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"Our self-confidence is the main reason for police harassment..."

For adivasis in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, economic exploitation and social degradation go hand in hand. This interview with Madhuri Krishnaswamy of JADS, an adivasi organisation, reveals routine police protection of entrenched power hierarchies – and the political confidence found to fight back.

Madhuri Krishnaswamy
3 December 2013
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JADS members protest against repeated maternal deaths and denial of emergency care

Madhuri Krishnaswamy is a prominent activist within Jagrit Dalit Adivasi Sangathan (JADS), an organisation of Bhil-Barela adivasis in rural Madhya Pradesh in central India. JADS emerged from a context in which adivasis are systematically excluded from use and ownership of natural resources, and face precarious survival on low and uncertain wage labour. Madhuri describes the organisation as "an attempt by adivasis to recover control over their lives through a struggle for dignity and secure livelihoods". Madhuri outlines a process of self-empowerment, in which "community institutions and processes that have been broken down by the state and markets" are strengthened and "the confidence to fight back" is found. Challenging "brutality and expropriation" by local elites and state officials is a central aspect of the organisation.

As JADS targets "the basis for huge expropriation from the community", it has been met with police harassment. Madhuri's own experience of arrest under false charges, explored in this interview, is reflective of police tactics used against the broader movement. In opposing police repression JADS has demonstrated incredible collective resistance. Detailed here is one particular example: "Six police stations were jammed with adivasis chanting slogans, singing protest songs and demanding to be arrested."

oS: What creates security for adavasi and dalit communities in Madhya Pradesh – and what do everyday experiences of the police look like?

MK: For  adivasis and dalits in Madhya Pradesh, the daily experience of the police is a constant threat of custodial violence, rape and extortion. This is what our people faced too, on a daily basis, before JADS.

Security is not just, of course, security from police brutality or the impunity that upper caste or class people enjoy through police connivance when they unleash violence on dalits and adivasis. Security is the right to secure a fair livelihood, health care, education. But it is the police that step in every time working people fight for these, and the police that create a shield for the theft of land and forests by industry.

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Adivsis, in Madhya Pradesh as elsewhere, have experienced a process of ‘internal colonisation’ that actually hastened and JADS protest for maternal health rights and against denial of emergency maternal health care deepened after India's 'Independence'. This is now proceeding at an alarming pace.

oS: What is this 'internal colonisation' experienced by adivasis, and what role do the police play?

MK: Before the arrival of the modern state adivasis were self-governing communities with customary laws. The modern state illegitimised customary law and institutions and brought in its own laws and machinery to facilitate expropriation and control. The principle of "eminent domain" has (with impunity though without any constitutional sanction) been repeatedly invoked together with a British "Land Acquisition" law to grab land, water and forests for big dams and mining. Natural resources have thus been declared as "owned" by the state, displacing the earlier system of usufruct rights based on community sanction.

Though this is a common situation for all rural communities, adivasis have borne the main brunt of this. Adivasis have been continuously displaced from the forests with systemic violence, or forced to pay huge bribes in order to enjoy the most basic use of forest resources. The theft of their resources, and subsequent loss of control over their own lives, has seen adivasis reduced from a proud and free people to a life of grinding poverty at the bottom of the working class, dependant on uncertain and grossly underpaid wage employment or tiny, almost barren plots of land.  

As in any colonial situation, all this has been clothed in the garb of a "civilising mission". In the name of 'Upliftment' and 'Development', and deploying the rhetoric of 'welfarism', various futile and even detrimental schemes and projects have been foisted on adivasis. Simultaneously, there is a relentless assault on adivasi culture, religion, language and way of life - a rhetoric of backwardness and savagery continuously reiterated by the administration, traders, and schools.

oS: Who are these traders, and what relationship do they have with the police?

MK: Under the protection of the state, traders and moneylenders have entered the area and tacitly been allowed, through both violence and dishonesty, to expropriate adivasis.  These petty traders buy forest and agricultural produce cheap from adivasis and sell market goods dear - commercial seed, fertiliser, pesticide, and so on. Often adivasis sort of 'mortgage' their crop in order to access these.

Most traders also double up as moneylenders, advancing both cash and food at exorbitant rates. The calculation of "interest owed" is made by the moneylender – usually ranging from 150 – 200 percent. Adivasis have lost land, cattle, crop, silver jewellery, for a couple of bags of grain or a kilo or two of oil and spices. If they don't pay up, they are beaten, their goods forcibly taken away. The police turn a blind eye. 

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JADS protest at a Madhya Pradesh police station

In one instance an adivasi who borrowed grain worth Rs 1,800 and was unable to repay on time, was beaten up, locked up, threatened with death and made to work all night in the trader's house until his family surrendered two bullocks worth Rs 12,000 and promised to pay Rs 30,000 more "as interest". 

The police refused to register a complaint even though this is covered by a fairly strict law for "Prevention of Atrocities" on adivasis and dalits. The police largely resist registering cases under this Act, and the conviction rate is abysmal. It was only after JADS intervention that the trader was arrested, but let out on bail the very next day.

The role of the police in this has thus been to tacitly support and sometimes even actively aid expropriation by traders and moneylenders; crack down on communities protesting against displacement; allow the violence of officials, political elites, and upper castes by not taking action on complaints against them but, in fact, often acting against the complainant. The role of the police is always (and I was even once told this by a senior police officer) to maintain the power status quo. They do whatever is necessary in order to ensure this.

oS: JADS has experienced police repression in response to its organising and mobilisations. Why do you think this is? Can you tell us about what tactics the police have used against JADS?

MK: Almost every JADS protest and campaign has been accompanied by false police cases, even though they are always completely peaceful and disciplined. Most campaigns have been for clear legal rights and entitlements.

JADS protest at a Madhya Pradesh police station

The main reason for this harassment has been not so much the protests themselves as because the politician-trader-bureaucracy nexus has felt threatened by adivasi self-assertion and unity. A fearful, subdued, helpless and fragmented people have been the basis for huge expropriation from the community. JADS has given a large and cohesive section of adivasis, for the first time in almost 200 years, the confidence to fight back. This self-confidence is the main reason for the harassment.

In addition to criminal cases being filed in response to organized campaigns or protests, every time a village joins the organization, a slew of false cases are filed by village bosses against the active members. Very often these bosses attack JADS members, and then file cases against them with the obvious encouragement and connivance of a corrupt police. Meanwhile, the genuine cases that the victims seek to file are denied.

oS: How have JADS responded to this police repression? For example, could you tell us what happened in August 2010?

MK: The only way that we can respond is to be sure that the entire movement shows solidarity with members who have been targeted. This includes demonstrations at police stations and administrative offices, and mass courting of arrests on the “each for all and all for each” principle. Also legal and (sometimes) financial support, since legal fees and continuous court appearances can really drain an individual family’s resources. 

In August 2010, a senior activist, Valsingh Sastia was arrested on a flimsy charge. He had been carrying timber poles for his roof given to him by his comrades, who had harvested them from trees in their own fields. He was stopped by forest officials who claimed that the timber was “illegal”, and so had to be confiscated. Valsingh explained that these were harvested from private fields, but even if they were from the forest, the officials had no right to deny adivasis usufruct rights while there was large-scale, illegal commercial extraction from the forest.  Meanwhile, word spread through the neighbouring villages and people started gathering in support of Valsingh Sastia. Alarmed that they might now have to face a full-blown JADS protest, the forest officials ran away.

JADS activists demonstrate at Pati police stationBut two days later, a police case was filed on non-bailable charges of “ violent obstruction of public servants in the discharge of their duties, and loot of confiscated timber”.  Clearly, he had been targeted because he was a JADS leader. Valsingh surrendered after a two-day protest by JADS members at the police station and was sent to jail.

In response, thousands of adivasis, demanding that they also be arrested, gathered at their respective police stations - tired of their people being continuously harassed by false cases and their forests robbed by the timber mafia whilst they were denied basic use of timber resources. This protest continued for about a week despite the pouring rain. Six police stations were jammed with adivasis chanting slogans, singing protest songs and demanding to be arrested. The police shuttered the stations, whereupon we protested that the police station was a “public facility” and could not be shut down just because the police was uncomfortable with this sight of unafraid and united adivasis. Valsingh got bail only after about a month in jail and the case against him is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, cases were filed against about one hundred named members and a thousand unnamed others. Around 7,500 adivasis wrote to the Chief Minister saying that they had also been part of the protests and that they should be arrested too. The State Government probably decided that mass arrests of adivasis would be politically disadvantageous and announced that they would withdraw these cases. However, while the proceedings for this have been initiated, they have not been completed and the government might backtrack - as it did in another case in which I was arrested recently.

JADS protest at Khetia police station. The cloth banner reads 'Give us our rights or give us jail'.

oS: Can you tell us about your own experience of arrest whilst campaigning for maternity health rights for adivasi and dalit women?

MK: As I mentioned earlier, most actions and campaigns of JADS are met with false criminal charges. The maternal health campaign is no exception. It is not what we have to say on the issue of maternal rights that annoys the system, but that we strongly articulate any rights at all. Importantly also, such campaigns show up as false the tall claims made by the government on funding- sensitive issues like maternal health.

In late 2008, a young, pregnant adivasi woman named Banya bai was thrown out of a primary health centre while in labour by the centre's staff because she had no money, and they didn't want to be bothered. She delivered on the road, with the help of a village midwife who just happened to be close by.

I passed by soon after, and learnt from the angry crowd that had gathered what had happened. I informed the nearest police station, asked them to arrange for an ambulance, and also informed the press, which carried the story prominently. JADS petitioned for action against the culprits. But instead of action against the staff of the health centre, a criminal case was registered against me, and 5 others who had been nowhere near the scene of the crime. The main reason for the criminal charges against us - besides the usual knee jerk reaction of the administration - was that a local politician felt that we would work against him in the forthcoming elections, and the local police station was losing a lot of "under- the-table business" because of the spread of the JADS.

There was huge outrage in the area because of what Banya bai as a woman and as an adivasi had gone through, and the police case only added fuel to the fire. Thousands of adivasis, especially women, repeatedly protested, till the state government agreed to drop charges.

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A JADS protest against repeated maternal deaths and denial of emergency careProceedings were initiated for dropping charges but, typically, four years later, various "technical reasons" were found for them not being dropped. When I was summoned to the court, our organisation decided that I should refuse bail in protest against such absurd proceedings. I quoted Gandhi - whose photograph hangs behind the judge in every courtroom - that when a nation is enslaved, the right place for every free citizen is in jail, and since cases like this show exactly how enslaved we are, I should be sent to jail. My arrest and the protests that followed did turn a spotlight on what people like Banya bai have to go through. 

oS: What role does countering police repression play in JADS's overall struggle? Where do you place the police in terms of what needs to be confronted and changed?

MK: Police repression is not the only weapon of the state. Stonewalling demands is routinely used to tire us out - especially in wage struggles. Also, taking advantage of the fragmentation of adivasi society, village level power brokers are used to intimidate members and prevent new people from joining. This “shadow war” is perhaps sometimes more serious than outright repression.

However, the threat of police action is always the threat of last recourse. The police are clearly there to maintain the power status quo. There is no pretence to this. What needs to be confronted and changed? Well, obviously, we need a new polity. The police are only a part of what's wrong.

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