Dudhwa National Park is a protected area situated in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The area is mostly inhabited by the Tharu indigenous community and it has been a territory of struggle since the ’70s. Of the 46 Tharu villages in the area, 44 were relocated under the revenue status , and they were later converted into revenue villages in 1986.
Two of these villages, Surma and Golbhoji, resisted the eviction drive and they kept fighting for their traditional rights since then. A court case against the relocation was fought by the two communities since 1980, but lost the 23-year-long legal battle in 2003. However, the people, with no other option, launched a non-violent struggle. The women took the lead and formed the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch to lead the agitation .
The threat of eviction became stronger and the tribals became victims of continued harassment; both women and men got beaten up and many criminalized under false wildlife crimes. This continued until 2007 when the Forest Rights Act got implemented and the relocation was put on hold. The ‘Union’ (as it is called) has been strongly supported by the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), especially by Roma Malik, the general secretary, who has played an important role in the women mobilization . In 2008, Surma was recognised as a revenue village. Thanks to the enduring struggle, the two villages of Surma and Golbhoji have received their individual rights which were recognized in May 2011, and about 700 acres of land distributed to the local people and recognized under FRA.
However this did not put an end to the struggle as the violation perpetrated against the community by the forest guards continues. The women are generally criminalized, as they mostly go into the forest to collect firewood and their products. For example in 2012, Nivadha, a woman leader, was beaten up with a baton by forest guards while she was in the forest collecting firewood with another group of women [3,9]. This happened because the women are strongly resisting the restrictions imposed by the forest officials and asserting their right to the forest resources. The women's resistance is so strong that the forest officials have armed other Adivasi women under Prantiya Rakshak Dal, a body under youth development minister, to counter Adivasi and forest dwellers who are asserting FRA .As reported by Down to Earth, Anita, a woman community leader, said: “Earlier, we used to be scared to enter the forest and collect forest produce. We were often harassed. But ever since we became aware of our rights, several families go to the forests together and take our bullock-carts along.” .
In 2013 the Tharu community filed for the recognition of community forest resource rights, however after the file of the claims went missing from the administration, the Tharu filed again the claim in 2016. In July 2019 the claims were rejected, declaring the Tharu living in the park as ‘encroachers’. The rejection was highly contested by the communities, and over 300 Tharus jointly submitted a written complaint to the Sub Divisional magistrate (SDM’s) office in Lakhimpur, Uttar Pradesh. Rajnish Gambhir from AIUFWP states “As the Supreme Court is still hearing the appeals of the tribals and forest dwellers, Tharu tribals are facing harassment and threat of not being able to access their own resources. The struggle of the Tharu tribals is a prime examples of the grave neglect of the forest department which is pushing the claims of the tribals towards the path of rejection.”[5,7]
Amid the protests, the villagers have had to pay the bigger costs. There have been several cases which have been registered against the Tharu tribals. In April 2016, 75-year-old Bhanduram of Jayanagar village was arrested allegedly on false charges. He has now been released on bail .
According to a report, also the Dalit people living in this area are often victims of harassment; such is the case of a Dalit group who have been tortured by the forest officials that have been inserted gasoline in their anus just for fun . Harassment, criminalization and abuse of power are very common in this area at the border of Nepal and India. However, people continue to struggle and assert their forest rights.
Recent attacks against the Tharu villagers happened under the Covid19 pandemic in June 2020, when the forest officials entered the forest area and harassed the women while collecting minor forest products. A CJP (Citizen for Justice and Peace) video reports that the pandemic has been used as an excuse to threaten the villagers and to prevent them from entering into the forest [9,8]. It was later reported that women filed a First Information Report [FIR] against forest officials who violently assaulted them and their families. The alleged assault came after days of tension between the officials and the residents of Kajaria village. Moreover, the deep trenches built up to prevent villagers accessing the forest have resulted not only in killing trees, but also stopped drainage of rainwater from adjacent fields, destroying crops of wheat .