In an unprecedented incident, disgruntled with alleged ‘unilateral action’ against their colleagues, hundreds of forest officials, including guards and rangers, surrendered their weapons at their respective offices in different parts of Madhya Pradesh.
The step of surrendering weapons, which was first started by the forest employees deployed in Vidisha district, was soon extended support by forest officials from many other districts. One after another, forest officals started reaching out to their respective offices and surrendered their weapons before their seniors.
The move was part of their protest against alleged ‘unilateral action’ against a forest team involved in an incident at Lateri in Vidisha district where a tribal man was killed in alleged firing. Many forest employees even reached the office of Madhya Pradesh Forest Minister Vijay Shah to surrender their weapons.
Following the incident, Vidisha district police had registered a case of murder against eight members of the forest team, though most remained unnamed.
One of the named officers — Deputy Ranger Nirmal Ahirwara had been arrested on August 12, though he claimed that he was not present on the spot.
Associates of the deceased man claimed that the forest patrol team fired indiscriminately at them on August 9 evening near Katiyapura forest beat in Lateri, killing Chyan Singh and injuring three others of Raipura village.
The forest employees had however claimed that the firing was in self-defence after stones were hurled at them by the men who were involved in timber smuggling, which is rampant in the area.
Videos showing alleged timber theft and smuggling had been circulated on social media.
Later, a judicial probe was also ordered into the incident following directives of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and a compensation of Rs 25 lakh was announced for the family of Chyan Singh.
A compensation of Rs five lakh each was announced for the injured persons. Later, six more Raipura locals had claimed that they were also injured in the alleged firing.
Vidisha Divisional Forest Officer, Rajbir Singh had been transferred on August 11 as a fallout of the incident.
Resentment was brewing among the forest staff and many employees in Lateri had left their homes with families to avoid police action.
The weapon surrender was reportedly called by State Forest Range Officers Gazetted Association of Madhya Pradesh, sources told IANS.
Atul Kushwaha, President of the Vidisha unit of Forest and Wildlife Protection Employees Association, said that forest staff across the state had surrendered weapons in protest of unilateral action in the form of arrests of forest patrol team members in the Lateri incident.
“What is use of these weapons, if we can not fire a gun shot even for self-defence. Therefore, we have decided to surrender the weapons,” Kushwaha added.
The employees’ association has said that the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department has neither declared the armed forest staff as ‘armed forces’ nor is there any clear protocol for protection of the armed staff under the section 197 of CrPC.
Later, the Forest Minister said that he will discuss the issue with Shivraj Singh Chouhan during their meeting on Wednesday. However, the forest employees continued to deposit their weapons in different parts of the state on Wednesday as well.
In a discussion with the forest workers, Shah said, “There is no need to be disappointed with the developments. I believe the protection of the forest is not based on the strength of guns.”
The Minister added that the rights of rangers and other forest employees will also be increased.
“They say the security of an open forest can’t be ensured by relying on 2,000 forest workers. Now, the members of forest committees will be entrusted with the responsibility of security. An outline will be made regarding this,” Shah said.