Two decades after the Koel-Karo uprising, what has changed?

Clashes between corporates and peasantry have been a recurrent part of history. However, the Uprising of the Munda community in Jharkhand is a huge reminder of the victory that lies at the end.

construction of a dam on the South Koel river on February 2, 2001.

Every year on February 1,2 and 3, Tapkara Adivasi (indigenous people) villagers and nearby people gather to pay their respects to seven Adivasis and one Muslim activist who were killed by local police while opposing the construction of a dam on the South Koel river on February 2, 2001.

While many protests of the past have paled in comparison to the on-going farmers’ struggle, the uprising started by the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan (KKJS) stands apart in the fact that the locals won this battle against corporate and state repression. In many ways, the KKJS victory that saved 132 villages and about 50,000 acres of their cultivable and forest land from inundation provides hope for the farmers’ struggle.

Prior to the police firing in 2001, locals were already decrying the hydro-electric project that called for the construction of two dams; a 44 meters high dam across the South Koel river near Basia and another 55 meters high dam across the North Karo river near Lohajima. It was proposed in 1973 to generate 710 megawatts of electricity but faced vehement opposition in 1974-75 by Munda community members, who would have to face displacement if the project was undertaken.

After decade-long organised protests, the community intensified its struggle amassing nearly 5,000 protesters on June 10 in Torpa region. On June 26, 15,000 people marched into Tapkara region that forced the government to declare a “people’s curfew.”

Meanwhile, the KKJS declared July 5 as Sankalp Diwas, the same day that then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was to lay the foundation stone for the project. This discouraged Rao from attending the event and emboldened the KKJS to continue preventing any government official from approaching the project area. Accordingly, over 25,000 people blocked the road by lying on it and preventing the then Chief Minister’s helicopter from landing anywhere. The people’s movement was backed by opposition parties and human rights organisations.

Considering all this, it is easy to draw parallels between the farmers’ movement and the anti-dam struggle of Jharkhand’s indigenous population. However, while the Tapkara uprising remains one of the biggest anti-dam movements of India, it also acts as a gross reminder of police repression.

Altercations between police and locals continued as the days went on. Police barricaded the area, while villagers refused to give up their heritage land. Finally, on February 2, police opened fire at a gathered crowd of the Munda community. The eight martyrs were killed during this firing while around 35 people escaped narrowly, with injuries. The site of firing was later renamed as “Shaheed Sthal.”

The incident resulted in huge outrage, strengthening the community’s resolve to stay the dam project. They succeeded. In 2003, the Jharkhand Chief Minister Arjun Munda scrapped the project although the official sanction was sent out in 2010.

The Koel Karo movement thus became a symbol of a persevered and successful struggle of the peasantry against state repression. Members of the Munda community continue to emphasise that they will protect their forest land from corporate investment.

Again, there are significant similarities between this movement and the on-going peasants’ movement. Farmers state the people in power have made pro-corporate policies that harm the economically-disadvantaged people. Continued protests after the Republic Day of 2021 observed cement barricading along Delhi borders. Supporters have also widely condemned Delhi police for its treatment of protesters. Most of all, the farmers’ struggle has received huge support from various people’s organisations and everyday citizens.

However, as remarked by Adivasi activist and one of the forefront leaders of the Koel-Karo movement Fr. Stan Swamy , it is important to remember the sacrifices made by the community to protect their rights.

“The sacrifices this struggle paid were high. The success of stopping a disastrous dam from taking shape, was at the cost of the people of KKJS making a heart-breaking sacrifice… 35 of them being seriously wounded, five of whom have become handicapped for life. Their present struggle is being inspired by this truth. The blood of our martyrs will not go in vain,” said Swamy in 2003.

Meanwhile, farmers and workers continue a united front in opposing similar pro-corporate policies of the central government that could cost the peasantry their birthrights.


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