The edges of Badnapur forest look like a cross between farmland and forest land. Charoli and mahua trees dominate the landscape in the heart of Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district, dense in some patches and sparse in others. In the clearings between them, farmers have been at work – crops of soybean, rice and jowar sowed before the monsoon have now begun to sprout.

But in mid-July, in a section of the forest near the village of Siwal, the idyllic scene appeared to have been violently disrupted.

Shallow pits, clearly dug by excavator trucks, stood out like gashes across the forest-farmland. Around them, young crops lay limp and uprooted. While policemen patrolled the path leading deeper into the forest, farmers were nowhere to be seen.

On July 9, this was where state forest officials used pellet guns to shoot a members of Siwal’s Barela Adivasi community. According to the Adivasis who farm in the forest, at least 300 forest and police officials had driven into their fields early that morning, with 11 excavators that began ripping up their crops. When the Barelas of Siwal gathered to protest, they claim that forest officials first began firing into the air, and then, without warning, fired straight at them.

Four young men were injured in the attack. One of them – 20-year-old Gokharsingh Badole – had to have pellets surgically removed from his neck and chest at a hospital in Indore.

For the Adivasis, this violent attempt at driving them out of the forest was outrageous, but not new. Most Barelas of Burhanpur settled in the district in the 1970s and ’80s, and like hundreds of other forest-dwellers in India, they have been repeatedly evicted, jailed, beaten and attacked.

To address this historical injustice, India passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act – more commonly known as the Forest Rights Act – in 2006, paving the way for a formal recognition of the right of Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers to live in and cultivate forest land up to four hectares. The Barelas say the claims they filed under the Forest Rights Act were rejected without due process.

In February, acting on petitions filed by wildlife groups, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of all the forest dwellers whose claims had been rejected. In one swoop, 1.89 million families, according to a 2018 report from the tribal affairs ministry, stood to lose their homes, lands and livelihoods. After the Centre intervened, the court stayed its order. States were asked to disclose whether they had followed due process while rejecting the claims.

Madhya Pradesh decided to re-examine the rejected forest rights claims of at least 3.6 lakh Adivasis. On May 1, the state government directed all district collectors not to evict anyone till the claims had been reviewed.

When the pellet gun attack took place on July 9 against this backdrop, the national media took note. Activists pointed out the eviction violated the Supreme Court stay order as well as the Madhya Pradesh government order dated May 1.

Chief Minister Kamal Nath ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident, dispatching his ministers to meet the Adivasis.

But this has not brought relief for the Barelas, 153 of whom have been booked in a First Information Report filed by the police of Nepanagar block in Burhanpur. A close examination of the police case shows questionable irregularities, missing details and odds stacked against the Adivasi community.

Gokharsingh Badole had to have pellets surgically removed from his neck and torso after the firing in Siwal.

A dead man in an FIR

After the firing near Siwal, the Nepanagar police filed two FIRs. The first was filed by the forest department against the Barelas, and the second was filed by the villagers against officials of the forest department.

The Barelas, however, claim that they attempted to file their complaint with the police almost immediately after the incident, but were made to wait for more than eight hours before the police finally agreed to lodge an FIR.

The FIR initially booked “unidentified forest officials” for rash and negligent actions that caused hurt. The Barelas took issue at this – they claimed that these charges were too light given the seriousness of the firing, and that they had, from the beginning, named forest ranger Rajesh Randhawe as one of the main officials leading the firing.

After four days of Adivasi protests, the police finally agreed to add the charge of attempt to murder to the FIR, but the accused forest officials still remain unnamed.

Burhanpur Superintendent of Police Ajay Singh claimed the Adivasis had not provided any names to the police. “I copied the Adivasi version of events word for word in the FIR, and they did not name Randhawe or anyone else,” he said.

The FIR filed by forest officials against the Adivasis lists a total of 153 Barelas from Siwal and some neighbouring villages as the accused, of whom 28 are named and 125 are unidentified. The report describes them as “encroachers” who had been cutting trees in the forest for days before the incident.

One of the accused named is Siwal resident “Tanka son of Nanku” who, according to villagers, has been dead for 20 years. “It seems like the police pulled out his name from a very old FIR in which Tanka had been booked for encroachment,” said Madhuri K, a member of the non-profit Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan that has been working for Adivasi rights in Madhya Pradesh for the past 20 years.

“This not only indicates how fraud the FIR is, but also reveals that these Adivasis have indeed been living in this forest area for more than 20 years, as they have been claiming all along,” she said.

Barela women chanting protest slogans in Siwal on July 16.

‘Not an eviction drive’

According to the forest department’s FIR against the Barelas, officials had entered the forest with excavators on July 9 to carry out a tree plantation drive. When they arrived, the FIR claims that around 150 Adivasis attacked them with stones – an allegation that Siwal’s Barelas have denied. The accused have been charged with unlawful assembly, rioting and obstruction of public servants on duty.

The report mentions three forest officials allegedly injured by the Adivasis, but does not mention the pellet gun firing at all.

Even though the Kamal Nath government ordered an independent magisterial inquiry into the incident, Adivasis in Siwal have been particularly incensed by an order issued by the Burhanpur district collector on July 10. The order does not dispute the forest officials’ claim that Adivasis pelted stones at them, but questions “whether a firing [on Adivasis] took place”.

When spoke to deputy forest officer Sudhanshu Yadav, he declined to comment on the pellet gun firing or the contents of the two FIRs. “These matters are now subject to magisterial inquiry,” he said.

Yadav claimed, however, that the forest department’s decision to run excavators over the Adivasis’ crops was not in violation of the state government’s May 1 order, because it was “not an eviction drive”. “It was an action to prevent encroachment,” said Yadav. “At least 200 to 300 armed encroachers had been felling trees at night for days, and our action was meant to stop them.”

On July 22, after days of protests by Adivasis, Yadav was transferred out of Burhanpur district along with forest ranger Randhawe and sub-divisional officer Bhupesh Shukla. Despite this, Barela Adivasis in Burhanpur are unsure of how much justice they can hope for.

One thing they have been disillusioned by, for instance, is the independent magisterial inquiry into the Siwal incident ordered by the state government. The inquiry is being led by the additional district magistrate of the neighbouring Khargone district, who began his investigation by visiting the site of the firing in Siwal on July 19.

“He visited the site without meeting the local Adivasis, and worse, he went with ranger Randhawe himself,” said Madhuri K. “An investigation where the accused is being allowed to guide the investigator himself is absurd.”

Jatan Badole and his wife, Binda bai Badole, outside their home in Siwal.

A history of violence

Madhya Pradesh has more than six lakh Adivasi forest rights claimants and according to Madhuri K, incidents of violence in the name of evictions have often been reported from different parts of the state. Burhanpur, however, has been the hotbed for such violence for several years.

Almost every Barela Adivasi that met in Burhanpur had a story of eviction, often intertwined with stories of ruthless violence.

Take, for instance, 40-year-old Jatan Badole of Siwal village, who claims he has documents to prove he has been living in the Badnapur forest since the 1980s. In 2002, when government agencies conducted mass eviction drives in forests across India, Badole’s house was razed, crops burnt, cattle auctioned off, with forest officials allegedly pocketing the money. He was arrested and jailed for three months. Over the next 11 years, he was arrested two more times on charges of illegal encroachment.

“In 2013, they kept me in jail for just four days,” said Badole. “In that short time, forest officials beat me, stripped me, asked me to dance in front of a camera, doused me with petrol and even urinated on me.” Badole’s forest right claim, filed in 2014, is still pending.

Mangal Singh Badole, a Barela from Burhanpur’s Hirapur village, has been served multiple eviction notices over the years and was arrested along with 24 fellow villagers in 2010. “Drunk forest officials beat me so badly for two days that I was urinating blood for the next two weeks,” said Mangal Singh, whose forest land claim was rejected in 2010 and is now stuck in the process of re-examination.

In 2013, district forest officials tried to evict the Adivasis of Kherkheda village by rounding up several men, women and children in a van and dropping them off 100 km away in the middle of the neighbouring Khargone district. “I had my 11-day-old son with me at the time,” said Hariyali bai Davar, one of the women transported to Khargone. “On the way, the officials beat me so much, my baby fell from my arms.”

Hariyali bai Davar was beaten by forest officials while she had her infant in her arms.

Not the first pellet gun attack

Given the history of brutality in the region, the pellet gun firing on July 9 was not an anomaly for local Barela Adivasis. “It was not even the first time that the forest officials used pellet guns,” said Mangilal Sisodia, an Adivasi farmer from Jhanjhar village near Siwal.

During an eviction drive in Jhanjhar in July 2018, Sisodia claims forest officials razed several Adivasi homes and fired at villagers with charra (local pellet guns). “Fortunately no one was injured last year, but they used charra again this year, and look what happened in Siwal.”