On 17th July, a group of over 300 armed men from the Gurjar community attacked and shot dead ten people (3 of whom were women), while injuring 25 others—all from the Gond community—in Umbha, Murtiya village of Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. The attackers were led by the village head Pragyaan Yagyadutt Bhuria, who has been trying to forcefully occupy Adivasi land which has been cultivated by Gond families for generations. Yagyadutt belongs to the Gurjar caste which is a land owning OBC community in the state.
News portals reported that Yagyadutt and his men reached the plot armed with guns, sticks, machetes on 35 tractors to occupy it. Around afternoon, as the tractors began working the land, Adivasi villagers arrived to block them, leading to a scuffle between the two groups. At this point Yagyadutt’s men opened fire on the unarmed villagers. The massacre seems to be a planned incident as over two dozen armed people were specially brought in for it from Jharkhand and Bihar. Asiaville reported that the 25 injured Gond villagers have been sent to Robertsganj and Varanasi for medical treatment.
The accused had been trying to capture the land since the last two years. Ironically, Yagyadutt’s family are plain settlers who migrated from western UP and settled in the areas only 50-60 years ago, while the Gond Adivasis have been living on the 90 bigha of land for generations but have not been given ownership titles.
A Bihar cadre’s former IAS officer (of Brahmin caste) and ex District Magistrate of Mirzapur, Prabhat Mishra has also been accused in the case. The Quint reported that according to BJP MP Chote Lal Karwar, on 17 December 1955, the Tehsildar Robert Sangaz, had sold 648 acres of land to the Adarsh Cooperative Society. As the society’s term expired in 1966, the land had no official title-holders. In 1989, Mishra, who was then the DM of the region, got the land registered under the names of his family members. It was then sold to Yagyadutt two years ago, who had been eyeing it for long but had not been able to capture it.
Adivasi activist and General Secretary of the All India Ho Language Action Committee, Laxmidhar on Facebook wrote that, “The Sonebhadra incident of firing on Adivasis (10 Adivasis died) by non-Adivasis due to land conflict is beyond shocking. It happened because the land of the tribes have been occupied through fraudulent means by non-tribals for years. In all parts of the country, large swathes of Adivasi land have been captured in illegal ways by non-tribals. This alienated land of tribes must be restored. Protective mechanics should be enforced and culprits must be put behind the bar.”
The carnage was also condemned by the Gondwana Gantantra Party. While Chhotubhai Vasava, the founder president of Bhartiya Tribal Party expressed his anguish and wrote: “(Sonbhadra incident) depicts the reality of this country. It won’t be long till such massacres become common across the country for the occupation of Adivasi land. That is why we Adivasis need to unite otherwise we will lose the remaining land, rivers, forests and also our lives.”
So far 26 people including Yagyadutt, his brothers and nephews have been arrested by the local police. They have been charged under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. While the UP government has announced a meager compensation of 5 lakhs for the families of of the victims, former chief minister Akshilesh Yadav has demanded that the government take strict action against the accused persons and pay 20 lakhs in compensation to the families.
अपराधियों के आगे नतमस्तक भाजपा सरकार में एक और नरसंहार! सोनभद्र में भू-माफियाओं द्वारा ज़मीन विवाद के अंदर 9 लोगों की हत्या दहशत एवं दमन का प्रतीक! सभी मृतकों के परिवारों को 20-20 लाख रुपए मुआवज़ा दे दोषियों पर सख़्त से सख़्त कार्रवाई करे सरकार।
— Akhilesh Yadav (@yadavakhilesh) July 17, 2019
The upper caste dominated media, reflected its inherent biases towards Adivasi communities while reporting this incident. Most news outlets invisibilized the fact that the deceased were Gond Adivasis, while the culprits belonged to the dominant Gurjar community. Many media channels also termed the incident a “clash” due to a land conflict between two nameless communities, even though it’s apparent that the attack was a planned massacre for the occupation of ancestral Gond land.
Sonbhadra district is one of the few Adivasi populated regions in Uttar Pradesh with about twenty percent of the population belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. It also has the highest forest cover in the state. The Gond community in Uttar Pradesh were historically denied the ST status and were identified under Scheduled Castes until 2002, when they were included in the ST list in 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh through an amendment act. However, regardless of their presence across the state, other than these districts, a large population of Gonds still remain excluded from the ST list and are identified by the state as scheduled castes.
Last year, Adivasi activists Sukalo and Kismatiya Gond, of this district were arrested and jailed on false charges for leading a protest movement for tribal rights and the implementation of the Forest Rights Act against local authorities. Sonbhadra Adivasis has also had a history of displacement and land grabbing. They have paid a heavy price for Sonbhadra to recieve the label of being the”energy capital of India”, wherein industrial projects such as the Rihand dam, Birla’s aluminium plant, power plants, coal mines and cement factories have alienated them from their ancestral land. In 2006, the district was identified amongst 250 of the most backward districts of the country by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj.
Featured Image courtesy: HW News
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