Tribals up in arms after govt links Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti with Maoists in Odisha
On 25 April, hundreds of tribals and several members of various civil society organisations protested outside the Vedanta's refinery plant in Lanjigarh, Odisha.
Agitated with the recent Union Home Ministry's report linking Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) with the Maoists, the tribals called the report fabricated, demanding that it be withdrawn immediately and that no efforts should be made to link a democratic and constitutional body like the NSS with the ultra left outfit.
Speaking to Catch from Lanjigarh, NSS organiser Lingaraj Azad said that these allegations are baseless and that the outfit has been loggerheads with the Maoists on multiple issues including the mindless violence carried out by them against innocent villagers.
“NSS is a democratic, constitutional and progressive front that has been fighting for the poor Dongaria Kondh tribes living in 160 villages. We have been fighting the cause of the tribals much before the Maoists came here. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government should stop linking us with the Maoist Front,” Lingaraj said.
According to him, the government has linked the two to weaken the tribals’ resolve to stop Vedanta from exploiting the Niyamgiri hills, which are famous for their incredible biodiversity.
“We defied the Maoists in 2013 when they threatened us with dire consequences if we held gram sabhas in 12 villages affected by mining. We still went ahead. We have been fighting the Maoists, government and Vedanta for more than 14 years and would not stop now,” Lingaraj claimed.
The Home Ministry, in its report, claimed, “In 2016, the issue of displacement of local communities remained the main plank of mobilization by the mass organisations. In Niyamgiri Hills area (Districts Rayagada and Kalahandi, Odisha), the outfit (Maoists) continued to guide the activities of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti. Similarly in Jharkhand the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan a front of the CPI (Maoist), tried to take up pro-tribal issues and opposed amendments to the Chhotanagpur and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts, modifications in Domicile Policy etc. Maoist affiliates also undertook protest programmes and resorted to anti-Government propaganda over alleged atrocities by Security Forces.”
After the report was released, activists from across India wrote an open letter to the President and Prime Minister, criticising the decision to link Maoists with NSS.
On behalf of the activists, Meenal Tatpati and Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh wrote: “We are writing to express our concern and anguish at the recently released Annual Report 2016-17 of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which has linked the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) with ‘Maoist’ organizations. The report states that Maoists ‘guide’ the activities of the NSS.”
The letter goes on to speak of how the NSS is a collective of the Dongria Kondh adivasi people and other local communities who have been organising themselves for more than a decade against bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills (Odisha), which is their only home.
“The continued targeting of the Dongria Kondh community (with a population of less than 10,000 people) in reports like these, and in continued state actions on the ground, raises serious doubts: is this being purposely done to break their continued resolve to oppose the mining of the Niyamgiri hills?” read the letter.
A defiant people
The letter claims that the Home Ministry appears to have ignored the overwhelming response of the Dongria Kondh when Maoist organisations told them to oppose or boycott the gram sabha meetings organised by the state at the behest of the Supreme Court order of April 2013. Hundreds of Dongria Kondh had flocked from village to village to take part in the meetings, openly defying this call.
Lingaraj said that back then there were open threats from Maoists who distributed audio and videos to intimidate locals from not attending these meetings.
“We defied them back then and would continue to do so because we believe in the Indian constitution and democracy. It is for this reason that four of our members won the recent panchayat elections in the state. If we don't believe in democracy, we would have, like the Maoists, boycotted the polls. But, we don't believe in violence considering the fact that mining was stopped in Niyamgiri through a democratic process,” Lingaraj added.
He claimed how Maoists have been killing innocents villagers on the pretext of them being police informers and even the state does it labelling them as Maoist sympathisers. “So how can we be linked to Maoists when it is a known fact that they have killed our own people,” Lingaraj asks.
A long fight
In fact, in 2003, after the government allowed bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills, Prafulla Samatara, who recently won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his continued struggle in Niyamgiri, approached the Supreme Court's panel governing mining activities and filed a petition and became the first citizen to use legal means to stop Vedanta from mining the Niyamgiri hills.
In 2013, the apex court in a historic judgement gave villagers affected by the project to decide on the fate of Vedanta and gave 12 gram panchayats the right to vote on the bauxite mine. All 12 gram panchayats unanimously voted against the mining project which led to Vedanta closing its aluminum refinery.
Since then the villagers have been demanding that Vedanta's alum refinery in Lanjigrah should also shut operations. “Our protests will continue till the refinery plant is shut because it is poisoning our air and water. The quality and quantity of the fruit bearing trees has gone down drastically and even the sound and halogen light from the plant scares birds and animals away. This is destroying our environment and we want it stopped,” said Lingaraj.