One more death of a Dalit-Adivasi in the Niyamgiri Region: Odisha

Three days ago, in a tragic, and yet another instance of what appears to be “custodial torture” an Adivasi under trial from the Kalahandi district of Orisssa was declared dead at VIMSA, Burla where he was admitted by the Bhawanipatna jail authorities in critical condition. He had been in prison since four months. He is survived by five daughters and his wife. She collapsed immediately upon getting the news of his death and was hospitalised. Villagers began gathering in angry protest. But the administration imposed Section 144 in the area around the refinery plant when his body was brought to the village. Both his arrest and his death have caused unimaginable distress to the family also because he was the sole earning member of his family. The entire area is grieving for his death.

The man who so tragically died to “brutal abuse” by the prison authorities is Patnaik Harijan – a 45-year-old undertrial in Kalahandi district of Odisha on August 23, 2019, a daily wage labourer from Rengapalli village of Lanjigarh block. There has been widespread protests and condemnation of the death and demands for a judicial probe into the custodial death of the under trial prisoner caused by sheer medical negligence. While in prison, his family or friends were not informed of his illness or his being taken to the hospital. This makes the circumstances of his illness and subsequent death even more suspicious.
A network of Coordination of Democratic Organisations (CDRO) had recently probed into the random arrests and repression of people in villages around the Vedanta Aluminium Ltd refinery plant in Lanjigarh ever since the death of a contract worker named Dani Batra who succumbed to injuries inflicted by a vicious lathicharge by the Odisha Industrial Security Force on March 18, 2019 at the gates of the refinery plant. In the same set of incidents, a constable of OISF, Sujit Minz, also lost his life. Instead of conducting a thorough probe into the entire set of events, the police and administration unleashed terror in arresting people allegedly involved in the death of the constable only.
The FIR that named 22 persons and 300 others led to people fleeing into the mountain for weeks and months under apprehension of being arrested. Patnaik Harijan, who died in jail custody on August 23, was one of the twenty nine people arrested. They had been charged under grievous offences: IPC sections 147, 148, 149, 323, 325, 436, 302 and 506 and under the Arms Act.
The joint report by CDRO and GASS (Odisha) released on August 18, 2019 has urged the Odisha government to put an end to the increasing intimidation, random arrests and continuous surveillance by CRPF forces. On July 24, five Dongria Kondh members of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) were arrested: Jilu Majhi, Tunguru Majhi, Range Majhi, Salpu Majhi and Patra Majhi. They were implicated in an earlier case in the year 2008-2009. On 15 May, Dodi Kadraka – a youth leader of the NSS – was arrested followed by the arrest of Sikunu Sikaka.
The latter was referred to as a hard core Maoist by the police. In the name of hunting down Maoists, the Odisha government dithers from entering into any dialogue with the local people and their just and democratic demands as assured by the Constitution and the Gram Sabha verdict of 2013.
Indeed, it is the biggest shame that those who seek to protect the grand Niyamgiri mountain and the entire eco-system which is tied to their lives, livelihood, faith and culture are being penalized through state terror and suffer imprisonment. On the other hand, the ecological damage done by Vedanta is being overlooked and local villagers suffering the pollution caused by the plant are hounded by the administration under false cases and they languish in jail.
The demands being made by the protesting human rights and civil liberties organizations, of the Odisha government, include:

  • A judicial enquiry into the death of Patnaik Harijan and take action against the jail authorities.
  • Cash compensation of Rs 50 lakhs to the family of Patnaik Harijan.
  • Withdrawal of all cases against those who are still in jail.
  • Withdrawal all CRPF forces from the entire Niyamgiri region.
  • Implementation of the 2013 Gram Sabha resolution to protect the Niyamgiri mountain.

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