Two days after Rahul Gandhi asked Congress-governed state governments to file a review petition against the Supreme Court order to evict 1.89 million tribal and other forest-dwelling families, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has followed suit. Party president, Amit Shah tweeted, saying, “I have spoken to all CMs of BJP ruled states in the situation arising out of the Supreme Court's order on eviction of tribals living in forest areas. The states will be soon filing review petition and care will be taken to safeguard the rights of our tribals and prevent eviction.”
Amit Shah stopped short of saying that the Union government would do so through the tribal affairs ministry, a demand that even the RSS-affiliate Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) had made in a rare statement criticising the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance union government.
Shah’s message on twitter came a day after the VKA on February 24 had said, “The Central government should either bring out an ordinance or should file a review petition to ensure that a stay order is secured against action on those whose claims have been rejected. Then later it can think of a permanent solution.”
VKA’s statement itself had followed Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s wrote and told to all party's state chief ministers - Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Puducherry - to file a review against the court orders and prevent any eviction. Bhupesh Baghel-ed Congress state government in Chhattisgarh had already acted upon the missive by February 23 to prevent evictions and Kamal Nath-led Congress government in Madhya Pradesh had set up a group of ministers to deal with the fall out of the Supreme Court order.
The opposition Jharkhand Mukti Morcha had begun state-wide protests against the BJP government in Jharkhand and tribal groups under the umbrella Campaign for Survival and Dignity had announced country-wide protests on the issue against the central government’s role in the passage of Supreme Court orders.
Congress’ lead on the issue, forcing BJP’s hand comes against the February 13 Supreme Court order demanding that states evict all tribals and other forestdwellers whose claims under the Forest Rights Act had been rejected. The court has given time till July to all states to ensure the evictions. The Union government had failed to appear in several hearings on the matter and to defend either the law or argue against summary mass-scale evictions. The Union tribal affairs ministry’s reports indicated that the order would impact around 1.89 million tribal and other forest-dwelling households whose claims to traditional lands had been rejected under the Forest Rights Act.
The Union government initially responded to reports in media on the Supreme Court order stating, claiming they were “misleading”. It said “It’s clarified that government of India, Ministry of Tribal Affairs is well aware of its responsibilities of defending the Constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act and the Ministry will do everything at its disposal to safeguard the interests of the tribals as it has been doing so far.”
But over the next few days pressure mounted on the BJP to act as, first, the tribal rights groups and civil society, then the Congress and other opposition parties geared up against the Supreme Court orders. After keeping low for the first few days, the RSS-affiliate Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram too joined in the criticism against the NDA government for failing to defend the law and tribals from eviction and then for keeping silent after the apex court orders.
The VKA said in its statement on Sunday, “The Union government should order the tribal affairs ministry to present all facts before the Supreme Court. This process shall take some time, therefore the Union government should immediately come out on this issue and clarify the situation assuring the tribal society and other impacted people that the government will not let any injustice happen.”
At the time of writing this report, the Union tribal affairs ministry was yet to change its stance and announce a decision to go in for review of the apex court order. BJP party president Amit Shah too did not indicate if the Union government would itself appeal against the court order. He instead said, “BJP remains committed to the upliftment of our tribal brothers and sisters and we will do everything to protect their rights. I would also urge them to not fall in the trap of rumours from usual suspects.”