The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kings serve forest ultimatum on govt

Ahmedabad, Nov. 4: Thousands of tribals in Gujarat’s Dangs district face the threat of being uprooted from their natural forest habitat following an eviction order from the state government.

The inspector-general of forests has issued instructions for forest land to be freed from “encroachment”.

Dangs, a tribal district, has traditionally had five kings — a custom that continues half a century after Independence — and they have now taken up the fight of the tribals to protect their habitat, asking the government to recall the order.

Describing the circular as “illegal”, which goes against the historical fact of forest cultivation in Dangs, they said: “We, the kings and our people, have so far not raised the slogan of` ‘independence’.

All that we have been demanding and fighting for is that our natural, basic and traditional rights over the use of forest land for cultivation, forest and forest produce should be respected and protected by law.”

The kings have suggested that forest land cultivation by tribals and their traditional rights to the forest and forest produce be legally acknowledged once and for all so that these do not come under attack in the future.

To assert their rights, the kings have cited historical facts in the memorandum they have sent to the authorities. It reads like an ultimatum.

“If our rights are not protected, we may be forced to resort to other means.”

After making three unsuccessful attempts to subjugate Dangs, it points out, the British had entered into an agreement with the then five kings in 1842. Under the treaty, the British had conceded the political supremacy of the five kings and in return had taken parts of Dangs forest on lease.

With the setting up of the forest department and enactment of forest legislation in the 1870s and ’80s, however, the British initiated the process of declaring huge tracts of forest as “reserve” and “protected” without consulting the kings and the people of Dangs.

The five kings had strongly protested against the policy.

In the post–1947 period, the government of India continued to follow the British policy of “arbitrarily declaring huge tracts of forests as reserve and protected, clearing forest villages — even these attempts were being resisted by us,” the kings said.

A sovereign kingdom ruled under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act during the British period, Dangs was incorporated into the Indian Union in 1948.

Although the kings point out that they have never raised the cry of independence, the reference, nonetheless, is significant. So is the comparison with Kashmir.

In Kashmir, the post-Independence government at least entered into an accession treaty with the maharajah, the kings said.

“In our case, Dangs was incorporated into the Indian Union without consulting us on the grounds that we the kings and the people were illiterate and could not have offered a considered opinion,” they added.

The kings said the British accepted the fact that the tribal did not cause damage to the forest or the environment of Dangs. As an indication of this acknowledgement, an annual Dangs Darbar, tribal festival, was organised where the kings were given salianas (rewards) for protecting forests.

After Independence, the tradition continued. The five kings have warned of boycotting the political pension they are given every year during the festival if the order is not withdrawn.

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