Nearly 2,000 Adivasis and activists demanding forest rights in Nandurbar are under arrest since December 14 in various jails in Maharashtra, but their crime was not that they protested in support of their demands.
“When we asked for some corrections in the written reply to our demands, the Collector objected and said we were not withdrawing our agitation. Finally our demand that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the SIMI [Students Islamic Movement of India] must be banned became the bone of contention,” said Pratima Pardeshi of the Satyashodhak Grameen Kashtakari Sabha, which is leading the protest. The ban on right-wing groups had been a consistent demand of the Sabha, she clarified.
The Nandurbar district administration issued a statement, which was published in local newspapers, saying the Sabha had demanded a ban on right-wing groups such as the VHP in its 29-point charter of demands, among other things, to which it could not respond or take a decision.
However, the demand for a ban on the right-wing groups had nothing to do with the arrests, Collector A.T. Kumbhar told The Hindu . The Adivasis and the activists were on an indefinite protest outside the Collectorate from December 13, and the main demand was the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
Mr. Kumbhar said he held discussions with Sabha leaders, including Kishore Dhamale, who was arrested later, and they asked for a written record of the meeting. “We did provide them with the record, but they wanted some corrections made, which we accepted,” he said, denying the administration had demanded action against the protesters. “I am not against Adivasis as is being made out to be,” he pointed out.
The VHP angle was false propaganda, these people had violated prohibitory orders and other laws, he said. The government was facing criticism for the arrests, and Mr. Kumbhar backtracked by saying that the matter was being taken out of context and out of proportion. Some 1,962 people are being held in various jails in Dhule, Aurangabad and Nashik, he said.
The main problem here was that claims for forest land were rejected without reason, Ms. Pardeshi pointed out. The people were demanding measurement of land using Global Positioning System, which was not being done. There were 17,000 appeals pending, the Collector confirmed.
Meanwhile, Superintendent of Police Neelkanth Mhaske clarified that those under arrest were given bail on December 14 itself, but most of them refused to leave the jails.
Mr. Mhaske said the agitators got restless when their demands were not replied to in writing and staged a rasta roko . They started entering the Collectorate and cooked food.
“The Collector also gave a report, asking us to take action and the police had no alternative but to register cases. They did violate the rules but we have been very lenient,” Mr. Mhaske added.
They were arrested for violating prohibitory orders, trespassing and using loudspeakers beyond the permitted 10 p.m. deadline, among other things. Of those under arrest, 600 are women.