Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills have become symbolic of the anti-mining struggle against the corporate giant Vedanta. The particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) Dongria-Kondhs have intensified their struggle against the firm from March this year in a bid to stop work at its Lanjigarh plant. The struggle of the tribals has come at a cost—of false cases, arrests and being branded as “maoists” or elements against the Indian government.
One of the activists who is languishing in jail since the past five months is Dodi Kadraka. He was picked up from the Muniguda market in May this year without any notice in a case dating back over a decade. Kadraka’s wife Rinabati is currently fighting a legal battle against the state. She said that Kadraka is being “branded as a maoist, while the only crime he has committed is to stand up for the rights of the people of Niyamgiri”.
Speaking to NewsClick, an activist from the Save Niyamgiri movement, said, “A large number of people are currently out on bail, however, Kadraka is still not being granted bail by the High Court. What the police has done is charged him with 9-10 cases, including cases of vandalism, destruction of property and violence. This pattern extends to several people, not just Kadraka. He is a 25-year-old ordinary boy, whose only fault was that he spoke against the inroads being made in Niyamgiri by Vedanta.”
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Previously in October 2018, Kadraka was picked up by the police, when he had alleged of being tortured. He was released on bail in March this year, but was arrested again in May and has been in jail since.
On the morning of July 24, Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) activists Jilu Majhi, Tunguru Majhi, Range Majhi, Salpu Majhi and Patra Majhi from the Palberi and Kunakadu villages of Kalahandi district, Odisha, were arrested.
Previously, in March this year, Lingaraj Azad, convener of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS), was arrested, however, he was later granted bail by a local court in Kalahandi. Speaking to NewsClick, he explained the condition of activists, “We are living in constant fear at all times. I know we can be picked up at any time. It’s like psychological torture by the police, if we get scared we will lose all the momentum we have built. I have decided that I won’t back down even if I lose my life.”
He added, “I want people to know who I am. I do not support any form of violence. We believe in our movement and the strength of the ideals of Gandhi and Ambedkar. I was arrested because I was opposing the police camp. I was just mobilising people against the anti-people’s activity, but I was called anti-state and punished for it.”
The movement in Niyamgiri is being led by the Dongria Kondh community, who have tried all forms and ways of safeguarding their most revered mountain god, Niyamraja.
In March this year, two persons were killed and 50 injured at Vedanta’s aluminium refinery. The deaths happened after Odisha Industrial Security Force (OISF) personnel mercilessly used batons on the displaced tribals who were protesting and demanding jobs. One of the persons who was killed following the protests was Ambedkarite activist Dani Batra, who was reportedly beaten to death by security forces. Kadraka’s family is also fearing for his life as this is not the first time he has been hounded by the state police. Human rights groups and activists are condemning the arrests and saying that the charges which the activists are booked under, including the Arms Act and allegations of links to Maoists, are baseless.
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An activist, on condition of anonymity, said, “The random arrests and the continuing crackdown is clearly a conspiracy by Vedanta and the Odisha government to incarcerate adivasi leaders and activists of the Niyamgiri struggle. To silence the Dongria Kondhs for raising their voice against the project.” He added, “In March this year, in a bid to intimidate villagers, the police named nearly hundred persons in an FIR for participating in protests outside the plant. Workers around the factory have been charged randomly and the police is also picking up a lot of people. Last year, NSS President Lado Sikaka was also abducted for a day and tortured.”
In August this year, one of the protesting adivasis, Pattnaik Harijan, a resident of Rengapalli village, allegedly died in custody of the Kalahandi jail authorities. Activists are claiming that he died on Friday, August 23, while the police are claiming that he passed away at the Medical College Hospital. According to the activists, Pattnaik died at the Bhawanipatna jail but to avoid blame the jail authorities pretended to take him to Burla hospital for treatment.
Reportedly, Pattnaik was ill for a while and was running a high fever when he was taken to the hospital in Burla, which is more than 200 kilometres away from Bhawanipatna. The activists also said that his family was not informed of his ill health. They allege that it was primarily due to the negligence of the jail superintendent and jailor that he didn't get proper treatment. Previously, Dongria Kondh leader Bari Pidikak had also died as an undertrial prisoner after not getting proper medical treatment. At least 15 people from Rengopali village have already died allegedly due to contamination from the toxic waste disposal of Vedanta’s aluminium plant right next to the village.