On the morning of March 11, platform number one of Muniguda railway station in southern Odisha was unusually crowded. A group of over 100 men and women from the Dongria Kondh tribe, who had descended from their homes in the Niyamgiri hills, waited for the next train to Rayagada, the district headquarters, an hour away.

At the centre of the odd travelling party was Lada Sikaka. It was easy to miss him in the crowd. With his worn shirt, an unkempt knot of hair and an axe balancing on his shoulder, he was like the other Dongria Kondh men sitting six to a bench on the platform. But Sikaka and the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti he leads are well known in India and abroad for their non-violent struggle against the multinational mining conglomerate Vedanta’s plan to mine their hills. Spread across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha, the Niyamgiri hills are rich in bauxite, the raw material for aluminium. In 2013, the movement culminated in a unanimous vote against the mining proposal by 12 Niyamgiri village councils, a process overseen by the Supreme Court and watched by the international press.

But once the cameras were gone, the Dongria Kondh villages became the stage for an intensifying battle between Maoists and security forces. Caught in the crossfire, the Adivasi community fears its celebrated, peaceful movement is being undermined. Last month, the annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs described the Samiti as a front for the Maoists, sparking an outcry from activists and human rights groups, including Amnesty India.

That morning, the Adivasis, many of them barefoot, had walked three hours to Munigada station. When they reached Rayagada station, they walked another two kilometres to the gates of the district administration in silence, demanding that the superintendent of police meet them.

They sought the release of three of their tribesmen, who had been arrested separately over the last two years and charged – falsely they claim – with crimes ranging from murder to affiliation with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and even rape.

The superintendent was unavailable but Sikaka and two others were allowed to present their case to his deputy, who refused to divulge any details about the cases against the men. The group were lucky to even be allowed inside the gate – initially, one inspector had asked the Adivasis to submit their demands in writing. But most members of the tribe cannot read or write.

Lada Sikaka of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti outside the Rayagada superintendent of police's office in March. Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan.

A pattern

The three arrests are not isolated incidents. The allegations against the Samiti in the home ministry’s report fit a pattern to discredit the organisation and the movement it had launched, say members of the Dongria Kondh tribe.

In October 2015, Bari Pidikaka, 60, a leader of the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, was arrested and accused of rape. The case is now in court but Lada Sikaka said that the charges, like all the others, were false, though the complaint was lodged by the family of a minor girl, a Dongria Kondh from the same village as Pidikaka.

In April, 2016, Dasharu Kadraka, an activist from Gortha village in Niyamgiri, was arrested on charges of being a militia commander. Two months earlier, Manda Kadraka, a tribal youth from Dangarnati village, was shot dead by the police, who later claimed he was at a Maoist camp at the time. The tribesmen have denied this. Lada Sikaka, too, had been arrested at the height of the anti-mining movement in 2010 and let off after being beaten in custody.

At the beginning of this month, 20-year-old Kuni Sikaka was picked up by the Odisha police from her home in Barca village in the hills. Two days later, her father-in-law, Dodi Pusika – another senior Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti leader – and her husband, Jagili, were paraded as surrendered Maoists at a press conference.

The police also claimed that there was a reward of Rs 1 lakh for the capture of Kuni Sikaka, a detail her family and the journalists present were unaware of. They were let off immediately after, in breach of established protocol for dealing with surrendered left-wing extremists.

Rayagada police officials did not respond to Scroll.in’s repeated requests for an interview.

“Kuni is a well-known face of the Niyamgiri movement,” said Lingaraj Azad, a prominent Lanjigarh-based activist who is close to the families. “She helped hold the gram sabhas in 2013.”

After each arrest, the quiet agitations by the Dongria Kondh had become a routine: sometimes outside police stations in Muniguda and Lanjigarh (in adjoining Kalahandi district), or at the offices of district officials in Rayagada.

A fight over the forest

The Dongria Kondh, who number just over 8,000, are classified in India as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”. This makes them eligible for an expanded range of rights under the Forest Rights Act – to determine the use of their habitat in accordance with their religious and cultural beliefs in addition to their agricultural practices even within reserved forests and protected areas.

The Dongria Kondh claim that the cases against their leaders are an attempt to undermine their stand against mining in the Niyamgiri hills. Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan.

The 2013 gram sabhas were an exercise of those very rights, though the community’s luck with the law has since run out. Activists assisting the Niyamgiri villages to file for individual and community titles to land said that several villages had submitted claims but these were stuck in a bureaucratic limbo. This fits into the larger pattern of poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Odisha. A 2016 report by non-governmental organisations working in the field of environment and forest rights documented how just 3% of the 27 lakh hectares of forest land that should have come under community jurisdiction in Odisha has been recognised as such.

It is easy to see why Odisha is reluctant to hand over this land. Till 2014, over 42 lakh hectares of forest land (nearly double the forest land that should have come under community jurisdiction under the Forest Rights Act) in the state had been approved for diversion by the Environment Ministry for various purposes – 40% of it for mining, according to the Odisha Economic Survey 2014-’15. The state collects 37% of the country’s earnings from mining royalties.

If the state stands to lose mining revenues to the Adivasis’ insistence on their rights over the forest, the stakes are even higher for Vedanta, whose losses at its Lanjigarh alumina refinery reportedly crossed Rs 4,000 crore at the end of 2015. It sources over 50% of its bauxite from other states and imports the rest. After investing over $10 billion in the state – not to mention generous, but dubious, donations to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress and ruling Biju Janata Dal – Vedanta has been demanding that the Naveen Patnaik government make good on its promises.

All that stands in the way are the Dongria Kondh and their leaders.

The shadow of violence

In February, while the state prepared for panchayat elections, Prafulla Samantara – an activist close to the Samiti, who was awarded America’s prestigious Goldman Environment Prize in April for his role in the Niyamgiri struggle – drove to some of the hill villages. Samantara hopes to organise Kondh women to market their handicrafts, which include embroidered shawls and bronzeware, to supplement their meagre incomes from farming.

Prafulla Samantara, who petitioned the Supreme Court against Vedanta's proposed bauxite mine in Niyamgiri, was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in April. Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan.

Winding through the forested roads, the jeep suddenly ground to a halt near Parsali panchayat. There was news that an hour earlier Maoists had torched a road contractor’s camp a kilometre ahead. Samantara decided to turn back – the police would soon begin combing operations in the area and it was dangerous to proceed.

According to the Union home ministry, violence between Maoists and security forces in Odisha has claimed 692 lives since 2003, nearly half of whom are civilians. The number peaked in 2008-’10 but had since declined. The casualties have again risen since 2014, with a rash of encounters last year resulting in the deaths over 60 people across the state.

The violence has engulfed the villages of the Dongria Kondh with periodic deaths in encounters, the arrests of civilians and the lurking presence of informers recruited by both sides. Since 2011, several men of the tribe have reportedly been killed by the Maoists after being accused of working as police informers. In March, they slit the throat of Mali Pushika, the uncle of the complainant who had alleged rape by Bari Pidikaka. Reportedly, he had refused their orders to withdraw the case. The Maoists have all along claimed to be on the side of the Dongria Kondh, though the Samiti and other activists have zealously kept them at a distance.

“We are aware that the Maoists are there in the area,” said Samantara. “But we refuse to respond even when they reach out to us.” Repelling their advances is not simply public relations. “Ours is a democratic struggle.”

Pointing to the opportunism of the Maoists, Azad said: “Where there is no andolan, you will never see Maoists. They watch out for people’s movements; then they move in to assert their authority.”

Twelve Dongria Kondh village councils unanimously voted against the mining proposal in 2013. Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan.

Caught in the crossfire

Crucially, the differences between the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) should be apparent to the local police. The Maoists had forbidden campaigning in the forested blocks of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts in the recent panchayat elections while the Samiti supported candidates in several panchayats. In two booths, claimed Azad, the Maoists carried away the ballot boxes. In the end, the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti’s Vinoti Kataraka of Denguni village won in Munikhol panchayat. “The Maoists had opposed the gram sabhas in 2013,” said Azad. “How then can the NSS [Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti], which organised these sabhas, be with them.”

Speaking on the phone from Koraput, Jhina Hikaka, the Biju Janata Dal parliamentarian for the region, said that he had not heard about the home ministry report or the situation in Niyamgiri. In 2012, when Hikaka was an MLA, Maoists abducted him and held him hostage for a month. Asked if he had anything to say about Maoists, Hikaka said: “I don’t have anything to say.”

The Dongria Kondh, having wrested a hard-won right recognised by the Constitution to manage their forests and resources, are now faced with a raging battle in their hills, a battle they want no part in.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article misspelt the name of Jhina Hikaka, the BJD MP: