In The Undeclared War Zone Of South Orissa

November 18, 2010

By Debaranjan Sarangi

November 18, 2010

The context

Southern Orissa has come in to for more media attention only since last two to three years. Occasionally, it covered the pages when there were deaths due to starvation, malaria or chikungunya, and episodes of diarrhoea; sporadic land struggles like those at Raighar in Nabarangpur district; or anti-mining struggles such as the one in Kashipur. This news would trickle in, before more extreme events started to occur.

For last two years we have been hearing about Maoist violence and counter-violence by the police in these areas (this area has a history of police violence). The Maoists have killed lower class people of the area as ‘police informers’ and the police has picked up innocent people, though the two violations cannot be equated.

The greyhound police of AP and nowadays the CRPF are carrying out encounter killings. They have ‘encounters’ with cadres of Maoists (from Ramanaguda incident to Chitrokanda incident) and innocent people (more recently in Malkangiri). In some cases, the police nab the Maoist cadres and in retaliation Maoists kill CRPFs, armed police and SPOs.

Why this violence is ?

The background

South Orissa comprises six districts e.g. Ganjam, Gajapati, Rayagada, Koraput, Nabarangpur and Malkangiri, where the majority of the people are tribals. Agriculture and collecting forest produce is their main livelihood. Now people have started migrating to other areas in search of work, which can be called seasonal migration.

Almost every kind of development project has come up in Orissa (e.g. irrigation and power projects like Machhkund, Balimela, Kalimela, Indravati, Upper Kolab etc and industrial projects like NALCO, JK paper, IMFA, SEWA paper project, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) in these areas. Even so, these areas have highest poverty rate. The Orissa economic survey 2009-2010 confirms this point (66% which is much higher than the state average).

It has often been reported as to how the displaced people have failed to get proper compensation in the above development projects. This is noticed when the project-displaced people conduct demonstrations and demand justice. But again, these voices are suppressed through different means.

The big question that comes to everyone’s mind is: who benefits from such projects? Gradually, this question gave birth to Kashipur-like struggles, and tribals opposed bauxite mining projects.

Due to these developmental projects, many outsiders started coming to these areas. They became land-grabbers and by various means they have occupied tribal land as well as community land or government land. Apart from them, many traders from Andhra Pradesh moved to the interior districts of southern Orissa after the Srikakulam struggle (1964-71). North Indian traders, specifically the Marwari community, also came to these areas from MP (now Chhatishgarh). Besides them, many coastal people who were in various administrative jobs in the Orissa government, also settled here and tried to become the godfather of the tribals.

An obvious nexus has built up over these years between these vested groups, and they ‘divided’ the region between themselves and tried to ‘rule’ over the tribals. We can find one or two of them in a radius of every few kilometers, exploiting tribals e.g. using the free labour of tribals, cheating in prices of their produce, illegal transfer of tribal land, diverting all welfare schemes for their own purposes, sexually exploiting tribal girls and entering into fake marriages to avoid laws.

I was surprised when I found three pattas of same land with three different owners in Mathili block of Malkanagiri district. Also one Ravana Murthy, Ex-chairman of Mathili Block, a Telugu businessman and owner of a rice mill, married three tribal girls and kept their land pattas from the respective fathers-in-law and subsequently threw them out. In one case of Malkanagiri Block of the same district, one tribal filed a case in court with the help of a few sympathiesers and court gave its decision favouring the tribal. But that tribal has failed to occupy the land because the police and tahsildar are not cooperating.

These mischievous occurrences could not have taken place without the connivance of the relevant departments of the government of Orissa, and more specifically the revenue department and police.

In south Orissa, schools and hospitals have failed to provide services (now a days these are called as BPL institutions like BPL school, BPL hospital by the public). The walls of these government institutions only point to the existence of different welfare programmes of the government, e.g. hundred percent literacy, preventions of malaria deaths, NREGS and protecting forests. Job cards are with the villagers but they do not show a dot mark inside. Here, bonda tribes are counted as most ‘efficient workers’ who are poorly paid and made to work like bonded labour in the agricultural fields, mills, hotels, houses and rice mills.

All these stories remain untold because the media has never tried to reach out to the victims. When there is some grave incident, like death or killings, the matter comes to public notice and without being analysed the news is put out. The process goes on endlessly.

After Maoists entered into the picture

Maoists or naxalites have a long history in India. But in Orissa the naxalite struggle in West Bengal and then in Andhra Pradesh only carried a negligible impact. It was confined to Paralkhemundi-Gunupur of now Gajapati district, Chitrokonda area of now Malkanagiri district and in Berhampur town of now Ganjam district.

It took thirty years and in the late nineties naxalites started operating in some parts of Gajapati district (like Gudari and Mohana area). Here, they took up land issues and due to their help tribals occupied their land from money lenders. In most cases, police repression (like Mandrabaju firing in Gajapati district in 1999) became more and tribals failed to assert their right on those lands for a long time.

Apart from the land struggle and occupation in forest areas, Maoists were hardly taking up other issues. They were unclear about the industrial and mining policy. In the case of ESSAR, SEWA paper mills, Abantika Hydro project and Baijhal Hydro project it is alleged that they negotiated with the private owners for their ‘taxes’, which went against tribals’ resentment against those projects.

For last three-four years, the Maoists have taken up corruption as a major issue and are trying to expand their area of operation (about which the government and media speaks ‘red corridor’). The killing in the name of police informers, pressurizing elected representatives to resign (and killing of one MLA candidate Somanath Madakami during 2009 election ), pressurizing SPOs (and killing them) to resign, threatening landlords and money lenders to leave tribal land (as in case of Narayanpatna of Koraput district) are becoming major issues. The history of CPIML (People’s War) or Maoists party speaks their intolerance to all other political forces of the same area. And we saw the infighting between CPIML (Liberation) and Maoist and attacking cadres by the later in Muniguda areas (same infighting in Narayanpatna and Bandugaon faction also). They are still silent about the existing as well as mining and industrial projects in south Orissa.

When tribals and dalits in these areas are asserting their rights over land and complaining about corruption, the vested groups are forming peace committees to avoid the allegations.

Local members of all major political parties like BJP, BJD and Congress are forming peace committees and are working with help of the police. And in selected areas tribals are taking the help of Maoists. When the police come to the village, the tribals feel that non-tribals have called them. If there is any incident against a non-tribal, he feels the tribals have called the Maoists. In the eyes of police and the administration, tribals are looked upon as Maoists.

It was more clear in the case of the Kotipalli (Malkanagiri district), Kutunigunda (Gajapati) and Talamating (Koraput) incidents where the police and SOGs (Special Operation Groups formed by Orissa government in style of Gray Hounds of AP) indiscriminately fired on tribals and killed 3 people in the last two villages. All these incidents happened in 2008 and 2009.

Maoists, on the other hand, have included mostly tribals as their lower level cadres. They have killed seven non-tribals as police informers, in 2008 and 2009, without any warning, in different parts of Koraput district. It is increasing every day.

Tribals themselves started getting organized in a few areas to oppose exploitation. The local police stations were silent for sometime due to growing tribals’ anger. But they were rejuvenated (including peace committee members) when CRPF, COBRA, IRB, SOG and BSF reached the area, and they continued their attack on tribals.

Police stations like Baipariguda, Govindpalli, Mathilli, Narayanpatna etc. have become small fort of the Indian state. Guns before sand bags in four corners are set to welcome all unknown faces. It defeats the very purpose of setting up of police stations in these areas.

There is no doubt that the growing militarization of state power is helping the MNCs. The Kashipur struggle faced heavy repression by the state. Para military forces came for anti-naxal operations to the Rayagada district, were used to suppress the voice of the Kashipur people. This silence helped in other areas.

Tribals are threatened before getting organized. Hindalco has got the lease of bauxite mining for the other side of Naraynpatna (of Deomali). It would start extraction of bauxite ore soon. The resentment among the local tribals came into a halt because they were threatened with mass arrests and encounters. In a way, BSF and CRPF are safeguarding the interests of the corporates. It is heard that three cement companies (including ACC cement) are coming to Malkanagiri district. This area is already occupied by para-military forces.

Another salwa judum?

It is true that Maoists have expanded to these parts of south Orissa more recently. They are blasting forest bungalows, panchayat offices, police stations and through this they are showing their presence in the areas.

On the other hand, the state power has constructed various check posts, turned the government buildings into new forts, is using the few schools as CRPF camps and is targeting villagers as Maoists. SPOs are becoming easy to recruit (now a days Rs 4000 pm) and the government has started using them for countering tribals’ anger. This is engaging tribals against the tribals.

Because of the violence and counter violence, it is being realized in some quarters that injustice is meted out to the tribals. The government is coming out with different programmes for the development of the area. But solving the ownership of land and forest is too distant a matter.

They are yet to get a proper price for their produce and wages. The growing presence of MNCs in the areas is a new challenge for the tribals in their struggle for justice.

Will the emergence of these forces help tribals solve their problems? What social process is emerging out of this conflict? Can the tribals force the Maoists to take up other issues? Can these processes help to force the government agencies to be people oriented?

Can the tribal organizations themselves be able to act even after state repression, or will we see another Andhra Pradesh-like situation where that government feels proud of “wiping out Maoism”, while leaving the problems intact? Will we go to another ‘salwa judum’ like situation where tribals would be sharply divided into two camps targeting each other?

Can this growing up of militarization of power of the state solve the problems of the masses? Has it solved the problems of Kashmir and North East? First in Kashmir, then in North East and now in central India, the mighty Indian state power keeps using military and paramilitary forces in name of ‘insurgencies’ and ‘Maoism’ to silence the resentment.

Why are city-based intellectuals keeping themselves away from the problems and becoming isolated from the general people? Has not flood water reached their doorsteps? Ultimately, where are we headed?

(This article has also appeared at Countercurrents)