Friday, May 24, 2024

Kaziranga is becoming a laboratory for militarised forest conservation in India: Pranab Doley


Ashfaque EJ and Ayushi Malik

On 8 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kaziranga in Assam, becoming the first PM in India to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Donning a cowboy hat and camouflage attire, and wielding binoculars, he embarked on elephant and jeep safaris, capturing headlines across mainstream media and igniting social media buzz. Feeding sugarcane to elephants named Lakhimai, Pradyumna, and Phoolmai, interacting with Van Durga, a team of women forest guards who are at the forefront of Kaziranga’s conservation efforts, and inviting fellow Indians to experience the landscape and warmth of the Assamese people, his visit ended.

However, the situation was not so ‘warm’ for at least the people living near Kaziranga National Park. Hundreds of armed police personnel moved around the area. Security barricades and roadblocks were erected at many places. Many people were subjected to frisking by security officers.

Political activist Pranab Doley, a member of the indigenous community of Bokakhat displaced during the expansion of Kaziranga National Park, wrote an open letter a day before the PM’s visit. The letter highlighted the evictions taking place in Kaziranga, the human rights violations in Kaziranga, the excessive power given to the forest authorities, and the illegal constructions by politicians and corporates in Kaziranga. The letter concluded by extending an invitation to the Prime Minister to visit the homes of tribal communities residing in makeshift dwellings along roads and embankments, reminiscent of the customary visits to Dalit households in mainland India prior to elections.

A first-generation scholar from the Mising community, Doley earned his Bachelor’s degree from Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, and a Master’s in Social Work from Mumbai TISS. Returning to his hometown of Bokakhat in 2015, he co-founded Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha, a grassroots organization dedicated to addressing farmers’ and workers’ issues. In 2021, Doley made waves as an independent candidate in the Assam assembly election, challenging Asom Gana Parishad leader Atul Bora for the Bokakhat constituency.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Pranab Doley:

  1. Could you describe the significant human rights violations occurring in Kaziranga?

There have been numerous fake encounters, tortures, detentions, and incidents of sexual harassment committed by the forest department in the region. Many people have been evicted, and many others live under the threat of eviction. There is active curtailing of the civil liberties of people to move freely around their own community spaces. Livelihoods and resources are being snatched away. In one such incident, a person from our village was brutally tortured, and a case was lodged against him by a female forest guard accusing him of sexual harassment. We registered a counter case stating that all these allegations were false. Even though we had strong witnesses, our version was not taken into account.

  1. What are the key challenges you have addressed in relation to the conservation efforts at Kaziranga National Park?

There is an excess of power given to the forest rangers of Kaziranga through the implementation of a militarized model of conservation. Here, they have different reins and lines of policing such as special task forces, commandos, and forest guards. These individuals have been given the power to use their arms against common civilians by amending the CrPC. Many locals residing within the national park boundaries were branded as poachers and encountered. We found many missing links in these encounters when we conducted an investigation.

In 2015, at least 23 people were killed by the forest rangers in Kaziranga, the majority of whom were tribals. In most cases, there are no things like magisterial inquiries, forensic reports, or post-mortem reports. There are many cases of enforced disappearances in Kaziranga. In one such case, two missing youths who were caught by the forest rangers during rhino poaching went missing. According to the forest officials, they jumped off the boat when taken for interrogation. Their families have yet to receive their bodies.

There was an active process of scapegoating the locals in order to clear off the land and throw out the people from there. From 2015 onwards, we started an active process of struggling against it. As a result, there were a lot of repercussions against us. The state and the forest department started seeing us as troublemakers. They have registered at least 6 cases against us under various sections, including attempt to murder.

  1. You mentioned that Kaziranga is evolving into a testbed for India’s militarized conservation efforts. Could you elaborate on this development?

Kaziranga National Park, celebrated as one of India’s most successful conservation sites and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracts significant international attention and investment from various groups trying to implement policies with vested interests. However, recently these conservation policies have been anti-people, prioritizing inviolate spaces, a reflection of the Western definition of forests.

Led by organizations such as WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), Wildlife Trust of India, and Aaranyak, all these organizations are promoting global conservation agendas aligning with the interests of big corporations involved in natural gas, oil, and mining industries.

Heavy militarization is another distressing issue as Kaziranga National Park has been able to secure and expand its territory through violent means. There has been a significant increase in militarization along with the use of arms and modern technologies by forest guards, all signs of apprehension. Amendments in laws and policies like the Amendment of the CRPC (The Code of Criminal Procedure) give more power to forest guards here to use arms. There are proposed plans for them to be assigned their own Superintendent of Police, establishing their own independent trial systems, their own oaths, as well as jails. This is a shift towards a new form of a more authoritarian forest governance model independent of civil administration. These developments raise concerns over the future implications for forest-dwelling communities taking care of these spaces.

  1. For many mainland Indians and mainstream Assamese, the rhino is a symbol of national pride, closely tied to Kaziranga. Could you discuss how the rhino has been utilized as a tool to garner support for the nation’s tourism ambitions?

Rhinos have been used as a symbol of Assamese nationalism. There is a racial and casteist outlook towards this space. The hegemonic forces only seem to focus on the rhinos as the main protagonists. The first eviction under the BJP government targeted Muslim minority areas. The Muslim population, having lived there for more than 100 years, was evicted. The Hindutva state managed to garner public consent for this anti-Muslim eviction by effectively playing the rhino card. The Guwahati court also appeared to be biased in its 2016 eviction order. Mainstream Assamese people’s love for the environment and animals is rooted in heavy romanticism and religion. However, the local communities living in the peripheries were much more realistic. For them, the rhino is not just a sentiment; it is part of the space, and people coexist with it. The whole nationalistic sentiment is political, and the state is just using it. Here in Kaziranga, gradually everyone, irrespective of caste, creed, and ethnicity, will be evicted. The state and the forest department are doing it in a systematic manner, initially targeting the most vulnerable sections.

  1. How did your political journey start?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in Santiniketan and my master’s from Mumbai TISS. That period was also a phase of exposure to different political spectrums, and the history and experience of growing up in a conflict zone also shaped me. Various socio-political movements have been happening across the country. With the rise of the right-wing BJP government, things have changed significantly. I personally returned to my home constituency, Bokakhat, around the end of 2015. Interacting with many rights organizations, civil liberties organizations, and getting to know more about marginalized sections and the various contradictions there gave me exposure and, at the same time, a constant question of reflecting back on our own reality. In 2016, I, along with other activists, formed Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha, a grassroots organization working towards resolving farmers’ and workers’ issues. We managed to bring attention to the illegal encounter killings in Kaziranga, gender violence, and led struggles for fair compensation for the victims of human-animal conflict and the rehabilitation of displaced people. In the 2021 assembly election, I contested as an independent candidate from the Bokakhat constituency against Asom Gana Parishad leader Atul Bora.

  1. In an interview with Scroll.in, a research officer at Kaziranga stated that rhinos cannot relocate even if they wanted to, but people have the option to move to another town or village. What are your thoughts on this perspective?

It’s a wrong analogy. The true fact is that be it rhino, tiger, or elephant, they are all dependent on the agricultural communities living around them. The natural habitat of all these animals was destroyed by various development projects including the big hotel industry, private tea gardens, and refineries. The animals in Kaziranga won’t be able to survive without the support of the local community. If the land is with the local community, they will cultivate some crops there and willingly sacrifice a portion of the crops to the animals. It’s a historical fact that the animals and people have to live together.

  1. Recently, the Forest Ministry passed the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill (2023 Amendment) in the Lok Sabha. How could the newly amended act impact the northeast region?

The recent amendments made to the Forest Rights Act are entirely unconstitutional and are against any form of biodiversity that exists, with the northeast region set to be majorly affected by them. The amendment enables the diversion of forest land for projects tied to “national security” and “defense” within a 100-kilometer radius along border areas. It clears the way for highway projects in ecologically sensitive and biodiverse areas in northeastern states. It allows the state to lease out these fragile lands to anyone without any consultation and without cognizance of the existence of the people there. It is the duty of the country to take utmost care of these ecologically fragile lands. However, they are opening it up for crony capitalists to exploit. This will usher in complete destruction of Assam, the Northeast, and gradually the country itself.

Corporates such as Vedanta, Reliance, and Adani have started investing heavily in this region. Constitutional safeguards such as the Sixth Schedule and the status of Article 371 are being overridden under the guise of national security concerns or development. Overall, it’s a dangerous act that completely takes away all the agency of the last surviving ecological spaces in this region. But the state is doing the damage, what can be done? Even after repeated struggles and petitions across the country, nothing has changed.

  1.  The state promotes the Kaziranga conservation model as a sustainable initiative, and many researchers, including those from abroad, are dedicating their studies to this model. As a native, what is your perspective on the involvement of these researchers?

Academics working on political ecological spaces should also include sourcing their information from indigenous communities rather than only relying on information provided by the forest department or state.

It is a common phenomenon for academicians to rely on a few books for narratives, followed by a few days’ visit to the field, and presenting a limited understanding of the space based on limited sources. Claiming to understand the space based solely on a short visit and limited sources is quite oxymoronic in itself, right?

Bringing out a more nuanced understanding of a space takes courage and time, which many good researchers have done by highlighting contradictions and facing consequences for their honest work.

One of the major shortcomings of academia and university spaces is limiting their sources to those that align with state and corporate interests. It’s essential for researchers to approach their subjects both objectively and subjectively, avoiding politically biased interests while also striving for a nuanced understanding of the space.

  1. Assam’s Chief Minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma has often stated that “Na khaunga na khane dunga” is the BJP’s motto in Assam. Based on this, is the BJP actively fighting corruption in Assam?

The Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, and the Health Minister, Keshab Mahanta, have taken over a huge territory of land in Kaziranga. The CM’s family built a luxury resort at Kanchanjuri tea estate, restricting the animal corridor. Each and every rich and eminent politician has their share of loot here in Kaziranga. At least 30 percent of the ministers have taken up land in Kaziranga.

Every inch of farm and fallow lands is being encroached upon by big hotel chains such as Grand Hyatt, Taj Hotels, Vaani Greens, etc. Farmlands are being changed into commercial plots overnight. A Grand Hyatt hotel, with at least 120 rooms, is being built on Adivasi/tea tribe land which was also used by elephants as a corridor, without any form of consultation or compensation. Now it’s a crony capitalist state. They have turned it into a place where they have all the control and everything belongs to them. So, who will eat? Those people will eat. And who will not be allowed to eat? There is no one to stop them. Toh khayega kaun? Khayega bhi wo log haii. Aur khane ko kis ko nahi dega, na dene ke liye koi hai hi nahi. 

  1. Beyond the state apparatus, there has been a noticeable increase in vigilance from mob vigilantes and social media trolls. Is this phenomenon also occurring in your context?

Yes, very much so. In the case of Assam, there has been an alarming rise in the manipulation of traditional religious spaces. Take the case of Naam Ghars, the sacred shrines of the Vaishnavite sects, traditionally known for their inclusive nature, regardless of caste, creed, or religion, rooted in the Bhakti movement, are now being converted into spaces for fundamentalist ideas.

Amidst the prevailing atmosphere of hatred and division, it’s important to identify the structural apparatus and design of recent occurrences like mob lynchings, online trolling, and mob mentality stemming from deeply ingrained ideologies spanning over a century. To counter this hatred, we must understand these designs and encourage inter-community dialogues.

It’s more important to identify the design, expose it, have conversations between communities, and reflect on themselves. We need to use all means of political activism, get into every institution, and start debates. Now, they are patronizing almost all institutions. We are reaping the fruits of wrong deeds in the past. Now it’s time to build new narratives.

  1. More than 100 tribal communities live here; the BJP has an agenda of unifying them all under a Hindu banner. How is this Hinduization of indigenous communities being carried out here?

Indigenous communities are deeply connected to the land, with their lives revolving around it, including ritualistic practices and their own cosmological understanding of things. However, with the incursion of mainstream Hindutva ideas, their existence is being questioned. As it’s a hegemonic force with a lot of design and strategy, they have been attempting the Hinduization process. Thus, it becomes very difficult for smaller communities to resist these attempts. Nonetheless, they have made inroads in terms of converting many communities to a part of the larger Sanatan Dharma. However, there is still active resistance to Hindutva. Many communities have been safeguarding their own culture and asserting it, not allowing Hindutva to appropriate their culture. The Sangh approaches indigenous communities through different institutions such as hospitals and schools.

It’s very pragmatic that the fundamental right-wing group always works hard to build a connection with people on the ground, whereas, on the other hand, progressive people fail to tackle it as they don’t want to leave their comfort zones.

  1. Can you tell us about the series of evictions happened in Kaziranga?

The process of evictions in Kaziranga dates back to colonial times and persists to this day, mostly affecting the local indigenous population belonging to the Misings, Adivasis, Ahoms, Assamese, and Karbis, the original residents of that space. What started as a 200 km² total area of the project has led to the eviction of these communities in multiple violent phases. However, testimonies of their existence lie within the park, evidenced by the names of lakes and spaces named after these communities like Rowmari, Karaimari, Balarimora, and Arimora, which also symbolize the fish catches prevalent there.

The violent and incremental pressure of conservation efforts has only increased under the BJP government, with local communities being disproportionately targeted and evicted from their ancestral lands using brutal forces, as seen in 2016.

Loss of territory means loss of way of life and culture, and this landscape-oriented conservation reflects a broader global issue within the conservation industry where fishing, pastoralist, herding, and indigenous communities are being displaced.

  1. Modi’s Kaziranga visit has created a huge buzz on social media and was widely celebrated by the mainstream media. What was the actual scene on the ground? Also, how did the people respond to the security frisks?

We couldn’t see any enthusiasm on the ground. There was hardly anyone waiting to meet him, apart from a few people who were hired with payments. People are not interested in such photo-ops. The pictures of Modi waving inside his vehicle were all over the internet, but we have no idea whom he was waving at. I personally had gone through the whole area, but most of the road was empty. People are busy with their day-to-day life and survival. Regarding the security frisking and flag marches, it’s a normal thing here. During the visit of every senior leader or elections, people have to go through these ordeals. These are those regular things which we have seen since childhood. On all those occasions, they have to show how big and powerful the Indian state is. It’s a performative act for the Indian state. But the people have always resisted by adopting different methods. The decision not to go to PM Modi’s program was also another form of resistance. It’s not that Modi was irreplaceable. The problem is that they don’t have any other options.

Ashfaque and Ayushi Malik are independent journalists

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