for land rights in Puntamba
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
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
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