Woh jangal hamara hai


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ELITE imaginations of India’s forests rarely leave much room for Dalits living in them – or for caste at all. A vocal group of hardline preservationist conservationists demand that people leave the forests altogether. More progressive critics of these hardliners often subscribe to what Paul Greenough has called ‘the standard environmental narrative’ of the Indian environment: the forests’ inhabitants are – or should be – exclusively indigenous Adivasis living out of time and politics and in harmony with their surroundings. Conservation comes intuitively to Adivasis, this narrative holds, because they are as natural as the trees and hills around them.1

The assumption that Dalits don’t live in forests isn’t only a discursive problem. The assumption has had profound legal and political consequences, from the exclusion of members of Scheduled Castes from the protection and political rights provided by Schedules Five and Six of the Constitution, to the requirement that they prove three generations of residence in the forest to claim rights under the 2006 Forest Rights Act – rather than the residence since 2005 required for members of Scheduled Tribes. The result is that Dalits are especially vulnerable to the threat of dispossession faced by all forest dwellers.

Uncounted millions of Dalits live and work in India’s forests.2 Most of them, like most other forest dwellers, Adivasi and otherwise, did not see their property or use rights recognized as the Forest Department claimed some 23% of the country’s land area from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century.3 How would forest politics look if we took these millions of people into account? How do the politics of forests look when viewed through a caste lens? What forms do Dalit forest politics take?

I am in no position to answer this question on behalf of the many Dalits who live in forests, but Dalit political movements are actively answering this question themselves every day. In this essay, I trace the contours of one such political project, a landless Dalit and Adivasi movement in southeastern Uttar Pradesh that seeks to reclaim forest land through the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA). What emerges from attention to their demands is a challenge to two taken for granted analytical distinctions: the movement challenges a separation of questions of land and political economy from questions of the environment, and it simultaneously challenges an assumed absolute distinction between Dalits and Adivasis, between Ambedkarite anti-caste politics and politics of indigenous sovereignty.


I did two years of research, from 2010 to 2012, with a movement of women and men struggling to claim rights to forest land in southeastern Uttar Pradesh, which I will call the Sangathan. I first met the activists associated with the Sangathan in 2009, at a forum held in Lucknow. The forum was being organized in association with the Bahujan Samaj Party (or the BSP) state government in order ‘to begin a process of dialogue and interaction between levels of administration as well as people, to dispel lack of knowledge about the act, and ensure that those Dalit Adivasis who have been deprived of their rights for generations be granted these rights.’ During the meeting, forest dwellers from across the state shared stories of their attempts to gain rights to their land through the FRA and the resistance they had to face, in the form of harassment and violence from higher castes and the Forest Department. BSP representatives pledged their support to the forest dwellers and their movement, and promised a number of measures to ease the process of applying for rights through the new law.

The invitation to the Lucknow forum was the first time that I had come across the phrase ‘Dalit Adivasis’, but I would encounter it many times more over the following years – in official invitations and in conversations by the fireside with the women and men struggling for land in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The members of the movement belonged to a range of jatis that were classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – Chamars, Gonds, Agarias, and others – but nearly all of them, whether SC or ST, would describe themselves as Dalit Adivasis.

Why was the distinction between Dalit and Adivasi not being maintained here? For one, in the 1950s, Govind Ballabh Pant’s government did not classify any of Uttar Pradesh’s communities as Scheduled Tribe, maintaining that the forms of absolute social and cultural difference that the category implied did not exist in a state that was framed as standing in for the nation. Communities that were classified as Scheduled Tribes in neighbouring Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, such as Gonds and Agarias, were thus assigned to the Scheduled Caste category.4 It was not until 2002, as a bid to further incorporate them into the BSP’s coalition politics, that Chief Minister Mayawati reclassified a number of Adivasi communities in eastern Uttar Pradesh as Scheduled Tribes.


Their incorporation into BSP-style Dalit politics did not end in 2002 however. Critical to the Sangathan’s project is a politics of land that has deep continuities with a longer history of Dalit struggle, drawing on the BSP’s projects as well as older, pan-Indian histories. But what happens when those struggles are transposed to the forest? What happens when a politics of land redistribution and caste abolition is brought to a domain whose politics are consistently framed in terms of conservation and preservation?


The women and men of the Sangathan hold a monthly rally for forest rights in a nearby town, in which block-level government offices are located. I travelled with two activists to one such rally in 2010. We parked our jeep in the town centre and sat under an awning that stretched into the street. Residents of the forty villages in the area that had been organized by the Sangathan began to trickle in – first a few, then a dozen at a time, and finally hundreds. Most of the people arriving were women, talking excitedly. The mood was festive. Winter was arriving, but as the sun rose higher in the sky the temperature still climbed into the high 30s Celsius. These villages had all been established by landless Dalits and Adivasis who were seeking to claim rights to the forest under the 2006 Forest Rights Act, a historic law which recognizes the use and tenure rights of forest dwellers after more than a century of dispossession. In none of the forty villages had the attempt to claim rights gone smoothly, however, and each had faced obstruction from local higher castes and a hostile Forest Department.

Soon after we arrived, a large group of women came on to the road, marching towards us and chanting: ‘Mahila shakti zindabad!’ (Long live womens’ strength!), ‘Inqilab zindabad!’ (Long live the revolution!), and a slogan carried from Dadasaheb Gaikwad’s Dalit land occupations in Maharashtra in the 1950s through the BSP to the forests, ‘Jo zameen sarkari hai, woh zameen hamari hai!’ (The government’s land is ours!).

‘Jo zameen sarkari hai, woh zameen hamari hai’ has its origins in Gaikwad’s push to extend the Ambedkarite Dalit movement into rural areas after Ambedkar’s death. The slogan is a critique of and a challenge to government administered Bhoodan redistribution – landlord land that had been ‘gifted’ to the landless, often to Dalits, but which in many cases was never transferred to its intended recipients. Land occupations, the slogan implied, were not a morally neutral matter of redistribution, but the claiming by the landless of what was theirs to begin with: a gift that had never arrived, held by a government that had not fulfilled its representative promise.5


The BSP picked up Gaikwad’s slogan and deployed it in rallies across Uttar Pradesh. As Kanshi Ram explained in 1993, in a booklet titled ‘Concept of Bahujan Samaj Party’, the party would simultaneously address social and economic inequality through two means: through land redistribution and by encouraging migration for work in industry. ‘BSP seeks to put the interest of the lowest of low, the landless peasant as high on its economic agenda as that of the farmers who are the victims of our prevented policies. A vast majority of these people will need to be helped to move away from a dependence on the land to primary industries and related business.’6

Kanshi Ram went on to explain the slogan, ‘Jo zameen sarkari hai, woh zameen hamari hai’, which the BSP had resurrected in order to encourage Dalits to occupy residential and agricultural land in Uttar Pradesh. ‘Baba Saheb Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar gave to every Indian, through our constitution, the fundamental right to property. […] Four decades have passed, in spite of many land reform schemes, the vast majority of the Bahujan Samaj [‘majority society’] is still without any property. BSP now refuses to tolerate the conspiracy which made our people who till the land to feed us are prevented from owning the land, our people who labour to build magnificent mansions in our cosmopolitan cities are not helped to own a roof over their own heads.’7

Lerche describes the role of the BSP, after coming to power, in supporting Dalit land occupation movements through the use of the state machinery.8 The party never engaged in land redistribution itself, but backed independent and organized efforts to claim Bhoodan and other land. Jaoul has shown how the statues erected by the BSP government of Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders themselves were part of these struggles over urban public and agrarian space.9 But how did these tactics and Gaikwad’s slogan arrive in the forest? And what happened to the tactics and to forest politics after they arrived? To answer these questions, let us return to the Sangathan’s rally in the town centre.


As the sun rose and the day grew warmer, we started marching, the women in front, and a group of three – a flag-bearer, a lone man, and a woman wearing all red and carrying a taut bow and arrow – walking abreast in the lead. The group grew to be thousands strong, and the chants echoed in the small trading town: A twist on the Gaikwad slogan appeared, ‘Jo jangal sarkari hai, woh jangal hamara hai!’ (The government’s forest is ours). ‘Van vibhag jangal chhode!’ (Leave the jungle, Forest Department!) Other chants referenced the ongoing legal battles with the forest and police departments, which had filed cases against the villagers not only for occupying forest land, but also for gathering sticks and other forest produce: ‘Farji muqadama wapas lo, wapas lo!’ (Withdraw the false cases) and ‘Police prasashan murdabad!’ (Death to the Police Department).


A few onlookers in the market joined and, except for one moment when we marched pass a shop blaring loud pop music that overpowered the chants, the chants continued to grow louder. ‘Adivasi ekta zindabad!’ (Long live Adivasi unity), ‘Dalit ekta zindabad!’ (Long live Dalit unity!). ‘Dalit’ and ‘Adivasi’ both appeared in the chants, back to back.

The slogan had travelled to the forest, where jangal had replaced zameen. The politics that Lerche describes, of Dalit-led redistributions of land, sometimes organized by left organizations with critical backing from the BSP government, seemed to have been transposed. The government’s land and forests belonged to the landless here as they did in UP’s plains. Forest land is not Bhoodan land, though, and in travelling to the forest, the specific property relations and the configuration of state and movement actors had shifted in crucial ways. The land to be redistributed was no longer divided among a handful of large landlords and state agencies, but was held by one large landlord: the Forest Department. Land occupations here did not come at the expense of others trying to cultivate the land, but at the expense of a state agency.

This transposition of Dalit landless politics to the forest had an effect at the level of discourse as well. The categories ‘Dalit’ and ‘Adivasi’ and the movements and political projects that have harnessed them have widely divergent histories and associations. The just future imagined in Niyamgiri by members of the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia communities is not the same as the future imagined by Dalit Panther poets in Mumbai in the 1970s – just as the analyses underpinning the two projects are broadly different. Intellectuals associated with the Ambedkarite Dalit movement have emphasized a modernizing, rationalist, future-oriented project, one that weighs tradition on the scale of social justice before deciding to adopt or discard it. Land redistribution has been critical to such movements, as in Gaikwad’s campaign, the Kilivenmani land occupation in 1968, and others. Adivasi movements on the other hand, like indigenous movements in Latin America and elsewhere, have grounded their claims on an assertion of cultural difference, lost territorial sovereignty and, not infrequently, environmental stewardship.10 The two traditions could be said to be working within different temporalities of justice, both demanding justice, but one in terms of the future and the other in terms of the past.11


Given these diverging temporalities, how can we understand the work done by the Sangathan to bridge the movements and the categories, Dalit and Adivasi? To answer this, let us return to southeastern Uttar Pradesh, to a conversation I had with a friend there who had been deeply involved in the struggle for rights for his village. He explained to me that the Forest Rights Act had in fact been written by Ambedkar, as part of India’s original Constitution. The Forest Rights Act, he told me, said that the Dalit Adivasis were the original inhabitants of India, and that the jal, jangal, aur jameen belonged to them. Ambedkar was meant to be the first prime minister too, but then ‘the brahmin Nehru’ took the prime ministership from him and hid the true law, which would have restored Dalit Adivasi sovereignty over India. In the meantime, Dalit Adivasis were forced to work for foreigners, for the Forest Department and for higher castes who owned land in the area. Mayawati had found the FRA and given it to them, he told me, and now they were reclaiming the land that belonged to them, escaping caste oppression, and reclaiming their country.


My friend was drawing upon both discourses and both temporalities: a temporality of historic indigenous sovereignty as well as a future-oriented temporality of caste abolition through property redistribution. But the dispossession and redistribution of property here were tied, critically, to a once lost and now regained indigenous sovereignty. William Cronon has pointed out a property relation is a right that A has over B, recognized and enforced by a third element, C.12 In other words, every property relation implies the existence of a sovereign which will recognize and enforce it. My friend’s analysis brought both sovereignty and property into play: primitive accumulation had been enabled by the loss of the state, and the reclamation of the state and their property would proceed hand in hand.


Through the Sangathan, the temporalities and discourses of Adivasi and Dalit politics are available to be drawn upon,chosen between, and combined. The preamble to the Forest Rights Act frames the law in the terms of Greenough’s standard ecological narrative: the preamble says that the law reverses the ‘historic injustice’ of the dispossession of India’s forest dwellers, who have been responsible for the conservation of India’s forests. The leaders of the Sangathan say that they, as the indigenous residents of the region’s forests, are the victims of the historic injustice, or itihasik anyay. They simultaneously frame their struggle, however, as one against caste oppression and capitalism. Dalit and Adivasi are not, for them, opposed or exclusive identities, but tools to understand their situation, to build alliances, and to work toward a more just future.



Badri Narayan, The Making of the Dalit Public in North India: Uttar Pradesh, 1950-Present. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: Speech Prepared for the Annual Conference of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore, But Not Delivered. B.R. Kadrekar, Bombay, 1936.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, in V. Rodrigues (ed.). Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2002.

Jotirao Phule, Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, in G.P. Deshpande (ed.). Manohar Publishers, New Delhi, 2002.

Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany, The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty, and the State in Modern India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

Paul Greenough, ‘Naturae Ferae: Wild Animals in South Asia and the Standard Environmental Narrative’, in James C Scott and Nina Bhatt (eds.), Agrarian Studies: Synthetic Work at the Cutting Edge. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001.

Sudha Pai, Dalit Assertion and the Unfinished Democratic Revolution: The Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2002.

Sumit Guha, Environment and Ethnicity in India, 1200-1991. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.



1. For work on the sociological and legal framing of Indian indigeneity, see Virginius Xaxa, ‘Tribes as Indigenous People of India’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(51), 1999, pp. 3589-3595. Bengt T. Karlsson and T.B. Subba (eds.), Indigeneity in India. Routledge, London, 2006.

2. No complete survey exists of the number of people who live in India’s forests and are eligible for rights under the Forest Rights Act, let alone the number of such people who are Dalits.

3. Madhu Sarin, ‘Scheduled Tribes Bill 2005’, Economic and Political Weekly 40(21), 2005, pp. 2131-2134.

4. H.S. Saksena and Chandra Sen, Putting People Last: Tribal Displacement and Rehabilitation. Inter-India Publications, New Delhi, 1999.

5. R.S. Morkhandikar, ‘Dilemmas of Dalit Movement in Maharashtra: Unity Moves and After’, Economic and Political Weekly 25(12), 1990, pp. 586-590; Prahlad Gangaram Jogdand, Dalit Movement in Maharashtra. Kanak Publications, New Delhi, 1991.

6. Quoted in H.S. Saksena and Chandra Sen. 1999, op. cit., fn. 4, p. 159.

7. Kanshi Ram, The Editorials of Kanshi Ram. Bahujan Samaj Publications, Lucknow, 1997, pp. 158-163.

8. Jens Lerche, ‘Politics of the Poor: Agricultural Labourers and Political Transformations in Uttar Pradesh’, Journal of Peasant Studies 26(2-3), 1999, pp. 182-241.

9. Nicolas Jaoul, ‘Learning the Use of Symbolic Means: Dalits, Ambedkar Statues and the State in Uttar Pradesh’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 40(2) 2006, pp. 175-207.

10. Megan Moodie, We Were Adivasis: Aspiration in an Indian Scheduled Tribe. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015; Ronald Niezen, The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003.

11. This is of course a simplification. Ambedkar and Phule made claims to Dalit and non-Brahmin indigeneity themselves, but a reestablishment of lost indigenous sovereignty was never central to their political goals.

12. William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Macmillan, New York, 1983.