Kashtakari Sanghatana, an NGO in the tribal heartland of Maharashtra, is currently in the news as it represents the kind of organisations that have been at play to alienate tribals from the mainstream leading to brutal crimes like the mob-lynching of two sadhus and their driver in Palghar. This feature traces the rise and influence of its founder Peter D’Mello and his connections with powerful Break Bharat forces such as Christian activists, evangelical missionaries, Leftists and other eminent politicians and judges to seize control, evangelize, block development, perpetuate poverty and alienate tribals from their indigenous traditions and heritage.
Incidentally, Peter D’Mello and his wife Shiraz Bulsara Prabhu have both taught at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), colloquially known as the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) of Mumbai.
Peter D’Mello, a Jesuit priest, first came to Thane as part of a group of Jesuit missionaries who were brought in by the then archbishop to accelerate missionary activities among the tribals in the coastal and tribal belt of Thane in Maharashtra. Later, he established KS – purportedly, a tribal & workers rights organisation. However, Communists in the tribal belt of Maharashtra , who resented the expansion of KS in the region, began to attack the tribals who had converted to Christianity as they were the main support base of KS. This caused the church to defrock (deprived of his position and ecclesiastical duties by the church) Peter D’Mello to disassociate converted Christians not involved in KS activism from the NGO.
The cover of liberation theology
At that time, Jesuits were attracted by liberation theology, which prioritises social work & social/economic emancipation as a route to conversion. Social work in the Jesuit dictionary meant feeding the poor and gullible, indoctrinating them with negative ideas and lies about their origin, the establishment and its officials and goading them into taking up violence to get justice.
The Jesuits arrived at Mumbai to revive the Talasseri mission through this ideology. Hence, before founding KS, Peter D’Mello ventured into the field of social activism by allying with Shramik Sanghatana and Bhoomi Sena to study their methods as they were successful movements at that time. Hence, he adapted their method of having no office bearers and forming youth committees(Tarun mandals) as the basic unit to form KS.
Spreading his tentacles
After its inception, D’Mello took the KS activists to Dhule and Palghar to familiarise them with the work of the other two organisations. He is also friendly with Bharat Patankar, a Naxalite sympathiser, and founder of the Leftist organisation, Lal Nishan Party. While the party isn’t politically relevant, its trade union wing has a significant base among PWD (Public Works Department) staff.
Patankar’s wife Gail Omvedt, the American-born Indian scholar and sociologist is also a Dalit activist. She has written several books on the caste system in Bharat, which tend to exacerbate caste tensions due to their controversial nature. She is hailed as ‘a pioneer in ferreting out material about protests against Hinduism’ in a review of one of her books in The Hindu.
Peter D’Mello is also a friend of Amitabh Behar of Oxfam who openly wrote about his uneasiness with the rise of the ‘right wing’ in Bharat. Behar runs two more FCRA NGOs YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action) and National Foundation of India. Sometimes, D’Mello and other activists from his NGO were invited by Oxfam to conduct training classes for tribals in Gujarat.
C.K. Janu, who founded Adivasi Gotra Mahasabha, a tribal militant outfit was moulded and launched by D’Mello. During the Muthanga march led by CK Janu, tribals forcibly occupied the forest lands in Wayanad Sanctuary. They would not allow non tribals in the area and took some forest officials as hostage. In the face-off between the police and tribals, a policeman and a tribal activist were killed. D’Mello and B.D. Sharma, former IAS officer and SC-ST Commissioner, buddies through movements like Narmada Ando Bacholan, Bharat Jan Andolan and the National Alliance for People’s Movement in the 1990s, organised a conference in Kozhikode to protest against ‘police brutality’ in Muthanga.
Peter D’Mello’s rise and influence is also tied to his connections with other Break Bharat forces. Fr. Thomas Kocherry, another liberation theologist founded Independent Fish Workers’ Union in Kerala in 1977, around the same time when D’Mello founded KS. In 1980, Peter was present in an agitation organised by Kocherry in Anchenco. The two of them led many protests together like the ones against Vadhwan port near Dahanu, Thane, ONGC operations off the coast of Mumbai and Umbergaon port project in Gujarat.
They managed to scuttle Vadhwan port project through agitations and advocacy. They got the Supreme Court to direct Dharmadhikari , retired judge of the Bombay High Court, to investigate into the matter and form the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA), which declared the region as ecologically fragile and ruled against the project. The duo played their role in suspending the Umargaon port project in Gujarat through organised protests and advocacy.
Kocherry also organised the 1989 Kanyakumari march of fishermen against industrial fishing fleets and spearheaded protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. He was appointed a member of the Coastal Zone Management Authority of India and became chairperson of the National Fishermen Forum and co-coordinator of World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish workers.
In 1987, a woman activist of KS died in police firing during an altercation between KS activists and forest officials. D’Mello sent letters to around 40 activists across Bharat to send telegrams to the Maharashtra Chief Minister registering their protest. One of those activists, Xavier Dias (reportedly a very close friend of D’Mello), is an anti-uranium mining activist based in Jharkhand. This person is from the privileged Mumbai Catholic community. His father ran a night school for textile mill workers. He is the Chair of Programme for Social Action, an NGO registered in Delhi, but located in Kerala. It receives funds from the American Jewish Service, and Misereor (German Catholic organisation).
Programme for Social Action was founded on the principle of liberation theology as mentioned on its website. Bindrai Institute for Research Study and Action (BIRSA) founded by Xavier Dias, receives funds from Misereor and Bread For the World (German Protestant aid agency) through FCRA. Through his rigorous campaign in Meghalaya for nearly 25 years, he has successfully stopped the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UICL) from conducting any mining activity in the region.
D’Mello has close links with the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) in implementing community health worker projects in Kasa and Saiwan, Maharashtra. CEHAT is a research arm of the Anusandhan trust which receives funds from the American Jewish Society.
CEHAT is involved in implementing Arogya Sathi programme along with KS and it is implemented only in the villages where KS has a support base. The Maharashtra government paid an honorarium to Arogya Sathi health workers. Association for India’s Development (AID), a Communist-leaning, US-based relief organisation provided financial help to KS to implement this programme.
Cultivating political and legal connections
Besides maintaining close relationship with fellow social activists, most of whom could be liberation theologists, D’Mello has considerable clout among politicians, bureaucrats, judges and even Maoist leaders like T. Nagi Reddy of Andhra Pradesh and former top Naxalite leader K. Venu of Kerala, Ganapati, Varavara Rao, K. N. Ramchandran and Sanjay Singhvi. K.G. Kannabhiran, activist lawyer, currently a prominent leader of the People’s Union for Civil Liberty (PUCL), is another associate of his.
Peter D’Mello has always enjoyed considerable clout among prominent advocates, judges from both high courts and the Supreme Court. He appears to have been the Prashant Bhushan of his time, attracting even the attention of the Chief Justice of India! Even though the National Front for Tribal self-rule was formed only in 1993, Peter was active in such advocacy long before that.
Even before the official formation of KS, D’Mello and his assortment of activists took part in the struggle for land rights initiated by indigenous activist organisations. “In June 1978, reacting to the oppression and marginalisation faced by the Adivasi people under the colonial forest laws, activists from the Bhumi Sena, Kashtakari Sanghathana and Jabran Jot Andolan came together. They decided to form a collaborative process on the question of tribal rights in forests. This group came to be known as ‘Zabran Zot Kruti Samiti’ (cultivation by force) or ZZKS. The process was later renamed ‘Soshit Jan Andolan. ’’
They demanded that forest lands cultivated by forest dwellers prior to 1978 must be recognised and given to the tillers.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government passed resolutions to regularise encroachments on forest land between 1972 and 1978. One of the orders referred to verify ‘fine receipts or certificates of imprisonment’ and other relevant evidence as proof of possession of the land. Since its directions was not clear, forest officials rejected claims other than those that could show fine and imprisonment certificates. This meant eviction of tribals who couldn’t prove their claim over their land. On behalf of the tribals, some organisations reached the Supreme Court for a stay on evictions.
It is recorded, ‘To address the issue of large-scale evictions that had begun during the Emergency, Justice PN Bhagwati asked Pradip Prabhu from the Kashtakari Sangathana for a detailed note on eviction from forests, which he then converted to a petition, and gave orders in 1980 to halt evictions. In 1981, to address the issue of providing evidence for the regularisation process, the Forest Department appointed two committees. These committees were dissolved when the Supreme Court objected to them. In the Pradip Prabhu vs State of Maharashtra case, a second enquiry committee was set up by the Supreme Court which submitted its report. Chief Justice Ranganath Mishra, based on this report and the December 1978 GR, passed an order stating that even when the claimant has no documentary evidence to support his claim, it is the responsibility of the competent authority to enquire into the claim and provide other forms of evidence.’
Going by the above, we can conclude that before 1980, Peter D’Mello had created an alternate nom de guerre Pradip Prabhu for himself.
Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy Group which produced a document(publication support, Oxfam) in 2017 on the tenth year of realising Forest Rights Act (FRA) notes this as ‘a historic step as it changed the discourse from the issue of ‘encroachment of forest land’ which is a criminal offence, to ‘settlement of forest rights.’‘
Considering D’Mello’s closeness with the elite of the judiciary, it’s not surprising when we come to know that in 1984 D’Mello wrote a letter to Justice Bhagwati (who later went on to become Chief Justice of India) about the atrocities of CPM cadres on activists and KS members. Although D’Mello supported the CPM in the 1980 assembly election, the CPM, however, did not like his growing support. They terrorised the villages where Peter had support and his activists were living.
D’Mello wrote to the district collector, police authorities and Minister of State of Home Affairs to act against CPM ‘terrorists’. However, nothing emerged out of this. The police weren’t forthcoming in helping the victims. Instead, they allegedly threatened to arrest them.
Hence, D’Mello sent a letter to the Justice asking him to intervene in proper recording and investigation of the cases of the CPM attack. Supreme Court Justice Bhagwati converted the letter into a writ petition, and directed the district Sessions Court, Thane, to set up a one-man commission to conduct an inquiry. The then District Sessions Judge submitted an elaborate report indicting the CPM of the crimes perpetrated against the tribals supporting Peter.
In the early days of the National Forum for Tribal Self-Rule, church organisations, mainly from Bastar and Sarguja, were involved. However, they gradually withdrew. B.D. Sharma observed that the Church organisations didn’t see any future for their NGOs if tribal self-rule was implemented in letter and spirit as their space would shrink if tribals were empowered through self-rule. They also thought the organisation was too radical for them.
After being renamed as Soshit Jan Andolan, the National Forum for Tribal Self-Rule once again underwent change and became the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, (CSD) when in 2002, Ministry of Environment and Forests ordered state governments to remove forest encroachments based on a representation submitted to the Supreme Court by the then Amicus Curiae, Harish Salve.
The campaign gathered momentum once the Lok Sabha elections approached. Peter and his activist friends had enough clout among politicians to get both the parties to include forest rights in their manifesto. To the activists’ delight, UPA (United Progressive Alliance)-1 came to power and from then on, the path towards bringing any legislation they wished was a bed of roses.
The UPA government’s infamous advisory body NAC (National Advisory Council) made it easy for D’Mello to reach the residence of the Prime Minister himself. It is pertinent to note here that D’Mello’s friends list also includes many bureaucrats. He gave guest lectures to young IAS probationers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie, about tribal issues from the 1980s.
In 1987, the central government decided to introduce a ten-day attachment course for the IAS, IFS trainees at LBSNAA in collaboration with NGOs. This opportunity was awarded to D’Mello’s Kashtakari Sanghatana. The stated objective of this exercise was to introduce the young officers to rural lifestyle and administration to help them understand these issues better and problems involved in rural development.
It is said that D’Mello is notorious for his arrogant behaviour towards forest and other department officials and that nearly 300 criminal cases were filed against KS activists along the Palghar-Jawhar tribal belt. So, the idea of awarding such an opportunity to D’Mello was disliked by the officers dispatched around the area, mainly the then district collector of Thane.
However, the arrangement continued till 2005 which shows the magnitude and extent of D’Mello’s influence. A case study by Vidya Prasharak Mandal records that based on reliable information from their sources, D’Mello was instrumental in introducing this new course, ostensibly to familiarise officer trainees with the living conditions of rural and tribal people and the ‘challenges’ involved in developing such regions.
However, the real objective could have been to socialize with them and create contacts for future use. So, it’s hardly surprising to learn that D’Mello even managed to get RTI activist Aruna Roy (ex-IAS) who was part of NAC, to arrange a meeting with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
‘On January 19, 2005, the Prime Minister called a meeting at his residence, which included security advisors, PMO staff, Montek Singh Ahluwalia from the Planning Commission, the Minister of MoEF, secretaries from other ministries, and Pradip Prabhu from the SJA was asked to elaborate on the problems concerning Adivasi forest rights. In this meeting, he suggested that a bill for the recognition of rights for forest people be drafted, and this suggestion was accepted immediately. The final drafting committee comprised Praveen Kumar, Madhu Sarin, Sanjay Upadhyay and Pradip Prabhu.’
Some of the important organisations that supported D’Mello to get the legislation passed were SRUTI (Society of Rural Urban and tribal Initiative) whose head is the secretary of CDS, The Other Media ( an organisation preventing development projects in TN at present), PEACE, Delhi Forum and the Indian Social Institute (Jesuit-run).
Development projects stalled by Peter D’Mello
1986: Bombay Suburban Electric Supply (BSES) decided to install a 500 MW coal based thermal power plant in Dahanu. Nudged by Peter, local environmental activists founded the Dahanu Taluka Environment Welfare Association (DTEWA) and fought against the project saying it was in an ecologically fragile area. Their advocacy effects failed in this case and the power plant was built.
However, the campaign against any such development projects persisted and got the Ministry of Environment and Forests to issue the Dahanu Notification which directed the state government to create a buffer zone of 25 km around the outer periphery of Dahanu taluka which would be kept free of industries. The notification also asked the state government to submit a regional plan and appointed the National Environment Engineering Research Institute(NEERI) to check whether the state government stuck to the instructions given in the Dahanu notification to preserve the ecologically fragile region.
A NEERI report said that the regional plan violated two of the instructions given in the notification. So, the Supreme Court directed the centre to constitute an authority under the Environment Protection Act 1986 and thus Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) was formed. Yet D’Mello refused to relent and whipped up a new NGO to protest against thermal power plant pollution and ask for cleaner energy production like gas power plants. Interestingly, locals still harass the thermal power plant officials.
1997: What could have been Bharat’s biggest deep-water port at Vadhwan was scuttled. Peninsular and Oriental Steam navigation company, Austria, a subsidiary of the P&O Group, London, was to construct the port.
D’Mello enlisted the support of international organisations like the UK branch of World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature and Rufford Foundation, besides the help of local and other state organisations like that of Fr. Thomas Kocherry.
The WWF-UK organised a protest in front of the Indian High Commission in London. Many British MPs, Labour Party MPs and representatives from international NGOs participated in the protest. WWF-UK also took up the matter with the UK Department of Trade and Industry and P&O headquarters.
A call for action message was posted on the Global Response Action website to write letters to Bharat’s Prime Minister opposing the port construction. WWF-UK then tried to use an international instrument of public law like 1976 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) guidelines for multinational enterprises. But the trade ministry was reluctant because it was doubtful whether the guidelines were applicable in Bharat.
After exhausting all the methods of protest and advocacy, Peter and other activists went to DTEPA (Dhanau Taluka Environmental Protection Authority) and got them to declare it impermissible and therefore illegal to construct the port at Vadhwan.
Peter D’Mello had the backing of dock workers union (which is strange as their fellow workers would have got more jobs and salary if the port came up), National Alliance of People’s Movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Loksahi Hakk Sanghatana and INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage). INTACH’s involvement is surprising considering the fact that it was founded with grant aid from the Government of India and receives funds from various government departments for its work. Interestingly, INTACH also commissioned an ‘independent’ report on the port project, which was funded by Ford Foundation and WWF-UK.
1998: The Gujarat government signed a contract with an Indo-US consortium of Natelco-Unocal to construct a port worth ₹1200 crores in Maroli, Umargaon taluk on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border.
Methods similar to those adopted in Dahanu were used to derail the project. Villagers were organised under different banners like Kinara Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (KBSS), Bandar Hatao Samiti (BHS) and Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti to protest against alleged loss of livelihood for fisherfolk, farmers and damage to the environment.
While villagers did not allow the project site to be surveyed, activists went to the sea in speed boats and chased away the survey team from there too. Even when they went with police protection, they were attacked and the police had to resort to lathi charge.
Many villagers were injured and 48 activists were arrested. Lt. Col (Retd). Pratap Save, president, KBSS, was one of them. He died the same night he was arrested. The NGOs utilised this opportunity to demonise the project and up the ante.
A month later, Unocal announced its withdrawal from the project. The Indian People’s Tribunal (IPT) formed a two-member tribunal to investigate and the team reported that the project was not in the interest of the local residents. Besides the usual suspects, Green Peace also backed this protest.
IPT was founded by Supreme Court lawyer Colin Gonsalves who also founded the Human Rights Law Network. IPT is described as an organisation whose ‘Fact-findings have spurred public interest litigation, formed social movements and led to concrete policy changes’. IPT forms tribunals of retired judges to conduct fact-finding missions.
Not so strangely, Peter D’Mello’s name doesn’t appear anywhere regarding these protests. One has to decode his planning and execution from the company he keeps and the methods used. Local activists from newly formed organisations were propped up as heroes to hide his hand in all this. Peter was one of the 36 who were invited for the Round-table on Policing and Public Order organised jointly by the Administrative Reforms Commission and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) held at New Delhi on June 10, 2006, to suggest their views on strengthening the administrative machinery to maintain public order.
Peter D’Mello was also instrumental in drafting the Right to Information Bill and Employment Guarantee Scheme. He is one of the patrons of the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms. His wife Shiraz Balsara Prabhu signed an appeal to the public to support the agitation against Kudankulam nuclear power plant.
In the book Tribal Education for Community Development, the author Rudolf C Heredia uses the word ‘property-conscious’ for the church. He writes , “We can only be skeptical as to how property-conscious Christian tribals were, though their missionary institutions may very well have been.”
Land transfer from a Scheduled Tribe (ST) to a non-Scheduled Tribe is restricted in the Schedule 5 areas. The tribal belt of Maharashtra also comes under Schedule 5. Who will have the power over the lands if the tribals convert to Christianity? How will their culture, traditions and land be safe if their religion does not remain the same? What is the purpose of fighting for these values if they are going to lose them to conversion?
Besides all these connections with other activists who can now safely be called urban naxals, bureaucrats, judges and politicians, Peter D’Mello secured the following list of lucrative and/or influential assignments from both the centre and different state governments:
- Since 1983, occasional lecturer for IAS Probationers at LBSNAA, Mussoorie
- Since 1983, occasional lecturer at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)
- Since 1992 , resource person for training of Senior IFS Officers, TISS
- Since 1992 resource person for Senior IAS Officers Training, TISS
- 2003 Appointed as Member of International Editorial Team – Indian Journal of Social Work (TISS)
- 2003 Appointed as Member, Research Studies Steering Committee Implementation of PESA (UNDP/GOI)
- 2005 Appointed as Member , Editorial Collective – Status of Adivasis in India
- 2005 Appointed as Senior Fellow, National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad Training & Consultancy Assignments
- 2001 Appointed as consultant/trainer for Management Development of Social Welfare Officers (Govt. of TN)
- 2002 Appointed as consultant trainer for Organisational Development for Heads of Education Dept. (Govt. of TN)
- 2002 Appointed as consultant for Good Governance Training of Government and District Level Officials (Govt. of Nagaland)
- 2003 Appointed as Consultant/Trainer for Organizational Development of Heads of Health Dept. (Govt. of TN)
- 2004 Appointed as consultant in Change Management and Institutional Transformation for the New Water Management Change Programme Democratisation of water management in Tamil Nadu.
- 1986 Appointed as Nodal Agent – Council for Advancement of Peoples Action & Rural Technology (CAPART, GOI)
- 1987 His NGO Kashtakari Sanghatana was selected for Attachment Course for Indian Administrative Service Probationers 2002 Appointed as Member of National Expert Group on Tribal Land Alienation and Restoration (GOI)
- 2002 Appointed as Director of Empowerment of the Rural Poor for Better Health Program, Thane (WHO)
- 2004 Appointed as Member of National Advisory Committee (NIRD-GOI) to prepare Guidelines for Implementation of PESA
- 2004 Appointed as Member of National Advisory Committee (NIRD-GOI) on Community Rights to Minor Forest Produce.
- 2004 Appointed – Member of Committee of External Evaluators on Implementation of UNICEF Sponsored Communitization of Public Utilities Act, 2002 (Govt. of Nagaland)
- 2005 Appointed as Member of Standing Committee on Inter Sectoral Issues Relating to Tribal Development constituted by the Prime Minister.
- 2005 Appointed as Member of Technical Resource Group, Ministry of Tribal Affairs (GOI) for drafting Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill
- 2005-2006 Appointed as Member, Working Group on Forests for the Environment and Forest sector, for the 11th Five Year Plan set up on 21-3-2006.
(Credits to Vidya Pracharak Mandal, Thane, for their case study on Peter D’Mello aka Pradip Prabhu)
Ten years of Forest Rights Act http://www.cfrla.org.in/uploads_acrvr/XK2RDMaharashtra%2520Promise%2520and%2520Performance.pdf
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