Why the killing of a tribal villager in MP reignited the debate over issuing firearms to forestry personnel

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A tribal resident of Khatiyapura village in Lateri tehsil of Vidisha district in Madhya Pradesh died after being shot by forest department personnel on August 9. The deceased has been identified as Chain Singh. Three other tribal villagers, Mahendra, Rodji and Bhagwan Singh, were shot and injured.

The incident turned into a full-scale war of words between the ruling BJP and Congress. What is all the more embarrassing for the BJP is that all the victims were tribal and it all happened on World Tribes Day. A debate has now resumed over whether MP forestry staff should be allowed to carry and use firearms.

Rajvir Singh, the Divisional Forestry Officer (DFO) of Vidisha, said staff at the South Lateri mountain range had been made aware of the timber smuggling near the village of Raipura. A Forest Department team, led by an assistant ranger, reached the area. The team was armed with government-issued 12-gauge Mossberg pump-action shotguns.

DFO Singh said the team was attacked by the timber smugglers, who placed a motorbike to block the forestry staff’s passage. The team, Singh said, came under rock throwing in the dark and fired in self-defense, killing one and injuring three.

The police registered a murder case against forestry personnel who were part of the operation. All are on the run despite calls from their MPO to come forward.

The Forest Department says it has the authority to carry and use firearms, according to an order issued by the state government under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). But the case filed against the forestry team suggests that the police do not recognize the protection afforded to them under the CrPC.

This is not the first time that a case has been registered against forestry personnel for killing or injuring people while on duty. Even though no protection is given to forestry personnel, the state government continues to arm them. Besides pump-action shotguns, the government issued revolvers to range officers. Strangely, weapons were given but not permission to use them.

Many in the establishment are comparing the August 9 event to the incident in May this year, when three Guna district police officers were shot dead by poachers in a raid. While both cases involved forestry offences, police personnel shot and killed two accused poachers days after the incident.

Police officials, however, say the two incidents are not comparable. “Poachers shot dead three police officers as Lateri Forestry Department personnel were unable to prove there was a threat to their lives. They were also unable to produce timber as evidence of smuggling,” said a senior police official, defending the murder case filed against forestry staff. He added: “There is no evidence that any warning shots were fired which could have possibly driven the tribal villagers away. The forestry staff clearly overreacted to the threat.

The state government announced Rs 25 lakh as compensation for the next of kin of the deceased, along with a government job. The three injured will bet Rs 5 lakh each.

State Congress Speaker Kamal Nath said that even as the country commemorated 75 years of independence, the government of Shivraj Singh Chouhan was exploiting the tribal people. “The government of Shivraj Chouhan has only superficial interest in tribal welfare. Be it Lateri incident or earlier in Nimawar or Mandsaur, tribal people are exploited and regularly attacked in MP,” Nath tweeted.

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