The Massacre at Sonbhadra: Systematic betrayal of the Adivasis since independence

Sonbhadra massacre

Ten adivasis including three women were massacred and nearly 14 others wounded in a bloody attack on them by the feudal caste forces led by the head of the village in district Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh. According to reports appeared in newspapers, the main accused Yogdutt Bhurtiya, his two brothers and 23 other people have been arrested out of the total 73 accused. All of them raided the village with massive ammunition in about 33 tractors in around 1030 -11.00 am in the morning on 17th of this July whenGondadivasis were tilling their land. The village Ubbha is located in Ghorwell subdistrict of Sonbhadra whose headquarter is Robertsganj. The Sunday Indian Express reported an eye witness account:

We thought some officials had come to hold talks. We gathered and headed towards the disputed land. It was then that we realised that the pradhan had come with at least 100 people in around 20 tractors. They were armed and started firing around 11 am. We were shocked and could not fight back because they were carrying at least 10-12 guns,” said BasantLalGond, 35”.

Various reports have come in to describe this barbaric and brutal repression by the feudal forces who along with the administration have been cheating the Adivasis in their own land. Sonbhadra is the mineral rich district with several Thermal Power plants. Just 100 kilometer from Varanasi city, it is the green belt and has a beautiful landscape. It is not that Sonbhadra witness these kinds of unrest for the first time. Adivasis are easy target when they protest to protect their land. Mining and timber forest mafia operate in the district in pure punity in close connivance of the authorities.

Political parties often engage in blame game after any incident. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, immediately blamed the Nehru government in 1950 for this. Interestingly, since passing away of Nehru, in these 72 years we have seen a two full terms for BJP governments in the Centre, this is the third one and several terms in Uttar Pradesh but none of them tried to undo what ‘Nehru’ had allowed to happen.

Let us go into the details of this incident and find out what was the root cause of the violence by the village head YogduttBhurtiya and his criminals. And what we find out is story which is clear betrayal of the rule of law and how the power elite in this country used the ignorance and innocence of the adivasis to dupe them with the intimidation of the ‘knowledge’ and ‘constitution’. We all swear by the constitution but as Baba SahebAmbedkar, father of modern India, warned us, that any good constitution can be demolished by the unfaithful people and India’s caste supremacists actually used constitution and their legal knowledge to deny India’s millions of Adivasis and Dalits their legitimate constitutional rights to own land. This sonbhadra story is the narrative of India’s brahmanical elite usurping the lands of the Dalits and adivasis which they have been tilling and I can say with full conviction and authority that such stories exists in other parts of Uttar Pradesh, in Bihar and other state where all the ‘legal’ provisions were used to keep the land holding outside the purview of land ceiling act. The politicians know it well and the bureaucrats except for very few were party to this loot otherwise they would not have had huge track of land everywhere.

Who are the real culprit of Sonbhadraviolence ?

The GondAdivasis of village Umbha had been tilling the land before India’s independence. Infact, adivasis rights over the land and forests have been acknowledged for long but the politician bureaucratic-feudal-caste connivance of the cow-belt brahmanical leaders ensured that all the provisions remains in the paper. In the heartland of Uttar Pradesh, two regions had vast forest land apart from the hill regions, were Kaimur, Bundelkhand and Tarai of Uttarakhand. Both the places were originally inhabitated by the Adivasis but the authorities and big politicians grabbed the vast track of fertile land from them. The best way were to keep the communities out of the schedule Tribe status. So, Kols and many other communities of Uttar Pradesh who were a majority in Bundelkhand, Mirjapur as well as Sonbhadra, were out and hence legally they lost rights over forest. There are many communities, who are adivasis in neighbouringChandauli district but not so in Sonbhadra. Secondly, both the regions of Kaimur and Tarai were flooded with outsiders who dominated and benefitted from the innocence of the adivasi communities. This is the story everywhere including Chhattishgarh and Jharkhand. The Indian state cleverly planted people from outside including the immigrants after the partition to these areas where people did not mixed with alien culture and language. The demographic changes are visible in these areas and non Adivasis have not only hijacked economic resources but also become powerful politically. The non adivasis chief ministers of once Adivasi dominant states like Chhattishgarh and Jharkhand are the best examples.

Let us understand how the brahmanical elite ‘legally’ stole the adivasi land.

It was year 1952 when major Indian states followed the Central law on Zamindari Abolition. According to a report in Times of India, the 639Bighas of land belonging to erstwhile Raja of Badhar, AnandBrahmSahoo, which came under the law and declared as infertile (banjar) bhumi and was marked for the village Panchayat or ‘gaonsamajbhumi’ by the administration. The Gondtribals have been cultivating this land actually before that as most of the land owned by various kings were tilled by their subjects without much objections from them but since 1952 this land came under the village Panchayat or what we call in Uttar Pradesh as Gram Sabha. In 1955, MrMaheshwari Prasad Sinha, a resident of Patna, Bihar, formed a society in Sonbhadra and named it as Adarsh Co-operative Society.  He then got this land transferred in the name of Society. It would not have been possible without close power connections as Sinha had no right to take land in Uttar Pradesh as he was resident of Bihar but then Sinha was the father in law of MrPrabhat Kumar Mishra, who happened to be the district Collector of Sonbhadra during that period, which was actually part of Mirjapur district. Mishra easily pressurized the officials and got them signed on the document.Prabhat Kumar Mishra’s wife, Asha Mishra who was daughter of Maheshwari Prasad Sinha, was made the manager of the society to manage about 463 bighas of land. The land was transferred by the tehsildar, a low level revenue officer who can’t do such thing at his own but definitely would have worked under the ‘orders’ of ‘collector sahib’.

According to a report in The Times of India, on September 6th, 1989, the sub district magistrate[SDM) transferred 200bighas of land to the wifeAsha and daughter Vinita of IAS Prabhat Kumar Mishra. We don’t know what were the ‘reason’ of this transfer and it should be a matter of investigation as how could he do this. We are sure, after the dust is settled; the caste friends of the Mishras will protect them as there are many land-sharks like them in the bureaucracy who are protected by both the caste and class interest. Here parties don’t matter. Dominant castes adopt parties to protect their interest so don’t get fascinated by Congress BJP accusations on each other. Most of the corrupt leaders cleverly switch their loyalties to the ruling parties and then abuse their predecessors.

In the year 1989 itself, about 144 bighas of land was sold by the Mishras to the village sarpanchYogdutt for allegedly about 2 crore rupees which was equivalent to USD 290,000. The villagers knew about it and objected to it but then their objections never mattered for the authorities. I am surprised and shocked to hear this much of money with a village Sarpanch in those days. It need to investigated as how in those days such things happen but then people are used to such illicit money in procuring land. World over, we see campaign to protect ‘immigrants’ rights but if we look at the issue of the Adivasi zones, it is the ‘immigrants’ who run the show and rule the state. The question is whether the PradhanYogdutt came to Sonbhadraat his own or had political connections?

It is reported that police knew about this possible attack as the information of Sarpanch’s movement and aggression were well known. Infact, according to Indian Express report, a policeman was pressurizing villagers for not resisting him. When the goons and criminals attacked Umbha village on July 17th at around 11 am and fired on innocent and unarmed villagers, a villager phoned the police which reached the venue when the firing continued. Police could nothing as the numbers of people accompanying the Sarpanch were over 200 and numbers of policemen were far less.  Report suggests that Police did nothing to protect people and about five persons were killed in the presence of police.

The incident show clear lack of will on side of police and administration on the issue. When the incident of fire was reported to police, why didn’t they go on large numbers?

The thing is that when the states in India have a upper limit of ceiling on agricultural land then how the district official transferred this 142 bighas of land to the wife of Prabhat Kumar Mishra, IAS. Why is that the same officials bring so many issues to deny the Dalits and tribal their land rights when people genuinely ask for it.

How did the 1955 order happen and why the subsequent governments or district administration kept quiet on it. If there is a proper land survey and mapping, I can guarantee, a fair investigation into the land deals ofKaimur region, Bundelkhand region and Tarai region will completely expose the nexus between caste supremacists and Indian political system and how they deny the legitimate rights of the Dalits and adivasis. How ‘legality’ has been used an instrument to deny India’s indigenous people, a right in their own land and have made them virtually alien there.

Land Ceiling cases Failure

After the Zamindari Abolition Act, it was realized that in the name of ‘land to the tiller’, new zamindars were bornthere was no prescribed ceiling limit of the land. Indians, habitual of finding new methods to circumvent the law, used it to the best of their benefit. It never benefitted the most marginalized particularly the Dalits and adivasis in Central India. So, the government brought out Land Ceiling legislations in 1960 and then amended them in 1972 and imposed a ceiling on 12.5 acres of land which is irrigated. The 1960 acts has so many gaps that power elite found its way to evade it, that time the Ceiling limit was 40 acres. That apart, the powerful people placed the land in the name of their bonded labours, family members and even distant relatives. Even if that could not adjust their access land, they created fake names, in the names of cats and dogs, but the biggest stealing of land came from the false trusts created to protect the interests of the big landlords. Land Ceiling Act’s biggest failure was to allow land holdings in the name of ‘religious trusts’, temples, mutths, gaushalas, ‘educational institutions, agricultural institutions etc. These were the easiest areas to evade ceiling laws. In Uttar Pradesh, these trusts belong to all forms and shades of savarna leadership in various political camps. Ofcourse, Christians and Muslim religious institutions too have their fair share in the prime locations.It is this reason that many of above this, the cumbersome processes of revenue court ensured that the matter remained inside the courts. With no will from the authorities to file reviews or challenge them on time to time or ensure that petitions come for hearing,the ‘responsible’ connived with the accused landlords and kept the matter pending in the files.

How government officials don’t acts on court summons.

There are many instances that the landlords have used the courts to protect their misdeeds. Since, the state has to respond to most of the cases where a ceiling surplus declared land is challenged in the court of law. After the summons were issued or the court ordered maintaining status quo, the administration never really felt the necessity to keep its legal counsel under pressure to pursue the cases. I have come across many such stances where the legal counsel provide information to those accuse who violate the law.

Recently, I came across several cases of the 1992 when the cases where the high court asked the government to file its response within a month and for that it ordered maintaining the status quo but the matter was not responded adequately giving ample opportunity to the feudal caste forces to circumvent the law, use the land and file multiple petitions under various names as well as religious trust while people who got the land entitlements are still roaming around.

I was actively involved in a case in ShaheedUdham Singh Nagar for 1167 hectare of land declared surplus in the 1990s but we pursued the case resulting which the so-called owner could not ditch the law. It happened after the failure of the district administration to pursue it properly. Later, the administration used its ‘power’ to actually misinterpret the judgment of the Supreme Court. Nothing happens to the government or officials if the cases are delayed or not pursued. Vulnerable people take it to their bad luck while many start questioning the motives of those who fight for them. In the longer run, it suits all to the criminals who want to discredit those who fight for the rights of the people.

Land Related cases are never pursued and most of the violence on Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized people in India is related to land disputes. Many-time, the criminal feudal have allowed the usage of their land by the Dalits, adivasis and backward community persons. This is to create a division among them and use them in filing cases in the court and protecting themselves from the Prevention of Atrocities on SC-ST act.

Special Courts and Time bound resolution of Land Ceilding Cases

If governments are really interested to resolve these issues once for all then it is time for it to make a serious effort towards that direction. Resolution of Land related issues will pave the way for normalization of relations and democratization of society. Political democracy in India will never succeed unless land issue remain unresolved.

The government must investigate the land owned by big farm houses, religious trusts, gaushalas, ashrams and put a ceiling on them. Land Ceiling laws are not redundant but need to be sharpened to achieve the target of social justice as envisioned in our constitution.

It is time for the government to form special courts at all level and ask the Supreme Court and High Courts in states to monitor these cases on regular basis. An India with unresolved land disputes will never be able to live in peace and harmony. It will continue to give rise to tensions and violence as attempt will be made to deny people their legitimate rights. Democracy will be in peril if Indian society is not changed. Social justice will remain unachieved if rural power equations are not changed and that is only possible through radical land reforms. All talks of land reform will remain bogus and farcical (there are many talking about it without emphasizing on Land ceiling issues) if the land ceiling issues are not resolved and settlement of land is not done in favor of the landless Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized sections. Blame game will not work and none can stop the powerful governments for pro people legislations. If possible make amendments in the Land Ceiling laws and bring all exempted under it, under the purview of ceiling laws. If the government and political parties are sincere then time has come for a consensus on the issue and not to wait for another massacre and then make all the hue and cries on the deaths of the innocents. Let the government act and take an honest initiative which can bring permanent peace in the villages and democratize them. Will they have the honesty and ideological strength to do so ?

Vidya Bhusha Rawat is a social activist. twitter  @freetohumanity


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Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]

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