Basavaiah, a Jenukuruba tribal died a quite death in the month of May 2015…No one would have even noticed his death but for the turn of events that happened after he died. The Jenukurubas are considered a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG, earlier called as Primitive Tribal Groups) by the Government of India and for good reasons too. They are one of the finest people that I have met and lived with. Their wants are small, they have never looked at materialistic acquisitions and they have always lived in near perfect harmony with nature. That ended with the Government deciding to intervene many decades ago – and all in the name of protecting the forests and building reservoirs and then developing these primitive tribals. Today they live a life that is difficult to describe – living a subsistence life with little or no support from the forests that they have depended on for centuries. The forest department thinks of them only when there is a forest fire to douse. At other times, they are seen as encroachers in the forests that they have loved and cherished from time immemorial. They believe in after life and that the spirits of their forefathers are guiding and overseeing their welfare. And that is why it was important for the Yajamana and the family members of Basavaiah of Kantananhadi in H D Kote taluk to ensure that his body was buried in their traditional burial ground. And the Forest Rights Act, 2006, constitutionally protected this right to a dignified burial and all community rights were supposed to be restored by the State.
Unfortunately, this has not happened in Karnataka and people like Ramu, the cousin of Basavaiah were heart broken that he could not give his brother a decent traditional burial. The local Range Forest Officer was determined not to allow them to enter the forest across their tribal colony where they wanted to bury Basavaiah. This was in the month of May. Yajamana Bommiah had consulted the Spirits who advised him on how to atone for not following their time-honored custom. He was asked to take Ramu and their family to their ‘Holy tree’ and worship it and ask that the spirit of Basavaiah find peace. Unfortunately, this tree was 5 meters beyond the deep trench that separated Kantanahadi from the forest. Ramu, who is also the President of the local Forest Rights Committee formally requested the local RFO to permit him to complete the rituals. Not only was the permission denied, but also the Ranger reached the spot as the tribals began cleaning up the place for doing the pooja. Angry and irritated that the tribals had encroached on what the RFO called ‘his forest’, he is alleged to have beaten up Ramu. His wife Ambica and sister Manjula who intervened were alleged to have suffered a similar fate. Ambica in fact is still distraught recollecting what happened that day. She mentions has she was dragged by the hair, her dress torn and she being slapped and kicked. Her ‘karimani mangalsutra’ being snatched is something that she has not been able to come to terms with. Choked with emotion she asked the Principal Secretary of Forests & Environment and Addnl Chief Secretary of Karnataka, Mr Madanagopal, how is it that women are protected by law from being beaten by their own husbands but the state could not prevent her being beaten up by one of its functionaries? A profound question indeed for which, the humane and people-centric Madanagopal had no satisfactory answer.
Mr Madanagopal and his team of senior forest officers were there along with the Deputy Commissioner and the SP of Mysore to enquire into the incident, verify the truth of the complaint of the tribals and ensure that Justice gets done. After more than a 3 hour-long meeting, the people were left disappointed with no concrete and immediate result in sight. All that the tribals wanted was to live in harmony with the forests, with their constitutional rights ensured and with peace with the officials of the forest department. Their only demand was to ask the erring officer to apologize to the women and be treated humanely henceforth. But then the department officers thought otherwise. Not only did they insist that the incident not take place, but also alleged that the tribals were actually caught smuggling in the forest. It is anybody’s guess how and what these poor Jenukuruba women could be smuggling a mere 10 feet in the forest? The tribal leaders present at the meeting were justifiably infuriated. They narrated many incidents of injustice, violent treatment of tribals and how people looting away the forest wealth were getting away scot-free while poor tribals with no livelihood options were being mercilessly targeted. This and many such questions continue to haunt people like me? Why is it that the state, not deal with marginalized forest dwellers with compassion and empathy? Why are the state organs and departments not on the side of ‘people’ when the constitution clearly mandates them to be? Why is it that the voice of the poor and the marginalized gets crowded and drowned out by that of the rich, the powerful and the mighty reach of the ‘State’? Will the peace loving and gentle tribals ever be able to live a dignified and respectful life? Will the Forests Rights Act ever get to see the light of the day and ensure that these tribals are also treated as equal ‘citizens’ of a just state rather than as mere ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘subjects’ of a heartless state? Kala, one of the educated tribal leaders present said it beautifully and had this simple question that he posed to me. He asked me if there was any difference between how the British treated Indians before our Independence and from how the Government was treating the tribals today? All that he wanted to know was, ‘Will Justice ever get done?”
This is a question that both the State and all concerned Citizens need to be asking.