The bloodshed may have halted, but violence, fear and the possibility of starvation still haunt. Sanjana Chappalli reports from the remote Orissa town where police killed two Adivasis last month
THE VOICE at the other end of the line is weak and tired. It’s past 8 pm. “We are on our way to the village,” he says. “We walk six hours every day – three hours at daybreak from our village into the forest and three hours at sundown back to the village. We hide in the jungles during the day and come to the village at night. We don’t want to be arrested by the police who come to our villages during the day,” says the 24-year-old. A few minutes of conversation later, he asks if his name and village can be kept anonymous. “If the police read the report, they may come to our village and hunt us down,” he says. Nothing you say can dislodge the fear.
Three weeks after a police firing, Narayanpatna in Orissa continues to resemble a war zone – with near-empty villages. The 24-year-old Adivasi that TEHELKA spoke with is only one of several hundred families who live in constant fear.
On 20 November 2009, two Adivasis died in the paramilitary forces’ firing at the Narayanpatna police station. Both the Adivasis were part of Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh – an Adivasi organisation in the region that is fighting for the last 15 years for the Adivasis’ right over land – and were part of a 150 strong group that had gathered at the police station to protest over continued police harassment. Last week, in the story ‘A zone of twisted law’ (issue 50 dated 19 December, 2009) TEHELKA had detailed attempts by the state to derail the CMAS and other Adivasi organisations working in the area by equating them directly with the Communist Party of India (Maoist) active in the region.
The Special Operations Group unit of the police and paramilitary forces, such as the Indian Reserve Battalion and the COBRA force stationed at Narayanpatna, continue with their search-and-combing operations in their attempts to arrest absconding leaders of CMAS. Arrests from the villages continue – unconfirmed reports talk of three more Adivasis being arrested on 14 December 2009 – even as the security forces seek to arrest key CMAS leader Nachika Linga.
Currently, 70 people have been arrested and lodged in the Koraput district jail. Though all the arrests have taken place after 20 November, not all of them are related to the protest on the day. Says Gupteswar Panigrahy, a Koraput based advocate who has stepped forward to represent the arrested CMAS members: “Of the 70 people arrested, only 20 have been charged with cases related to the protest on 20 November 2009. The charges range from voluntarily causing hurt to rioting armed with deadly weapons to criminal conspiracy. The police have also levelled charges under the Indian Arms Act. As for the rest of the people, they have been arrested for cases that are several months old. By arresting all of them now, we believe that the police are unnecessarily attempting to create a climate of fear in the villages.”
Silence stalks Life has come to a halt in the neighbouring Bhaliaput town
Panigrahy is one of three advocates who has been allowed access to the undertrial prisoners. He categorically details the injuries sustained by those arrested while in custody. On 14 December 2009, when the jail authorities brought some of the undertrial prisoners before the Judicial Magistrate First Class (JMFC) at Lakshmipur, 4 Adivasis – Mahua Champa, Champiya Jama, Prasanna Maleka and Mandangi Subbarao – complained of injuries and asked the magistrate for medical treatment. Ask Panigrahy how many of those arrested have been injured and he speaks of the pathetic condition that he found some of them in. “Visible body injuries aside, I have heard that some of the Adivasi women have been raped in custody. I have not been able to confirm these reports yet. I also found one minor amongst those arrested. A school student, aged around 14 years, has been lodged in the same jail since the police authorities have recorded his age as 18 years. There is a lot the police have to answer for,” he says quietly.
Yet another question Panigrahy and his team lay out is the presentation of arms at a press conference held by the Superintendent of Police, Deepak Kumar, in Koraput on 29 November 2009. The arms had been seized, the police claimed, during raids a day earlier. The place of weapons seizure falls under the Lakshimpur JMFC jurisdiction and according to procedure should have been deposited with the court. Moving it out of the court for presentation at a press conference would then require the authorisation of the court. “Even at the time of hearing on 14 December, the police had not even provided the court with a list of the seized weapons, leave alone the question of depositing them,” points out Panigrahy. It was only after Panigrahy pointed this out that the court directed the police to provide them with the list. “Procedures have been laid out to ensure there is no manipulation by the police. What is to stop them from adding weapons to the seized list now?” asks Panigrahy. When TEHELKA contacted SP Deepak Kumar to speak about the heavy police deployment and reports of police high handedness, he refused to answer questions, only offering the comment that “the police were doing their duty” and that there was no further discussion necessary.
THE HIGH-HANDEDNESS of the security forces in Narayanpatna is not limited to what appears as indiscriminate arrests of Adivasis or their subsequent treatment. In the villages that TEHELKA visited in Narayanpatna block, including Palaput and Bhaliaput, the few Adivasis who had remained behind talked uneasily of the threats issued by the security forces if they harvested the crops from the lands they had been cultivating. Consider the context in which threats against crop harvesting have been issued and the high-handedness of the security forces becomes apparent. Across Narayanpatna block, over the years, reclamation of land grabbed from the Adivasis was one of the central rallying points for the CMAS. Gananath Patra, or GP as he is called, a key CMAS leader, told TEHELKA that before the struggle for land reclamation was launched a year ago, Adivasi land possession had dropped to less than 5 percent in the block. “In an area where Adivasi population is around 90 percent (the 2001 census confirms these figures), this meant serious land-grabbing by non-tribals who had migrated to the region less than 15 years ago. Over the years, before CMAS gained ground, Adivasis were dispossessed of their land using liquor as an incentive. Most of the people who took away Adivasi land were liquour vendors and traders,” says GP. The veteran leader talks of how the first struggle that CMAS launched was to stop manufacture and sale of liquour in the villages followed by attempts to establish Adivasi claims over their land.
Nachika Linga, the now absconding CMAS leader, in a previously published interview talked of the effort and the patience the Adivasis exhibited while attempting to recover the land through legal procedures. “For years we followed legal procedures, filed application after application since the law, The Orissa Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property Regulation, recognises Adivasis’ right over paternal land. We would file and wait. For Adivasis who are mostly illiterate and have no knowledge of the laws, this was a huge exercise in itself,” Linga is reported to have said. When filing applications yielded no result, CMAS launched a forceful takeover of land from the non-tribal liquour vendors and the traders. In the clashes that erupted in May 2009 between the nontribals and the CMAS, one person died and several non-tribal families fled – leaving their lands and houses. Since May 2009, Adivasis have cultivated the fields, growing their staple crops of paddy and millets – crops that are now ready for harvesting.
SECURITY FORCES HAVE TOLD ADIVASIS TO REFRAIN FROM HARVESTING THEIR CROP
Following the firing on 20 November, security forces – accompanied often by non-tribals – have issued warnings to Adivasis to desist from harvesting crops from these lands. In Palaput village, Adivasis told TEHELKA that the non-tribal families who had fled the village had returned a week after the firing to warn the Adivasis of arrests if crops were harvested. “They told us that they would be back with the police to make us harvest the crops and hand them over. If we went into the fields before that, we were told that we would be beaten up and arrested,” says Hiko Kalati, an Adivasi resident of Palaput. “We cultivated the land, it is our sweat and blood that has tended the crops,” asks Kalati. “If our leaders were around, we would have gone ahead and cut the crops before they came. But now what can we do but watch?” he says before looking away. In village after village, voices subdued by fear ask the same question. In Bhaliaput, as part of the search-and-combing operations, the security forces had destroyed the foodgrains Adivasis had stored from a previous harvest. With destruction of stored foodgrains and a warning to not harvest crops, what would be the source of food in the months to come? The Adivasis of Bhaliaput had only blank faces to offer as answers.
THREE WEEKS AFTER THE POLICE FIRING, NARAYANPATNA STILL RESEMBLES A WAR ZONE
Outside the villages, pose the question to the non-tribals who are eagerly awaiting police protection to proceed with crop harvesting and there are ready answers available. Anand Kirsani, a trader who has emerged as the voice of the non-tribals opposing the CMAS in Narayanpatna, is very vocal about the issue. “Why didn’t they think of this before they took away our lands? First, they threatened us, forcibly took over our lands and when we turned to the police for protection, turned on the police and attacked them. They only have themselves to blame for their present situation,” says Kirsani. He goes on to explain how they (the non-tribals) have gone on to organise themselves – an organisation called Koraput District Nagarik Surakhya and Shanti Committee has been floated. In the past three months the committee has held several protests condemning the CMAS and the land reclamation process it has started in the region. A minute of conversation with Kirsani and the vehemence in obvious – the CMAS are Maoists and deserve stringent punishment – a fact that the police have thankfully woken up to, he says. Are the police helping them to harvest the crops? There is not a moment of hesitation as he answers in the affirmative.
Officially, Koraput Sub-Collector Rajesh Patil has announced that the harvests will be monitored by the district administration and that there will be a 50-50 share accorded to the Adivasis and the original land owners. While questions remain about the monitoring and implementation of this arrangement, there are several advocates who point to the illegality of such an announcement by the district administration. Nihar Ranjan Patnaik, a special advocate under the state government’s Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihood Programme, says it is a clear violation of the settled principle of law. “The law recognises the rights of a trespasser if he has a settled possession of the property – in this case, the Adivasis’ rights as trespassers is established since they have been cultivating the land. If the crops are not handed over to the Adivasis, there is danger of starvation in the area in addition to the existing lawlessness,” says Koraput-based Patnaik. A few weeks is all there is to determine the possession of the harvests – before the crops rot and become useless for both the Adivasis and the non-tribals.
THE POLICE ASSAULTED AND ABUSED A CIVIL RIGHTS TEAM TRYING TO VISIT THE REGION
IN THE ordinary course of events, both the issues of possible starvation and continued repression of Adivasis in the villages of Narayanpatna would warrant an independent assessment. But in the war zone that is Narayanpatna, this is a remote possibility. When a team of nine women from various civil rights organisations attempted to travel to the region on 9 December 2009, they were severely abused and assaulted by the police and armed youth. A press statement issued by the team a day later provided a detailed account of how the team members were strangled, beaten up and assaulted repeatedly – even right outside the Narayanpatna police station. They were ultimately forced to return – without having travelled to the villages.
In a democracy, citizens are allowed to travel freely across the country. War zones are, of course, excluded. Has Narayanpatna in Orissa then become a war zone?
This article was originally published in Tehelka, a leading independent news magazine in India, known for its investigative journalism.