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India's President Droupadi Murmu and 'an Unbroken History of Broken Promises'

Draupadi Murmu has difficult tasks cut out for her if she is to protect rights and ensure justice to the Adivasis.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
India's President Droupadi Murmu and 'an Unbroken History of Broken Promises'
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The reference in the headline is to the passionate essay by the late Dr BD Sharma of the same title. The continuing criminalisation of the Adivasi peoples is seen even in the 75th year of our Independence.

In the past couple of weeks, several very important events have taken place that will deeply affect the Adivasi people of our country.

Firstly, the highest office of our land, that of the President of India will now be occupied by Smt Draupadi Murmu, an Adivasi lady hailing from the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. As a Governor of Jharkhand, in the year 2017, Smt Murmu had shown her empathy for Adivasi concerns when she returned amendments to the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, passed by the BJP Government of Shri Raghubar Das, to the State Legislature, to reconsider the impact upon tribal interests, thus resonating with the widespread protests in the State.

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Snapshot
  • In the past couple of weeks, several very important events have taken place, that will deeply affect the Adivasi people of our country.

  • The office of the President of India will now be occupied by Smt Draupadi Murmu, an Adivasi lady hailing from the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha.

  • The second story to hit the headlines was the acquittal of 121 tribals by the Special Court.

  • Her first challenge might be when the amended Forest Clearance Rules, 2022 are laid before the Monsoon Session.

  • Smt Draupadi Murmu has difficult tasks cut out for her if she is to protect rights and ensure justice to the Adivasi people.

One Indian President's Words May Inform Another 

As a President she will be faced with even greater challenges and greater expectations. Perhaps, she could take heed of what another illustrious President before her, in fact the first Dalit President Dr KR Narayanan had said on the eve of Republic Day, 2001, two decades ago:

“The mining that is taking place in the forest areas are threatening the livelihood and the survival of many tribes. It is through enlightened developmental policies that we can resolve such dilemmas of development. One pre-condition for the success of developmental projects in our extensive tribal areas is that we should take into confidence the tribals and their representatives, explain the benefits of the projects to them, and consult them in regard to the protection of their livelihood and their unique cultures. When they have to be displaced the resettlement schemes should be discussed with them and implemented with sincerity. This could avoid many critical situations, and we will be able to carry the tribals with us. We have laws that are enlightened and which prohibit the transfer of the tribal lands to non-tribals, private bodies and corporations. The Supreme Court has upheld these provisions through its judgments. We cannot ignore the social commitments enshrined in our Constitution. In eastern India, the exploitation of minerals like bauxite and iron ore are causing destruction of forests and sources of water. While the nation must benefit from the exploitation of these mineral resources, we will have also to take into consideration questions of environmental protection and the rights of tribals.

Let it not be said by future generations that the Indian Republic has been built on the destruction of the green earth and the innocent tribals who have been living there for centuries.”

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Droupadi Murmu's First Challenge — Tribal Villagers Against Mining Project  

Indeed, the first challenge to Smt Murmu might be sooner than later, when the amended Forest Clearance Rules, 2022 are laid before the Monsoon Session of the Parliament. These Rules have not only diluted the provisions for recognising forest rights before granting Forest Clearance, but have done away with the earlier mandatory grant of consent by the Gram Sabha. These amendments, though they cannot have retrospective force, come conveniently at a time, when in the erstwhile “no-go area” of the Hansdeo Arand Forest in Chhattisgarh, a decade long protest of tribal villagers against Adani’s mining for the Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Nigam Ltd is reaching a head.

The widespread solidarity this movement has garnered across Chhattisgarh and in fact nationally, has forced the Chhattisgarh Government to issue orders in May 2022 halting the felling of trees for the second phase of mining for the Parsa East Kete Basan coal mine. Earlier in October 2021, the Governor of Chhattisgarh—Smt Anusuya Uikey—also an Adivasi lady, had assured hundreds of tribal villagers, who had undertaken a 300 km long padyatra from Village Fatehpur in the Sarguja division of Chhattisgarh to the capital Raipur, that she would discuss the issues of the lack of gram sabha consent and the use of fake gram sabha resolutions to facilitate clearances for mining with the Chief Minister, Minister for Coal & Mines, and the Prime Minister.

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Acquittal of 121 Tribals After 5 Years in Prison

The second story to hit the headlines was the acquittal of 121 tribals by the Special Court (NIA/ Scheduled Offences), Revenue District Sukma and Bijapur, South Dantewada, Bastar on 15 July 2022. They were released after around 5 years of incarceration, allegedly for the act of attacking security forces and killing 25 jawans at Burkapal, Police Station Chintagupha, District Sukma. Indeed, the Learned Judge had no choice—there was no evidence.

While this may have come as a shock to many people, for any person familiar with the lives of Adivasi people in the Left-Wing-Extremism affected areas, it represents more the norm than the exception.

Whenever any incident of Maoist violence occurs, an FIR is lodged against several hundred unknown persons. And the next time a 'Search and Cordon Operation' is carried out in the concerned area by hundreds of security forces, usually people are rounded up indiscriminately and arrested under this FIR.

Common sense tells us that it is unlikely that those who are arrested in this manner are Maoists, rather they are more likely to be those hapless individuals who have been unable to flee into the forests at the news of a search operation.

Since the FIR is usually registered under very serious offences—as in this case, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, the Arms Act, the Explosives Act, and charges of waging war against the Indian State, there is no question of bail.

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Tribals Get Acquitted, But at What Cost? 

The Adivasis in this case were lucky to have advocates such as Advocate Beecham Pondi, P Bheema and Bela Bhatia, otherwise they are generally left to the mercies of our flawed and unaccountable legal aid system. All the witnesses are usually policemen, jawans of the security force or Special Police Officers (Adivasi youth often drawn from the ranks of surrendered Maoists). They rarely answer summons promptly, delaying trials inordinately.

Eventually acquittal takes place, but at what cost? Speaking to local media persons at Sukma, the recently released tribals spoke with great pain of the loved ones they had lost during their incarceration. One of the accused Muria Adivasi—Dodi Manglu s/o late Bakka, aged 42 years r/o Patelpara, PS Jagargunda, district Sukma—could not be released, he had died in judicial custody on 02 October 2021.

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a group of lawyers who worked and researched in Bastar for around five years from 2013 onwards, analysed court records from 2005 to 2012 in the Dantewada Sessions Court and found a rate of acquittal ranging from 91.5% to 98.7% with the average rate of acquittal for Bastar being 95.7%.

The average number of accused per case was approximately seven per case (6.97). The number of accused in a case were steadily increasing over the years. The number of cases with one or two accused reduced from 50% in 2005 to 30% in 2012, while the cases with 10 or more accused consistently rose. In Bhairamgarh police station there were two cases with 96 and 97 accused at the time of their study.

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Bastar Jails Overcrowded with "Naxals"

Rate of acquittal for Bastar

(Graph courtesy: “Criminalisation of Adivasis and the Indian Legal System” by Shomona Khanna, Astha Saxena, Puja, Khushboo Parekh published by the Indigenous Peoples Rights International.)

JagLAG found, that in 2013, the prisons of Bastar were considerably more overcrowded than the average in Chhattisgarh or India. While Jagdalpur Central Jail had an occupancy rate of 227% compared to the national average of 118.5%, the Kanker Jail had one of 428%. While Jagdalpur Central Jail had 62% undertrials among the incarcerated, Kanker District Jail had 97.5% and Dantewada District Jail had 99.5% undertrials. JagLAG also found that while across India, the largest proportion of undertrial prisoners, on an average, spend under one year in prison; more than half the undertrials in Dantewada and Jagdalpur jails spent 1-5 years waiting for their trial to complete.

The reason for this was, that the courts were not granting bail to these prisoners (who of course would usually be in “Naxal cases” with “grave allegations”) or were taking longer to dispose of the cases. Unfortunately, the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group was systematically harassed and hounded out of Bastar till it was eventually disbanded.

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Murmu's Long Road Ahead to Secure Rights of Tribals

But by far, the most chilling event has been the judgment of the Hon’ble Apex Court in Himanshu Kumar & Ors. Vs State of Chhattisgarh on 14.07.2022, whereby, not only has the Petitioner No 1 been fined, but the State of Chhattisgarh/ CBI have been explicitly permitted to charge him with perjury and criminal conspiracy.

It appears that the Court believes that he has been unable to prove his case against the State. In this Petition, Himanshu Kumar and the family members of 7 deceased adivasis had approached the Supreme Court to set up a Special Investigation Team to probe into the events of 1st October 2009 in Village Gompad, district Dantewada, during which these adivasis had been killed.

Only recently, in 2019, the VK Agrawal Judicial Enquiry Commission has indicted the security forces for killing 17 villagers including 7 minors in the village of Sarkeguda, district Bijapur, Chhattisgarh in the year 2012. Of course, so far, no action has been taken against the officers concerned.

In a situation where ordinary Adivasi villagers can so easily be incarcerated or even encountered as a Maoist, the mere thought that they should be cautious even to approach the highest Constitutional Court of this land in the uphill fight for justice, speaks volumes.

Smt Draupadi Murmu has difficult tasks cut out for her if she is to protect rights and ensure justice to the Adivasi people.

(The author is a lawyer and rights activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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