Odisha: 3 activists arrested for speaking truth to power in fact-finding report

Civil society and human rights groups detailed the continued oppression in Jagatsinghpur’s Dhinkia region during 2021

Anti- Jindal and Anti-POSCO Movement

Another brutal assault by security personnel was reported on Odisha’s peaceful protestors in Dhinkia village on January 14, 2022. Anti- Jindal and Anti-POSCO Movement leaders Debendra Swain, Murlidhar Sahu and INSAF State Convener Narendra Mohanthy were arrested shortly after they released a fact-finding report on previous crackdowns by the administration.

According to villagers, the leaders were illegally detained by the Abhaychandpur police while several villagers suffered injuries during lathicharge. Residents also claimed the personnel houses and targeted women and children.   

The conflict between authorities and villagers has persisted since 2005 when POSCO-India Private Limited aired a plan to start a development project in the area. Locals resisted the idea citing the issue of settlement of forest rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006. After the company backed away in 2017, the High-Level Clearance Authority (HLCA) chaired by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik transferred the land to the JSW Utkal Steel Limited (JUSL). This move in itself violated the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) of 2013. Yet, authorities even granted a forest clearance despite claims that the villagers faced severe oppression from police.

Finally, near the end of November 2021, villagers resumed protests against further division of Dhinkia into two revenue villages without the consent of residents. Similarly, they said that the administration, on multiple occasions, destroyed their beetle vines, causing severe economic damage.

To detail such instances of conflict, the Civil Society Forum on Human Rights (CSFHR), the Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA) and Indian Social Action Forum(INSAF) drafted a fact-finding report on December 18, 2021, with the help of movement leaders. It indicated the “corporate-State’s” attempts to target Swain, the leader of the Jindal Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, spearheading the peaceful resistance.

Villagers held protests at the site of demarcation work and in an open ground on the outskirts of Dhinkia village, attended by thousands of adults and children. Rallies were also taken out along main roads in villages as participants shouted slogans decrying government high-handedness. Although the initial protest took place on July 5, 2021 to oppose demarcation work, the real crackdown began when yet another demarcation effort failed on December 1.

Officials resorted to registering FIRs against protestors and HRDs, prima facie all of them fabricated. The team interviewing villagers found that FIRs mentioned some individuals who were not in Dhinkia on the day of the alleged incident. Even people above 70 years and those who need help for daily chores have been mentioned in the FIRs. Village leaders accused the police of referring to the voting list to indiscriminately build numbers and names and target those closely associated with leader Debendra Swain.

“False and fabricated FIRs continue to remain tools to oppress people’s resistance in Dhinkia. Of the close to 400 FIRs registered since the protests against POSCO, not a single conviction has occurred, speaking volumes of the conduct of police in Abhayachandpur police station,” said the report.

Targeting of Debendra Swain

On December 2, police personnel arrived in seven jeeps and launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters opposing a fresh round of demarcation exercise in Mahala. Police failed to arrest Debendra Swain, but arrested his paternal uncle Ajodhya Swain and elder daughter Mili Swain. Villagers said police had arrived at his house but could not find him. The 71-year old paralysis patient and 22-year-old woman were charged under various sections of the IPC including criminal intimidation.

This incident was a culmination of the several reprisals and institutional attacks on the grassroot leader. Debendra Swain was elected to the Dhinkia panchayat samiti (PS) in 2017. He objected to the creation of new revenue villages in the panchayat area and participated in peaceful protests in Patana and Mahala on multiple occasions since July 2021. He also objected to the lack of adequate notice for demarcation activities.

In response, he received a show-cause notice on September 30, from the Panchayati Raj department accusing Swain of abusing his powers as a PS member by obstructing official vehicles and abusing officials. The report went on to say he threatened to murder officials with bomb blasts and that “he is a habitual obstructor in every developmental works executed through PRIs. He is opposing various beneficiary-oriented government schemes violating rights of common masses.”

Following this notice, Swain was expelled from the panchayat samiti in October 2021. The expulsion of an elected representative on the recommendation of the local administration raises serious concerns regarding the possibility of further reprisals, said the report.

Demands for justice

Following interviews and referring official documents, the fact-finding team stated that the rights of gram sabhas should not be taken away from the people. Gram sabhas must be allowed proper time to deliberate, discuss, and decide about any project, creation of new revenue villages and demarcation of territories for the same.

Similarly, all cases against all human rights defenders and protestors in the area must be withdrawn immediately to uphold the right to peaceful assembly and expression. Members also condemned the massive deployment of security forces. They demanded an independent team of business and human rights, law, forest rights, agriculture, corporate affairs experts to examine the actions of the administration and police and determine if the past actions were in fact legal procedure.

“The National and State Human Rights Commissions must record and inquire all instances of police violence in Dhinkia and recommend medical treatment and compensation to all victims, and disciplinary and legal actions against police and administrative officials,” they said in the report.

Further, they called upon the NHRC to engage its core groups on ‘Business, Environment and Human Rights’ and ‘NGOs and Human Rights Defenders’ to jointly inquire the allegations against the government in handing over the project to JUSL, compliance to all legal processes for JUSL to operate and crackdown on peaceful dissent in Dhinkia, Jagatsinghpur district.

The full report may be read here:


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