The Sonbhadra Massacre– An Unending Cycle of Exploitation and Compensation

Seven men and three women from the historically marginalised Gond tribe were gunned down ruthlessly by the village headman and his associates over a land dispute in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh on July 17th.

The land dispute

As claimed by the Gond tribal community, the disputed land had been under illegal occupation since 1955. The Adarsh Cooperative Society Ltd., a society formed by IAS Officer Prabhat Kumar Mishra, was illegally made a custodian of 463 bighas of land in the 1950s out of which 112 bighas belonged to the gram sabha and was hitherto being cultivated by the landless Gond farmers of the Ubbha village. The Society then sold this illegally amassed land to Yagya Dutt Bhurtiya, the Pradhan of the village, who filed an application for the transfer of the land to his name in 2017. When the tribal farmers dared to protest and demonstrate resistance against the tyranny of the village headmen in the matter, they were repeatedly subjected to abuse by the dominant groups within the village. They encountered a similar fate with the police officials they approached to plead for their rights.

A failure of the state mechanism

In January 2019, letters were written to CM Yogi Adityanath and BJP State President Mahendranath Pandey, informing them about the land dispute and seeking help. Right after the mutation application was filed by Bhurtiya in 2017, the villagers including the ones killed and injured in the massacre, approached the Revenue Department and informed the officials about the illegalities involved in the possession of the landholding. Neither of the authorities bothered with the issue until the innocent lives were lost. Their pleas kept echoing in the corridors of power as hollow, insignificant voices that were not to concern the justice mechanism.

On July 17th, the village pradhan Yagya Dutt Bhurtiya, elected to the position to ensure the well-being of the villagers, came to take possession of his land purchased two years ago. When the farmers objected, his armed associates opened fire indiscriminately at them. According to some reports, the villagers claim that the police officials were aware of the impending danger to the farmers but did not care to prevent the incident. Now that the lives are lost, the poor unimportant farmers who are the kin to the deceased, had the undeserved privilege of meeting the Chief Minister in person. The government arrived after the damage was done and sought to compensate for human lives with some lakhs of rupees, as goes the convention in India. A correspondent from the Revenue Department too arrived at Ubbha village on the 21st of July when the CM was due to arrive for meeting the families of the victims and distributing compensation cheques.

In fact, an intense urge to compensate and help the victims was seen within the key political parties operating in Uttar Pradesh politics. Priyanka Gandhi from the INC was detained at her guest house and was disallowed from meeting the families of the victims on grounds of the imposition of Section 144. However, she still met some villagers at a guesthouse in Mirzapur and promised to extend a compensation amount of Rs 10 Lakhs each to the families of the deceased and a cheque of Rs 1 Lakh to those gravely injured in the heinous incident. The BSP also offered compensation amounts to the next of kin of the killed. They also engaged themselves in some blame game and accused the government for its inadequacy.

The caste perspective

The violence may reflect the dark shadows of a stringent, discriminative caste structure that still forms a consolidated reality in rural Indian societies. The village Pradhan and his associates belong to the Gujjar caste, a mid-rank caste in the structural hierarchy. However, economic affluence has repercussions in the political domain. And political power once acquired ensures an upward mobility in the societal status of the group. The Gujjars, therefore, constitute the dominant caste in the village as they own much of the land in Sonbhadra district. On the other hand, the victims constituted a tribe that has historically been placed in the lowest strata of the social framework, are marginalised, landless and poor.

Traditional norms have always emboldened the upper castes to exploit the inferiors. What is unfortunate is that despite the Indian constitution preaching notions of equality and positive discrimination for decades now, the intensity of the problem has remained pretty static. Caste still looms large in the rural Indian discourse on rights and duties of communities. The stagnancy has been perpetuated from the privileged side, which is unwilling to let go of its dominant status and treat all alike. A significant presence of the like-minded in the chambers of authority further allows them to do so.

Land-man ratio in India

The Sonbhadra massacre brings forth a harsh reality that percolates the thin economic fabric of rural India. The proportion of the population dependent economically on land as a resource for their sustenance is in gross imbalance to the total area of land available in the country. The land-man ratio indicates certain serious problems characterising the agricultural sector, for instance, the demand-supply imbalance with regard to cultivable land in the country, resultant problems of disguised unemployment, failure of the legal mechanism at curbing illegal hoarding of land by land mafias, rampant bribery and corrupt practices of the authorities, a general laid back attitude when grievances are reported, inter-alia. Land sharks, as they are popularly termed, are influential people who bribe their way into taking legal possessions of land illegally occupied by manipulating records, and then force the farmers dwelling on those lands to abandon them. The farmers who were cruelly shot down in Sonbhadra had been cultivating rice on the land for decades and were unwilling to let go of their only source of livelihood.

Plight of tribal groups in India

Tribals, while they constitue a major portion of the rural population in India today, are still one of the most landless communities. In fact, the tribal way of life was very distinct from the mainstream livelihood patterns. Millions of tribal communities inhabited the forest lands in India prior to the implementation of the colonial era laws, that eroded their claims to resources. Ever since, they have been considered encroachers on the lands they have been residing in for centuries. With development plans unfolding, natural resources have been depleting for the construction of mines, dams, utilisation of land for cultivtion, etc. These processes have resulted in a gradual and systematic exclusion of the tribals from ownership of resources in any form. The modern development model displaces indigenous communities dependent on natural resources without an effective rehabilitation programme. The tribals, therefore, form an essential component of a development process that conveniently decides to elevate the already affluent while the costs are paid by the tribals.

In 2006, the government tried to help tribal groups by enacting the Forest Rights Act that would allow indigenous forest dwellers to remain on their land. However, ineffective implementation has contaminated this law, just like it has diluted the potential of most other laws in the country. When they attempt at earning a livelihood from the land jointly owned by the gram communities, they get embroiled in conflicts with the power holders and end up losing their life, like in this incident. Several tribals have been ruthlessly killed in nasty land disputes across some of the poorest and the most conflict-prone areas around the country, remote places where the constitution barely applies in common practice.

The police officials have arrested around 24 people associated with the violence, but the Pradhan remains free.

Picture Courtesy- Indiaemotions

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