Activists Pranab Doley and Soneswar Narah of the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha – an unregistered group that claims to work for the rights of indigenous communities living in and around the Kaziranga National Park in Assam’s Golaghat district – have been in the custody of the state police since April 24. The police have accused the men of forcing their way into a government office and disrupting its work.

However, Doley and Narah’s colleagues from the Sangha say the two have been made to pay for exposing the alleged extra-judicial killing of civilians, branded as poachers, inside the wildlife reserve – which is home to two-thirds of the world’s population of the one-horned rhino. Doley also featured in a controversial BBC documentary on the same subject that aired in February, following which Indian authorities banned the media house from filming in India’s tiger reserves for the next five years.

The BBC connection

The documentary, Killing for Conservation, featured the BBC’s South Asia correspondent, Justin Rowlatt. It contended that at the heart of the park’s conservation success story was a strict shoot-at-sight policy, and described Kaziranga as “the park that shoots people to protect rhinos”.

“Its rangers have been given the kind of powers to shoot and kill normally only conferred on armed forces policing civil unrest,” it claimed.

A report by Rowlatt accompanying the documentary liberally quoted Doley, who said the high number of deaths in the park – 106 people have reportedly been shot dead by Kaziranga guards in the last 20 years – was a consequence of the “legal protection the park and its guards enjoy”.

Indian authorities took strong exception to the documentary. The Central government banned the BBC from filming in India’s tiger reserves for five years. The National Tiger Conservation Authority reportedly requested the Ministry of External Affairs not to renew Rowlatt’s visa. And Assam’s state government also mulled legal action against the BBC, reports said.

Close on the heels of the documentary, in the first week of March, the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha held a press conference in Guwahati where Doley and Narah claimed the government was trying to cover up extra-judicial killings by threatening legal action against a journalist. Their allegations were widely reported in the local media.

Mantu Borah, secretary of the Sangha, told that the organisation was “compelled to believe” in the wake of recent events that Doley and Narah had been arrested because the government wanted to muffle their voices. “The sequence of events that led to the arrests was proof that it was vendetta against them,” he said.


A protest, and sudden arrests

On April 19, the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha staged a protest. It was in response to an advertisement for recruitment to the 90 Assam Forest Protection Force, a specialised armed force supervised and controlled by the national park’s management, which had appeared in the state’s newspapers a few days ago. The protest took place in front of the office of the Bokakhat divisional forest officer, Rohini Ballave Saikia.

The Sangha contended that the 90 personnel to be hired should be drawn from communities living around the national park. It also demanded the immediate release of compensation for loss of life or property during the 2016 floods, a loan waiver for affected farmers, and jobs for the family members of those who had died as a result of animal attacks and the alleged excesses of the forest department. Finally, they demanded disclosure of clearance papers for the highlands (raised platforms) being constructed inside the core zone of the national park.

The protest on April 19, according to Borah, was called off when Saikia assured the organisation in writing that their demands would be considered. The officer reportedly invited the leaders of the Sangha to discuss the matter two days later.

On April 21, Assam Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma chaired a meeting with members of the Sangha at the Bokakhat divisional forest office. “All our demands, except the disclosing of clearance papers of the highland construction, were agreed to by the minister,” said Borah.

He said the divisional forest officer also gave written assurance that he would hand over the minutes of the meeting to the representatives of the protestors, which included Doley and Narah, on April 24.

On April 24, while waiting for the divisional forest officer at his office, Doley received a call informing him that five men from the forest community had been arrested. The men, Borah said, were accused of being poachers.

“Pranab [Doley] went to the police station to request the officers to let the accused meet their relatives,” he said. The police turned down his request and an altercation ensued. “In a matter of minutes, Pranab was dragged inside the lock-up too,” Borah added. “Narah too was arrested when he went to check on Pranab.”

The Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha claims to work for the indigenous communities living in the vicinity of the Kaziranga National Park. (Credit: Reuters)

Troublemakers, say police

According to the sub-divisional police officer of Bokakhat, Bitul Chetia, the police acted on a complaint filed by the office of the divisional forest officer on April 19. “Doley and Narah had tried barging inside a government office, disrupted its functioning, and threatened to burn down the office,” Chetia said.

A first information report was lodged against the two men under sections 147, 447, 353 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code that deal with rioting, criminal trespass, assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging his duty, and criminal intimidation.

Borah said the charges were fabricated and the demonstration on April 19 was peaceful.

“The case was filed on April 19 and the two were there in a meeting with the minister and the divisional forest officer at his office on April 21,” he said. “Why did they wait for the two to go to the police station voluntarily three days later to arrest them? What sense does that make?”

Chetia explained that the police were waiting for an opportune moment to arrest the two. “They were leading a protest on April 21,” he said. “In view of keeping public order, we did not arrest [them] that day as we had an intelligence input that the situation could turn bad.”

Terming Doley and Narah troublemakers, the police officer added, “They want instant resolution to all their problems. The BBC documentary was also their handiwork. They misled the journalist and instigated the local people to give false information.”

Chetia, however, denied the arrest had anything to do with the duo’s participation in the documentary.

Refuting Chetia’s charge of the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha manipulating the documentary, Borah said, “We just acted as guides, shared evidence, and directed them to the right people.”

On the other hand, Saikia said the forest department’s complaint had nothing to do with the BBC documentary. “They [Doley and Narah] tried forcefully to enter a beat office and disrupt its functioning,” he added.