Threat of state-takeover of forests alarms Tripura’s indigenous people

The lingering and fractured memories of three decades of CPM rule in Tripura are not so rosy anymore, even as the people today seem totally distraught and disgusted with the current regime of the BJP ruling the state.

The latest source of discontent is what the tribal communities in the deep interiors call ‘Miking’ —  announcements on a mike by the government and the forest department in a vehicle, proclaiming a list of Dos and Don’ts for the locals. This is a unilateral and one-dimensional ‘Miking’. No conversation or discussion is done with the locals by officials.

Deep inside lush green dense rain forests, darker than the night in stark daylight, now soaked with incessant rain, beyond the river Gomati and the old capital of the kings called Udaipur, across mountain springs, ponds, water bodies, meadows and sprawling paddy fields, high up the zigzag trail of the hills touching the border of Chittagong Hill Tract in Bangladesh, their current story is that of disappointment and dismay. The ‘Miking’ is surprising, jarring, unexpected and unprecedented. And what are they announcing anyway?

COVID Response Watch LogoSuddenly, out of the blue, breaking away from hundreds of years of tradition and convention, something not even practiced during the British-era when Tripura was still not totally subjugated to the Empire and the British operated through an agent, the Forest Department seems to be indulging in overreach. They are announcing that the tribal communities in these dense forests should not work on “government land or forest land’ without permission, that they cannot do ‘Jhoom’ (shifting cultivation) and that they will face punishment if they do so.

In other words, this amounts to an authoritarian diktat that the tribal communities no longer have their traditional and established rights to the forest. It also means that the Forest Rights Act (FRA), whereby tribal populations have natural and organic rights to the forest and its produce, which they inhabited and lived in for centuries, and whereby the Gram Sabha is the supreme decision-making body, and, which, even the Supreme Court has ratified after the protracted and peaceful agitation by an ancient tribal community against bauxite mining by a multinational company in Niyamgiri in Orissa, is now being turned null and void in Tripura.

These pristine forests stretch for miles in the hills and merge with the Chittagong Hill Tract – indeed there were no borders before the Partition of India, and migration from one terrain to another in search of newer and greener pastures was a normal activity. The community owned the forests as a shared collective. Everyone would have their share of Jhoom land, while water bodies and other spaces were collectively shared.

Tripura joined the Indian republic only in 1949. For centuries, the forests belonged to the tribes, in this case, the Reangs, a beautiful, soft-spoken, gentle community, who are specialists in Jhoom cultivation, and who continue to practice it in large parts of this area, often, untouched  by the mainland civilizations and cultures, and left to their way of life by the state apparatus till now.

Usually, Jhoom cultivation is done every eight years by burning the forest after the crop is ready and collected by the villagers in a particular year.  The area is burnt by fire. Then it is left to its own destiny – whereby organic and natural biodiversity takes over the land, the land is left untouched to resurrect and heal, and yet another forest grows in this area slowly and steadily.

Till the early 1970s, the entire forest area was called a Tribal Reserve, because the tribal kings in Agartala were far-sighted in creating this exclusive zone in which the indigenous collectives would have total control over the forest and decide how to nourish and save it, and how to use the forest land and its produce for cultivation and shared living. It was only after the early 1970s that the central government in Delhi announced that all tribal land would be under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department. This was unheard of in the region and took the people by surprise.

However, while the Forest Department was officially marked as the administrative in-charge of the land, the people were not disturbed. They continued to live, share the forest and cultivate the land as per tradition and shared ownerships.

At the far extreme South of Tripura, there are 600 Reang families doing Jhoom cultivation in village Shimbuja in the Karbook subdivision. Across the terrain several Reang families continue to live in various villages. As many as 50,000 people live in scattered forest villages in this border area in the dense forest.

Ajendra runs a local school and is one of the few who has land records. His father was the head – choudhury – of his village community. His father and the others would earlier decide the daily and long-term administrative tasks for the village, including who cultivates which part of the land. Land is usually marked by local signposts – a tree on the left, a pond on the right, or similar such landmarks. Thereby, the village survived on this shared cultivation, including through gathering of food and fruits from the forests.

The new ‘Miking’ campaign therefore came as a shock. Especially because  the natural ownership of land and forests here is taken for granted.

Ironically, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has not been fully implemented in this region, even during the prolonged CPM rule, considering that the Left totally backed the FRA under the UPA government in Delhi. In Shimbuva itself, only a handful of families have land papers allotted to them. Most of the families have no document to prove that they have land ownership. “It is a dark irony that the Left government did not give land ownership papers and rights to the tribal communities here despite the enactment of the FRA which they supported so strongly in Delhi. Now, consequent to this ‘Miking’, it would have been so much more difficult for the Forest Department to bully the people if they had their official documents to prove that they have land. This and other villages in this  hilly region do not even have Gram Sabhas, which is the supreme authority among indigenous and forest communities,” said Agartala-based Narayan Patari, leader of the Tripura Tribal Rights Movement,  and a leading journalist in the area.

According to him, only after a huge agitation in 2007, after the enactment of the FRA, did the Left government move to implement this far-reaching and progressive Act. “They first reluctantly agreed to implement the Act. They consequently declared that 1 lakh, 15,000 land pattas have been given, but if you go to the ground, you can see that the picture is not so happy. Most people have no land documents in this region. So who got the land in the South of Tripura? Just look at this village of the Reang community. Only a few have land records and documents,” said Patari.

Ajendra said that if the Forest Department starts flexing its muscles, the community will have to organize and fight back. That too will be an uphill task in these hills with scattered and distant villages and literally no public transport available.

Under the BJP government in Agartala, according to other locals, till now they have been left in peace. Several petitions for land allocation have yielded nothing, however. “If the current scenario changes, we will have to mobilize the people to claim their fundamental and indigenous rights to the Tribal Reserve, which our ancestors have inherited since centuries,” said Ajendra.

 Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata

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