PUCL Bulletin, September 2001

Adivasis' struggle for land rights in Puntamba

Also see,
Police kill tribal activists during a land rights agitation in Puntamba, Maharashtra

Concern for safety of John Abraham

The ghastly incident that took place on 25th June 2001 at Puntamba village of Maharashtra is just the lava of a volcano that had been burning from within for a number of years. The despair, agony and untold oppression of a community which had no voice, which has been dying a silent death over the years, dared to express their grievances and paid heavily with the lives of their leader and two of their activists. The gory killing and wounding of these hapless people on that fateful day just proves that they are still not permitted to raise their voice against the landlords, police machinery and the political system. It is not surprising to hear from the vested interest that it is the work of extremist groups when faced with the harsh realities. The lives that are lost and the blood that has been shed by the wounded have been the sacrifice that the adivasi community made at the feet of the gods who had been dictating terms to them over the years. One should have the patience to listen to the untold stories of oppression, to see the unseen side of deprivation and to feel the inexplicable agony of this community before a superficial description of the incident on that particular day.

While elaborate discussion on globalisation, privatisation and transnational finance was taking place during the early nineties, a group of adivasis fought a silent battle against vested interests and power structures in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra State. It was a challenge to the government's effort to divest natural resources from the weaker sections and enrich the global partners and rich landlords.

Even though the organised struggle lost the magnitude it had in its initial stage, the determination of these tribals who withstood attacks from local landlords, harassment from police and state machineries, threats to activists and the burning of huts is testimony that everything is not lost.

The movement, which began in 1994, was a response to the decision of the government of Maharashtra to dissolve the Maharashtra State Farming Corporation (MSFC), a state-owned enterprise, and give part of the land to the former owners of the land and the rest to multinational seed companies. About 70,000 acres of land, now under the control of the corporation, are owned legally by the government of Maharashtra. This land was acquired under the Land Ceiling Act. About 35,000 acres of land are lying fallow. There are a few hundred landlords who claim that the land belongs to them and the government of Maharashtra is only a leaseholder, a claim which is baseless and denied strongly by the trade union leaders and the left parties. The landless adivasis in this area have been depending on these lands for a number of years, even before the corporation came into existence. The corporation could cultivate hardly half of its land and the thorny trees (firangee babool), which grew on these lands, became a blessing for these tribals especially when there was no employment. For many of them, firewood collection from these lands was more profitable than farm labour. A number of occupations had already taken place even before the movement began. When the movement began large tracts of wasteland in Kopergaon and Shrirampur talukas and some parts in the newly formed Rahata taluka were occupied by adivasis and nomadic tribes. There were a few dalits and landless labourers from other communities.

The movement had reached its peak in its initial stages itself. However, fissures began due to the composition of the committee which managed the movement. There were personality clashes. The left party had its own agenda, the dalit groups their own and the adivasis had a very poor leadership. A downfall in the organisational strength was imminent and unavoidable. What remained was a group of adivasis and dalits strongly united and determined to fight to the last under the leadership of Pradeep Dushing.

Harassment from the state administration poured in, abundantly coupled with atrocities from unfriendly landlords who had an eye on the government land. A few huts were destroyed in the initial stages. Confrontation with police and landlords became a regular feature of the movement. A large number of activists left the movement and the remaining had to face severe hardships. The leader of the movement Pradeep Dushing had twelve false cases pending against him. But the movement continued with the same determination as it had five years ago.

A large number of demonstrations at various government establishments, road blocks hunger strikes etc were the usual pattern of bringing the issue into the limelight. Youth training programmes had a limited but desired effect. A few youth have taken up the responsibility of organising village-level meetings. Women activists were trained locally to teach the children in the remote hamlets. There are thirteen such centers where adivasi children sing and play under the trees and huts and simultaneously learn the basics. Women's Self Help Groups were formed and on the fateful day some activists had come to Puntamba to open their first bank account of the SHG. The atrocities on tribals had been taking place unabated. The gruesome murder of an adivasi at Shirdi and the subsequent cover-up of the incident by the landlord with the assistance of the police is a case yet to be investigated. Despite protest rallies and hunger strikes, the police department was still avoiding a full-fledged investigation. As a last resort we approached the High Court with a writ petition and the matter is in the court.

The attack on a hamlet at Shingva in Kopergaon by landlords has sent shudders through almost all the adivasi hamlets that are situated in the government wastelands. On June 11, 1999, a crowd of landlords from Shingva village attacked the settlement of the tribals on the outskirts of the village. The attack took place at night. There were only women and children. Their eight huts were burnt, three women brutally attacked with axe and sticks and their hands and legs were broken and were thrown on the roadside and in the farm. They lay there in the rain the whole night, even though the police visited the place immediately after the incident. One of the women wounded seriously was Indubai Manjre who died in the police firing on 25th June.
There was still another murder of an adivasi near Kopergaon in April 2001 and when Pradeep Dushing on behalf of Bhumi Hukka Andolan went to Kopergaon Police station to make a complaint, the police refused to take the complaint. The complaint was later sent to DSP Ahmednagar.

There was an adivasi at Puntamba whose household items were confiscated and kept almost like a slave for thirty years by a landlord and when he made a complaint the matter was hushed up by paying a paltry sum. There is another adivasi family near Kopergaon, which is still kept bonded. The husband fled the site and the landlord is still searching for him. The wife is allowed to go the market but the children are not allowed to go out. She is not allowed to speak even to her own relatives in the workplace.

Just before the firing incident, a number of huts near Shingva was destroyed by landlords. A complaint was filed at Shirdi police station and the police took no action.

It was with all these heavy burden of atrocities that the community survived for the past years. It was on 19th June 2001 that the adivasis had another bitter taste of atrocity. A congress leader molested a tribal girl and beaten up an adivasi and threatened the others with sharp weapons if they made a complaint. The girl's father made a complaint at the Puntamba police station but the police asked the parents to take the girl away to some other place instead of taking action against the culprit. On the next day when the parents and relatives approached Reena John to help them to complain at Rahata Police station, the brother and father of the accused threatened them with dire consequences. After the complaint was made on 19th the accused was arrested immediately. The next day, about 15 adivasis took refuge at Reena's house because further threat was given by the parents of the accused. The matter was immediately communicated to the Puntamba police station, Rahata Police Station, DSP Ahmednagar, IG of police at Nashik and asked them to provide protection but for five hours there had been no action from the police. One constable came home and assured the adivasis that nothing will happen to them and after an hour two policemen came and told me that Reena's husband is causing tension in the hamlet. Despite all the complaints, no protection or security was provided.

The accused was almost immediately released on bail and the adivasis were petrified. It was later known that the accused had influenced the police and the formal procedures were not followed by the police in presenting the case at the court and the judge released him on bail despite the fact that the girl was minor and the Atrocity Act was applied.

It was in this context that Pradeep Dushing was informed that he would be arrested for his involvement in the land movement. This irritated the adivasis further. On 24th June they decided to take a rally to the Puntamba police station and present a memorandum. The main demands were that the adivasis need protection, the accused should be punished and the land which they have occupied should be given to them. Puntamba is the heartland of landlords who demand the MSFC land and some slogans were against the atrocities of these landlords. The adivasis used drums, shouted slogans, carried sticks and reached the police station. Reena, seeing the fury of the adivasis, had informed the police station to have additional enforcement and in no time about 15 policemen came from the nearby police station.

Majority of people in the rally were women. A few men were at the tail end of the rally which had an approximate strength of 300.As soon as they reached the police station Indubai Manjre told the police that let them enter the station campus. Before she could negotiate the police started beating them up; women were mercilessly beaten up by male police and the crowd was dispersed. Without any warning, without tear gas, without firing in the air, the police started firing indiscriminately at the crowd. Reena was watching the incident inside the police station and she was protected by one of the police officers who fortunately did not know who she was. When Pradeep and Indubai fled the scene and took shelter in a school which is about 200 meters away, two constables went behind them. Meanwhile Pradeep was hidden by his wife and two other women. The police pulled him out, fired at his lower abdomen within a distance of four feet. Indubai was also similarly shot at pointblank range. Pradeep's wife was dragged away and was not allowed to go to her dying husband. Reena rushed to see Pradeep and Pradeep's last words were "Satpute called me by name and killed me". She also heard the constables saying two are gone and only John is remaining. Even in the van the police repeated that the next one in the list is John. Both of them died on the spot. About ten of them were admitted with severe injuries. Some of them ran away with bullet injuries.

Reena was arrested and put in the lock-up. Through the window, she saw what the police did. The police went inside the police station, brought old knives, kerosene and an axe and collected stones and sticks. Some women from the police quarters were told to tie up clothes on the sticks to prepare torches. They also discussed the kinds of guns used in the firing. The police inspector said that a third kind of gun should not be mentioned lest they get into trouble.
The police is raiding the adivasi hamlets and picking up poor adivasis and filing cases against them. More than forty have been arrested and arrest still continues. Most of the arrested had nothing to do with the rally on 25th.

The atrocities against them continue and their feeble cry for justice is smothered. Will anybody ever hear it?

-- John P.A., Puntamba, District Ahmednagar, Maharashtra

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