This is Chitrakoot, a remote and precious piece of Indian mythology and Adivasi history, merging with the density of the green borders near Manikpur in Uttar Pradesh. Here, the mountains move into the vast tribal hinterland of Madhya Pradesh. This was once mapped as the Central Provinces by the British.

These undulating mountains, dense forests with sublime streams rippling in between, is mythical territory, and ancient homeland of the Adivasis. It is integral to the narrative in the Ramayana, etched in the social unconscious of the mainstream Hindi heartland.

This is where Sita, Ram and Lakshman took shelter during their 14-year exile, according to oral tradition. Certainly, even in mythology, they were visitors here in their exile, feeling sheltered and protected amidst this pristine and untouched nature and its friendly people.

This is because this is the indigenous land of the Kol, Gond and other adivasis for thousands of years. The simple, gentle, soft-speaking, hard-working and intrinsically beautiful communities of forest-dwellers, have often been denied their fundamental rights as the original inhabitants of their homeland, and as citizens of India.

They know the mappings of the forest like the back of their hands. They are all children of nature. They love the forests and all that lives and breathes in the forests. They know the names of hundreds of trees, plants, medicinal plants, wild fruits, herbs and shrubs. They have nourished and protected these forests for centuries.

However, over the years, especially in Independent India, they have been treated as slaves, bonded labour, bullied and brutalised, looted and exploited, condemned and terrorised. They have been often compelled to become landless in their own land, even while the upper castes and powerful outsiders with strong political connections capture and occupy thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural land.

In more cases than one, Adivasis are denied access to their traditional habitats, to the community forest resources. And, in a dark irony, they are made to work as daily wagers on low wages in the land which was once their own – and have now been usurped through a complex and diabolic game by the current landlords and cunning money-lenders.

Chitrakoot, Ramayana territory, is no different. The fight of good against evil is eternal. It continues till this day, unheard and invisible, so distant from the power establishments which rule, and the mainstream media which cares two hoots.

Take the case of Tikuri. To reach this remote village, a few hours from the arid and dusty surroundings of Manikpur railway station, one has to hire a toto through the zigzag of kutcha bylanes surrounded by lush yellow mustard flowers. Across the vast expanse are several tall and sturdy Mahua trees, as if encompassing both the sky and earth.

All these trees have been planted by various generations of the Adivasis. They love the Mahua tree, it is integral to their bodies and soul, giving them shelter and sleep, food and enjoyment.

They sleep under the tree during the day, and in the night, as they protect their crops. They eat the Mahua flowers in different forms, and also brew the blooms to make Mahua, the sublime, softly intoxicating, local drink.

“We have fought for our right to cherish and nourish the Mahua tree for hundreds of years. My ancestors, mothers, grandfathers, they have planted these trees. I have myself planted scores of Mahua trees because we love the tree. Now, they just cannot suddenly claim that this is Forest Department land and we have no right over the trees. This is absurd,” said Mahesh, who had slept all night under a Mahua tree.

He has reclaimed a piece of land and is cultivating it. Hence, he is braving it out in the night to protect it from being raided by the Forest Department.

However, Mahua as a liquor is not available these days because it is banned in UP for some inexplicable reason. People are forced to buy licensed country liquor, which damages the body severely, and causes long-term ailments, even premature death.

Beyond the expanse of Mahua trees, Tikuri village is angry, full of angst, and simply unable to reconcile the brutality they had witnessed. In the common community land, as they have been doing for years, the villagers had planted crops, including Dhaan, mustard and vegetables.

As this reporter reached this remote village recently, even while villagers travelled long distances on foot to inform others in their community, the land was ravaged, the young crops destroyed, the expanse of mustard fields like a ruined battlefield.

The Forest Department and the police had suddenly arrived with JCBs and had bulldozed their land. Months of hard labour had been turned into waste in a few moments. The women, trained in peaceful resistance, jumped in front of the JCBs with their children, while the men were mostly away for work.

“They abused us in the most foul language, manhandled us, and did not even spare the children,” said an Adivasi woman, “but we told them that this land is our mother, our labour of love, you have to kill us first before you can ravage our land. That is how we were able to save some of the cultivated crops. This is like they were bulldozing their vehicles right on our bodies.”

Quickly, help poured in, and people walked long distances to the village of Amarpur to hold a protest meeting. Others had gone to the District Magistrate’s office holding the destroyed crops as evidence. “He shouted at us and refused to meet us. He said you will dirty my office,” said a woman, “can you see how organised and cruel this injustice is!”

Matadayalji, a veteran social activist from Harijanpur donated a huge quantity of seeds. So did the villagers of Ranipur which is located very far from Tikuri. The villagers pledged to protect their land and forests, come what may. They have organised themselves in the entire Chitrakoot region under the banner of Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Manch.

Said Matadayalji, “This kind of atrocities had increased during the lockdown. They would come and dig huge holes to destroy their crops, The people would plant the seeds again and again. They would wake up in the night to protect their crops.

“They would come again and dig huge holes, helped by the police. This has been a pattern. The Forest Department is heartless and cruel. Now that people have organised themselves, and are demanding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, they are not so relentless, but the example of Tikuri proves that they still think that they are the emperors of the forests and the Adivasi land.

“I firmly believe that the Gram Sabha and the local communities can very well take care of the forests and its natural resources. They have protected it in the past and they will always do it in days and months to come. Indeed, the Forest Department should be abolished.”

In Amarpur, a large number of villagers work for Rs 150 or more in the land of upper caste landlords, who also call the shots in the panchayat and have strong political connections, especially with the current ruling dispensation in UP.

In their humble homes, there is no water or toilets. The government’s toilet scheme can be witnessed as a small walled structure with no toilet facilities, not even a hole in the ground.

Mothers are unhappy that their children have to walk long distances to the nearest school, and they often have to take a longer route because barricades have been set up by the Forest Department. “We want our children, especially daughters, to study. But the schools are far away. It’s not safe for our children,” said a young mother.

Quacks call the shots in terms of health facilities, since there is no primary health centre in the neighbourhood. For serious ailments people have to go to distant Manikpur, which itself is a backward, dirty, run-down town. A huge garbage pile with rotten stuff is out there in the open right next to the station.

Many women take early morning local trains to sell vegetables in nearby towns and markets and reach back almost at midnight to their villages. From the station to their villages, it is a long trek.

This reporter saw several women with baskets on their heads getting down from trains at midnight at the Manikpur railway station. Many Adivasi women walk long distances with piles of wood on their head, collected from the forest, to sell inside the town, to make an extra penny.

The saving grace is the clean and beautiful school in Amarpur, which is surrounded by rows of manicured gardens and colourful flowers and trees, planted and nourished by the little children and their teachers. Mothers said teachers are conscientious here and they take great pains to teach the children to school.

So much so, they travel to the remote villages to convince their parents to send their children to school. Indeed, the school keys and the main gate were being managed by kids of the village.

In Sakroha, the land is not fertile, though there is a huge lake in the vicinity. There is a huge playground made by the administration for the kids, but for the toilet, people have to walk a long distance into a vast field overlooking the lake.

The Adivasis work on low daily wages in the land of rich Brahmins. Literacy is very low. In many villages, locals said that after even six months of hard labour under NREGA, they have not been paid their pending dues. If they approach the authorities, they are shooed away.

However, people are resilient, especially women. They sing songs of resistance sitting in a circle with men. Said Rajkumari, leading the movement for Adivasi rights here: “We are fighting to get the Forest Rights Act implemented. We want land for cultivation. We also want education for our daughters and sons, health facilities, public transport and water inside our homes.

“We have to fight peacefully for our fundamental rights. They buy off our men with alcohol. They create divisions among us. They use Dabangs to threaten us. We have no option but to organise and fight back peacefully, and demand our democratic rights through the Gram Sabha.”

In contrast, Ranipur has become an inspirational village and a role model in the entire Chitrakoot area near Manikpur, despite the relentless atrocities they have faced over the years. It has now been named as Krantipur because a peaceful revolution has occurred here, flying on the wings of non-violent resistance.

The people here are united and strong, they have reclaimed hundreds of acres of fertile land, and their crops of pulses, dhan, mustard and vegetables are flourishing in the vast landscape. The rippling river next to the village is a boon, and they have installed pumps to get water for their land. The river also gives them fish, which they cooked for this reporter in their mud and thatched huts.

Cooked on a mud chulha in the open, and served with fragrant rice grown in the nearby field, this was indeed a delicious and magnanimous meal of fish and rice, eaten sitting on the mud floor, in their clean and soothing open-to-sky courtyard, next to their thatched, humble homes.

There is no drinking water nearby, so they have to walk to the river to get water. The river water too is delicious, indeed.

Their huts are thatched because they have reclaimed this land. They have not made even pucca mud huts because the Forest Department has routinely destroyed their small homes or set them on fire.

Says Bhola Prasad, sturdy and strong, articulate leader of the Adivasis here, “I know the Forest Rights Act very well. I know our fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution. When they attack us randomly, we protest peacefully, the women lead the protests and we join them in physically and non-violently blocking them.

“They use foul and abusive language, they use violence, while I constantly argue with them. I tell them that this is our ancestral land. Our ancestors have lived in these forests for centuries. The river, the forests and the land belong to us – we have protected this nature for decades.

“Now if we want a patch of land to build our humble homes, and to cultivate crops to feed our families, why are you bringing in your bulldozers! If the Forest Department continues to hound and harass us, we will have to physically stop them next time, even if they put us in prison. We will lead a big struggle with all the neighbourhood villages.”

Ranipur is a role model indeed. The magical landscape of growing crops and vegetables stretches for miles. They end at the foothills of the mountains and dense forests, which merge into the tribal land across to Madhya Pradesh.

“You come with me to the mountains. It’s a long trek through dense forests. You will see an old, ruined fort of our ancestors, rock paintings made by them depicting wildlife, and old oil-making machines. There is an ancient temple out there too hidden in the foliage.

“No official has ever visited this place, nor have scholars or tourists. They are hidden deep inside the forests, almost inaccessible. The ruins only prove that this land and forest were inhabited by our Kol ancestors.

“Now, if they get to know this, they will claim it as a Hindu temple and the upper castes will capture it and turn it into a lucrative and commercial religious site. They will use it to spread Hindutva and communalism.

“We are not Hindus. We are nature-worshippers. In our struggle, we celebrate the birth anniversary of tribal rebel Birsa Munda every year. That is our festival. Indeed, we have a Hanuman temple near the river here, but it is also a cultural and social space. We gather there to tell and hear stories, and to strengthen our movement to reclaim our land and community forest resources under the Forest Right Act,” said Bhola.

The latest headache for the locals is that the entire region, including the forests, has been recently declared as a Ranipur Wildlife Sanctuary. This would yet again give the Forest Department and administration unbridled powers and pave the way for a reign of terror and domination over the tribal communities. Indeed, why this decision has been taken remains a mystery.

Said Rani, a committed and brave social activist who has worked among the locals and adivasis since she was a young girl, and who travels long distances in packed and rickety buses, while walking on foot for miles, to meet and stay in the villages: “The atrocities inflicted on the adivasis during Covid is still fresh in our minds. They would not allow them to go to their fields and work.

“Due to the absence of a hospital, a woman had to travel a long distance on various buses with her ailing child, who died. They compel people to work for low wages. They dug their cultivated land during the lockdown as in Gidroha village. And now they will use the ploy of a wildlife sanctuary to oppress and displace the Adivasis from their original homeland.”

She said that fake news is being planted in the media that tigers have been spotted in the area. “You ask the locals here. They go with their cattle deep inside the forests for grazing everyday. Women go alone in the forests to collect firewood from the ground or grass for cattle fodder. The local struggles are done under the nation umbrella of All India Union of Forest Working People. Both Matadayalji and Rani are leaders of the Union.

“Ask them. Have they ever seen a tiger, or bear or leopard in the last many decades in this area – no one has seen any such animal here. This is all fake. There are no predators in this area. They claim to protect wildlife – but they unleash relentless brutality on innocent human beings who have lived here for centuries. What a dark and ironic contradiction!”

All Photographs Amit Sengupta