A few days after the Odisha police exhibited a young member of the Dongria Kondh tribe and five of her relatives as surrendered members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), its claims have come under scrutiny.

The police claimed they picked up 20-year-old Kuni Sikaka from Gorta village atop the Niyamgiri Hills on May 2 after her name figured on the list of Maoists prepared for 2017. On May 3, it held a press conference at the office of the superintendent of police in Rayagada where Sikaka, her father-in-law, husband and three other relatives were portrayed as surrendered Maoists.

The Adivasis, however, claim that the police picked up Sikaka on May 1. Laxmana Pusika, one of the Adivasis accused of being a Maoist, alleged that when the police picked up the 20-year-old, it asked her family to go to the office of the superintendent of police at Rayagada to take her home. “When her father-in-law, husband, I and two other relatives went there [on May 3], they just clicked our photographs and showed us as surrendered Maoists along with her,” said Pusika.

Sikaka’s father-in-law, Dodi Pusika, is the co-convenor of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, an Adivasi outfit fighting to protect the Niyamgiri hills from mining. Spread across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha, the hills are rich in bauxite, the raw material for aluminium. The hills are home to around 10,000 members of the Dongria Kondh, a vulnerable tribe, who worship the hills as their presiding deity.

The Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti has been spearheading the fight against mining in the hills by mining major Vedanta Resources since 2004, when the company signed a memorandum with the Odisha government to mine Niyamgiri through the state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation. The deal would have allowed the corporation to mine enough bauxite to feed its one million tonne alumina plant at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district. However, the mining proposals were rejected by 12 gram sabhas held by Adivasi communities in the region as per a Supreme Court order.

Kuni Sikaka (in yellow) with her relatives at the office of the superintendent of police at Rayagada, Odisha, on May 3.
Kuni Sikaka (in yellow) with her relatives at the office of the superintendent of police at Rayagada, Odisha, on May 3.

‘State wants to discredit movement’

Social activists say that the police action was a ploy to demoralise the anti-mining movement led by Adivasis by linking the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti with Maoists. It comes days after the Union home ministry listed the Adivasi outfit as a Maoist organisation in its latest annual report, which activists have also condemned.

Strangely, after the police exhibited Sikaka and her relatives as surrendered militia members, the police let all of them go home. This is despite police claims that Sikaka carried a cash reward of Rs 1 lakh on her head, and was involved in several Maoist-related crimes.

“We let them [Kuni and others] off after they gave an undertaking that they will not indulge in any Maoist activities,” Rayagada superintendent of police K Siva Subramani told this reporter. “There will be a screening process to make them avail all benefits under the Odisha government’s surrender policy for Maoists.”

Subramani added that Maoists have been allowed to go after surrendering on earlier occasions too.

On Friday, in a memorandum to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti condemned the state police for picking up Sikaka in the middle of the night only to display her as a surrendered Maoist before the media 36 hours later.

The memorandum said:

“We strongly condemn such anti-tribal action by the police and demand the democratic and human rights of tribals living in the Niyamgiri Hills. The state government should review the atrocities and unlawful activities being carried out in the hills by the police and security forces in the name of anti-Maoist operation and take appropriate action against officials indulging in such activities.”

In the memorandum, the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti further said that instead of suppressing the Dongria Kondh in order to help Vedanta, the state government should take the initiative to provide Adivasis living in the area with basic facilities like education, healthcare, drinking water and electricity, and declare the whole Niyamgiri Hills as the natural habitat of Dongria Kondh tribe as per the Forest Rights Act 2006.