It was the first week of May. The summer sun beat down on Lanjigarh, a town in the Kalahandi district of western Odisha, which appeared to have been reduced to an industrial wasteland. Beyond the stockpiles of toxic red mud and desert flats of fly ash, born from the refining of bauxite—the primary ore of aluminium— lay our destination: the thickly-forested Niyamgiri hills.
My companions, two Odia journalists, Maudi Barik and Venkateswar Padhi, picked a route that they were familiar with. Our walk through the forest was long, scattered with milestones I would have missed, had it not been for Barik and Padhi. “This is where the Maoists are said to have killed a police informer who wasn’t,” Padhi told me, pointing to a sunlit patch of forest by the side of the road. He added, “This is where they killed his brother who was.”
As we went deeper into the hills, leaving the dirt road behind, we ran into a group of boys bringing down mangoes from a giant tree, with an expert fling of a twig. Barik and Padhi recognised some of the older ones from a community college that the journalists had pooled in funds to start; they told me it is the one of the only colleges in the region. Among the fallen leaves and mango pits were hand-written posters in red and blue ink, issued by the Bansadhara-Ghumsar-Nagavali (BGM) division of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The posters called for the exit of Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha; Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and Vedanta Aluminum, a subsidiary of the UK-headquartered mining firm, from Niyamgiri. Vedanta’s billboards in Lanjigarh, in contrast, advertised the development that the company claimed to have brought to the region and boasted of achieving a standard of zero discharge of pollutants in its refinery’s operations. The signposts were a testament to the disputes that have long engulfed the region we were in, and the divergent claims that have been laid upon its forests and bedrock.
For the Maoists, Niyamgiri’s thick forests—on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—offer strategic cover for cadres on the run from fire up north. Its tactical importance for them has increased since the arrests of Maoist leaders such as Sabyasachi Panda and D Keshav Rao—who goes by the moniker Azad—in the past few years. For the Odisha Mining Corporation, the mining arm of the state government, the value of the hills lies in the region’s Lanjigarh-Niyamgiri deposit, which contains 88 million tonnes of bauxite. The OMC holds a claim over the deposit with a letter of intent towards a mining lease from the state government. For the Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh communities, who live in the Niyamgiri hills, the hills are tied to their religion, their identity and their survival. They believe that Niyamraja—their god of universal law—rules the mountain.
In 2004, the OMC entered into a memorandum of understanding with Vedanta Aluminium, which operates a massive alumina refinery at the base of the Niyamgiri hills. The memorandum was renewed in 2007 and 2014, and the latest version mandates that the Odisha government would supply Vedanta’s refinery with 150 million tonnes of bauxite. In November 2015, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change granted the refinery a clearance for a four-fold expansion—from producing one million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of alumina to four million tonnes per annum—which would inevitably increase its requirement for bauxite as well. The clearance also allows Vedanta to expand to six million tonnes per annum by merely obtaining an amendment in its environment clearance, without having to go through a fresh assessment process or a public hearing, as long as it successfully acquires land needed for the first two phases of the expansion project.
The ministry approved Vedanta’s request despite the company’s failures to identify adequate sources of bauxite that had requisite environment clearances to justify its 4 MTPA expansion—a condition that the ministry itself prescribed in its Terms of Reference for the project. In 2011, a Special Rapporteur to the National Human Rights Commission observed that “Vedanta has not done anything tangible to mitigate the grievances of the displaced and the project affected persons” and recommended the setting up of a committee to systematically monitor and evaluate Vedanta’s pollution impacts and rehabilitation. As of 2017, this was yet to be done. Eight families I spoke to in the villages of Rengopali and Bandaguda, located right next to Vedanta’s red-mud ponds—waste deposits created during the production of aluminium—said they were yet to be rehabilitated. All of them spoke of health issues—trouble breathing, burning eyes—and said that the water was unfit to drink.
The environment ministry’s clearance for the refinery’s expansion was also admitted despite prolonged resistance and a landmark referendum in 2013. For a decade-and-a-half now, the Niyamgiri hills have been at the centre of a conflict between the indigenous communities that inhabit the landscape, and Vedanta. Plans for the Lanjigarh refinery and Niyamgiri mine date as far back as April 1997, when the OMC signed over its rights to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills to Vedanta. Locals, however, told me that they only became aware about the project in 2002, when they received notices from district officials telling them their land was to be compulsorily acquired for the refinery, which was built in 2008.
This strife came to a head in 2013, when the Supreme Court directed that the villages affected by the mining would decide on the company’s contentious plans to mine the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite. The Odisha government identified 12 village assemblies or gram sabhas in Niyamgiri, all of which unanimously rejected the company’s proposal. Following this, the environment ministry rejected Vedanta’s application for a forest clearance to mine in Niyamgiri. The referendum seems to not have deterred the company in the slightest. Its efforts are underway to procure more bauxite to feed the refinery. The aluminium ore will arrive in trucks from places as far off as Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Australia and as near as the deposit of Kodingamali in Koraput, a neighbouring district in which the company has identified more deposits. Ore for the refinery is currently being sourced from mines in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.
In the four years since the referendum, the Odisha government has made several attempts to reintroduce mining in the Niyamgiri Hills in order to meet the requirements of the plant in Lanjigarh. In 2016, the state government filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking that the results of the referendum be annulled and fresh village councils be convened. (The Supreme Court quashed the petition.) Recently, it reportedly sought the advice of the advocate general on whether it can put the mining block up for auction.
Meanwhile, the local opposition to this project has only fortified. At the forefront of this resistance since its inception, has been a local group called the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS)—which comprises people from tribal communities such as the Dongria and the Kutia Kondh. In April 2017, the union home ministry, in its annual report, made the widely-criticised claim that the NSS was acting on behalf of Maoists and had been using the “displacement of local communities” as its main plank.
“They are saying that the Maoists are the reason for our backwardness. For so many years, the Indian government has not stepped in to provide us any of this development that they speak of. But now that Vedanta is here, everybody is coming here and associating us and our resistance with the Maoists,” Ladda Sikaka, one of the senior-most leaders of the NSS, told me when I met him during my visit to Odisha in May. “The historic referendum [in 2013] would not have taken place if the Maoists had their way,” Prafulla Samantara, the state president of the Lok Shakti Abhiyaan—an Odisha based organisation—said. (In April 2017, Samantara won the Goldman Environmental Prize—popularly called the Green Nobel—for his work in support of the Niyamgiri movement.) He continued, “Instead it was the NSS who convinced people of the benefits of participating in this democratic exercise, and claiming their rights. The home ministry’s report is full of manufactured lies, because now they want to threaten the tribal community in Niyamgiri through this police repression.”
Soon after news publications reported on the home ministry’s report, Ashish Kothari, an environmental activist, drafted a letter addressed to Pranab Mukherjee, the former president of India, and Modi, condemning the ministry’s position. The letter, to which over 70 organisations and 50 individuals were signatories, also noted the manner in which state authorities had been harassing Dongria Kondhs from the Niyamgiri hills. It said, “The continued targeting of the Dongria Kondh community 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, and fragment their movement?” Less than a month later, Kuni Sikaka—a 20-year-old Dongria Kondh woman—who is associated with the NSS and is also Ladda’s niece, was arrested and presented at a press conference as a Maoist who surrendered, all within a span of 36 hours.
We made our way to Lakhpadar, a village in the Niyamgiri hills, where Kuni emerged from her home. She was a young girl when the resistance started 14 years ago, and grew up in the movement that she later became the face of by playing a leading role in organising the village assemblies for the referendum in 2013 and travelling outside the region to talk about the Niyamgiri struggle. In 2017, she married Jagili Pusika, a vocal anti-Vedanta activist and the son of Dadhi Pusika, a senior NSS leader, and moved to their village, Gorata.
Kuni shook the hands of my male companions, but was wary. In these parts, even a handshake could cast suspicion on your leanings. She told me that late at night on 1 May 2017, she was jolted out of her sleep by the sounds of the police knocking on the doors of her father-in-law’s home in Gorata. She said that close to 50 personnel—including members of the Rayagada Special Operations Group, which is a paramilitary unit in Odisha, inspectors, and three women police officials—had arrived at Gorata to arrest her, and had cordoned off the village.
“I was asleep with my husband. When we opened the door, they searched the house. The police caught hold of my husband and led him outside. Then when I followed him, they arrested me,” Kuni said. The officials escorted her to the village of Sakota, where she said, three trucks and two Boleros were waiting to take her to the Rayagada police station. Kuni was not given a reason for her arrest. “When I asked them why they were taking me away, they said ‘We don’t know anything, but you can find out at the Rayagada SP’s office, where they want to put some case on you.’”
At the station, Kuni said, the superintendent of police of Rayagada, K Siva Subramani, and the deputy inspector general interrogated her. “There, the SP started asking me why I was roaming around with Naxals and that this is why they arrested me. He started naming Naxals who he said had confessed against me,” said Kuni. “I told him I am not a Maoist, I didn’t understand these things he was saying. I told him that I wasn’t with the Maoists when these incidents he accused me of happened, but he kept threatening me with 12 to 15 years in jail if I didn’t surrender.”
When I spoke to Subramani on 15 May, he claimed that Kuni was arrested on the morning of 2 May, “after taking all the legal measures” and that he got his orders from the state police headquarters. “After hearing all about our surrender policy, she was very, very happy and she surrendered before us and we are going to extend the surrender policy benefits to her also,” Subramani told me, “So accordingly, we showed her surrender before the media, and the same day, we have sent her with her family.”
But Kuni was not released the same day. It was only after her father-in-law Dadhi Pusika came looking for her on the morning of 3 May and spoke to the regional media in Odisha, that Subramani’s office came under fire. The same evening, a hurried press conference was called at the SP’s office. In their press release, the police officials stated that Kuni was “a hardcore cadre Maoist belonging to the Bansadhara-Ghumusara-Nagavali Division of the outlawed CPI (Maoist),” with a bounty of Rs 1,00,000 on her head, and charges of arson and murder to her name. But Kuni was not the only one paraded in front of cameras. The police officials also included Kuni’s husband Jagili, and relatives, Dadhi, Dama, Laxman Pusika and Kumari Rani Sikkoka in the press conference, declaring them “supporters of CPI (Maoist)” and falsely “surrendered” them, as part of a condition that only then would they release Kuni. Kuni and her family were finally released an hour after the press conference.
Kuni faced a kinder fate than Manda Kadraka—a 20-year-old Dongria Kondh man—who, villagers told me, was killed in 2016 by members of police forces who claimed that he was a Maoist. Another member of the Dongria Kondh community, Dasru Kadraka, a 25-year-old member of the NSS, was arrested in April 2016 and continues to languish in the Bissam-Cuttack jail. He was charged with nine cases, including planting IEDs, killing a police informer, pasting Maoist posters and blockading roads. In an interview with a six-member fact-finding team that included activists Priya Pillai and Kavita Krishnan, who visited the region in May 2017 following Kuni’s surrender, Dasru said he was “tortured with my hands tied, electric wires attached to my ears and electric shock given to me, to force me to surrender as a Maoist and to make me leave the Save Niyamgiri movement. But I refused—I am not a Maoist, why should I say I am? The andolan [movement] is my life, I will never stop protecting the Niyamgiri hills and forests.”
Some do not survive the persistent persecution. In November 2015, Drika Kadraka, a vocal Dongria Kondh NSS activist, committed suicide. A few days before Drika took his own life, police officials had reportedly picked him up from Ambadhuni village. His family members alleged that his death was an outcome of the prolonged police harassment he was subjected to. “We used to live in peace before, now it feels like there is a constant threat that one of us will be picked up,” Ladda told me.
During a press conference in Bhubaneswar on 5 June 2017, members of the NSS also noted the arrest of Saiba Pusika, a 17-year old from the village of Gorata, who they said was picked up from the market in February and continues to be detained in the Berhampur juvenile jail. On 24 June, the NSS lost another leader, when Bari Pidikaka, a 67-year-old leader of the NSS, died at the Cuttack hospital. Pidikaka had spent almost two years in Rayagada district jail as an undertrial prisoner on allegations of rape. While serving his sentence, Pidikaka was said to have developed a serious illness, because of which he had to be taken to the hospital, where he died a few hours later. According to NSS activists such as Lingaraj Azad, he died under “suspicious circumstances” and that his family members were not informed of the severity of his illnesses. On 27 June, the Odisha Human Rights Commission accepted a complaint filed by his son Bata Pidikaka, who alleged that custodial torture was the cause of his father’s death.
In the same annual report in which it implicated the NSS, the home ministry also claimed that surrenders in anti-Left Wing Extremism (LWE)—the state’s official term for Maoist insurgency—operations went up by a staggering 411 percent in 2016, when compared to 2013. The so-called surrenders of activists, according to sociologist Nandini Sundar, provides more leverage than arrests would. “One is the legal reason—a surrender gives the police much more flexibility. You can play good cop and bad cop for as long as you like, since the cases don’t really go away. In an arrest, you have to produce them in front of a magistrate in 24 hours,” she said.
Another reason is the pressure it creates on those who are forced to surrender. In February 2012, the Odisha government notified the Scheme for Surrender and Rehabilitation of Left Wing Extremists, which includes that “every surrendered extremist” should make a “public statement/confession of his voluntary surrender through the media” to become eligible for assistance for rehabilitation. This confession by camera is required irrespective of the legal status of the cases against them. “It is part of [an] increasing psychological operation to keep people in a state of fear. Their public surrender additionally shows them as broken and discourages others from participating in resistance movements,” said Sundar. Eligibility for the rehabilitation scheme also requires a “surrendered extremist” to reveal the identity of the members and financiers of the organisation. Sundar also pointed to the financial incentive—the money that police stations in LWE-districts receive for the purpose of rehabilitation packages for those who surrender provide an opportunity for police officials to supplement their income and project high surrender statistics as well.
As part of the Odisha LWE surrender scheme, each “surenderee” is entitled to receive compensation for arms surrendered, the cash equivalent of a four decimal—a unit of land measurement where one decimal is approximately one hundredth of an acre—homestead land and a payment of Rs 2,50,000 or Rs 1,00,000, depending upon their position in the organisation. However, apart from police officers supplementing their income, several “surrenderees” have not received any compensation for other reasons as well. A story published in the Asian Age, in June 2016, reported that only 68 of the 171 Maoists who surrendered in Odisha between January 2014 and February 2016 had received the rehabilitation packages that were due to them. The story notes the rest were unable to provide the information to meet the eligibility criteria. A story in the Indian Express from Chhattisgarh, published in December 2014, similarly reported that not a single one of 136 Maoists believed to have surrendered in Chhattisgarh from January 2009 to May 2014 had received surrender benefits. In September 2016, the National Human Rights Commission confirmed allegations that Adivasi youths in Jharkhand had been persuaded by police officials to falsely surrender as Maoists between 2011 and 2012. As many as 514 individuals were reportedly persuaded to surrender under the promise of jobs in the paramilitary forces, with some young tribal men reportedly paying up to Rs 2 lakh to be recruited.
Surrender policies prevalent in the states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand do not guarantee the removal of charges for a confession. This is good, because a surrender should not guarantee amnesty for perpetrators on any side. “The scheme contains no safeguards to ensure that people are not coerced into confessions or surrenders,” said Shailesh Rai, law and policy advisor at Amnesty International India. “This can be easily abused, especially when these surrenders are non-voluntary.”
Kuni’s abduction fell into the latter category. Her trial was by night. The police officials did not seek her consent, nor did they provide her with a reason for taking her. She was marched through the forest and interrogated without being given access to a lawyer or produced in front of a magistrate. The public surrender of Kuni and her relatives, conducted before the media, also served as a warning to other members of the movement. She risks being picked up and jailed again, if the police so wishes, whether for her ostensible safety as someone who has surrendered or as an arrest.
There was wide-spread outrage over Kuni’s arrest. “How can they walk into a village leader’s home at night, abduct and illegally confine his daughter-in-law for over 36 hours?” said Samantara. “If the government proclaims that this is a Maoist-affected area, then why hasn’t it arrested any Maoists yet? Why is it continuing to target only members of the NSS?” asked Sudhir Pattnaik, a journalist from Samadrusti media, who has extensively documented the movement.
In response to observations around the targeting of NSS activists, Subramani, the SP of Rayagada police station, said, “Very few members of the NSS are very staunch sympathisers and supporters of Naxals.” When asked about combing operations intensifying, he defended his image by telling me that he was a literature student, and a lover of “primitive tribes” and their culture. “Because Naxals are there, we are bound to operate over there. So we ask the NSS to conduct all rallies in a democratic way and we would not bother about these things, we’d even support them. But in presence of Naxals, and in support of Naxals, we cannot allow them,” he told me.
On 25 April 2017—barely a week before Kuni was arrested—the NSS conducted a demonstration. It had procured permission from Kalahandi police to protest outside the alumina factory premises, against the expansion of Vendanta’s refinery in Lanjigarh and against the home ministry linkage of the NSS with Maoists. However, the rally was quickly dispersed when the angry protestors placed locks on the refinery complex gate. “You say we do not have the permission to lock the factory gate. But Vedanta does not have permission to mine here—then why don’t they pick up their factory and leave?” said Ladda.
The battle in Niyamgiri is far from over. The Dongria Kondh are wedged between two sets of guns, and an ever-widening refinery that threatens their way of life. Meanwhile, Niyamgiri still lies within Vedanta’s line of sight. “We have done everything. We conducted the palli sabhas, the Supreme Court ordered in our favour. Then why do we have to deal with this again and again?” said Ladda. “How many times do we have to say no?”
Aruna Chandrasekhar is a photojournalist and researcher, working on issues of development, land alienation, indigenous rights and corporate accountability in India for the last six years. Follow her at @aruna_sekhar.