Tuesday, June 30, 2009

'UP too may become a Lalgarh'

29 Jun 2009, 0522 hrs IST, TNN



Roma is the first woman in UP to have been booked under the National Security Act on charges of Maoist links. A Delhi University postgraduate and a
freelance journalist working with tribes in the Naxal infested region for a decade now, she warns that if problems of tribal are not solved through a democratic process, days are not far when many Lalgarhs will happen in UP. Ashish Tripathi reports

Lucknow: Contrary to the `armed uprising' by Left ultras at Lalgarh in West Bengal where paramilitary forces and police have been battling for a week now to reclaim the lost region, UP's Naxal and Maoist infested Kaimur mountain range -- spread over Sonebhadra, Mirzapur and Chandauli districts -- is witnessing a silent revolution.

The tribal women of over 500 villages in the range have taken around 20,000 hectares of land and are doing cooperative farming on it for the past two years, claiming ownership on grounds that they are original inhabitants of the forests. But local `landlords' and a few companies in mining business in the area are `conspiring' with government and forest officials to get the land back. Social activists working among these tribals warn that any attempt to dislodge inhabitants, who so far have largely been peaceful in their struggle against `state oppression', may to lead to eruption of volcano brewing since long, providing Left ultras an opportunity to strengthen their bases in the region.

"Believe me, tribals are peace loving people, that's the reason why Maoists and Naxals have not been able to establish their bases in the tribal belt. But any attempt to force tribals out of their land would push them towards ultras," said Roma, a member of steering committee, National Forum of Forests People and Forest Workers. A postgraduate from Delhi University, Roma, now in late 30s and single, has been working with forest tribals for past two decades and is the only woman in UP to have been booked under the National Security Act. She was arrested along with three others for leading an agitation in August 2007 demanding land ownership rights for tribals as per the new Forest Act 2006.

The local police had labelled Roma as Maoist but Maya government conducted an inquiry and withdrew the NSA within a month. But, in past 10 years, Roma has been implicated in a number of cases by police and forest authorities. She has, in fact, lost the count now. "After Mayawati came to power, local administration has been a bit soft, otherwise in Mulayam regime two persons had died in 2006 in police firing during an agitation," she said. The region, she said, is in the grip of coal, mineral and forest mafia. While the mafia under the protection of forest and police officers indulge in illegal cutting of trees and mining of sand, tribals have been declared encroachers in their own forest land," she claimed.

The major confrontation in the region between tribal/forest workers and the government/forest department is land dispute. Tribals want ownership of the land they have been living since ages, check on police/forest department atrocities and no exploitation of forests. "Without conducting a survey, the area was declared a reserved forest after Independence. It included 533 tribal villages. The inhabitants were declared encroachers and are being exploited by the police and forest officers. At present, a corporate group wants to acquire land in the area. This has left tribals with only two options -- either to fight it out democratically or take up arms by joining Left ultras," she explained.

The tribals have given dialogue the first chance for resolving the dispute. As a part of their agitation, built up after a decade long awareness drive, they identified land amid forest for agriculture and started cooperative farming. Women were strategically kept forward in the movement to avoid violence. Cooperative farming is being done under the banner of Kaimur Kshetra Mahila Majdoor Samiti. The produce is shared by all. But, it's not enough to provide food all the year round. Tribals also work as labourers in local factories and in mining sites. Poverty rules as benefits of welfare schemes have not reached people due to corruption. Police atrocities are on the rise.

Over a dozen tribes including Gond, Kol, Baiga, Agaria, Ghasia, Punika etc. are found in the region where feudalism still rules even six decades after Independence. Naxal movement reached here in late 90s. Many youngsters joined it. But banned organisations could not establish a strong base because majority prefers peace. These ultras come from Jharkhand and Bihar, take refuge in villages, execute violent acts and go back. But police catch innocent locals, label them as Naxals and put them in jail. Their families are harassed and women exploited. Such conditions make it easy for Naxals and Maoists groups to gain ground in the region housing around eight lakh people.

But, despite sympathy for the ultra groups, majority people have shown faith in democratic process of dialogue and agitation to make the government accept their demands. Further, with the passage of time, Naxalite and Maoists groups are also turning into exploiters. "During my stay in the jail, I came across several girls arrested for working for Naxals. Some of them confided how they were exploited both by the police and the ultra groups," said Roma. Regarding Naxal violence in the area, Roma said that police at times exaggerate the incidents to draw more money from the government in the name of security but violence free Lok Sabha elections have shown that majority want a peaceful solution.

Ashish Awasthi, another activist, cites the example of an incident when a PAC truck was blown off in 2004 by Naxals. "Police arrested locals but inquiries later revealed that explosive came from a cement factory and given to Naxals by a forest officer," he said. " Dialogue is the only way to solve problems but for that we have to allow the deprived lot to speak. Any attempt to muzzle their voice would only strengthen the ultra groups," he added.

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