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Gujarat : Rights activists being branded and jailed

Dangs is the smallest and perhaps the most scenic Adivasi district of Gujarat. As you soak in the beauty and breathe the fresh air, Ashish Pawar, a young Adivasi activist acting as a guide, struggles to explain why his "god", activist Avinash Kulkarni, who has been branded a Maoist by police, was arrested. Fearing a similar fate for himself, he adds, "I don't even understand what Naxalism or Maoism means."

In south Gujarat, police arrested at least nine "Maoists" in February and March claiming they received information from the Orissa government that Naxals were preparing for a violent movement in the state. But so far, Gujarat Police have not produced any evidence - except alleged confessions by those arrested - that they were involved in any armed, violent or anti- State activity. Before this, police have not registered any Maoist activity in the region since 1998.

In what appears to be a two-pronged strategy, activists like Kulkarni who are working with tribals to ensure they get ownership of their forest land are dubbed Maoist and arrested. At the same time, tribals are themselves being divided along Hindu vs tribal lines and turned into Hindutva acolytes.

The recent arrests come at a time when the Adivasis of Dangs thought they had learned to deal with the "tyranny" of forest authorities through legal instruments like the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Among those arrested is prominent Gandhian and forest rights activist Avinash Kulkarni, 55, whom the tribals deeply respect. Kulkarni was arrested from the house of fellow Adivasi activist Bharat Pawar on March 26 in the administrative headquarters of Dangs. An MPhil in political science, Kulkarni has been charged with "waging war against state" besides organising and participating in "unlawful" assembly of people in Dangs and Surat. His associates say Kulkarni has been arrested to "create a possibility of dividing" the Adivasi Maha Sabha (AMS), a conglomerate of 40 tribal rights groups comprising some 30,000 tribals who are involved in a robust movement in Gujarat's tribal areas seeking the implementation of the FRA.

The arrest of Kulkarni, Bharat and Sulat Pawar has created such an atmosphere of fear in Dangs that it threatens to halt the peaceful tribal forest rights movement spearheaded by AMS in south Gujarat. AMS members say they will carry on working for the tribal rights of "jal, zameen and jungle (water, land and forest)" under the constitutional provisions of the FRA. But police visits to their houses have left them frightened. "Earlier, people would agitate against the forest authorities. Avinashbhai taught us new legal methods to approach the government for our legal rights," says Ashish, 27, who has worked with Kulkarni in Dangs since 2005, when the FRA was enacted. "Now we are scared that we will also be caught." Ashish says that after the arrests, his father, Gulab Bhai, a tribal elder, was told by the Dangs DSP that he should not organise any protests or assemble people. Tribals in the area say police visited several villages in the Dangs to deliver similar messages.

Those connected with social and democratic movements in the south Gujarat tribal belt are enraged by the arrests of the activists. "For Chief Minister Narendra Modi's government, the FRA is like a gun in the hands of the tribals," says Rohit Prajapati, a prominent Vadodara-based activist and AMS member. There is a widespread impression among south Gujarat civil society members that if the FRA is implemented properly it will create serious problems for Modi because of "commitments" he has given to the paper, tourism and mining industries in Dangs and other tribal areas of the state. "Some forest areas will need to be leased to industry," says Prajapati. "Even the judiciary go along when national interest is invoked."

A GROWING sense that "Naxalism" is being invented by the state to "scuttle" the tribal rights movement and "neutralise" the AMS is spreading in Gujarat's tribal belt. On April 4, hundreds of tribals from Kim, Ulpad and Mangrol Adivasi tehsils assembled in Surat to protest the "arrests in the name of Naxalism".

There are reasons to believe that the Naxal label has proved very useful for Gujarat and that the state government is going slow in implementing the FRA. In Dangs, not a single "patta" - legal papers for ownership of cultivation land in the forest area - has been handed over to any tribal claimant so far. "The Gujarat government does not like social justice movements. The arrests are aimed at stopping the legal tribal rights movements," says Uttam Parmar, a Gandhian tribal rights activist who has been involved in justice movements for years.

Parmar also points to the second line of the Gujarat strategy: that the Modi government has been actively encouraging - with official support - the "Hinduisation" of tribal culture. "A Hindu ethos is being imposed on the tribals - whose civilisational culture is far different from that of Hindu culture," Parmar adds. In 2007, the state government allowed the illegal felling of 600 trees on the Chamak Dongar hill and built on it a temple for Shabri, a devotee of Ram. A small pond in Subir village was renamed 'Pampa Sarovar', the place where Ram supposedly met Shabri. The site was later used by the VHP and RSS to establish a fifth Kumbh Mela (Shabri Kumbh). "An imaginary history is being created to strip Adivasis of their identity and rights to the forest," Parmar says. Today, the entire Dangs' hillocks are dotted with Hanuman temples.

The Dangis say the BJP, the RSS and the VHP have no history of speaking up for Adivasis and have instead created friction between them and Christian missionaries working in the area. "They [the government] did not even ask us before dismantling symbols of our deities here," says Pawar, "The government is simultaneously creating a communal emergency in the state."

Officials of the Rajpipla Social Service Society (RSSS), a legal aid NGO and part of AMS in the tribal belt, are dismayed by the arrest of Kulkarni and his associates. Kulkarni has worked with the RSSS for more than a decade and was preparing for a Peoples' Tribunal for Forest Rights in the coming months. The organisation, parts of whose work has been funded by the Union Ministry of Rural Development, claims it has provided legal assistance to tribals in at least two lakh court cases over the last two decades. "AMS can vouch that Avinash and Bharat [Pawar] are not involved in violent or illegal activity," says Xavier Manjooran, a senior RSSS office bearer and AMS activist. "The Gujarat government was sorry that they didn't have Naxals or Maoists."

Kulkarni's lawyer, Kirit Panwala, says there is nothing illegal about his current activities. "[Kulkarni] may get harassed because of his past," Panwala says. Manjooran adds that when Avinash came from Maharashtra to work among the Dang tribals in 2002, he revealed that he was once a member of CPI-ML Janashakti but had quit the party. The party is not banned. But according to Surat police sources, Kulkarni has "confessed" that he is still a member and participated in two recent party meetings in Surat.

"The government has the right to deal with any violent movement in Gujarat. But it is important that the government action does not jeopardise the lives of people and activists who are working for the rights of Adivasis," Panwala says.

But Gujarat police suspect Kulkarni is involved in organising a Maoist rebellion in the south of the state. Although officially police are tight-lipped about details of what has come to light after interrogating six alleged Maoists arrested outside Dangs, officials privately say that Niranjan Mahapatra, arrested one week before Kulkarni, has identified him as being involved in Maoist activity in Gujarat. Kulkarni now faces charges of sedition.

The work that Kulkarni and his associates have been involved with in Dangs for two decades points to a possible solution to the Naxal or Maoist problem that has captured the country's attention. Arresting the likes of him may amount to taking away Adivasis' legal means to secure their rights as prescribed in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and the FRA. Could Gujarat police be shooting the messenger?

(Tehelka, April 17)