Mehendikheda Firing:
Repression Against a Tribal Movement

C.N. Subramaniam

Mehendikheda is a small tribal hamlet in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh (M.P.), set in the Vindhyan forests. In an action lasting more than a week in March-April, the district administration of Dewas, under direct orders from the highest levels in the state government of MP, undertook a terrorist attack on about 16 tribal villages demolishing and looting houses, arbitrarily arresting people, physically beating them up and eventually firing on a large scale killing at least 4 persons and injuring a large number and even poisoning their food-stocks and water. Entire villages were laid waste and the residents forced to go into hiding in the forests in severe summer when temperatures touched forty-five degrees centigrade. An operation unmatched in recent times in its barbarism and semi-fascist repressive tactics it received full support from the bourgeois press and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) which is the principal opposition party. The present report is based on reports filed by several non-government organisations and civil liberties organizations which managed to visit the area and ascertain the facts. This report also seeks to situate the present episode in its larger context of recent developments relating to tribal movements and the commercialization of forests, rich in teakwood and sandal and a wide range of forest produce like tendu leaves used in the manufacture of bidis, and mahua used for distilling liquor.

An incipient tribal movement

The news of firing in the tribal hamlet of Mehendikheda and the death of at least four tribal activists and the destruction of houses in the villages reached the outside world through extremely biased reporting by the administration. The administration claimed that the Adivasi Morcha Sanghathan (Tribal Front Organisation) an organization of the tribals had unleashed a reign of terror ending the rule of law in the region. It claimed that they had amassed huge stocks of firearms and sophisticated weapons and planned to establish a Naxalite like liberated zone in Western MP. The district administration which had gone there to ensure the confiscation of illegally felled wood was attacked by hundreds of armed activists and the police and forest guards had to fire in self-defence. Long before the event the district administration had taken care that no journalist reported the event in a way that did not correspond to the official theory. A reign of terror had been let loose in the villages so that the affected people could not traverse the few hundred kilometres that separated them from the outside press. The obedient bourgeois press went out of the way to peddle the official version and support it with additional materials. The BJP the principal opposition party which is normally keen to take up any issue with which it could embarrass the ruling party welcomed the repression of the tribals.

A few days later, a non-government organization which was working in the area for watershed development and drought relief came to know of the incidents and prepared a report including audio visuals and publicised the people’s version of the incidents.

We need to go a little into the background of the developments in the region to understand the reasons why the state resorted to such terrorist tactics.

We have discussed in the previous issues of this journal, the problems facing the tribal people living in or on the edges of the forests of MP. The problems are of three kinds, denial of traditional access to forest produce, refusal to recognise their title to the lands they have been tilling for decades and subjection to a large range of illegal exactions by the forest department employees (proceeds of which are shared by politicians and bureaucrats from the highest level) and reign of terror by the forest guards. These problems have been compounded by systematic depletion of the forests by the forest department for commercial exploitation.

In recent years the government of MP has formulated a project to be funded by the World Bank for the ‘rejuvenation’ of the forests. In effect the proposal seeks to open up the forests for systematic commercial exploitation and extension of private corporate control over the forests. A part of the proposal is also to create a favoured section among the tribal people who will be given greater access to the resources in return for loyalty and preventing other sections of the tribal population from using the forests. This goes by the name of ‘joint forest management’ (JFM). Under this scheme ‘Forest Protection Committees’ (Van Suraksha Samitis, or VSS) have been set up. These consist of villagers arbitrarily selected by the forest department who are given control over a patch of forest land which they have to protect from other people, in return for use of minor forest produce of the patch and daily wage employment in forest departmental works. The VSSs work under the supervision of the forest guard who also acts as the secretary of the committees. These committees have become the wedge of the forest department in the tribal communities and have been instrumental in breaking the unity of the tribal people.

Adivasi Morcha Sanghathan

Over the last two decades a large number of organizations initiated by metropolitan educated youth with left wing leanings have sprung up in the tribal areas of MP. These have been working for organising the tribal people and helping them to fight effectively the atrocities of the forest department and also resisting the attempts to dispossess them of their access to the forests. They have coined the popular slogan ‘jangal zamin hamara hai, nahin kisi ke bap ka’ (the forests and lands are ours – not the property of anyone else). This slogan has been particularly unpopular with the forest department and understandably so.

In the last few years a new trend of militancy in the tribal movements can be seen in this region. The new organizations emphasise militant resistance to the forest department and often use anarchistic tactics. These organizations derive inspiration from one single individual or a very small band of activists. Their strength lies in using the traditional organization and mobilization methods of the adivasis (tribals) and this often takes the form of emphasising the spontaneous elements. The Adivasi Morcha Sanghathan is one such organization and has been there for about five years. It was initiated by Rahul Bannerjee who has been associated with a number of popular organizations in western MP for over a decade. The sanghathan (organisation) has been functioning in Bagli block of Dewas district. To the immediate west of the block is the Khargone district where another such organization has been working. Both these organizations have been giving sleepless nights to the local politicians and bureaucrats and with good reason.

We do not have at our disposal documents of the Sanghathan and as such it is difficult to comment on its strategy and tactics. However a few aspects that have come to light may be discussed. It appears that the organization, relies a lot on the spontaneous initiative of the adivasis. Rahul Bannerjee, himself does not direct the day to day functioning of the organization, at least during the recent period. It appears that the adivasis once having gained confidence that the path of militant resistance is correct have developed the movement on their own. This element of spontaneity has given the movement a great strength. We are informed that villages after villages and hamlets after hamlets have joined the Sanghathan and in a very short period it has grown into a formidable force in the region. the apparent strength of the organization can be seen in the electoral victories scored by it in the recent local elections. It is a well known fact that even in blocks where adivasis are numerically predominent, the upper caste politicians, landlords and moneylenders of nearby towns control the local politics. Traditionally elections have been fought between different sections of the same semi-urban gentry who have been using their hold over the adivasis to mobilise votes. This began to change rapidly once the Sanghathan emerged. In the local elections held for panchayats of various level and the crucial mandi samiti (which controls the wholesale grain market where the adivasis and other peasants sell their produce), the candidates of the Sanghathan won and the upper caste candidates of the other political parties lost. The Sanghathan won a number of sarpanch posts, membership of the block panchayat and district panchayat and also the post of the president of the mandi samiti. This understandably was a major jolt to the established politicians of the region, who ganged up to press the government for decisive action to stem the tide.

A little detour on the overall caste balance in the state politics may be in order. The politics of MP still remains relatively untouched by the Mandal wave by which the traditional upper caste (Rajput and Brahmin and Bania) stranglehold was broken in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and even Gujarat and Rajasthan to some extent. The state continues to be a secure haven for the upper caste politicians. Thus the chief minister is a rajput (‘raja’ of a chiefdom), and his key bureaucrat (the chief secretary) is a brahmin. But then MP has a large population of adivasis and the two political parties have cultivated a small number of adivasi politicians to act as their mascot. Thus the ‘deputy chief minister’ of the state (one Jamuna Devi) is a person of tribal background. The emergence of militant adivasi movements have not only challenged the upper caste stranglehold but it has also made things difficult for the ‘tribal politicians’. It would therefore not be surprising that the likes of Jamuna Devi have been spearheading the demand for letting loose repression on all movements of the tribal people (the Narmada movement, and the large number of militant organizations).

Beneath its electoral victories lie the militant politics of the Sanghathan. It has systematically encountered the illegal exactions of the forest guards and petty revenue officials, exposed the illegal felling of forests by the department officials in collision with the VSSs, fought to destroy the illegal distilleries owned by local leaders. For example forest officials exacted illegally on construction of houses amounts ranging from Rs.5000 to 10,000 depending upon the size of house, a levy of Rs. 10 per grazing animal, Rs.50 per truck collecting dung from the forest, etc. all these exactions were put an end to by the sanghathan activists. An importance milestone in the development of the confidence of the adivasis was the Udaynagar police station gherao (encirclement) in September 1999. An adivasi who was returning from the forest after attending to a call of nature was shot dead by forest guards. A very large number of adivasis gathered and carried his body to the Udayanagar police station and gheraoed the station demanding action against the murderers. The district collector and the SP came down to promise action and a case was registered against the guard. This was followed by a large rally in Dewas. The administration noted a marked increase in the militant resistance of the adivasis after this incident and complained to the government that the morale of the police and forest guards had been seriously affected by this incident. In view of the growing militancy of the adivasis and the successful expansion of their organization the government decided to send a handpicked collector with the express brief of crushing the Sanghathan. The collector openly declared in a number of public meetings that he would crush the organization and wipe it out of existence within two months. That was in February 2001. The next two months were spent in planning and misinformation campaign.

Launching the attack

On 19th February the chief secretary of the MP government. (whose caste affiliation we have referred to above) convened a meeting of all high officials and the district officials to discuss ‘the illegal felling of trees in Dewas’. The minutes of the meeting despite being an official document is fairly candid. It begins with a review of the impact of the Sanghathan and how it has eroded state authority and how efforts are being made to mobilise adivasis through the VSSs to break the following of the Sanghathan. The minutes make special mention of the slogan ‘jangal aur zamin hamara hai!’ and how it has captured the imagination of the adivasis. As a consequence the adivasis have increased their encroachment on forest lands. (It may be added here that the chief secretary who presided over this meeting happens to head a family of large landlords famous for holding thousands of acres of land illegally in the Narmada valley). The meeting further discussed the strategies to be adopted to put an end to the Sanghathan activities including the concerted use of force. Interestingly there were very clear declarations that firing should not be resorted to at any cost. It may be remarked here that the secretary of the forest department happens to be a ‘progressive’ bureaucrat and he took care in the meeting to emphasise the need to refrain from killing adivasis. He did little else to hold back the offensive against the adivasis.

Armed with this decision taken at the highest level of the government and assured of the backing of the superiors the collector and the SP went about their job of pacifying the adivasis of Bagli block in the true colonial style.

The campaign was initiated on 28th March. Each day a large convoy of armed police and forest guards and members of neighbouring VSSs would descend upon a hamlet, round up and beat up the women and children and drive them out of the village, indiscriminately break the houses, especially the houses of the members of the sanghathan. Most of the houses were broken with a vengeance, crushing the tiles so that they could not be used again. Wooden beams and pillars were pulled out and carried away as trophies. So much for the legal action. Then followed the looting spree in which all valuables were looted and other objects broken up, then it was lunch time and the grains, chickens and goats of the adivasis were feasted upon. The remaining food was laid waste (storage bins broken, flour etc. mixed with mud, or fed to cattle) In a few villages pesticides were mixed with the flour and drinking water to ensure that the adivasis when they returned did not have any food to eat or water to drink on those hot summer days. It is rather ironical that the Chief Minister had only shortly announced a policy of ensuring food security to the adivasis so that they ‘can be weaned away from felling forests’ and here were his minions poisoning the food stored up in people’s houses!

On the fifth day of the operations the Sanghathan had organised a protest rally and roadblock agitation. The police team bypassed the demonstration and descended upon Mehendikheda village. As the news reached the rally participants a large number of them marched down towards Mehendikheda and pelted stones with the weapon David had so effectively used against Goliath. Seeing the number of the protesting adivasis swell the administration decided that this was the time to teach them a lesson and a firing was ordered, ‘in self defence’. Subsequently the administration tried to justify the firing which killed four persons by saying that the adivasis resorted to firing and that they were in possession of fire arms and bombs and had mined the roads. However to date no evidence of all this has come out.

The firing was followed by indiscriminate arrests and hundreds of people were arrested. Those arrested included several sarpanchs, members of janpad etc. i.e. elected representatives of the tribal people. Subsequently Rahul Bannerjee was arrested from Indore even though he had not been to the region since the police action had begun.

A reign of terror was unleashed amply supported by misinformation campaign which branded all the people’s organization of all hues and colours as being ‘Naxalite’ outfits which were stockpiling arms and terrorising the hapless tribal people. Journalists, politicians etc. who wanted to visit the affected villages were discouraged on the plea that it was not safe for them to go there and that the district administration will not take the responsibility of protecting them. The VSSs were mobilised to demonstrate and shout slogans against the Sanghathan to demonstrate that the tribal people did not support it. Amidst such a fascist campaign a few individuals and groups made brave attempts to visit the place and come out with the true story. A large number of mass organisations including the Narmada Bachao Andolan have extended active support to the people of Mehendikheda and other affected villages.

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