Dispossessed tribals targeted in India's fake war on terror

Narayanpatna and other villages in Orissa’s tribal-dominated districts of Koraput and Malkangiri are enveloped in a blanket of fear. ‘Operation Green Hunt,’ a major military offensive launched by the government against Maoists, is yet to reach these villages but tribals are already getting a taste of things to come.

Two months ago police shot dead two activists and injured scores of others of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS), a tribal organisation that is campaigning for tribal rights over land. Arbitrary arrests of tribals have forced hundreds to flee their homes and villages. And on Saturday last, Maoists attacked a jeep carrying security personnel, killing four people.

Police have called for a ban on the CMAS. They allege it is a Maoist front. They have blamed its ‘anti-people activity’ for the crackdown in Narayanpatna. But it is hard to dispel the feeling that the crackdown is to protect powerful vested interests — non-tribal landlords, the liquor mafia, mining companies and contractors — who want action taken against the CMAS’ activism. Tribals being arrested by the police have been slapped with serious charges, including sedition and waging war against the state.

The Constitution’s Fifth Schedule, an array of laws and supreme court judgments recognise the rights of tribals over ancestral land and prohibit its transfer to non-tribals. For decades, however, tribals have been dispossessed of their land by non-tribals, mining companies and the state. While some of this land has been acquired by non-tribals through subterfuge, much land has been taken over by the state for ‘development projects’ like dams and mining.

Increasing tribal activism through mass struggles has forced the government and private companies to put several mining projects on hold. Since April last year, the CMAS has reclaimed 2,000 acres of tribal land in Narayanpatna and cultivating it. A similar campaign by the Malkangiri Zilla Adivasi Sangh has resulted in tribals reclaiming their land, cultivating and harvesting the crop in villages like Damapada and Atalguda.

This tribal assertion has prompted landlords, the liquor mafia and mining companies to form goon squads that go by the name of ‘Shanti committees’ to intimidate tribal activists. These ‘Shanti committees’ are said to have been set up with the encouragement of politicians, police and bureaucrats and are unleashing violence on tribals in Koraput and Malkangiri districts. It is this violence that the CMAS was protesting, when police shot dead its activists in November.

At stake is control over mineral rich land that is worth a fortune. Orissa has 70 per cent of all of India’s bauxite reserves and 90 per cent of its chrome ore and nickel. Mining companies — Indian and multinational — are keen to extract this wealth. But tribals live on this land and are determined to protect their land, forests and streams from destruction by the ‘development projects.’

Many non-tribals wonder why tribals are unwilling to give up their land for dams and mining projects, even when the government is promising them compensation and resettlement. Why do they want to throw out mining giants that are promising them jobs?

Travel around Koraput town provides answers to these questions. In Dhamanjodi, where the state-owned NALCO has been running an aluminum plant since 1985, many tribals who gave up their land were not compensated. Those who did, received little and this was frittered away. Their land and money gone, they looked for jobs at NALCO. But these have gone to non-tribals.

Bauxite mining has devastated the environment and rivers in the area have dried up. And tribals in the nearby Mali Parbat area have seen this. They are opposing the mining project there to be started by a host of national and international mining corporates.

There is little doubt that if the Niyamgiri Hills in Kalahandi district are handed over to mining giant Vedanta, the experience at Damanjodi will be repeated. Mining activity will level the hills, which the Dongaria Kondhas regard as living gods. They are agitating to prevent Vedanta’s entry.

Tribals displaced by the Balimela hydroelectric power project in Malkangiri in the early 1970s have been resettled near the dam but their villages don’t have electricity. Dams and development projects have brought nothing for the tribals but poverty and destruction of their way of life.

The general distrust of tribals of the government’s ‘development agenda’ stems from the fact that while their lands are acquired in the name of ‘their’ development, they are yet to see any of it reach their villages. The intensity of this distrust is reflected in the rising number of protests by tribal communities against state policies that seem to be conniving to keep them deliberately poor so they can be repressed easily through military action.

As in Chhattisgarh, in Orissa too violence by police and Shanti committees is driving tribals out of their land. ‘Operation Green Hunt’ will take this further. While Maoists will melt away into forests and neighbouring states, tribals will bear the brunt.
Colonial ethnographic accounts described the Kondha tribals as practitioners of human sacrifice. These were aimed at justifying the brutal suppression of their resistance to British rule. Today tribals, even those who are waging the battles politically, are being branded as Maoist to justify their eviction from their land.

(The writer recently travelled in Koraput,Orissa)

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