The last two months have seen a slew of arbitrary arrests and disappearances in Odisha’s bauxite-rich Rayagada and Kalahandi districts- targeting grassroots activists. These activists have been protesting against the Vedanta and other enterprises seeking to bid for mining activities in the region. As per reports, at least 22 activists from Dalit and Adivasi communities are currently incarcerated under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Arms Act. Amongst them, nine adivasis have been booked under the draconian UAPA. Furthermore, more than 160 people are booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for charges including kidnapping, attempt to murder, criminal intimidation, rioting, etc.
A press conference was held by the Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh (MSS) in the national capital to draw attention to this intensifying state-led repression. The event took place at the Press Club of India on Monday. It featured documented evidence of the repression and statements by family members of those arrested and allegedly tortured under police custody.
Colin Gonsalves (Senior Supreme Court Advocate, Human Rights Lawyer, and Founder of Human Rights Lawyers Network (HRLN), Sumedha Bodh (Gen Secretary, National Confederation of Dalit Adivasi Organisation, NACDAOR), Dr. Vikas Gupta ( Presidium Member of AIFRTE, Associate Professor, DU) and Jitendra Meena (Adivasi Activist, Assistant Professor of History, DU) were some of the key speakers in the event. The conference was moderated by Mr. Madhusudan, a social and political activist from the Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh.
People’s protests in the Niyamgiri Hills in the Kalahandi and Rayagada districts have been going on since 2004. This is when the state’s Manjhi and the Kondh tribes opposed a bauxite mining project by Vedanta Alumina Ltd in the Niyamgiri Hills. It is worth noting that the Dongria Kondh tribe is a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG). Moreover, one of the most impoverished tribes in the state. The Adivasis have faced state oppression at the hands of the state machinery before, as well. But, as per claims by grassroots organisations, it has rapidly intensified over the past two months.
The press release by Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh reads-
“Since August 2023, there has been a deliberate campaign, orchestrated to weaken and criminalize these indigenous struggles. It is no surprise that this has coincided with amendments to the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2023 which seeks to change the definition of ‘forest’ to exclude deemed forests- a move which can be seen as a direct attempt to circumvent gram sabha consent, mandatory for commencing mining and other developmental activities in Scheduled areas.”
Speaking at the press conference, Colin Gonsalves pointed out that the recent changes to the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2023 and the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022-
“will open the doors for the favourite capitalists of the Central Government to do massive deforestation, mining and commercial tourism in the areas where tribals of India reside and protect the environment with their lives.”
Dr. Vikas Gupta commented that this repression by the state not only in the state of Orissa but countrywide. A new form of imperialism is robbing indigenous people of their capacity to manage their natural and social resources.
Madhusudan claims that the Adivasis are not only fighting for resources but for their very astitva (survival). The FIR alleges that the Adivasis were carrying “deadly weapons (axe)” and that they swung them with the intention to threaten and kill the police. Speaking about the FIR, Madhusudan comments,
“Axe is traditionally carried by the “Dongoria Kondhs” everywhere, and is worn as a cultural symbol since time immemorial. There is no proof whatsoever to show that the protesters were violent.”
Gonsalves also noted that the changes indicate the central government’s attempt to overrule three Supreme Court judgements-
- the Samata Judgement which held that no private party can do mining in a Scheduled Area;
- the Niyamgiri Judgment which held that the allotment of lands to tribals under the Forest Rights Act has to be completed first before any public project is considered; and
- the Godaverman judgement held that “forest” means all forests are naturally found and not just notified forests.
Through the medium of the press conference, the MSS demanded that the Odisha Police should “stop working as henchmen for corporates”, and withdraw all false cases. A full-scale judicial inquiry be set up to look into the violation of the rights including the right to be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours, the right to inform a family member of arrest and the right against custodial torture. It further demanded that the state government should stop the land acquisition work until the protesters are released. Finally, it calls for the repeal of the contentious changes made under the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2023, which it deems, threatens the very existence of the Adivasis.
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