Gadchiroli: The shrine of Thakurdeo, known in these parts as the God of Gods, is a sacred place for the Maria Gonds. Legend speaks of how he had disguised himself as a wild boar and came into a village. A hunter spotted his tracks and began following him. He would eventually come across a majestic wild boar and fire an arrow, wounding the divine animal. He followed the trail of blood for miles but soon realised he was following the footprints of a man. Thakurdeo eventually led the hunter to the top of the mountain; he had only come down to the villages to reveal this mountain to the Gonds.
The mountain is known as Surjagad.
Something else has now led earthmoving JCBs and the ‘development’ brigade to the mountain: deposits of high grade iron ore.
For decades, the threat of Naxalite violence and adivasi resistance kept the companies at bay, and the killing of company officials of Lloyds Steel in 2013 did not make things easier. Lloyds Steel Industries Limited, a part of the Lloyds Group, started its operations in April this year but shut down within days due to local opposition by groups against mining as well as others who wish for a processing plant closer to the mining site.
This hiatus was recently marked by a mass meeting held on August 9 – International Indigenous Day – where adivasis across Surjagad congregated at the foothills of the mountain to hold their celebrations and their protest.
At the same time, months have passed quietly with allegations of day-to-day violence and repression. Throughout the summer, say locals, many adivasis were caught and humiliated by the C60 – Maharashtra’s special anti-naxal force. In all the interviews conducted with adivasi villagers, they would detail how they were deliberately humiliated by being beaten on the soles of their feet and on their buttocks.
For instance, on May 14, Binu (name changed), a villager from Rekhalmeta was accosted when he was collecting tendu leaves and beaten for two hours. He recalled how the force shoved rifles into his face, how they deliberately held him down and beat him on his buttocks. The C60 managed to break two sticks on him. They beat his wife when she protested. All of this happened in front of the entire village, which nervously continued with its own work, afraid to intervene. Binu lost consciousness twice, and mentioned how the policemen even offered a drink of mahua to him. He was only let off when a senior policeman felt he had had enough. Even three days after the beating, his wounds were deep red; he could barely sit down.
Binu would never complain, not to the police, nor the human rights groups, he would never approach the media. Another man, 25-year-old Juru Dasru from Gattaguda, was beaten for 30 minutes. The police allegedly tried to burn his shirt. Juru was interviewed in the hospital, and even before any reports on the violence inflicted on him could appear, the police beat him again for ‘speaking to journalists.’ The hospital became a police outpost.
It was much later that complaints about what was happening would be filed officially.
One incident was detailed in a short report in The Hindu by Pavan Dahat, where Harilal Dhurve was beaten up. “In his complaint to the Collector, Dhurve said: “On May 22, I went to Malewara town for the weekly market. While returning to my village, some policemen led by officer Vare stopped me near a hospital and started beating me. They thrashed me for three hours until I fell unconscious.’
Eventually, an unsubstantiated document was circulated by the only group with complete access to the forests: the CPI (Maoist). The Maoists released an appeal to civil society detailing around 191 beatings in Gadchiroli since the beginning of January to the end of June. No organisation has made any attempts to confirm or deny their accusations.
At a legislative level, the Maharashtra government wishes to pass a law where even the distribution of literature would be an arrestable offence in the districts affected by left-wing extremism. Literature such as that Maoist appeal against the police beatings.
The killing of informants and of Naxalites takes place here with nondescript regularity. The sixth ‘woman Naxalite’ was killed this year in late July, while an ‘informant’ was killed a few days later – these quiet deaths in central India’s continuing insurgency might as well be reported as car accidents in a lost forest.
‘This letter seeks to inform you of your selection as a beneficiary for various government schemes. To avail of these benefits, you must report to the sub-divisional police officer (SDPO), Bhamragadh office by 10:00 am, 27 July 2016. If you don’t register your presence at the meeting, your name will be deleted from the beneficiary list; legal and punitive action will be initiated against you for deliberately refusing to avail benefits of government schemes.’
The collector called it a ‘clerical error’, in a report by Aritra Bhattacharya of The Statesman, that revealed more about the state’s intentions than actions.
The middle class adivasi against mining
Lalsu Soma Nogoti, a 36-year-old Maria Gond, lawyer by profession, graduate from Pune’s Fergusson Colllege, has detailed how the police would repeatedly harass him. In a long Facebook post, he details how even as he has educated himself, the police and the state don’t want him to progress. He has been working ceaselessly to educate other adivasi boys and girls in Gadchiroli, yet is often accused of being a Naxalite because he is vocally against mining.
‘The jungle will disappear, the people here do not have MBAs, they will not get good jobs. The people from outside will come and get jobs, all that my people will get is labour. Like you will see in Bailadila, there are lots of adivasi girls who work as prostitutes.’
‘We are an adivasi group, we have our own culture, we are a very sensitive community, and if you do all this, you will destroy our language, our Gods.’
Lalsu’s home in Bhamragad has a photograph of a middle-aged man walking towards the camera during a festival on the Surjagad mountain: it is an old photo shot in 35mm, of Malu Kopa Bogami, a mass leader of the adivasis of Gadchiroli, who was killed by the Maoists in 2002. He is Lalsu’s father in law, and a man who is used by pro-mining representatives to show how the Maoists don’t stand for the adivasis.
33-year-old Ramdas Zarate was a state-level swimmer and athlete, who now runs swimming classes in Gadchiroli with a water-harvesting system that recycles water. ‘If we kept filling water every day, then no one will have any drinking water. Our system doesn’t waste water.’
He’s a graduate from the Phule-Ambedkar Social Work College and a Maria Gond, strongly against mining on Surjagad. ‘Mostly those who are non-tribals want mining.’
He details the stories, the pilgrimages that take place every year to Surjagad mountain, to Thakurdeo, the dev ka badshah of 70 villages. He speaks softly about how the police are harassing villagers and those against mining. ‘The Congress did all this slowly, BJP is doing all this aggressively.’
‘Five-six years ago, our people began to use PESA [the Panchaat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act] to get their rights, and through this only they could self-develop.’
Sainu Gotta from Gattapad was the director of the Tribal Development Authority in 2006-2008 and is one of the few people like Lalsu and Ramdas who are openly against mining in its entirety in Gadchiroli. ‘In this panchayat alone, we earned 1 crore and 70 lakh rupees on the tendu patta tender through PESA, how can they say we need mining for development?’ He would say.
Sainu met me at his house in Ettapalli. There are sarpanches from around Etapalli in his house, all speaking frankly about how they oppose mining in Gadchiroli. PESA works, they insist, we don’t need mining.
‘Our main point is that our adivasi people – the minor produce that we have, that is how we live. But now there are countless police people in the forests. Raat mein jaoo, bandook walle, din mein jaao bandook walle. (in the day there are people with guns, and in the night too). We can’t move around the forests anymore.’
‘The implementation of PESA has helped to bring our community together.’ Saenu continues, ‘The rights given to us, to the gram sabha has helped us to self-develop, and let no one try to take that away from us.’
Saenu is part of the Bharat Jan Andolan, which has specifically worked on the implementation of PESA in different panchayats in Gadchiroli for the past two years. ‘This government thinks that if you’re working on PESA, you’re working for the Naxalites.’ continues Saenu.
‘Yet some adivasi leaders are also for mining? What is different from you and them?’ I asked them.
A few days after mining stopped at Surjagad, a press note was reported by the Indian Express, signed by Shrinivas, secretary of the western sub-zonal bureau of the Maoists’ Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, who stated ‘Over 60 Naxals have been killed by police in the last seven years in Gadchiroli. The police told Lloyds Steel that Maoism has been crushed in Gadchiroli and hence they can start mining. The capitalists profiteer from tribal resources and politicians like Deorao Holi and Vijay Wadettiwar (MLAs), Ashok Nete (BJP MP) Dharmarao Baba Atram and Deepak Atram (former MLAs) acted as middlemen and got Rs 1 crore from the company. They should be beaten with ‘chappals’ and thrown out of the district.’
Maria Gond society has had its fair share of kings and large land owners – people like Dharmarao Baba Atram, an ex-MLA whose family comes from the Aheri Zamindari. He has vocally called for mining and jobs but has protested against the ore being taken to Chandrapur. The company has stated that their requests for land were rejected in Gadchiroli, thus they need to take ore to Chandrapur’s Gugghus. At the same time, the rallies by these groups remain well reported and documented by the local media for their pro-mining and anti-Maoist stance. But for over a year, members of the CPI and Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh – which are critical of the idea of mining in Gadchiroli – were not allowed to hold public meetings or conduct rallies. The reason for this, according to the police, is that the Maoists infiltrate them.
‘When I was in a morcha with them, the NCP-Congress people,’ says Lalsu, ‘I spoke about how wherever there has been mining in adivasi areas, there has only been destruction (vinaash) and not development (vikas). And these people say I am speaking like a Naxalite.’
‘The difference between us and them is there,’ says Sainu, ‘Dharmarao still thinks he’s a raja. He sits on a chair and expects everyone to sit on the ground. You don’t meet him without touching his feet.’
‘If they wanted to protect adivasi culture, they wouldn’t stand for mining,’ he ruefully adds.
Lloyds Steel has refused to comment on any of the questions concerning adivasi employment even after repeated requests.
‘Are you going to complain against the police?’ I ask Lalsu, of the villagers who had just come from the hospital, ‘They will file complaints and the same police who did this will be sent to investigate, and they will further harass them and nothing will happen.’
After the high-profile reporting of the killing, rape and burning of Tadmetla in 2011, where even now the CBI is doing its best to avoid coming to any conclusion, there was a lot of weight in Lalsu’s words.
In Bastar it takes rape and death for the story to at least create a murmur in the vast noise of the sea of the mainstream media. In Kashmir, the independent portals and social media will put every pellet-gunned face of a child to expose this nation’s inhumanity to itself and to the ‘other’. The gau rakshaks make their own videos of their casual violence. In Gadchiroli, it’s a sideshow, the violence is there, but this repression will not be tweeted, forget televised.
Repression is not a single event, repression is a season.
Javed Iqbal is a freelance reporter and photographer