India's tribal people pledge to fight for forest rights

Church leaders back indigenous people's protest to avoid eviction from natural habitat reporter, New Delhi

Updated: March 07, 2019 04:21 AM GMT

Opposition political parties join tribal people in a March 5 protest to press India's government to enact an ordinance to circumvent a Supreme Court eviction order that threatens the lives of 25 million tribal people. (Photo by IANS)

Tribal people in India are on the warpath against a Supreme Court of India order that threatens to evict millions of them from their natural habitat.

Hundreds of socially poor Dalit and tribal people blocked trains and road traffic in several cities across India on March 5 as they held a shutdown protesting the court's move and the federal government's inability to overrule it.

The protesters, including opposition parties, wanted the federal government to enact an ordinance to secure forest rights for tribal and other people.

In Bihar state, where many Dalit groups joined the demonstrations, protesters clashed with police in at least four places.

Tribal groups pledged to continue their struggle until their forest rights are secured.

The unrest began on Feb. 13 when the court asked 21 states to evict people living on forest land whose applications for land rights were rejected as proscribed in a 2006 law.

Following a federal appeal, the court on Feb. 28 suspended that order until a hearing in July.

Tribal leaders estimate that at least 25 percent of India's 104 million tribal people face eviction after officials rejected their application for land rights.

The 2006 law was enacted to give land titles and user rights to tribal people and others living in forests for generations, according to Prabhakar Tirkey, a tribal leader and national president of Christian forum Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh.

But government officials rejected tribal people's applications on flimsy grounds as part of a plan to usurp forest land and give it industrial groups, he said.

It is a clear conspiracy to uproot the tribal people. We have no other option than to fight until our rights are restored, Tirkey said.

Leaders like him believe the federal government intervened so as not to alienate tribal people ahead of general elections. But once the elections are over in May, the court in its July hearing could reinstate its eviction order, he said.

Tirkey said if the federal government is serious about helping tribal people, it should enact a new law convening a special session of parliament or promulgate an ordinance against the court order because it's a serious issue affecting millions of lives.

Church backs indigenous people

Church groups have been supporting the struggle as a significant number of Christians in the central and northern Indian states come from tribal communities.

The Catholic Church stands with indigenous people for all their legitimate demands, said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

Indigenous people cannot live when suddenly they are pushed out their natural forest habitat, he said.

The uncertainty about their future should end because it will lead to more chaos and fears in their lives, the bishop said.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said the court's eviction order fails to see the reality of tribal lives … the government should make changes in the law to allow the tribal people to live where they live now.

The archbishop, based in the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, said tribals do not threaten wildlife or destroy forest resources because they have been part of forest equilibrium for centuries. No government can afford to evict millions from their habitat, he said.

About 30 percent of India's 29 million Christians are tribal people, mostly in northern and northeastern states. In states like Jharkhand, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, tribal Christians comprise at least half of local Christians.

Several political leaders including Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi supported their protests.

Gandhi blamed his rival and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for pushing them to take action.

Our tribal and Dalit brothers and sisters are in distress. There have been constant attacks on their rights to forests and life. They are in distress as their rights to forests are being snatched and constitutional provisions of reservations tampered with, Gandhi wrote.

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