Tharu tribal women of Dudhwa battle for their right to the forest

Dudhwa national park in Uttar Pradesh

Photo by Rajesh.chansausi/Wikimedia Commons.

  • The Dudhwa National Park located in the Terai belt of Uttar Pradesh, wedged between India and Nepal, is home to the Tharu tribe.
  • The establishment of the Dudhwa National Park in 1978 resulted in the relocation of 44 of the 46 Tharu villages in the core of the park.
  • Since then, the Tharus have faced eviction and harassment from forest officials. To fight for their forest rights, a group of women set up the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch in 2009.

Women from the Tharu tribal community, living in 46 villages of Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh, are the forefront of the fight to their community’s right to the forest. Organised under the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch (Tharu Tribal Women Workers Peasant Platform), the collective, which was formed in January 2009, demands rights as per the legal conditions under India’s Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). The FRA recognises the rights of forest dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources for livelihood, habitation and other socio-cultural needs.

The tussle with the forest department has been ongoing for decades. Among the recent instances of conflict was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when, on July 1, 2020, Kajaria village in the core area of Dudhwa witnessed an attack by forest officials. Tharu women and men had been tilling the land that forest officials claimed was forest land. “Eighteen people dispatched by the Forest Department beat us with wooden batons. They hit my son on the head, and he began to bleed heavily. When I tried to protect him, they beat me violently and tore my clothes,” said Virmati Rana, a resident of Kajaria. They attempted to file a complaint about the assault at the Gauriphanta police station, but she alleged that the inspector and other police personnel harassed and drove them away.

Kajaria village in Dudhwa has witnessed tension between the villagers and the forest officials. Photo by Tarun Kanti Bose.

“When COVID-19 first emerged, the forest department warned us that if we left our houses, the disease might infect the animals and risk their death,” she explained, adding that this was the basis on which the police and the forest department have attacked them. But, the underlying reason, she claims is the ongoing conflict over land – the Tharu community claims legal rights over it, asserting their right to forest resources, while the forest department maintains that it is forest land that they have to prevent from tilling and other human activity.

“The Gram Sabha has allotted us this land and we currently have full control of it,” she said. “We continue to cultivate our land collectively. But the Forest Department claims this is forest land and prohibits tilling it. They seize certain lands when erosion causes the river to change its path. We have now decided to reclaim the land which belonged to us for generations,” she said.

Following the attack, Virmati, filed a FIR at Gauriphanta police station, Lakhimpur Kheri district. A compensation of one lakh rupees, for injuries and harassment, was granted to her under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

A forest rights activist for over a decade, Nivada Rana of Suda village which falls within the core area of Dudhwa National Park, is the Vice President of the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch and National Executive member of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUWFP).

She said the forest department’s claims of the Tharus destroying wildlife and forests are false. “I tell them that they are the ones burning forests and killing wild animals. We are the ones who preserve the forests. If we were stealing wood from the jungles, our houses would be filled with wood. But we know who is really stealing wood, we have seen wood being transferred to Nepal border,” said Nivada.

The Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch has been fighting for several years for the fair implementation of the Forest Rights Act. “Forest officials have confronted us while collecting firewood, paddy, straw, or reed for making our thatched roof. Whenever women enter the forest to collect wood or minor forest products for daily use, they are assaulted. Men are beaten and heavy fines are imposed on them. The forest department is trying to snatch away our rights and the forest bureaucracy in collusion with the police has become extremely powerful,” said Nivada.

About a decade ago, on January 20, 2012, Nivada along with late Fulmati and Rukma Rana had led a march from various villages to the forest in Dudhwa National Park and demanded access to collect firewood. The forest warden and Station House Officer (SHO) (Kotwal) of Gauriphanta Police Station, who had come with a battalion of police officers, attacked the peaceful protestors.

The agitators’ sustained protests eventually led to the filing of an FIR against the accused officials after over a month. As a result of the movement’s pressure, the SHO (Kotwal), who had attacked Nivada signed the FIR. The SHO was then transferred.

Nivada became a co-petitioner in the Supreme Court of India to defend the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. “I had seen the exploitation of my people since my childhood. Associating with the union gave me the strength to fight collectively. I understood this was a long-term struggle, and we couldn’t fight it alone,” she said.

Decades of battle

Sahvaniya Rana, who is doing her Masters in Sociology, and is the General Secretary of Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch, said, “When Dudhwa National Park was established, the residents were unaware our forest and our homes were being taken by the government for the park. When we became outraged over the repeated notices to evict the village, the forest department threatened to demolish our houses until we left. My father, Jawahar Rana and Ramachandra Rana ji, the village pradhan (head), struggled in the court until they finally obtained the Adhikar Patra (Letter of Sanction) for Surma village. As a result, the government can no longer evict us because we had the necessary letter.”

Her father had relentlessly fought for forest rights, and in 2003, he was taken into police custody. “During his confinement in prison, he was repeatedly beaten and hanged from a tree, rendering him unconscious. Fighting for the rights of the Adivasis and forest dwellers, my father endured such police brutality and unrestrained barbarism,” she said. Her father and Ramchandra ji continued their struggle to raise awareness amongst the villagers about how the forest department falsely implicates those who fight for their forest rights.

The establishment of the Dudhwa National Park created conflict between the village residents and the forest officials. Photo by Tarun Kanti Bose.

“While advocating for the rights of tribals and other forest dwelling communities, my father was jailed thrice. He was brutally assaulted by the police while he was being held in custody, resulting in internal injuries and blood cancer that ultimately claimed his life,” she said.

Shisir Shukla, a Palia-based journalist who is well-versed with the situation, says, “There is a continuous tussle between forest bureaucracy and Tharu Adivasis living in the core area of Dudhwa National Park. Adivasis have been fighting for their legal recognition over the forest.” He added that the forest department has been trying to vacate the villages where Tharu Adivasis are living. “Denying minimum of development activities in the area, be it school or mobile network, the forest department has been trying to keep the Adivasis under submission. Continuous attacks on the Tharu Adivasi women and men are part of the game-plan to deny them the forest rights,” Shukla alleged.

The Director of Dudhwa National Park was not available for a comment.

What does the future hold?

At present, Tharu women activists are making it known that they are the custodians of the land on which they dwell by operating through a “rational logic” and written language of bureaucracy. The FRA recognises ‘historical injustices’ done to indigenous and forest-dwelling communities and grants power to women in many ways. For instance, there is a rule that a third of the Gram Sabha should be made up of women.

This Tharu tribal women-led struggle, though prolonged, has impacted the community positively in many ways, primarily for the legal recognition of forest rights. In April 2011, the Tharu tribal community obtained land rights in Surma and Golbojhi villages within the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Tribal families benefited from the intervention of the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch. Women have also taken on leadership roles in Gram Sabhas, forest management, and dealings with officials.

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Banner image: Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh. Women from the Tharu tribal community are leading the fight to their community’s right to the forest that is part of the national park. Photo by Rajesh.chansausi/Wikimedia Commons.

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