On Monday, an assembly bye-election in Dantewada takes place against the backdrop of a widening police crackdown in Adivasi villages opposed to a new iron ore mining project involving the Adani Group. Over the last three months, the police have arrested five people from these villages on charges of working with the Maoists and presented three others as surrendered Maoists. Two villagers were killed in a disputed encounter in September. Last week, activists who protested against the killings were booked in a police case.

The unrest began in June when thousands of Adivasis gathered in the town of Kirandul to protest against the project on grounds that the iron ore reserves were located on a hill that they worshipped as a deity.

In July 2018, the government joint venture company which holds mining rights to these reserves had selected Adani Enterprises, part of the Adani Group, as the mining contractor. But it is only when trees began to be felled in January this year that Adivasis living in villages near the proposed mining site say they discovered that the project had received forest and environmental clearances from the Union government based on documents showing their purported consent for the project.

The villagers claimed they never gave this consent. They accused the district administration of fabricating a gram sabha and forging their signatures to facilitate clearances for the project.

A copy of the panchayat register featuring the names, thumb impressions and signatures of 106 villagers who attended the gram sabha purportedly held in July 2014.

A week into the June protests, chief minister Bhupesh Baghel intervened and promised to investigate these allegations. The protestors went back home. Over the next three months, however, the police began to make arrests in the villages falling in the proposed mining area.

On September 13, two men living in one of the villages near the proposed mining site were killed by the police. While the police claimed they were Maoists who were killed in an encounter, their families disputed this, saying they were picked up and killed in cold blood.

Three days later, activists Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia and others staged a protest in Kirandul against the alleged fake encounter. The same evening, the police filed a case against them for violating the model code of conduct in place for the assembly bye-election.

“Instead of filing an FIR based on our complaint (about the alleged fake encounter), the Kirandul police lodged an FIR against us,” said Bela Bhatia, an activist and scholar who has lived for several years in Bastar, the region in southern Chhattisgarh which includes the district of Dantewada. For three decades, Maoist rebels have been locked in a low-intensity war with government security forces here. One of the fallouts of the conflict has been alleged extrajudicial violence by the police against ordinary Adivasis in the name of fighting Maoists.

Attempts to seek justice in such cases is not easy, Bhatia explained. “Filing a complaint against the police inevitably leads to harmful consequences for the complainants,” she said. “I cannot think of a single instance when the police may have followed due legal process against itself.”

Last year, when assembly elections were held in Chhattisgarh, the Congress promised to end police impunity in Bastar. The party went on to wrest a decisive victory over Bharatiya Janata Party, which had ruled the state for 15 years. Newly elected chief minister Bhupesh Baghel set up a committee to revisit police cases filed against Adivasis in Bastar. He claimed the previous BJP government had fabricated cases against them.

Now, his government is facing similar allegations.

“It is so ironic that the party that pledged support to Adivasis and came to power, is today turning its back against them,’’ said Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party.

In the shadow of violence

The bye-election in Dantewada has been prompted by the death of the incumbent MLA Bheema Mandavi who was killed in a Maoist attack on April 9. Mandavi was the only BJP candidate in the 12 assembly constituencies of Bastar region who won the November 2018 election. Overall, the Congress won 68 of the 90 seats in the house, with the BJP reduced to just 15 seats.

Keen to retain the Dantewada seat, the BJP has fielded Mandavi’s wife, Ojasvi Bheema Mandavi, in the bye-election. The party is hopeful of a victory on the back of a sympathy wave for her.

Among the nine other contestants in the fray, the most prominent is Devti Karma, the wife of veteran Congress leader Mahendra Karma who, like Mandavi, was killed in a Maoist attack in May 2013. Devti Karma won the assembly election held six months later, but lost to Mandavi in November 2018.

The elections are being held in the face of a Maoist boycott, with 28 polling booths shifted out of the original location due to security concerns.

A sacred hill

At the heart of the Maoist conflict in Bastar lies simmering discontent among Adivasis over being denied access to their traditional forestlands, which have been used by successive governments as a resource to make windfall profits.

Dantewada district is home to the Bailadila range of hills, 14 of which have rich iron ore reserves. The National Mineral Development Corporation, a hugely profitable company owned by the central government, has been mining in the hills since the 1960s. Mining rights to a new deposit – Deposit 13, containing 326 million tonnes of high-grade iron ore – were awarded to NMDC in 2006. It transferred them to a joint venture company formed with the state-owned Chhattisgarh Mining Development Corporation in June 2017. The joint venture company in turn awarded a contract to Adani Enterprises Limited in July 2018 to develop and operate the mine.

The deposit, however, is located on top of a hill which is held as sacred by the Adivasis of Bastar. They believe the hill is the abode of the Pithormeta, a deity worshipped by the Gond community. In June, residents of 84 gram panchayats spread across the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma gathered in Kirandul town, where the NMDC offices are located. Production had to be suspended for a week. Eventually, the chief minister intervened and the protests were suspended after he promised to set up an enquiry into the allegations made by the villagers.

A spokesperson of Adani Enterprises Limited had told Scroll.in in an email in June that “AEL was not involved in obtaining clearances for the project” and that AEL assumed its role of “mining contractor” only after December 2018 “through a transparent bidding process”.

A view of the Bailadila hills.

A police crackdown

While the government enquiry has lumbered along with little progress, residents of villages near the proposed mining area say the last three months have been marked by heightened police activity. These villages are part of the gram panchayats of Hiroli, Gumiyapal and Madkamiras.

On July 14, two residents of Gumiyapal – Deva and Mangli – were killed by the police in a purported Maoist encounter. Villagers said Deva and Mangli were part of civic committees set up by the Maoists, but claimed the two were not armed cadre. They alleged the two had been shot dead in cold blood, not in an encounter as the police claimed. The same day, a woman named Kowasi Kosa was arrested from the area.

On July 17, members of the government committee enquiring into the allegations of forgery recorded testimonies of 29 residents of Hiroli gram panchayat. The district administration had shown them to be among the 106 people who had participated in a gram sabha in July 2014 and given their approval to the mining project by planting their thumb impressions.

Appearing before the committee, however, all 29 residents denied this – they said their thumb impressions had been forged. Among them was Guddi Kunjam, a young man who pointed out that he was an underage minor when the gram sabha was purportedly held in 2014.

Two days after they deposed before the committee, four residents of Hiroli village – Hurra Kunjam, Hurra Kunjami, Deva Kadti and Lakme Kunjam – were arrested by the police from their homes. The police accused them of mobilising people to attend Maoist meetings and making arrangements for their stay and food in the village.

On July 21, the police presented Guddi Kunjam, the young man, as a Maoist who had surrendered to them. The previous day, it had produced two residents of Gumiyapal village, Hidma and Mangu, as surrendered Maoists in quite the same way.

After a lull, on the night of September 13, two men from Gumiyapal village, Podiya and Lachhu, were killed in a police encounter. Lachhu’s nephew told Scroll.in that his uncle and four others were picked up from a place where they were having liquor together. He alleged Podiya and Lachhu were killed in cold blood. One member of the group, Ajay Telam, was taken into police custody, while another, Bhima Midiam, managed to escape.

On September 15, Midiam told reporters who visited the village that 10-15 policemen had swooped down on the group, picking Podiya who had fallen asleep in a house after consuming liquor, and dragged them into the forest. He claimed that none of the men had any association with the Maoists.

Dantewada superintendent of police, Abhishek Pallav, however, denied the encounter was fake. He told Scroll.in that both Lachhu and Podiya were “hardcore Naxalites” who had several cases against them, including an involvement in the ambush of the BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi.

On September 16, 200 villagers gathered outside the police station to protest against the disputed encounter. Among the protestors were Bheema Mandavi, the husband of the sarpanch of Hiroli village, Nanda Madkam, the sarpanch of Madkamiras village, activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori and activist Bela Bhatia.

Telam was released from custody the same day. But in the evening, the police filed a first information report against the protestors who had asked for his release, accusing them of gathering in protest in violation of the model code of conduct in place in Dantewada ahead of the assembly bye-election.

Four days later on September 20, the police presented Bhima Midiam as a surrendered Maoist.

Dantewada police superintendent Abhishek Pallav insisted Midiam had willingly surrendered to the police and confessed to have been forced by activists to claim the encounter to be fake.

Unexpected support

With the election campaign underway, the protestors have found support from unlikely quarters. Senior leaders of the BJP, including leader of the opposition in the assembly, Dharamlal Kaushik, have rushed to the area to pledge support for the families of the two Gumiyapal residents killed in the disputed encounter. Another BJP leader who visited Dantewada is OP Chaudhary, a former IAS officer who served as the district collector here in 2011.

BJP leaders express solidarity with the Adivasi protestors.

In the face of the BJP’s vocal support for the families, the Congress has been silent. This is a complete reversal of roles, Soni Sori pointed out, since it was the Congress which would target the former BJP government on the question of fake encounters in the past.

Most Adivasis, however, view the BJP’s show of support cynically. In the 15 years of its government, Bastar saw a spiral of violence. Data from the annual reports of the Ministry of Home Affairs show 2,757 people died in the region between 2003-2017. Of these, 1,164 deaths were of security forces, while 1,593 deaths were of Maoists and civilians.

On the other side of the Bailadila hills, which hold the contested iron ore reserves, lies Gampur village in Bijapur district. In January 17, Bhima Kadti and his 14-year-old sister-in-law were killed by the police in what villagers alleged was a fake encounter. After Bhima Kadti’s brother Baman Kadti led a protest, he was put in prison on trumped-up murder charges. He was acquitted after six months.

Since then, Baman Kadti has become an activist who rushes to help other families that are victims of police violence.

“Who do we turn to,” he said, expressing disappointment over the Congress failing to live up to its promises. “At this rate our entire Adivasi community will be ruined and destroyed.”