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana backed by the AIUFWP and Citizens for Justice and Peace petitioned the Supreme Court in the very case where attempts were being made to dilute the FRA 2006.65

Post-2014, a significantly altered political reality is in place. While robust struggles around many issues abound, an increasingly aggressive crony capitalism is in operation: today, private companies dominate every field of industrial activity, energy sector, banking, insurance and financial institutions, infrastructure construction, education, health and agriculture While massive protests from mass organisations and opposition compelled the newly elected, NDA I, central (federal) government to withdraw the central Land Acquisition Ordinance (2014), brought about to nullify the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, it was still successful, despite hundreds of protests, in reducing 44 Labour Laws into 4 Labour Codes and through this undemocratic act passed in 2020 –while Parliament barely sat due to the pandemic –to utterly dilute the basic rights and protections, won through hard-earned struggles by the organised working class in India. State governments dominated by the same party in power as the centre (Bharatiya Janata Party) have since October 2014, passed state land acquisition laws that in effect nullified the breakthrough 2013 legislation. Law rarely used to actually liberate, is increasingly being used to snatch away hard-earned rights and protections.

Closest to the crude exploitative politics that played itself out under colonial rule of the British, the NDA II government has been voted back in power with an even larger majority in 2019; it has employed a sinister politics with India’s indigenous peoples, its Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers. Socially and politically keen to appropriate the crucial eight per cent of the vote that this vastly disparate community represents, it has no intention of devolving economic and social rights or control over land and production to them. The past seven years have therefore seen clear efforts to derail the Forest Rights Act and render it ineffective through the passage of contrarian laws like the CAMPA (afforestation law), amendments to the Mining Act, Environmental Protection Act and the National Highways laws. All these in some way or another allow legal caveats to the land rights claims of indigenous communities over their land. Besides, stringent environmental clearances on companies for use of forest land have been weakened, forests are being handed over to them on a platter. This has been a singular contribution of the NDA II government. The period of the pandemic inspired lockdown saw brutal assaults on India’s indigenous peoples.66

Still, the Protests –Though Made Invisible by a Pliant Media – Continue

New equations and fronts have been born in this hostile political environment, forging alliances between and across various movements, labour organisations and other progressive forces. Among these is ‘Land Rights Movement’ (Bhumi Adhikar Andolan) which encompasses all the farmers’ organisations, peoples’ organisations, organisations of forest-dwelling communities and organisations against displacement. Adivasi-Dalit woman power has also played an impressive role in this. Behind these developments, the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) has played a key role. Seminal to the movement for the land rights of traditional forest dwellers since the late 1990s, its emphasis on a women’s’ leadership makes it unique. Bharati Roy Choudhary (19532011) inspired community women in the forest area in taking leadership of the forest and land rights movement into their own hands and lending it their unique perspective. Her inspiration helped the organisation to build a women-oriented perspective on critical issues of collective ownership rights of women with respect to forest, land and other natural resources, especially, with an eye to challenging patriarchy.” Jo Jan Jangal ke liye ladega, woh Jail Jayega,” (whoever struggles for land, will go to jail) was her living credo. Roma67 today carries the baton passed on by Bharati. Ever since inception, a strong women’s leadership has guided the movement and the union. Even though some of them are no longer present, these women continue to inspire this collective community struggle. Chavli Devi from Raja Ji National Park, Haridwar who was considered to be the Maa (mother) of the organisation formed; Ganga Arya, a Dalit woman from Udham Nagar, Uttarakhand worked for land and forest rights and Phool Mati from Dudhwa National Park, Lakihmpur Kheeri district, UP died at the young age of 29. These are only a few. Today, Rajkumari Bhuiyan, Sokalo Gond, Nevada Rana, Sevaniya, Rani are among the vast membership of the AIUFWP who are tirelessly and fearlessly leading their community to its place in the sun. Sokalo Gond has been jailed twice; her colleagues Roma, Kismatiya and Rajkumari too.68

Since early 2020, the imposed lockdown and the peculiarly restrictive conditions surrounding the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, violent repression in the remote areas inhabited by India’s indigenous peoples continues. While other economic activity was forced to shut down, mining extractions of precious resources continues unabated. The economic cost has been high with mass unemployment and stoppage of all economic activity. The months of 2020 witnessed the large-scale migration of India’s vast (63 crores is the estimate) migrant working population, forced to hit the road as a callous government simply overlooked their existence. Forced to return to their villages and lands which they had left long ago in search of work,69 they left without their wages, with little on their back. During the 2020 three-month long lockdown, an estimated 1.5 to 2 crore people were forced into displacement once again after losing their jobs. In the month of May 2020 alone, Indian railways recorded that 10 million workers and their families caught the train home, a mode of transport that they were forced to pay for. Migration and displacement, that have become a perennial reality for millions of Indians, can only be prevented if collective land and forest rights are secured. For this to happen the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 among other laws is the key; the most profound challenge to the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 is, therefore, to overcome the persistent political and administrative stonewalling.

The Forest Rights Movement needs to bring together various natural

resource based communities to form a strong and committed opposition to any move to snatch away sovereign control over land. Other water-forest-land movements like the Agricultural Workers’ Movement, Farmers’ Movement, Fishermen’s Movement, Environmental Justice Movement, and Movement against Displacement etc. are natural allies towards a more broad-based land and forest movement. Strong legal action to back this mobilisation and its cultural expression is vital. Only then can the aim of establishing total autonomy of the communities related to water, forest and land be achieved, where the system is transformed into one in which all productive forces can avail of both their constitutional and democratic rights. Only this will ensure equitable development of the toiling peoples with a sorority and synergy among and with the people of the country.

There is need to be armed with this rich and chequered history, which can be traced back to the struggles of adivasis and Indian peasants of 250 years ago against the oppressive exploitation of the East India Company, harking back to different stages that this struggle has waded through, after Independence. An ideological steadfastness with a nuanced ability to adapt to challenging realities and build alliances needs to inform this phase of the struggle.

Hum Mahnatkash Jagwalon Se, Jab Apna Hissa Mangenge, Ek Khet Nahin, Ek Desh Nahin, Hum Saree Duniya Mangenge

When we, the hard-working people, ask the world for our share. It will not be a mere field, or a country but instead, the entire world.





Faiz Ahmed Faiz

1 Colonial State and Differentiation among the Adivasis in Chotanagpur division of Bihar; P.K. Shukla; Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Vol. 69 (2008), pp. 756-763 (8 pages); Published by: Indian History Congress

2 Enclosing Land, Enclosing Adivasis: Colonial Agriculture and Adivasis in Central India, 1853–1948* Bhangya Bhukya Associate Professor, Department of Social Exclusion Studies, The English and Foreign Language University, Hyderabad, India, Sage , Adivasis in Colonial India: Survival, Resistance, and Negotiation. Hardcover – 1 January 2011, by Biswamoy Pati

3 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, 1990; Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India 1500-1650, Cambridge University Press, 1990; Sovereignty, Property and Land Development: The East India Company in Madras, Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, Bhawani Raman; Between Monopoly and Free Trade: The English East India Company, 1600–1757, Emily Erikson; Series: Princeton Analytical Sociology Series; The Eric Stokes, Peasant and the Raj: Studies in Agrarian Society and Peasant Rebellion in Colonial India: 23 (Cambridge South Asian Studies, Series Number 23) Paperback – 3 July 1980,

4 The Permanent Settlement, The Ryotwari System and the Mahalwari System are the three kinds of systems introduced by the British.

5 Late Victorian Holocausts, El Nińo, Famines & the Making of the Third World, Mike Davis, Verso, 2001, 2002, 2017; Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during world War II, Madhushree Mukherjee, 2010, Basic Books, New York

6 “British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed returns double those of government stocks, paid entirely from Indian, and not British, taxes. It was a splendid racket for Britons, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer. The railways were intended principally to transport extracted resources – coal, iron ore, cotton and so on – to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories.” Shashi Tharoor ,Inglorious Empire, Hurst & Company, In 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23% (27% by 1700). By 1940, after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “thirdworld” country, destitute and starving, a global poster child of poverty and famine. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line. (An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. Hardcover; October 2016, Aleph Book Company, Shashi Tharoor; After a head start in the cotton and opium trade, the Tatas grew to dominating heights by 1947: TATA: The Global Corporation that built Indian Capitalism, Mircia Raianu, Harvard University Press, 2021

7 “The Poverty of India” (Dadabhai Naoroji, 1878), a pamphlet that focused sharply on the economic impoverishment suffered by Indians under the British

8 The Colonial Legacy of Forest Policies in India, Arun Bandopadhyay, Social Scientist Vol. 38, No. 1/2 (Jan. Feb., 2010), pp. 53-76 (24 pages). Published by: Social Scientist

9 Forest Management in India since Ancient Times, Gopa Ghosh, Geo-Analyst, December 2005

10 The opening line of this Law states as much. “An Act to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest-produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest-produce.” Clearly the law was enacted as an enabler for revenue collection in forests and for the transport of forest produce. Under this law, local communities which had been living there for centuries were now dubbed “trespassers/encroachers” and sections 4 to 20 were included for this purpose.

11 Taungya villages were not recognised as regular revenue villages by the authorities and were dubbed temporary settlements; this was the way a colonial administration excluded them from the legislative system and even from the Census. Only in 1976, did the Planning Commission, rectifying this serious flaw in governance, strongly recommend regularisation of all forest villages. Still the government of India did not pass any rules/order for permanent settlements of rights for forest villages. However, since the 1980’s, forest villagers have been included in the voters’ lists for State Assembly and Parliament elections but again surprisingly not included in Village Panchayat election’s voters lists. Later, they were included in the Gram Panchayat election list. As residents of the Taungya villages are situated in the Reserve Forest Area, these villages/settlements were also denied any developmental activities (as ensured by 73rdAmendment of Panchayati Raj Act) as the FCA (Forest Conservation act) 1980 Rules barred developmental activities in RF areas. This was rectified through an amendment in 2006, six months before the passage of the historic forest law.

12 Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’

Peasant Struggles in India, AR Desai, 1979, OUP, British Rule and Tribal Revolts in India: The curious case of Bastar, Ajay Verghese, Cambridge University Press, 2015

13 The first uprising by the adivasis in 1769 under the leadership of Ganga Narayan Singh and Raghunath Mahato. They were protesting the appropriation of their water, jungles and land, for freedom from all forms of exploitation. It lasted until 1805.

14 The second important rebellion started in the hills of Santhal Pargana (Jharkhand) under the leadership of Baba Tilka Manjhi (1784). Threatened by this challenge to their political and economic control, in 1785 the British, without conducting a trial, hanged Baba Tilka Manjhi from a mango tree in the Bhagalpur collectorate. Tilka Manjhi’s sacrifice led to a

renewed awareness among the tribals and the start of a sustained and armed uprising against the plunder of common resources and to re-establish tribal autonomy, which lasted for about 130 years. The Bhagalpur University was renamed the Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University in 1991. Meanwhile, in the British protected kingdom of Singhbhum, when the king Jaggannath tried to oppress the Adivasis, the Ho Adivasis of Chhota Nagpur rebelled strongly and this came to be known as the Ho Rebellion (1820-21).

15 The sanyasis and fakirs mounted an armed rebellion against the British, the revolt now known as the Sanyasi Rebellion. The prominent leaders of this rebellion were Sarkar, Dirjinarayan, Manjar Shah, Devi Chaudhrani, Musa Shah and Bhavani Pathak. The crippling Bengal Famine of 1770 and the restrictions placed on Sanyasis were the main causes of this rebellion. The rebellious sanyasis were religious mendicants, but basically, they were peasant cultivators whose lands had been snatched away from them. The ever-increasing problems in farming, increasing land revenue and the famine drove a number of peasants, employees, retired army men and poor villagers to join the sanyasi groups. These rebels used to roam the countryside in Bihar and Bengal, in groups of 5000-7000 and used to employ guerrilla tactics to attack the officials and the rich, plunder their homes and their food stocks.

16 Local zamindars and peasants, led by Titu Mir (Syed Mir Nisar Ali), started an agitation against the Company and Indigo traders in Bengal, in 24 Parganas, Faridpur and Nadia. They declared these areas liberated from British rule and set up their own administration there. In 1831, the British quelled this rebellion and killed Titu Mir. Titu Mir is still an icon among peasantry in both parts of Bengal, East and West. A university has been founded in his memory in Dhaka.

17 Due of the implementation of the Permanent Settlement (land revenue system) in the province of Bengal, a new and empowered class of zamindars or land owners and merchants arose who started exploiting the members of the Kol tribal community physically and financially. In 1831, the Kols, under the leadership of Budhu Bhagat, Joa Bhagat and Madara Mahto, re-

belled against the non-adivasis. The toiling class of Kol tribals were forced into labour and their womenfolk forced to work in the houses of the zamindars and rich merchants. Land tilled and controlled by Kol adivasis for centuries was ‘distributed’ by the East India Company among non-adivasis. The agitators destroyed the property of non-adivasi zamindars, merchants and moneylenders, looted the government treasury and attacked courts and police stations. In the end, realising the seriousness of the situation, a large unit of the Army was sent and the uprising was mercilessly crushed. A large number of Kols were killed.

18 Under the leadership of the Santhal Adivasi, Sidho Kanha, in this rebellion, 20,000 people were martyred and this was the largest human sacrifice of the Indian Freedom Movement. This combative Santhal rebellion shook the

British administration to its foundations. Hence, the British enslaved 50,000 Santhals and perforce took them, via the river route, to areas like Assam and Darjeeling, to work as bonded labour on tea plantations. En route, thousands of Adivasis died of starvation and cholera. This was the beginning of forced displacement by the ruling class, displacement which continues unchecked in Independent India today. Even today, lakhs of deprived, poor people are forced to go to cities in search of work and return to their villages during the harvest season. Digambar and Vishnu Biswas,

19 During this rebellion of the Indian peasant-cultivators against the British indigo merchants started in September 1859 in the Govindpur village of Nadia district in Bengal, then spread to areas like Nadia, Pabna, Khulna, Dhaka, Malda, Dinajpur etc. The British Government had to bow before this rebellion and in 1860, indigo farming stopped completely. Under the Dadani System, the British officials used to take land from the local zamindars (land owning cultivators) in Bengal and Bihar and force cultivators to grow indigo there without being paid. Indigo-producing cultivators were paid a minimal amount as advance and compelled to sign a contract, at a price which was way below the market prices. The peasants were keen on growing paddy on their fertile land.

20 The peasants rebelled against their exploitation by the absentee landlords.

Ishan Chandra Rai, Shambhu Pal and Khudi Mallah were the main leaders of this rebellion. As a result of this uprising, the Bengal Tenancy Act was passed in 1885.A Peasants’ Union was first formed, public meetings organised, some peasants declared their parganas to be-independent from zamindari control and tried to set up a local government also. They raised an army to deal with the lathi-wielding henchmen of the zamindars and money was raised through donations to fight the zamindars legally. They decided not to pay their tenancy rent for some time. This uprising spread to far flung areas like Dhaka, Maiman Singh, Tripura, Rajshahi, and Faridpur.

21 In the Poona and Ahmednagar districts of Maharashtra, exploitation by Gu-

jarati and Marwari moneylenders, the more privileged communities from among the trading classes and castes, hailing from the regions of modern-day Gujarat and Rajasthan. The turning point was in December 1874, when a moneylender in Kardah village of Shirur district obtained an attachment warrant from the court for the auction of the house of a farmer (Baba Sahib Deshmukh). In response, the farmers started an agitation against the moneylenders and began entering their houses to burn their account books. By 1875, this uprising had spread to other parts, led by Vasudev Balwant Phadke.

22 In the Kamrup and Dirang districts of Assam, under the new revenue laws, Land Tax increased by 50-70%; to protest against this, many public gatherings were organised under the leadership of rural people to discuss the issue of non-payment of land taxes. Those paying their land taxes would be ostracised. This was perhaps the first example of the use of boycott and ostracism in a rebellion.

23 Here, the Adivasi hero, Birsa Munda led a historic uprising against the British in Chhota Nagpur (Ranchi), which continued for the next five years as a guerrilla war. This revolt united all the Adivasis in region.

24 India’s Struggle for Independence, Visuals and Documents, NCERT, 1986, GL Adhya, Arjun Dev, Indira Arjun Dev, SK Chaddha

25 Ironically in ‘Independent India’, first in 1964 and then in 1976 these van panchayats were placed under the Forest department!

26 The movement started as an opposition to two acts brought by the British, The Colonisation Act and the Doab Bari Act, aimed at grabbing the land of the farmers, illegal extortion of taxes and usury by money lenders.

27 Since the mid-19th century, movements for social justice and caste exclusions had emerged in different parts of India, most noticeable in the regions that come to be known as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab. Even as momentum was building against colonial rule, articulations against home-grown caste and feudal hegemonies were being voiced. Jyotiba Phule’s Satyashodhak Sangh, Savitribai Phule setting up the first all-Girls school in Bhidewada, Pune (1848) where her first teacher-colleague was Fatima Shaikh are all powerful symbols of this struggle.

28 The KPSS was originally established by Anant Chitre, a caste-Hindu follower of Ambedkar. Within a few months of its establishment, the KPSS became a significant mass-based peasants’ organisation in the Konkan region. In the first ever pamphlet published by the Shetkari Sangh, which subsequently appeared in Ambedkar’s newspaper, Janata, the goals of the organisation were clearly articulated.

29 Published first in 1946 as a doctoral thesis, AR Desai Social Background of Indian Nationalism, 2011, Paperback edition

30 The demand was for land re-distribution to the tiller.

31 As part of this movement, hundreds of sharecroppers harvested their crops and brought them back to their own storage places. Months before Independence, on January 4, 1947, in the village of Talpukur (Chirirbandar area), Dinajpur district, police fired on a peaceful protest by farmers, killing a landless labourer, Sameeruddin and a Santhal, Shivram. This killing by the colonial police was met with a powerful resistance that has become part of local legend. Out to arrest leaders of the uprising, the police was met with over 500 people who captured a policeman and pierced his body with their arrows! Known as the ‘Chirirbander Incident’, there was systemic retaliation a month later, when, despite contestation and resistance, on February 20, the infamous Khanpur firing by police claimed the lives of 22 farmer-martyrs.


33 Agrarian Politics and Rural Development in West Bengal, Sunil Sengupta, Harisn Gazdar, Oxford University press, Scholarship Online

34 The main objective of this Act was the abolition of the zamindari system and the redistribution of land among the landless cultivators so that the purchasing capacity of labourers would increase. The zamindars retained some rights; they would get compensated for the land taken from them. Each state was mandated to pass laws for the abolition of the zamindari system and the redistribution of land.

35 Under this, trading of the land belonging to a scheduled tribe with a person of another community is prohibited. Schedule V is in operation in the Special Areas of eight states. Among the North eastern states, except Arunachal Pradesh, Schedule VI is operational in different areas of the other states.

The Governors of these states have been given special powers to protect these special rights of the tribals. However, in spite of the rights of the scheduled tribes being constantly violated in these states, Governors entrusted with enforcing the rights under these Schedules, actually protected the interests of ruling elites, and have never exercised their power to step in when infringements have taken place.

36 This effectively meant that, on the eve of India’s Independence, before the Constitution could come into force, the forest department had already readied a scheme of establishing its hegemony over almost all the forest land of the country. This move made the Forest Department the single largest landowner in India.

37 The management of commercial activities related to forest produce –traditionally held and controlled by the indigenous peoples before the advent of colonial rule --was now handed over to the forest department. Huge profits were earned through the Forest Corporation and its contractors, and the financial activities of the Forest Corporation relating to this income were kept out of the purview of public scrutiny, meaning the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG).

38 After independence, in the name of national development, the government acquired land from the jungles and the adivasis for several development projects such as construction of dams on rivers, industrial projects, mining and road construction, setting up of national parks and Project Tiger. Mass displacement was the result. From 1947-1990, over about 40 years, more than 7 crore people had been displaced (at present, this figure stands at over 10 crore), most of them being SCs/STs (66%). Only27% of this population has got the promised rehabilitation and compensation, 73% of them have not received any compensation. A huge sacrifice at the altar of national development coupled with mass impoverishment.

39 The main objective of the law which was to strengthen the peasant-cultivators – fell by the wayside. Hence, though some cultivators, whose names were registered in tenancy records, managed to get some pieces of land, the rest, about 25-30% of agricultural labourers, whose names did not figure in the tenancy records, did not get any land and remained, after Independence, deprived of their land rights. Predictably, these were largely households belonging to India’s SC/ST (Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes) and Extremely Backward Castes. On the other hand, after tampering with the records, the zamindars and the middlemen maintained their hold over land: a lot of land that was declared benaami (land controlled by landlords but held in the name of unknown persons) property but was actually controlled by landlords.

40 The government launched the Bhoo-Daan Andolan (Land Donation Movement) to distribute land to the landless. Under this scheme, the zamindars were encouraged to donate the extra land. However, this programme was not successful because a majority of the members of the various committees set up to co-ordinate and implement it belonged to the landowning class.

41 As a result, though land was re-allotted in the names of the landless labourers, they rarely, if ever, got possession of the land. Even in a large state like Uttar Pradesh, the landless got full ownership rights over barely 1.66% of the potentially redistributed land i.e. over less than 2%. The rest has been mired in endless litigation. Even today, there are hundreds of thousands of cases pending in the High Courts, where the government, and not the people, is a party. The complete absence of political will dictates this inaction.

42 Under this scheme, people got the lease on paper but about 50% of the

lessees did not get possession of the land: those who had the lease did not have possession of the land and those who possessed the land did not have the lease! Without an effective political programme of action, such schemes were bound to fail and did fail.


44 In this area of Bodhgaya, Shankar Math, a religious establishment, had illegally expanded the 150 acres of land received from the descendants of Sher Shah Suri to become a zamindar or landowner of over 1500 acres of agricultural and non-agricultural land. On these lands, Dalits, mainly

Bhuiyan (Musahar) Dalits, worked as bonded labour. The men and women of this landless Dalit community carried out the struggle for the Bodhgaya Land Rights Movement.


46 After the success of this movement, a Dalit Land Rights Federation has been set up at the state level to look into the issue of land rights for Dalits. C. Nicholas, convenor of Dalit Land Rights Federation, cited information obtained under the RTI Act to contend that over 18,400 acres of land in Cuddalore and Villupuram districts were Panchama lands. He alleged that the Updating Registry Scheme (URS) had done more harm than good to the Dalits. Under the scheme, he claimed that in 1984, the lands were illegally transferred to private individuals and titles registered in their name. (https:// anyway/article29995102.ece)

47 In Villupuram district, about 100 women’s groups were formed in 40 villages to start this programme; today there are about 200 such groups.

48 Kumar%20and%20Lieberherr.pdf



51 india/

52 A series of six departmental circulars by the secretary in the ministry of environment, SR Shankaran that recognised the need to enlist this participation was the first official recognition of this need. What then followed is the proverbial ping pong with the forest department that was simply not

prepared to accept this. First with the World Bank funded Joint Forest Management Programme in select states from 1991-92, a scheme for planting of fast-growing trees for commercial timber was initiated and it failed. Then the Forest Department tried another such programme with the help of the Japanese firm, JICA. But, due to the previous experience, the local communities showed no interest and JICA’s programme was also unsuccessful.

53 Comrade D. Thankappan took the lead in this.

54 The definition of Forest People and Forest Worker was expounded by the famous litterateur, Dr.B.K.Roy Burman, which was later used in its report by the Second Labour Commission (2001).

55 Where 500 delegates from the forest dwelling communities and delegates from the three main South Asian nations (viz. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal), decided to transform the Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers into the All India Union/Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (AIUFWP).

56 Displacement caused by the neo-liberal economic policies of 1991.

57 Despite the policies adopted by the government in the 1990s and the decades that followed, mass mobilisation among the people against the growing inequality in society and the new-liberal policies of the government aborted many proposed government schemes: for example, 500 important SEZ projects belonging to Reliance and other companies, covering thousands of acres, had to be cancelled due to protests by the people; new power plants with a total generation capacity of about 500 GW, which would have led to the destruction of thousands of acres of land, water bodies and forests, had to be called off due to people’s protests.

58 This was the first time post-Independence that a minority government led by the proto-fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) through its parliamentary wing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power in India, riding on the back of a violent majoritarian movement and also years after India adopted an aggressive neo-liberal economic regime abandoning its commitment to a welfare state and social justice for all Indians.

59 On February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court suddenly pronounced a regressive order in an on-going case challenging the constitutional validity of the 2006 FRA. Out of turn, without hearing adivasis and forest dwellers who are

the affected parties, 21,00,000 people, whose claims had been dismissed– due to bureaucratic non-application of mind and ineptitude – would stand displaced from their lands. This directive not only violated the statutory premise of the Forest Rights Act, because this Act is intended to settle the forest dwelling communities, not to displace them, but revealed that even a constitutional court like the Supreme Court had developed little appreciation of the historical vision behind the passage of such an emancipatory law. It was only after widespread protests by the entire country that, barely ten days after it passed its controversial order, on February 27, 2019, the Supreme Court stayed its operation. Even when the Supreme Court tried to block the implementation of the Act, it was compelled to backtrack on this issue by mass protests.

60 United Progressive Alliance

61 The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) played a major role in formulating this historic Act.

62 Not just this; post 2004, people’s struggles forced the parliament to pass many progressive laws like Right to Information Act, MNREGA, Forest Rights Act, Revised Land Acquisition Amendments Act 2013, National Food Security Act, Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act.

63; Forest Land Claims filed in Chitrakoot: AIUFWP and CJP make history! Claims filed for eight villages, 10 more in the pipeline.

64; CJP webinar on Forest Rights: Testimonies from Grassroot Activists. In Part 3 of our report on the CJP webinar, activists strike a hopeful chord;; Legal muscle to defend Forest Rights Day 2 of CJP webinar sheds light on laws and their implementation;; Forest Rights and Covid-19: Through the eyes of UP and Uttarakhand grassroot activists Part1 of CJP’s webinar reveals how authorities are abusing their power to usurp rights of forest dwellers.;

65; Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana move SC demanding forest rights

66 Forest Rights: Van Gujjar family released on bail, after custodial assault, CJP and AIUFWP writes formal complaint to NHRC; https://; Why did Bihar police open fire on Kaimur Adivasis? Findings of report co-published by AIUFWP, CJP and DSG;; Tharu women allege assault in Dudhwa, FIR registered. Amid lockdown, forest working people are being repeatedly harassed by forest officials;; Adivasi women attacked in UP, CJP-AIUFWP move NHRC Forest officials brandishing rifles allegedly molest Tharu women in broad daylight, assault youngsters.

67; Roma: Unbowed, Unbroken, Unbent Human Rights Defender Profile

68; Sokalo Gond: Adivasi warrior who defends her people. Human Rights Defender;; Rajkumari Bhuiya: Songs as her tool, Sonbhadra Forest Rights leader marches on Human Rights Defender Profile;; Shobha: A Dalit woman’s struggle for Forest Rights in Sonbhadra Human Rights Defender Profile; in/free-sukalo-and-kismatiya-now/; Free Sokalo and Kismatiya NOW CJP and AIUFWP move Allahabad HC;; Kismatiya and Sukhdev Released.

69 Migrant Diaries:; migrant-diaries-a-cjp-special-series/