Wednesday, May 29, 2024

“Jailed for fighting repression, corporate loot”: Protest over UAPA against 9 activists leading Niyamgiri movement in Odisha

On 6th August, prior to the World Adivasi Day in Odisha, nine Dalit and Adivasi activists associated with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) have been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA).

The Dongria Kondh tribe, the world’s oldest surviving indigenous peoples of Eastern India, has led the Niyamgiri movement in the mineral-rich state of Odisha. They have been fighting to resist the destruction of the Niyamgiri mountains, seeking an end to state repression and corporate loot through anti-tribal policies.

On 5th August, two Adivasi activists associated with the Niyamgiri movement, Krushna Sikaka and Bari Sikaka, were meeting villagers in the Kalahandi district to discuss the upcoming celebrations for the World Adivasi Day. During this time, they were “forcibly abducted” by plainclothes Odisha police from Lanjigarh haat.

When NSS activists attempted to inquire with the police about the whereabouts of their fellow activists, the police consistently denied any involvement. In response, a protest was organized in front of Kalyansinghpur police station. During the protest, the police tried to forcibly arrest another Adivasi activist named Drenju Krisikaa, but the villagers’ collective efforts prevented this arrest.

Just a day after, on 6th August, the Odisha police filed an FIR against nine adivasi activists associated with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) under UAPA and several sections of IPC. The charged named include two senior NSS leaders, Ladda Sikaka and Drenju Krisika, along with two youth leaders, Manu Sikaka and Samba Huikia. Also mentioned are Lingaraj Azad, an old Dalit activist from Odisha who has supported the Niyamgiri movement since the early 2000s and advised NSS, as well as two other NSS members, Gobina Bag and Upendra Bag. The FIR also includes British Naik, an activist of Khandualamali Surakhya Samiti, and Lenin Kumar, a poet and solidarity activist.

They have been charged under various IPC sections, including Sections 147, 148, 109, 294, 188, 353, 332, 307, and 149, as well as under UAPA (Sections 16, 17, 18), and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act (Section 7). These charges pertain to offenses like unlawful assembly, causing hurt to public servants, disobeying, attempt to murder, engaging in terrorist activities, conspiracy, and raising funds for terrorist activities under UAPA.

The Campaign Against State Repression released a statement strongly condemning the slapping of UAPA on activists calling it an act to suppress people’s movement against corporate loot.

“These abductions and the use of so-called anti-terror laws against Adivasi activists few days prior to World Adivasi Day on the 9th of August is part of a larger attempt at state suppression of the larger democratic struggle that the people in Odisha, particularly the Dongria Kondh tribe, have been fighting in a bid to resist the corporatized destruction of the Niyamgiri mountains through various mining projects,” read the statement. 

A Habeas Corpus petition was submitted to the High Court on August 7th, seeking answers about the disappearance of Krushna Sikaka and Bali Sikaka. On August 8th, Bari Sikaka was released, whereas Krushna Sikaka was imprisoned based on a 2018 FIR. In a parallel case, Upendra Bhoi, an NSS activist facing similar allegations, disappeared on August 10th in Rayagada. He was subsequently found in Raygada jail on August 15th, facing charges under FIR 87/2023.

On the midnight of August 13th, police carried out raids in three villages located within the Kashipur block of Rayagada district. After the raids, several Adivasi youth were noted as missing. Ongoing police operations have led to a rise in the total count of missing individuals, now reaching approximately 15-20 people.

“The arrests and headhunting of the leaders are based on absolutely fabricated and false cases and there is no evidence whatsoever to the accusations made in the FIRs against the leaders,” Sharanya, an activist from Koratpur, said to Maktoob.

She went on to say: “This is a motivated repression aimed to weaken the resistance of the Adivasis to mining and destruction of their sacred grounds, lands and forests. In the case of Niyamgiri and Kashipur, it seems that the police repression is being carried out at the behest of corporate mining companies like Vedanta as both Sijimali in Kashipur and Niyamgiri in Muniguda and Bissamkatak are mines deposits targeted by Vedanta. There seems to be a revival of the government’s attempts to falsely implicate NSS as a Maoist frontal organisation.”

In 2003, the government partnered with Vedanta Limited for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri mountains. This venture sparked worries about displacing residents and harming the environment. Niyamgiri’s exceptional bauxite also purified river water in Odisha. The Niyamgiri locals opposed government-backed companies, resulting in a Supreme Court verdict against Vedanta’s mining plans. However, the ruling didn’t ensure an end to mining. Harsh tactics escalated against activists, including kidnappings, charges of terrorism, and alterations in land ownership. This struggle spread beyond Niyamgiri to the broader Eastern Ghats area, where similar mining risks loomed.

Rajan, a student of Indigenous Movements said to Maktoob that the arrest of NSS activists is a move to suppress voices of the people. Framing them as anti-nationals or Maoists gives the BJP-BJD governments the unholy reason to set up more paramilitary camps and continue repression on Indigenous lands, he said.

Rajan said: “This serial and erratic arrests and framing of Adivasi-Dalit leaders in UAPA charges is an attempt to destabilise the historic Niyamgiri movement, which set the precedence in the country through a vital Supreme Court judgement in 2013, that Gram Sabha have sole right to decide regarding any ‘development’ activity on their lands whether mining or otherwise. This clampdown of the Odisha govt on the anti-mining resistance leaders has to be seen in the context of the recent amendment to Forest Conservation Bill which  undemocratically ceased the existence of ‘deemed forests’. In Niyamgiri, as per reports, over 90 percent of the forests fall under this category.

“We are well aware that this is meant to enable trade-offs between mining corporations such as Vedanta, Mythri Infratech, and the BJP-BJD government in Odisha, a state with upcoming elections. It signals to corporations that they will have a clear path for unchecked mining after the elections,” he said to Maktoob.

On 22nd August, people’s organisations and activists across India wrote to the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, seeking immediate quashing of UAPA against adivasis activists and associates of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti.

The letter states: “We have pursued through the FIR and are aghast to note the cavalier and ill-motivated manner in which allegations have been levelled against the aforesaid 9 persons. For instance, lathis and axes which many Dongria Kondh adivasis traditionally carry, are being cited as a ground for filing this FIR under UAPA! Likewise, imputations linking the NSS to ‘left wing extremism’ arecompletely unfounded. We condemn this abuse of process of law and brazen attack on the right of the democratic movement to peaceful resistance.”

The civil liberties and democratic rights organization, Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), has called for the cancellation of FIR 87/2023 against NSS affiliates. They have urged the cessation of mining in Niyamgiri and the protection of people’s rights under the 5th schedule to the Constitution, as well as PESA and FRA rights.

“The central and state governments, behind the shield of “development”, are violating the fundamental constitutional rights of the Dongrias, and for this the governments have been linking these democratic and peaceful struggles of  Dongrias against mining in their areas  to ‘Maoist’ and falsely implicating their leaders  under repressive laws like UAPA. Their ulterior aim is to clamp down on leaders and repress their spirit of two decade struggle to save Niyamgiri hills, which are the life and livelihood of tribals such as Dongria Kond,”read the statement released by the PUDR.

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