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Sonbhadra Massacre And Beyond

Sonbhadra Massacre And Beyond

On July 17, ten Gond adivasis including three women were killed and many injured when armed men led by the head of Umbha village of Ghorawal in Sonbhadra district of eastern Uttar Pradesh fired the Gonds, in a bid to take possession of a disputed land. Nearly 30 people, including the main accused village head Yagya Dutt Bharotiya, have been arrested in connection with the shootout, and a sub-divisional magistrate and four police personnel have been transferred. The state administration has imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in the area barring entry of political parties as well as social organisations.

According to newspaper reports, Yagya Dutt and 10 other members of his family had bought 145 bighas of disputed land from the kin of a Bihar cadre IAS officer in 2017. Dutt had been since trying to take possession of the land which was being tilled by the Gond farmers. When they protested, Dutt’s men ‘indiscriminately’ opened fire. It is reported that police knew about this possible attack. According to Indian Express report, a policeman was pressurizing villagers to not resist Dutt’s takeover of their land. When Dutt’s men attacked unarmed villagers on July 17, a villager phoned the police, who reached the venue while the firing continued. Police could do nothing as their numbers were far less than the attackers’. Some reports claimed that five Gonds were killed after the police arrived.

As usual, political parties are engaged in blame game after the incident. While Opposition parties allege that the BJP government in the state has failed to control law and order, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath immediately blamed the 1950 Nehru government and the Congress, and as afterthought, added Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samajwadi Party to his list.

Meanwhile, a tribal MLA, Hariram Chero from Duddhi constituency, has claimed that he had tried to alert Chief Minister about the brewing tension in the area. Chero said that his January 14 letter clearly stated how land mafia was active in the region and was trying to encroach upon the farmlands used by the tribals.

According to News18, a senior officer of the Indian Forest service had submitted a report of shocking loot of more than 1 lakh hectare of forest land in Sonbhadra to the state government in 2014. But the then Uttar Pradesh government ignored the report. The officer concerned, A K Jain, died in a road accident in July last year.

Sonbhadra: Background of dispute and politician-bureaucrat nexus

The land in Umbha which triggered the massacre belonged to erstwhile Raja of Badhar, Anand Brahm Sahoo. Even before Independence, Adivasis used to till the land as the royals did not object to tilling by their subjects. After Zamindari abolition in 1952, the land was declared as barren in revenue records and transferred to the Gram Sabha.

In 1955, Maheshwari Prasad Sinha, a resident of Bihar’s Patna, formed a society named Adarsh Co-operative Society in Sonbhadra (then a part of Mirjapur district). He colluded with the then-Tehsildar to have 639 bighas of land transferred to Adarsh society on December 17, 1955.

Later, Sinha used the influence of his son-in-law Prabhat Kumar Mishra, an IAS officer, to transfer 148 bighas of the land in the name of his daughter, i.e. Mishra’s wife, Asha Mishra. Reports say that the ownership of the same land was transferred, on September 6, 1989 in the name of Asha Mishra’s daughter Vinita Sharma alias Kiran and her husband Bhanu Prasad Sharma, the present chairman of Banks Board Bureau, an autonomous body set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is this land that Yagya Dutt bought, reports The National Herald.

Even as ownership rights of the land kept changing, the Adivasis were made to cultivate the land and claim to have been paying lagaan (land tax). The Gonds protested against the 1989 transfer and the 2017 deal. They lodged a complaint with the Revenue Department and also filed a case in the civil court last year.

Reportedly, the 1955 file that had the details of the land transfer has gone missing, making it impossible to know the grounds on which the tehsildar transferred panchayat land to Adarsh Society.

Sonbhadra portrays the systematic betrayal of the Adivasis since Independence. It is the narrative of India’s brahmanical elite usurping the lands of the Dalits and adivasis which they have been tilling for decades. I can say with full conviction and authority that such stories exist in other parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states where all the ‘legal’ provisions were used to keep the landholding outside the purview of land ceiling act. The politicians know it well. The bureaucrats, except for very few, were party to this loot.

How the brahmanical elite ‘legally’ stole the adivasi land

On the ground, parties don’t matter. Dominant castes adopt parties to protect their interests. So the Congress-BJP accusations on each other are nothing but farce. Most of the corrupt leaders cleverly switch their loyalties to the ruling parties and then abuse their predecessors.

After the Zamindari Abolition Act, misusing the ‘land to the tiller’ rule, new zamindars were born as there was no prescribed ceiling limit of the land. The privileged class, adept at finding new methods to circumvent the law, used it to their full benefit. The Act never benefitted the most marginalized particularly the Dalits and adivasis in Central India. So, the government brought out Land Ceiling legislations in 1960 and then amended it in 1972 and imposed a ceiling on 12.5 acres of land which is irrigated. The 1960 acts had so many gaps that the powerful elite found ways to evade it. At that time the ceiling limit was 40 acres. That apart, the powerful people registered the land in the name of their bonded labourers, family members and even distant relatives. If still they could not adjust their excess land, they created fake names, in the names of cats and dogs, but the biggest stealing of land came from the false trusts created to protect the interests of the big landlords. Land Ceiling Act’s biggest failure was to allow landholdings in the name of ‘religious trusts’, temples, mutts, gaushalas, ‘educational institutions, agricultural institutions etc. These were the easiest areas to evade ceiling laws. In Uttar Pradesh, these trusts belong to all forms and shades of savarna leadership in various political camps and religious institutions.  

There are many instances where the landlords have used the courts to protect their misdeeds. The cumbersome processes of revenue court ensured that the matter remained in courts. The state has to respond to most of the cases where a ceiling surplus declared land is challenged in the court of law. After the summons was issued or the court ordered maintaining status quo, the administration never really felt the necessity to keep its legal counsel under pressure to pursue the cases. With no will from the authorities to file reviews or challenge them on time or ensure that petitions come for hearing, the ‘responsible’ connived with the accused landlords and kept the matter pending in the files.

The real culprits of Sonbhadra violence

It is not that Sonbhadra witnessed unrest for the first time. Adivasis are targeted whenever they protest to protect their land. Mining and timber forest mafia operate in the district with impunity in close connivance with the authorities. In fact, adivasis’ rights over the land and forests have been acknowledged for long but the politician bureaucratic-feudal-caste connivance of the cow-belt brahmanical leaders ensured that all the provisions remain in paper.

Apart from the hill regions, the two regions in Uttar Pradesh that had vast forest land were Kaimur, Bundelkhand and Tarai of Uttarakhand. Both the places were originally inhabited by the Adivasis but the authorities and politicians grabbed the vast tracts of fertile land from them. It suited their purpose to keep the communities out of the scheduled tribe status. So, Kols and many other communities of Uttar Pradesh who were a majority in Bundelkhand, Mirjapur as well as Sonbhadra, were denied ST status and hence legally lost rights over forest. There are many communities, who are adivasis in neighbouring Chandauli district but not so in Sonbhadra. Secondly, both the regions of Kaimur and Tarai were flooded with outsiders who dominated and benefitted from the innocence of the adivasi communities.

This is the story everywhere including Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The demographic changes are visible in these areas and non-adivasis have not only hijacked economic resources but also became powerful politically. The non-adivasi chief ministers of once Adivasi dominant states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are the best examples.

Most of the violence on Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized people in India is related to land disputes. Resolution of land related issues will pave the way for normalization of relations and democratization of society. Political democracy in India will never succeed unless land issue remains unresolved. Land Ceiling laws are not redundant but need to be sharpened to achieve the target of social justice as envisioned in our constitution. An India with unresolved land disputes will never be able to live in peace and harmony. It will continue to give rise to tensions and violence.

(Published on 29nd July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 31)