On July 28, a task force threw out around 70 Gond adivasis from a nursery of fruit trees in a reserve forest in Madhya Pradesh

Gond adivasis wiped the wrinkled face of the late Bishan Dhurve with turmeric water, washing away the bits of coagulated blood on his forehead. The wound, his son Dikchand said, was inflicted by the Forest Department, which evicted around 70 tribal people who had created a nursery of fruit trees in a reserve forest in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district, around 300km south of Bhopal.

The first wave of the Task Force — a team of more than 200 forest, police and revenue officials — swept the illegal nursery on July 28. “NGOs in the tribal belt have misguided them to encroach on forest land saying that they will eventually get pattas. They identify land irrigated by rivers and stage a drama of planting fruit trees. Eventually they clear the bushes and start farming,” Divisional Forest Officer (West Betul) P.S. Champawat told The Hindu.

Tehsildar Alka Ekka was part of the first wave. “They had been asked to move back. We only held hands of those with weapons like sickles. Two men creating nuisance were handed over to the police. Their plantation is illegal. If you give a child a toffee and then take it back because it is bad for his teeth, he will cry.”

At Dhurve’s funeral procession, Shambhu Dhurve sat silently. He shivered as tears rolled down his cheeks. He looked at the ground when asked what the matter was. “They shoved a lathi into him,” said his kinsman Sankal Lal Dhurve, pointing at his rear. “That day the foresters were mad. They even killed a dog and a cat.” Shambhu slowly limped away behind the funeral march as organisers of the Shramik Adivasi Sanghatan (SAS) chanted slogans hailing 60-year-old Bishan’s “martyrdom.”

The SAS has been organising the Hariyali Satyagraha for eight years now. Tribal people in Betul go into the forest and collect saplings of wild mangoes, jamuns, jackfruits, mahua and lemon in the monsoon and cultivate them in nurseries. By 2011 the movement had become popular enough to be noticed by the Forest Department.

“Minor forest production is a fourth of what it was a decade ago. Construction and agriculture are both getting mechanised. The only way for adivasis to survive was to cultivate the fruits of the forest,” said Anurag Modi of the SAS.

The SAS and residents of Bhattidhana village claim they were thrashed and their poultry and goats were seized during the raid. The district administration, which videographed the raid, denies there was any violence. On July 29, the tribal people left Bishan and six others to guard what was left of the nursery while they went to Betul to complain against the eviction at the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Welfare Police Station.

Santri Dhurve, who was there said: “They suddenly charged. There were many of them in khaki clothes. There were even young policewomen who looked like schoolgirls. They caught our arms and hit us and used bad words. Some of us escaped. I said ‘please don’t kill the saplings.’”

The saplings have been ruined and the Forest’s Department’s teak saplings now dot the grounds in Savligarh range, which even have a natural spring. Bishan was taken into custody. “He had already been hit on the spine on July 28. On July 30, I went to Ranger Ghar (the residence of Deputy Forest Ranger Hariprasad Pal in Chuna Hazuri panchayat). My father was bleeding from his head. His said his chest is paining,” said Dikchand.

Ekka and Champawat say that Bishan was handed over to the Chicholi Police after his medical tests on July 29. Dikchand and the villagers say that Bishan stayed at Pal’s residence on the intervening night of July 29 and 30. Pal could not be contacted.

Bishan got bail on July 30 from a Betul Court. Dikchand says his health steadily deteriorated and he was struggling to breath. “I spent around Rs. 2000 taking medicines from the hakims and injections from the pharmacies. He was scared to go to hospital for fear of the police.”

On Sunday morning Bishan asked for a doctor, a day after the SAS began picketing the Bijadehi Police Station for refusing to register a case against the administration for violence and violating the Forest Rights Act. “I had already begun going to the moneylenders. They gave me Rs. 2000 at the rate of Rs. 200 interest per month till I repaid. We carried my father on a cot and walked towards the health centre (almost 20km away). He died at the entrance of our village (500 metres away) at around 7am,” Dikchand said.