Lingaraj Azad, activist and adviser to Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, a tribal outfit opposed to mining in Niyamgiri in Odisha was arrested by the police in Kalahandi on Wednesday, March 6.
The Hindu reported that Azad’s arrest, who is also the national vice president of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad and national convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, was confirmed by Kalahandi Superintendent of Police Battula Gangadhar.
According to the report, he was arrested from the Kesinga police station area of the district by a police team from Bijepur, for leading a protest demonstration outside the India Reserve Battalion (IRB) camp at Trilochanpur village last month.
However, activist Prafulla Samantara has claimed that the villagers were opposing the IRB camp as the security personnel had occupied their gram panchayat office without the consent of its office-bearers, the report further stated.
Previously, in April 2017, a case had been registered against Azad for staging a protest demonstration outside the Vedanta alumina refinery in the foothills of Niyamgiri. He was remanded to judicial custody after being produced in a court at Bhawanipatna.
As the news of his arrest spread, several activists working for tribal rights in Niyamgiri hills came out in support of him and have demanded his immediate release. SJP and NAPM activists have also condemned the arrest.
Also Read: ‘We Will Die For Niyamgiri’: Tribes of Niyamgiri Protest Against Vedanta in Odisha
Several people also gathered at the Odisha Bhawan in New Delhi to protest against the unlawful arrest of Lingaraj Azad by the Odisha Police. The protestors who conducted a peaceful demonstration, demanding the memorandum for the Odisha Chief Minister to be received by the Resident Commissioner were detained by the Delhi Police.
Azad’s arrest just before the general elections has been claimed as part of a plan by the Odisha government to stop the activist from carrying forward his struggle for the indigenous people.
Niyamgiri Hills and Threat of Bauxite Mining
The Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha is home to the Dongria Kondh people who are living in 160 villages spread across the Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of the state. For more than a decade, the people have been fighting against the Vedanta Resources, which has been trying to extract the estimated $ 2 billion-worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the hills.
The state government-owned Odisha Mining Corporation was supposed to provide the bauxite extracted from the Niyamgiri hills to the Vedanta refinery. The hills reportedly contain a deposition of bauxite of more than 80 million tonnes. However, on April 18, 2013, the Supreme Court had maintained that the village councils would decide whether the state-owned mining corporation could mine the hills for the bauxite or not. In the wake of the apex court’s order, all the village councils (gram sabhas) had voted against the mining.
On the other hand, in a statement to Reuters, Vedanta had maintained that they would participate in any auctions of new bauxite mines in Odisha. The company has already bagged environmental clearance and other clearances to expand the capacity of the refinery to produce 6 million tonnes of aluminium a year. Eyeing at the large-scale bauxite reserve in the Niyamgiri hills, the company had already spent more than $9 billion to build the refinery and an aluminium smelter in the state that has 70 per cent of the country’s total bauxite reserve.
See More: No to Vedanta Project in Niyamgiri Hills
So far, a number of struggles by the locals for their livelihood have been seen in the Niyamgiri belt, while the state has been making attempts to disrupt the struggle of the people.
In April 2017, Union Home Ministry had come up with a decision to link the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) to the Maoists. In its annual report, the ministry wrote, “In Niyamgiri Hills area (Districts Rayagada and Kalahandi, Odisha), the outfit [the Maoists] continued to guide the activities of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti.” The environmental and social activists across the country had opposed the move and termed it as baseless.
Besides, the home ministry had also branded the Jharkhand’s Visthan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan (VVJVM) as “a front of the CPI (Maoist)”. VVJVM works for the rights of the displaced farmers in the state.
Amidst the strong opposition to ministry’s decision, in May 2017, the daughter-in-law of the co-convener of the NSS had been arrested by the Odisha police. Before and after as well, several tribals and activists, who work for the rights of the tribals, have been arrested owing to their alleged link with the Maoists. On October 30, 2014, Haribandhu Kadraka, a member of the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha that works for the land rights of tribals was arrested for allegedly being a Maoist.