Mumbai: Four months after Pune Police arrested Mahesh Raut, forest rights activist and former Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow, terming him an ‘Urban Naxal’, as many as 300 gram sabhas from Etapalli and Bhamragad tehsils of Gadchiroli have passed a resolution in his support.
Thirty-year-old Raut, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) alumnus, had been working with villagers and focussing on the implementation of the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and Forest Rights Act in the region for the last six years. The resolution lists Raut’s work in the area and the challenges the villages have been facing since his arrest.
Raut, born in Lakhapur village in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, had migrated to the neighbouring Gadchiroli district during childhood. He pursued his initial education in Gadchiroli and then moved to Nagpur for higher education. In 2009, he joined TISS in Mumbai to study social work. The two years at the institute and later a PMRD fellowship upon the completion of his master’s degree in 2011 gave him an opportunity to work on forest rights and other issues directly impacting Adivasis in eastern Maharashtra.
Senior activists and members of the gram sabha say Raut was involved in a crucial agitation at the time of his arrest. “At Surjagad, the onslaught of mining companies has increased in the past years. Raut along with other activists from the region was in the process of filing a petition in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court on June 7 and he was arrested just a day prior,” said Sainu Gota of Gatta village, an Adivasi leader and now a member of the zila parishad from the region.
Gatta is among the several villages in Surjagad which are agitating against the mining corporate giants amidst the overwhelming presence of paramilitary. Many, including Gota, have complained of police atrocities, and have allegedly been implicated in false cases. The villages have opposed companies like Lloyd’s Metal and Energy Limited, Corporate Ispat Alloys, Gopani Iron and Ispat belonging to Jindal Steel Works for undertaking mining work in the region. But even after a strong resistance against these private mining companies, the state in past years has granted permission to mine iron ore on over 348 hectares of land just in Surjagad region. The state is accused of taking a highly exploitative decision of allowing Lloyd to extract as much as 1.3 million tonnes of ore every year.
The gram sabha resolutions, especially in 70 villages in Surjagad, have highlighted Raut’s participation in their agitations. “He first came to us as a part of the PMRD fellowship in 2013. He would visit every village with other government officials and meticulously note down grievances and parallelly also research on several village and state-level policies that could come to our rescue. His work in the formative years helped us build our struggles in the coming days,” said Lalsu Nogoti, another zila parishad member from Bhamragad and an activist-cum-lawyer who has been working on issues of human rights violations here.
Besides the implementation of the PESA laws, which the villagers consider as their essential legislature to ensure Adivasi autonomy, several blocks in Gadchiroli district have since last year been engaging in tendu patta collection with none or very little involvement of middlemen. “This way the farmers have managed to get appropriate prices for their produce and also exploitation has been reduced to a large extent,” Gota adds. Raut and other tribal leaders were at the forefront fighting the middlemen and the state to ensure the tribal farmers get their due.
While this was Raut’s first arrest, he has on several occasions been picked up and harassed by the police. Months before his arrest his passport was confiscated.
Raut was arrested along with four others – a senior lawyer from Nagpur Surendra Gadling, senior Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale, campaigner for the release of political prisoners Rona Wilson and retired professor from Nagpur University Shoma Sen. In the beginning, these arrests were claimed to be made for their alleged involvement in the targeted violence that was unleashed on the Dalit and other Ambedkarite communities visiting Bhima Koregaon in the outskirts of Pune on January 1. However, the police later claimed that these arrested persons allegedly have deep contacts in the Naxal movement and have been working as urban cadres in the movement.
Their arrests were made as per the FIR registered on January 9, days after the initial FIR that was registered against two senior Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide. While Ekbote was released on bail, Bhide never faced arrest.