Hakim Sinan village, Ranibandh Block, Bankura District, West Bengal:
It was getting dark in the forest. At a distance, light was gleaming from oil lamps in the village.
“Did you breastfeed these Saal trees? Why are you stopping us from cutting them down?” growled the poachers.
“How can you breastfeed your own mother?” retorted the resolute Adivasi women.
Culturally, forests have played a vital role in the lives of the Santhal tribes. This is much more evident in villages that live on the fringes of the forests. It is a relationship built on reverence and compassion.
Forests provide the tribes with fuelwood, leaves, herbs, fruits and honey. It is also the abode of many Gods and Goddesses. In fact, Santhals are proudly the forest people. The isolated Hakim Sinan village in Bankura district of West Bengal is an embodiment of this relationship of tribal communities with the forest. For Adivasi women, this bond is even stronger; the forest nurtures the community like a mother.
Illegal logging in this forest village had always been a problem. There had been intermittent and uncoordinated protests by many in the community. Women in the village had raised the issue on their own when they would cross the timber mafia in the forests. But not a leaf moved.
When NGO PRADAN started organising the Santhal women of Hakim Sinan village into Self-Help Groups (SHG) some years back, it was their first close interaction with outsiders. Interestingly, no one in this village had ever been to a bank: let alone open a bank account. A savings and credit group was formed which helped the families save money periodically and supported them for their credit needs. But this is not a story of financial sustainability – it is a story of the transformation of women from this village into an unwavering collective who can stand for their rights and values they cherish. Even in the face of life-threatening danger.
As poor and vulnerable Adivasi women in this village were organised, they grew in strength and confidence. Unfortunately, during this period, unabated illegal logging exacerbated to the point that it threatened the very existence of their forest. The destruction of their culture and harmonious relationship with Mother Nature stared at them. Moved by this destruction, this unified group of women decided to take a stand. But they were up against men with arms and influence. All they had were mere sickles and sticks and an insurmountable belief in their own collective strength.
When the women in one of their group meetings announced that they would now take turns to guard the forest every night, the rest of the village was bewildered.
‘How will these frail women take on the poachers?’
So, it began: the women grouped themselves and every night, one group would vigil the forests. Simultaneously, they lodged a complaint at the forest department.
On a moonlit night, one group of ‘guarding women’ came face to face with the poachers. One woman ran back to the village. An altercation ensued. A knife was put to the throat of Lokkhimuni Soren. The mighty were ready to shed blood. In the meantime, the rest of the women dashed to the forest. This group of 15 women was not backing down. The poachers threatened to come back with greater force.
On another night of skirmish, the poachers growled, “Did you breastfeed these saal trees? Why are you stopping us from cutting them down? Who are you to stop us?”
“How can you breastfeed your own mother? This forest is our mother and we will give our lives but will not let you cut the trees,” they retorted.
The poachers had to go back empty-handed again. More skirmishes followed but they halted the devastation of their forest.
The news of Adivasi women standing up to powerful poachers spread like forest fire. The women also repeatedly engaged with the Forest Ranger. An official meeting was arranged between them and forest officers. All poachers were subsequently arrested. Each one of them was fined ₹5,000. Illegal logging of trees in the vicinity of Hakim Sinan village and beyond has abated. There is still an undercurrent of threat to this collective from vested interests but the women of this SHG are confident of taking on any challenge to save their forest: their Goddess, their Mother.
Photo Credit: Souparno Chatterjee, PRADAN
Additional Inputs to the Story: Souparno Chatterjee; PRADAN Khatra Team, Bankura district, West Bengal.