The Buxa Tiger Reserve
The Ravas, a tribal community settled in the Dooars and adjoining western Assam, have been hit the worst by the climate of mistrust and hostility between the forest department and tribal villagers. Most of those killed in foresters’ firing are Ravas.
Neither well-connected politically nor numerous enough to stir the corridors of power, their deaths in firing did not rattle politicians.
Most of the slain Ravas came from villages in and around the Buxa Tiger Reserve near the Bhutan border. At least six of those killed in the past decade were from North Poro, a Rava village in the Buxa reserve’s Damanpur range, residents said.
Two were from the same family: Sadharan Rava, 14, and his brother Hadong Rava, 35. The boy died of “torture” by foresters from the Nimati range in the early 2000s, while the elder brother was shot and thrown into a river almost at the same spot in 2005, the villagers alleged.
The other four who died in firing were Gitesh Rava, 25, Agge Rava, 36, Samuel Rabha, 15, and Suresh Rabha, 22. Punia Rava, a resident of neighbouring South Poro, was killed in the same manner, they added.
All the killings took place between the late 1990s and 2009 and many of the victims’ families testified at a public hearing in 2005, organised by the North Eastern Society for Preservation of Nature and Wildlife.
“The forest officials consider us subhuman. Otherwise, why don’t they arrest us instead of shooting us like animals if they suspect us of wrongdoing?’’ says village head Chandra Rava, who runs a grocery.
Rava women too have faced the foresters’ “bullets” — mostly pellets from single or double-barrel guns. Survivors such as Pabaneswari and Radha showed the scars from pellets still lodged in their bodies.
“The two of us had entered the forest in the morning to collect firewood. The forest guards accosted us and fired even as we were pleading. They took me away and admitted me to a Siliguri hospital but the bullets were not removed,’’ Pabaneswari, a young housewife, recalled.
Radha, a mother of two, said: “The guards abandoned me although I was bleeding profusely. Villagers who heard my cries carried me back home and then took me to hospital.”
The alleged incident took place in April 2009. Both women face criminal cases, filed following forest department complaints.
“We have to travel to Alipurduar court regularly and cough up lawyers’ fees,” Pabansewari said. “They say we attacked the foresters. But would you believe that women like us can attack armed forest guards?” Radha asked.
In what seems a conciliatory move, forest officials have helped the two women, as well as the families of two slain Ravas, open savings accounts. Both the women received Rs 3,000 in 2010 from the forest department, apparently a share of the auction proceeds from minor forest goods — such as honey, lac and tubers — collected by them.
Village head Chandra Rava and other residents allege that the forest officials are in cahoots with the timber mafia.
Harinath, Chandra’s septuagenarian father and former village head, recalled that his forefathers had been settled at the rim of the forests in 1915 by Raj officials. Their task was to clear the wild growth and plant trees valuable to the timber business.
In return, the settlers were allowed access to forest produce and given limited land rights based on an agreement with the forest department.
“Our knowledge of the forests, accumulated over generations, enabled us to find seeds of a variety of plants and sow them in suitable seasons. Today, we are considered outsiders and our access to the forest is being increasingly restricted,’’ said the elderly man.
Harinath and fellow villagers said they were no longer allowed forest timber to repair their homes — a traditional right. The descendants of the original settlers have now grown into 160 households, many of them without any land rights, which has left them at the mercy of the forest officials.
A few families have received pattas for their tiny plot of homestead and arable land under the forest rights act of 2006 while the rest keep making the rounds of government offices.
With wild elephants regularly ravaging their crops and access to commercial forest products increasingly restricted, livelihood alternatives are scarce except for traditional piggeries and the occasional NREGA job. North Poro has no school. Even the government-sponsored sewing school for women, set up after the furore over the killings, has shut down.
The Buxa reserve field director, Ravinder Pal Saini, described the Ravas as “crime-prone”, echoing his colonial predecessors who had notified some tribes as criminal.
“There are 18 ethnic tribes in the Buxa reserve; why are the Ravas alone at the receiving end? Because they are involved in crime and became conduits for the timber mafia and poachers,’’ he argued.
Biswanath Rava, a member of the Rava Development Council, an umbrella body of community organisations, alleged a “witch-hunt” against his community by the police and forest department.
He said the forest guards had killed four Ravas in the past decade from Gadadhar village in the Kalchini police station area: Achan Rava, 42, Suresh Rava, 27, Jogen Rava, 35, and Karge Rava, 40.
Upen Biswas, minister for backward class welfare, whose department also looks after the Scheduled Tribes, differed with Saini.
“This is a typically biased and bureaucratic attitude. I have served in the area in various capacities over a long period. I don’t believe that the Ravas as a tribe are crime-prone,” said the former IPS officer with formal training in cultural anthropology and criminology.
He said some Ravas had “fallen prey to town-based mafias” because of a lack of alternative livelihood. “But the Ravas and other tribals killed in firing by the forest guards and police are not criminals but marginalised people.”
Biswas, though, said he cannot investigate firings on forest and tea garden dwellers unless the complaints are lodged under the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Saini claimed there had been no firing since he took charge in 2009. “We have taken initiatives to turn the villagers, including the Ravas, into our friends instead of the mafia’s by including them in forest and animal protection,’’ he said.
The moves include the raising of a 125-strong tiger protection force that draws its members from forest villages and tea gardens on the Buxa reserve’s fringes, recruitment of tourist guides from tribal communities, and promotion of eco-tourism by helping the forest dwellers put up tourists at their homes as paying guests.
Saini blamed the forest villagers’ dependence on firewood and the consequent pressure on forest resources on successive governments’ lack of initiative for providing alternative fuel.
“Even I don’t get adequate cooking gas, coal or petrol in Alipurduar,” he said.