India: Escalated repression against the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, human rights defenders Madhuri Krishnaswami, Nitin Varghese, Antaram Awase, and community leaders campaigning for forest and land rights in Madhya Pradesh
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned about the rising threats, including legal persecution, against human rights defenders, community leaders, and those associated with the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh. Since October 2022, around 50 land and environmental rights defenders, all of whom are members of or associated with JADS, have faced systematic reprisals. The reprisals directly violate their right to peaceful assembly, and the majority are in the form of multiple false cases, and arbitrary arrests and detention. Madhuri Krishnaswami, a woman senior human rights defender and organiser of JADS, is facing up to 21 legal cases and has been expelled from her residential district.
The Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan is a collective which has been working for over 20 years to advocate for the rights of Dalit and Indigenous communities in rural areas of Madhya Pradesh. Both communities are traditionally persecuted and discriminated against, and face violations of their rights to land, livelihood, access to resources and the right to live with dignity. Key issues taken up by JADS include illegal deforestation, forced eviction of local communities, and the denial of access to land and forests which are common property resources critical to their life and livelihood. JADS also documents and campaigns against violations such as state violence and arbitrary arrests and detention of community members on false charges in reprisal for peaceful protests against state policies.
In 2022, JADS joined a protest by indigenous communities in the Burhanpur District, Madhya Pradesh against illegal deforestation and environmental destruction by local groups who function with the support and tacit protection of state authorities. Since October 2022, approximately 15,000 acres of forest have been cleared by these groups with the support of the police, state officials and the timber mafia. Communities fear that the land is being cleared to make way for mining projects and for profit through the timber trade. They have been protesting since October 2022 against the destruction and are facing reprisals from the state including arbitrary arrests and legal action.
On 7 July 2023, the woman human rights defender Madhuri Krishnaswami, one of the most prominent leaders of the JADS, was served with an order of externment (forced eviction) from the Burhanpur District of Madhya Pradesh for a period of one year by the District Collector’s office.1 On 19 May 2023, she was served a notice for her externment from the Burhanpur District and was asked to show cause for why she should not be expelled from the district. The notice also revealed that Madhuri Krishnaswami has been charged under 21 cases by the Forest Department, falsely accusing her of aiding the deforestation that she has been protesting against. The woman human rights defender has been a vocal advocate against the deforestation, campaigning through peaceful public protests, and by consistently informing the district administration of the illegal tree-felling since 9 October 2022. JADS as a human rights organisation is also being falsely accused of extorting money from locals in order to file land claims under the Forest Rights Act.
On 26 May 2023, Madhuri Krishnaswami marched to the District Collector’s office of Burhanpur along with 200 indigenous community members of JADS to submit a response for the externment notice. She pointed out that she had repeatedly alerted the authorities of the illegal deforestation rather than aiding it, and also claimed that the hostility of forest officials towards JADS is due to its support for Adivasi rights under India’s Forest Rights Act.
The forced expulsion and false accusations are part of a pattern of harassment and reprisals against JADS members including Madhuri Krishnaswami. On 3 May 2023, a local newspaper published statements by the Police Superintendent of Burhanpur District threatening to arrest at least 50 human rights defenders and activists associated with JADS.
On 20 April 2023, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed against the human rights defenders Madhuri Krishnaswami and Nitin Varghese by a group of local politicians. The report was filed under sections 294 (Obscene acts and songs) and 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code along with offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The same group of politicians had attempted to disrupt a meeting on 19 April 2023 between JADS members and opposition party leaders who were visiting the area to inspect allegations of deforestation.
On 30 April 2023, the human rights defender Antaram Awase, who is also a member of JADS, was arbitrarily arrested by Madhya Pradesh police while travelling to attend a labour rights-related event on May Day. Antaram Awase’s family were not informed of his arrest or whereabouts in violation of India’s Criminal Procedure Law. It was later revealed that the arrest was linked to a 2019 complaint filed by Forest Department officials after they attempted to forcibly evict indigenous communities. Police fired pellets at unarmed and peaceful local protesters, injuring four persons. Antaram Awase was also implicated in a false case filed in October 2022, in which he was accused of being involved in deforestation. Similar to Madhuri Krishnaswami, the human rights defender had himself been campaigning against the deforestation and even shared information with authorities about the deforestation. Instead of taking action against the perpetrators, police chose to pursue legal action against Antaram Awase in order to silence his work and campaign. Following his arrest on 30 April 2023, Antaram Awase was released on bail on 19 May 2023, but the cases against him continue
In addition to human rights defenders, community leaders and members who have been part of the ongoing peaceful movement to preserve forest, land and environmental rights have also been subjected to reprisals.
The state has abused provisions related to unlawful assembly under Section 144 of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code to criminalise peaceful protests. The provisions enables a state to prohibit the gathering of more than four persons in a given jurisdiction during anticipated emergencies. On 26 May 2023, the 200 protesters who accompanied Madhuri Krishnaswami to the District Collector’s office were accused of violating the provisions of Section 144. Similarly, media reports indicate that 62 community members have been accused under the same provision linked to a three-day protest against illegal deforestation, from 5-7 April 2023, where thousands of community members gathered before the District Collector’s office. In both cases, the state failed to make a public announcement or inform local communities on the imposition of Section 144 as is mandatory under law.
The state has also resorted to arresting community members under false criminal cases. On 26 May 2023, 18 indigenous community members were arrested from Davali village in Madhya Pradesh in a 2021 FIR related to the looting of a tractor which belonged to indigenous persons and had been seized by forest officials in 2021 in violation of a court order. The 11 persons arrested were not named in the original FIR and police have now filed an additional non-bailable offence to the original case of dacoity under Section 395 of the Penal Code. Those arrested were released on bail on 6 June 2023 but the case against them continues.
Amidst ongoing reprisals against human rights defenders and community members, forced evictions and illegal deforestation continue. On 17 May 2023, forest officials and the Madhya Pradesh police attempted to forcefully evict the indigenous community in Tangiyapaat village of Burhanpur, who had filed claims to their land under the Forest Rights Act. The community has been cultivating this land for agricultural purposes for over four decades. Police and forest officials destroyed 14 houses and attempted to forcibly remove local residents before their claims could be verified, in violation of the law. Previously, on 12 May 2023, forest officials and police destroyed 25 homes in Bhilaikheda village in the Khandwa district without notice.
Front Line Defenders is extremely concerned about the ongoing violations against indigenous communities and escalating reprisals against human rights defenders and community leaders in Madhya Pradesh. The legal persecution against the human rights organisation JADS and the human rights defenders Madhuri Krishnawami, Antaram Awase and Nitin Varghese are a direct reprisal against their support to indigenous communities and their peaceful protests against illegal deforestation, forced evictions and the destruction of homes. In the context of historical systematic violations against indigenous peoples’ rights, the suppression of JADS is a further attempt to silence their voice.
Front Line Defenders calls on the Indian authorities to immediately end reprisals against human rights defenders by withdrawing the expulsion of Madhuri Krishnaswami from the Burhanpur District, and dropping all charges against Madhuri Krishnaswami, Antaram Awase, Nitin Varghese and community leaders. It also calls on the Indian authorities to conduct an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the violations, including illegal deforestation, forced eviction and the destruction of homes, with a view to bringing those response to justice and further to inquire into claims by indigenous communities under the Forest Rights Act.
1 According to the Madhya Pradesh Rajya Suraksha Adhiniyam (State Security regulations) 1990, any person who has been convicted of a crime or is suspected to cause alarm, danger or harm to a person or property can be directed to remove themselves from or not to return to a particular place or district by the state government. The woman human rights defender Madhuri Krishnaswami has been charged with false cases and is accused of trying to create disturbances and aiding deforestation in Burhanpur district and has been forced out of the district.