World Rainforest Movement

India: Freedom after a century of struggle

The tribal villages of Surma and Golbojhi celebrated their liberation on the occasion of International Labour Day on May 1. The freedom came after 107 years of struggle when the tribals got ownership of the forestland they have been dependent on for centuries. Home to about 450 Tharu tribe families, the two forest villages are situated in the core zone of the Dudhwa National Park in Lakhimpur district of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
At a time when tribal areas in the country are in the grip of Naxalism, Surma and Golbojhi got liberation after decades of non-violent democratic struggle without firing a single bullet. The two villages are also the first tribal settlements in the country, situated in a national park, to get benefit of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.

Around 700 acres of the forestland has been distributed among the tribals with each family getting up to four acres. The UP government has also granted them the status of  Ambedkar villages, which means that they will now have road connectivity, a primary school and a health centre. Tribals are now also entitled to benefits of various welfare schemes of the state and central governments. The villages are also expected to get the community ownership of the forest land and its produce soon, allowing tribals access to dry grass and wood, tendu leaves, herbs and other forest produce to support their families and livestock.

No wonder that the achievement is historic. That’s the reason why over 5,000 forest dwellers from different parts of UP came to take part in the festivities. Now people have land which they can cultivate for livelihood, send children to school and benefit from constitutional rights as citizens of India. The success has come after years of sacrifices, hardship and untold misery. Ironically, the entire event was ignored by the mainstream national media, which, however, efficiently covers Naxal violence in tribal areas and gives unnecessary space to those who glamaorize and try to justify Naxalism or Maoism. Many peaceful revolutions like those of Surma and Golbojhi are taking or have taken place in India but are not getting the required media attention. Maybe “peace” is not sensational enough to attract eyeballs required for TRP and the stories about poor tribals preferring non-violent Satyagrah over Naxalism are not moving enough to boost readership.

But I feel such motivating stories must be told to our new generation, particularly the privileged lot who took birth in a free India. Since they have got freedom absolutely free, they are generally insensitive towards the suffering of their underprivileged brethren. In 1904, the Tharu tribals were deprived of their land when the British took over the forest from the queen of Khairgarh estate, which came under Awadh kingdom. The entire forest cover was wiped out by the second world war in 1939-45 due to excessive exploitation. Tharus regenerated the forests in the next 20 years. The country got freedom in 1947 but the British legacy continued in the forest department in free India. Tribals were declared encroachers in their own land in 1978 after the area was converted into a national park. Out of 37 Tharu villages in the area, 35 were relocated. However, inhabitants of Surma  and Golbojhi refused to evacuate their land, although land was allotted to them for rehabilitation, it was not only smaller than their original villages but was also already occupied by other tribals. The people of the two villages approached the high court in 1980 but lost the 23-year-long legal battle in 2003.

With eviction threat looming large and no other option left, the tribals decided to launch a non-violent struggle. Women took the lead and formed the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch to lead the agitation. They were assisted by the activists associated with National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW). Tribals were harassed, beaten up and subjected to atrocities by the forest personnel. Tribals collected dry wood and grass to repair thatched houses, for handicraft and for fuel but the forest department slapped criminal cases on them on charges of poaching, tree felling and trespassing. Cases were lodged even against children, those who died long ago and those who left the place 20 years ago.  “If we are involved in poaching and tree felling, can anybody explain why we continue to live in abject poverty, whereas officials lead a lavish life?” argued Lalmati, a tribal.

In 2006, Parliament passed the FRA and a notification was issued in January 2008 after two years of debate. It came as a shot in the arm for tribals but it still took them more than three years to get the rights. In fact, tribals and the activists working with them told me that the past three years were the most difficult ones. This was the time, they say, when forest department along with the forest mafia and feudal forces tried every trick to evict tribals. The houses of villagers were set on fire and many were arrested on false charges. While under FRA, the gram sabha is entitled to make recommendations about the residential status of a person, forest guards were caught issuing domicile certificates declaring tribals as encroachers. The attempt was to confuse the state government which fortunately was in favour of giving land rights to tribals. Several petitions were also filed in the court by retired forest officials at the behest of the serving ones to stop the government from giving ownership titles to the original inhabitants of forests.

Ram Chandra Rana, another tribal, recalled how some “wildlife enthusiasts” joined the battle with the argument that converting a village situated in the core zone of tiger reserve will be a threat to wildlife, particularly tigers. “Our answer was simple for hundreds of years, forests were safe in the hands of tribals but forest cover started depleting and wildlife came under threat soon after the forest department was formed. But the fact is that tribals treat forest as God, hence they protect the habitat. The number of tigers decreased when forests were under the full control of the forest department but after implementation of the FRA, that is, as tribals started getting land titles, the number of tigers increased everywhere in the country,” he said. But why didn’t you take the rehabilitation package of Rs 10 lakh along with a piece of land. “We cannot sell our motherland. It’s the question of our self-respect and right to live with dignity,” he said.

After hearing the stories of sufferings, sacrifices and achievments of these tribals and activists like Ashok Da who dedicated his entire life for underprivileged, I was forced to ask myself a question: “What have I done besides jotting down some words while sitting in my air-conditioned office and feeling great about it?” I found the answer in “Why I Am An Atheist?”, written by revolutionary Bhagat Singh in 1930: “…A short life of struggle with no such magnificent end, shall in itself be the reward if I have the courage to take it in that light. That is all. With no selfish motive, or desire to be awarded here or hereafter, quite disinterestedly have I devoted my life to the cause of independence, because I could not do otherwise. The day we find a great number of men and women with this psychology who cannot devote themselves to anything else than the service of mankind and emancipation of the suffering humanity; that day shall inaugurate the era of liberty….”

Even if 10% of us (priveleged class) follow what Bhagat Singh said, 90% of India’s problems will be solved.

By Ashish Tripathi, Indian journalist. Sent by Roma, NFFPFW (Kaimur) / Human Rights Law Centre, Uttar Pradesh, India, e-mail:,