On August 6, 2023, the Odisha police lodged an FIR against nine people associated with the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti (NSS) under charges of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 and the Indian Penal Code. The charges came a day after two of NSS’ activists, Krushna Sikaka and Bari Sikaka, were allegedly abducted by the police in plainclothes from Lanjigarh haat in the Kalahandi district where they were meeting villagers to discuss upcoming celebrations of the World Adivasi Day. When other NSS activists contacted police regarding this abduction, the police continued to deny it. In response, the NSS called for a protest in front of Kalyansinghpur police station, seeking the whereabouts of the abducted activists. When this protest was dispersing, there was an altercation and the police even reportedly tried to detain Drenju Krisika, another activist of the NSS, right from among the crowd and it was only the collective effort and strength of the villagers which prevented this abduction. It is after this attempt that the police filed the FIR against the nine activists, which included names like the NSS’ Lada Sikaka, Drenju Krisika, Lingaraj Azad, the Khandualmali Surakhya Samiti’s British Kumar and poet Lenin Kumar.
These developments and the use of so-called anti-terror laws against Adivasi activists few days prior to World Adivasi Day on August 9 has been condemned as being an attack on the people’s struggle led by the Dongria Kondh tribe, who have been fighting the bid to resist destruction of the Niyamgiri mountains through various mining projects. In 2003, the Indian state signed a memorandum of understanding with Vedanta Limited for establishing a mining project for extracting the bauxite in Niyamgiri mountains. The project had the potential to displace the residents of the mountains and surrounding areas from their traditional lands and cause vast environmental destruction which would have ramifications not only for the immediate residents of the area but for the people of Odisha at large, with Niyamgiri’s unique bauxite composition playing a major role in filtering river water which flows down across the state. The vigorous struggle of the people of Niyamgiri against this move by the state finally culminated in a Supreme Court judgement which refused to permit Vedanta Limited from continuing their mining operations in Niyamgiri. The judgement also highlighted how the state had flouted various legal provisions in granting Vedanta Limited the rights, even though the judgement itself did not ensure the end of mining operations in Niyamgiri, with the judges going so far as to inviting Vedanta’s subsidiary, Sterlite, to apply for mining in Niyamgiri instead. As the residents of the Niyamgiri area continued their struggle to protect their rights to their own land in the subsequent decade, the state has reportedly further intensified its repressive measures to dissuade them from engaging in any democratic struggle by abducting activists, charging them with anti-terror laws, changing titleship provisions to evict the locals from their lands and various other forms of police harassment and violence.
Environmentally conscious people’s movements have been highlighting the fact that it is not only Niyamgiri alone but the entire region of Eastern Ghats where various such mining projects are threatening people’s lives. On the same day, August 6, in Kashipur, Rayagada, protests and demonstrations took place against the operations bauxite hills of Sijimali and Kutrumali, projects of Vedanta and Adani Groups respectively. Vedanta hired another company, Maitri, to resolve the issue and hold gram sabha meetings to convince local residents in favour of the projects but stiff resistance from the people ensured that the company’s plans didn’t come to fruition. This subsequently led to the activists organizing these demonstrations being detained by the police late at night in a similar fashion. They were then recently produced in court and have, according to sources, shown signs of physical violence and torture. On August 16, seven more people were reportedly picked up by the police from Sijimali area and will be presented in court soon. All these questionable acts by the Orissa police have raised serious questions on the right to protest and the safety of Adivasi human rights defenders.
Pertinently, the two reportedly illegally detained activists were found after a writ of habeas corpus was filed in the High Court which forced the police to produce the activists, Krushna Sikaka and Bari Sikaka. While Bari Sikaka was released, Krushna Sikaka has been sent to jail due to a 2018 rape charge filed against him. Since 2018, Krushna Sikaka has been seen participating in public meetings and demonstrations, but the police made no move on him for five years and this raises doubts on whether this charge is only to ensure Krushna Sikaka’s incarceration. Furthermore, one other accused in this case, Upendra Bhoi of the NSS, was initially reported missing by his family on 10th August but has now finally been located in Raygada jail on August 15.