Sunday, March 3, 2024

Branding Adivasis as Maoists, Police violently clear out protest against mining in Gadchiroli

On Monday, 20 November, Maharashtra Police arrested over 20 people and lathi-charged Adivasi protestors at Todgatta village, Gadchiroli, who were carrying out their daily activity of a peaceful sit-in against the 6 proposed mines in Surjagarh, Gadchiroli.

Organised under the banner of Damkondawadi Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, the indefinite protest began in March and has seen active participation from more than 70 Adivasi villages in Etapalli Taluka of Gadchiroli. A large majority of the protesting Adivasis belong to the Madia-Gond community, one of the three Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) in the region.

Members of the Samiti stated that police forces from several different police stations reached Todgatta in the morning, surrounded the protest site, and began to question and intimidate the leading activists. Their belongings were checked and upturned, and their phones were confiscated. The police thrashed the huts where protestors from other villages were being housed.

The Samiti also reported that male police officers severely lathi-charged women protestors, some of whom fainted after sustaining injuries to the head. This took place on the same day that some members of the Samiti addressed a Press Conference in New Delhi on Anti-Displacement Struggles. The police in Gadchiroli repeatedly interrogated the protestors demanding to know who all had gone to Delhi.

Eight leaders – Mangesh Naroti, Pradeep Khedo, Sai Kawdo, Gillu Kawdo, Laxman Jetti, Mahadu Kawdo, Nikesh Naroti, and Ganesh Korea – were taken away by helicopter. The remaining protestors were beaten up and herded into trucks.

The Samiti members were unaware of their whereabouts until late last night when a member of the struggle visited the Etapalli police station and saw Pradeep Hedo. The same source claimed that the Samiti Adhyaksh, Mangesh Noroti, was severely injured after being beaten in detention. He reported that a total of 25 to 30 protestors were being held at the station and have been charged with Section 353 of the Indian Penal Code, which pertains to the use of criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging his duty. Currently, 21 remain in police custody and the police have received an 8-day Magisterial Custody Remand to jail them in Chandrapur.

The police claim that the protestors had disrupted police movement to the inauguration of a new police station in Wangeturi, a village neighboring Todgatta. This led to a confrontation, after which police detained some protestors. They denied that any lathi charge had happened and further stated that protestors themselves had destroyed their own huts. 

Members of the Samiti strongly condemned the police statement and stated that the Damkondawadi Bachao Andolan had not stopped any police movement either peacefully or violently, and it was not backed by any Maoist activity. The Samiti also shared videos of police personnel holding lathis and trying to snatch camera phones from people who were recording. The protestors had been going about their daily activities when the police reached the site. Historically, Section 353 has been misused by the police to crack down on peaceful people’s movements.

250 days of struggle against mining

Lloyd’s Metals and Energy Private Limited set up an iron ore mine in 2007 and has been operational in phases since. In the Press Conference in Delhi, organised by Forum Against Corporatisation And Militarisation (FACAM), Samiti leaders spoke of the effect of mining activities in Mallampadi village, located at the base of the hill, where villagers largely depended on their fields for crops and fish cultivation. According to them, not a single field yielded any crops this season due to large amounts of red iron oxide discharge, chemical effluents, and large amounts of debris. What used to be a rich ecosystem of plants and creatures is now entirely barren, and no insect, fish, or frog can live in the fields. They referred to the suicide of an Adivasi farmer, Ajay Topo, to highlight the difficulties faced by the villagers who depend on the fields for their livelihood and sustenance. Residents of Mallampadi also told Scroll that they can no longer access the fresh water from the streams due to the reddish-brown sludge. “We used this water for everything, but now even pigs won’t drink this water,” said Jagatpal Toppo, a resident of Mallampadi. 

The mine is also built on a sacred hill where the local deity, Thakurdev, is said to reside. Due to the mining activities, villagers can no longer visit the sacred site. “The company and its police do not even let us enter our own lands and worship our deity besides our yatra taken out once a year,” the Samiti said. Earlier, food, medicine, and other material requirements were also met by the forest, and now residents have been forced to rely on purchasing these needs, thereby pushing them into artificial poverty. 

Recently, six new mines spanning 4,684 hectares have been proposed and leased through a composite mining lease to five companies: Omsairam Steels and Alloys Private Limited, JSW Steels Limited, Sunflag Iron and Steel Company Limited, Universal Industrial Equipment and Technical Services Private Limited, and Natural Resources Energy Private Limited. On hearing about this, the gram sabhas of several different villages came together and democratically decided to begin an indefinite protest against the mines. 

A protest village was built in Todgatta to house the representatives of other gram sabhas. Every morning, members gathered at the Gotul, a collective space, where prayers were made to Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Birsa Munda, and other important figures who fought for the rights of oppressed communities. The meetings would only begin after the Preamble of the Constitution had been read out. The meetings regularly emphasized constitutional values and ecological harmony. In his Press Conference address, Adv. Lalsu Nogoti highlighted that he himself had translated the Constitution’s Preamble to Madia and that booklets on the Constitution have been disseminated widely among the villagers.

The Samiti has written several letters to the Collectors’ office and to governors and members of parliament. However, the protest has received very little support from political leaders and state representatives. 

Reading the charges in the context of growing militarisation

The police have attempted to discredit the protestors by labeling them as Maoist and arguing that the protest is under Maoist influence. In their request for a custody remand, the police claimed that “those arrested tried to hit and kill the police, have explosives in their possession, and are funded by Maoists. Therefore, a remand is necessary to interrogate where and how they conspired in the related incident, capture the relevant evidence, expose the support being provided by Maoist organizations, and get information on the future behavior of the accused in connection with their severe crime of planting explosives and associating with Maoist organisations,” (based on remand request filed by the police). 

The new police station in Wangeturi is also being inaugurated in the name of curbing the menace of Maoism. As reported by NewsLaundry, several new police stations are being constructed in Todgatta, Morewada, Gardewada and Jharewada without any prior permission from the gram sabhas, which is prescribed in the PESA Act, 1996. Security forces constantly surveil the activities of the villages, preventing them from traveling and interrogating them on their whereabouts. The Samiti also reported that the police have used drone cameras over the past two days to surveil and film the Todgatta protest site. Ehtmam Ul Haq, while moderating the Press Conference, highlighted how state repression goes hand in hand with the increasing militarisation in the region. In these sparsely populated rural regions, the ratio between villagers and police personnel is only reducing, giving police tremendous power and impunity in harassing the locals. Referencing Bastar, where CRPF camps have been set up every few kilometers, he highlighted how Adivasi resource-rich areas across the country are becoming heavily militarised. Prof. Saroj Giri further drew a parallel with the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza to demonstrate that Adivasi regions are increasingly being turned into open prisons with extremely high military deployment.

Poonam Jetti, a village Sarpanch, further spoke about how any act of questioning the mining activities leads to being labelled as “Naxal” or “Maoist”. Nogoti stated that the Andolan is often dismissed by claiming it is Naxal-sponsored to hide the fact that the Collector and other state representatives are corporate-sponsored and serve the interests of the companies who seek to exploit the resource-rich region and its people for their profit. After his virtual speech at the 54th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), held in Geneva, Switzerland, he received a call from the local authorities warning him that the protest would be shut down due to his actions.

Rather than serving the Adivasis of Gadchiroli, Nogoti said that the mining projects were serving the rich businessmen in Delhi and Mumbai. Moreover, legal mechanisms and safeguards guaranteed under the Forest Rights Act, of 2006, are being subverted through several different means. Despite seeing through all the formalities of Habitat Rights as a PVTG group, the local offices have not made any moves toward securing these rights. The very land on which the gram sabhas have been granted Community Forest Rights (CFR) has also been allotted for mining. Jansunwai or public consultations are also forged. He stressed that development should happen on the terms of the people in whose name it is being carried forward. 

At the time of their address, the representatives from Todgatta were completely unaware of the whereabouts of their friends and family who had been taken away by the police. Poonam Jetti’s husband, Laxman Jetti, was one of the eight who had been carried away in the helicopter. Jetti expressed that though she was visiting Delhi for the first time, she could not think about anything else but going back to and standing with her husband. There was an imminent feeling that the delegation from Todgatta would be arrested by the police immediately upon arriving at Gadchiroli. Despite this risk, Jetti was strong in saying that she wanted to be with her people in a moment of collective need.

After the conference, FACAM released a statement condemning the arrests and repression, and demanding the immediate release of all those who were arrested. Alongside this, FACAM also demanded that the anti-people mining activities be stopped, the increasing militarisation of the region be halted, and policies such as Operation SAMADHAN-Prahar, in the name of which peaceful Adivasi communities are being criminalised and killed, be repealed.

Gowri studied sociology and is a researcher and a journalist.

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