Monday, December 28, 2009

State-sponsored lawlessness at Narayanpatna

Indian Express

Javed Iqbal

After the November 20 police firing at Narayanpatna, Orissa, which left two tribals dead and many injured, the situation has not only turned grim for the adivasis but a media blackout is helping to hide the complete militarisation of the area.

There are reports that around 73 adivasis and members of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh have been beaten and arrested. While the jailer of Koraput was instructed not to allow the detainees to meet anyone, their lawyer, Nihar Ranjan Patnaik, claims that around 15 of the arrested are minors. Considering they are in Koraput jail, it is a violation of the Juvenile Justice Act for minors are meant to be held in a juvenile remand home.

Added to this was the recent attack on the all-India, all-women fact-finding team by the newly formed ‘Shanti Committee’ with the alleged patronage of the police.

The Shanti Committee itself consists of non-tribals such as the Sondis and Patnaiks and includes numerous Schedule Caste members of the Dom and Paidi Castes. It was formed to curtail the growing influence of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh which reclaimed vast areas of Fifth Schedule land from them. The burning of the homes of the Dalits by CMAS activists had taken place in the villages of Padapader, Tolagoomandi and Upurgoomandi in May this year. The administration had provided the displaced with makeshift shelters, and after the November 20 firing, there are only 329 Harijans out of 674 Harijans displaced at the shelter.

The liquor prohibition diktat of the CMAS had also seriously hampered the liquor mafia whose stranglehold over the Narayanpatna tribals had all but vanished. There are reports that the liquor mafia has reclaimed lost territory in Narayanpatna after the firing, after which the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh was suppressed and their members went into hiding.

When it came to the fact-finding team, the Shanti Committee was wary of the intentions of the fact-finding team, believing that they were there in support of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh. Superintendent of Police, Koraput, Deepak Chouhan Kumar, had no sympathy for the fact-finding team, “We didn’t beat this ‘so-called’ fact-finding team, we protected them from the mob.” The activists on the other hand claim that the mob was instigated by the police. Yet their case is not an isolated incident. There are many other activists and party workers who have been beaten, harassed, arrested and killed at Narayanpatna. A few members of the CPI (ML) (Liberation) and the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee who openly support the CMAS were beaten while returning from the funeral of the adivasis killed in the firing.

Tapan Mishra, an activist, who is associated with the CMAS, and is an official member of the legal CPI (ML) (Kanu Sanyal group), was arrested under Section 121 (waging war against the state) and 124A (sedition). Amnesty International has already condemned his arrest and called for his unconditional release stating that he has no links with the Maoists and he was only arrested after it became known that he accompanied a seven member fact-finding team to Narayanpatna. Along with him, a member of the legal UCCRI (ML) (Unity Centre of Communist Revolution in India), was also arrested.

The deceased adivasis themselves were activists. K. Singanna was one of the leaders of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh and was allegedly shot ten times in the back. On the day of the shooting, it was alleged that the adivasis had gathered to protest the mistreatment of adivasi women that was taking place during combing operations.

The police claimed that they had fired in self-defence after the adivasis tried to seize weapons. The local press was only allowed into the area, some two hours later. And when they arrived, they found the camp shot full of arrows. Interestingly, the police had also barged into adivasi homes and confiscated traditional weapons during their combing operations.

Yet the murder of activists is not new to Narayanpatna. On May 9, 2008, Narayan Hareka was allegedly murdered on the outskirts of Narayanpatna. The police claimed he was killed in an accident while his wife and his colleagues believe he was murdered.

His body was found brutally disfigured — his eye had been gouged out, his neck was gashed and his hand was smashed in multiple places. He was alive when they first found him but beyond recognition. He was taken to the local PHC around 8 p.m. but he had to be referred to Vishakapatnam. Yet the journey only commenced after a long delay around 11 p.m. Narayan Hareka died just 20 km from the PHC.

As an activist from the Kondh tribe, he struggled against the illegal liquor trade, land alienation of the tribals, the debt trap and he was, during his last few days, investigating irregularities in the implementation of NREGs. It was no secret that Hareka had made a lot of enemies amongst the powerful. Yet it was always the debt trap that led to the growing resentment between tribals and non-tribals at Narayanpatna. It was well known that the tribals often found themselves addicted to liquor, and would end up parting with their lands and their freedom to cover the debts that alcohol had brought on to them. Bonded labour was not a secret in Narayanpatna. Nachika Linga, leader of the Charsi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, himself was a bonded labourer who used to receive around Rs. 60 a year, just ten years ago.

When it came to legal or illegal acquisition of tribal land by the non-tribals, the Joint Commissioner (Settlements) was instructed to receive complaints regarding irregularities in the earlier 1961 settlement. However, no one approached him. He instead recommended that the adivasis take the matter to court. The recommendations were accepted by the collector who had informed the lawyer Nihar Ranjan Patnaik, president of the Bar Association, Koraput, to take up the matter.

However, he’s not able to visit the Tehsildar at Narayanpatna to collect land records considering allegations that his life is in danger. He is instead dealing with a flood of cases regarding the arrest of many activists and villagers from Narayanpatna.

Adding to the woes of the tribals and non-tribals, is the threat of rotting paddy as there is no one there to harvest it. Both the collector and the sub-collector have made numerous visits to the area to assess the situation.

Oddly, the Shanti Committee even called for the suspension of the collector of Koraput for his close association with the adivasis after the CMAS had burnt down their homes in May. Some have gone so far to condemn the fact that he speaks Jatapur, the local dialect. The collector, Gadhadhar Parida, had initially brought both communities together for a hearing after the initial burning of the village of Padepadar. He was eventually transferred for a period of four months during the elections, when the situation had escalated beyond reconciliation.

“90 per cent of the people of Narayanpatna are tribals, and I’m not supposed to listen their grievances? And if I don’t who will?” he asked in his office on the day of the attack on the fact-finding committee.

Addressing the socio-economic causes is now more difficult and many activists have raised the alarm concerning mass atrocities. The Maoists too have called for punishment to the parties concerned.

In a letter written to the press, Comrade Rumal, of the CPI (Maoist) Malkangiri Divisional Committee, has called for a ‘death sentence’ to be delivered to the MLAs and MPs of Malkangiri and Koraput if the atrocities did not stop.

Many observers believe this is just another attempt by the Maoists to hijack a people’s movement. Similarly, observers find that the story that the CMAS is a Maoist-front, suspect, while Pramod Samantaraya, an award-winning journalist of Dhariti newspaper, an Oriya Daily, has his own idea.

“Whether they’re supported by the Maoists or not, it’s irrelevant,” he says, “their grievances are all too real. What some people in the state want to do is to brand them as a Maoist front so that they can deal with the movement militarily.” Yet the police can justify their reason for a presence in the area.

Nine security personnel were killed in an IED blast at nearby Bandhugaun on June 18.

The explosives used were allegedly the same explosives stolen from the Nalco raid on April 12, that left nine CISF personnel and five Maoists dead.

Similarly at Bandugaum, the Maoists have killed Bhogi Ramesh of Kattulapet village, Bijoy Pigal of Sulupolamada village and Balram Sahukar from Nellawadi village over the last year and a half. In neighbouring Khumbari, they also killed Patra Khosla from Bagam village. In all the cases, the victims were described as police informers. In two cases the villagers were killed in completely arbitrary circumstances — without any knowledge of the allegations against them.

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