Protest harassment and persecution of NFFPFW members in North Bengal by Police

April 29, 2010

Press Release
National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)
North Bengal Regional Committee

Click here to read the original Bengali version of the appeal

Taking initiatives to implement the historic Forest Rights Act 2006, mobilizing people to conserve forests, institution-building at community level for forest governance, and stopping acts harmful to forests: evidently these all constitute crimes, penal offences for which upright and socially committed citizens can be harassed, insulted and persecuted at will. This is the current situation in sub-Himalayan North Bengal, an area which has witnessed unprecedented mass actions concerning the FRA in recent years. The Chilapata forests adjoining the famous Jaldapara Wild Life Sanctuary in Alipurduar sub-division of Jalpiguri district could easily be singled out among many other areas; here forest villagers belonging to the indigenous Rava community and other adivasi groups have succeeded to establish a great degree of community control over the area’s forests, using the FRA judiciously, and through consistent and systematic mass initiatives. Despite plenty of initial resistance, both the district administration and the forest department ultimately recognized these events—or so it seemed. That the administration was in fact readying a different kind of response could not be guessed before the Police suddenly raided the house of Sundar Singh Rava in the Kurmai forest village in the Chilapata forests, at 3 AM in the morning on 8th April. The police wanted to arrest Sundar Singh, but refused to give any reason. They did not reveal the nature of complaints, if any, against Sundar, and forcibly dragged him out. Meanwhile other villagers assembled, and because of their spontaneous resistance, the police could not take Sundar away.

Sundar Singh is not only a dynamic young leader of the area, he is also the co-convener of NFFPFW, North Bengal Regional Committee. A first year student of Alipuduar College, Sundar has no criminal records, and to the best of his ability has kept on fighting for people’s rights and in the greater interests of conserving the rich forests of his area. Sundar played an important role in the movement here and his Sundar’s dynamism and unflinching dedication to the cause made him a target of the forest officials and the timber mafia of the area, and they repeatedly threatened him with ‘dire consequences’ unless he left the movement.

In November 2008, when the indigenous Ravas and other adivasis banned extraction of forest produces and all forestry works inside their forests, without explicit permission of the Gram Sabha, it irked and antagonized the forest department and the local timber mafia. The Gram Sabhas of seven forest villages of the area took this decision jointly and informed the local SDO and the DFO, as well as the Panchayat, about this on 24th October, 2008. On 25th October, the Range Officer at Kodal Basti Range under the Coochbehar Forest Division threatened the local activists with “serious consequences” like police cases. On 11th November, a member of NESPON, a Siliguri-based Voluntary Organisation acting in the interests of the forest dwellers and Sundar Singh and Santeswar Rava were assaulted in front of the Chilapata Range Office by the members of “Shanti Committee”, an infamous and powerful mafia group of the area. Enquiries by NFFPFW revealed that as soon as the ban notice by the Gramsabhas was officially circulated, the Forest Department personnel of the area called a Meeting of the local Forest Protection Committees and Eco Development Committees. It was reported that the DFO of the Coochbehar Forest Divison himself conducted this “JFM” Meeting, which in reality was attended by the Shanti Committee goons. The decision of the Meeting was to teach the “Siliguri persons”(they meant NESPON) and the Ravas a lesson, the hard way. The 11th attack was the first of such lessons.

Despite repeated appeal to the District Magistrate and other authorities, and lodging of FIR by various villagers, the criminals responsible for the attack were not arrested, and so far as we know no criminal proceedings have been started against them. Instead, as it was later known, the midnight raid by the Police on 8th April, was to arrest Sundar for his ‘offenses’ in the 11th November 2008 incident(341/323/506 of 2008, Jaygaon PS). The victim of a heinous criminal attack and a young social upright social worker has become the offender in the eyes of the Law, apparently.

The persecution did not stop there. It was later learnt that various criminal cases have been started against many other members of NFFPFW in that area, on the basis of FIRs by the same criminal gang as well as the Forest Department: Ajoy Rava and Shyamal Rava of Kodal Basti Forest Village(214/08: 341/353/506 Jaygaon PS) and Kanai Rava, Rabi Rava and Kajib Rava of Andu Forest Village(518/08: 341/353/379/349). The alleged offense in the first case was that the ‘accused’ stopped/seized a boulder/sand-filled truck because it entered the forest illegally and without informing the Gram Sabha, and neither did it have any Transit Pass or any other valid document issued by the Forest Department. Incidentally, the truck belonged to the 11th November attackers, the news of the seizure let to the attack. We do not know yet the precise nature of the next complaint. Because the police considers perfectly legal actions under the Forest Rights Act 2006 as ‘criminal activity’, there can be many such cases.

It was not the end. The Police has made a ‘prestige issue’ out of the 8th April midnight incident at Kurmai Forest Village, and they are saying publicly that Sundar has ‘challenged the police’ and he will be taught a lesson. On 24th April the IC and other officers from the Alipuduar PS entered Sundar’s house again and threatened the villagers with ‘CRPF action’ unless Sundar surrenders. Though Sundar has got a bail from the Alipurduar SDJM’s court on the 2008 case on 20/04, a new case has been started against him and his father Manindra Rava (104/10 dtd 8/4/10: 143/186/353/506). On 25th April the SDPO Alipurduar told the Convener of the NFFPFW North Bengal Regional Committee that it was a “prestige matter” with the police and they would ensure that Sundar stays behind bars for at least three-four years. Sundar must learn what happens when one plays with the police, he said.

There may well be other cases besides these.

The police and the administration have declared war against the adivasis and forest dwellers of North Bengal for no reason whatsoever and absolutely false and baseless criminal cases are being slapped against upright and socially conscious citizens. The democratic aspirations of the long-exploited and deprived forest dwellers are being blatantly thwarted. Such insensitive and high-handed actions by the police can only lead to a prolonged confrontation-situation in all forest areas of North Bengal.

Will Chilapata be another Nandigram or Lalgarh? We do not want violence and bloodbath and NFFPFW remains committed to its core democratic values. But what does the police want to do? Why do they want to repress a completely peaceful and democratic mass initiative? Why do they brand citizens as criminals?

NFFPFW appeals to all democratic organizations and individuals of the country and beyond to rally behind it in a solidarity effort. The Movement in North Bengal needs all the support it can get.

We will be starting mass agitations in Alipurduar Town and other areas in this week.

Lal Singh Bhujel