The latest incident of police firing in Karanpura Valley was neither the beginning nor the end of the troubles for the villagers in the area.
Hazaribagh, Jharkhand: While the world celebrates the Paris climate accord coming into force, a long drawn conflict continues in Karanpura. The Karanpura Valley is one of the oldest inhabited valleys of the world, but that’s not why it’s repeatedly in the news. It has been a source of multiple conflicts between the government and companies that want to mine the millions of tonnes of coal in the ground, those who want to leave the coal where it is, and those who want better compensation, including jobs, for the loss of their land and livelihood.
The most recent manifestation of this conflict came earlier this week, when the police opened fire on residents who were protesting the acquisition of their land by the NTPC (formerly the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd) for coal mines.
The official death count stands at four people. They were killed on October 1 when the police tried to take Nirmala Devi, a protesting MLA, from the dharna site at Pakri Barwadih. Since then, Barkagaon has seen a strong wave of repression that has almost emptied three villages. There have been multiple cases of police beatings, administrative high-handedness and a general blockade. This has given cause to unofficial death counts and uncomfirmed killings.
On the evening of October 2, while the government made a show of celebrating Gandhi and his ideology, 12 police vans were dispatched by the administration to return the bodies of the dead to the villagers, in what was probably an attempt to deter further protests.
Three of the dead – 32-year-old Mahtab Alam from Chipa Khurd, 17-year-old Ranjan Ravidas from Sindwari and 17-year-old Abhishek Rai from Sonbarsa – had bullet wounds on their necks, which shows that the police had shot not to disperse the crowd but to kill.
The story of 16-year-old Pavan Kumar Sao from Sonbarsa only adds to this brutal picture, going beyond the now somewhat-accepted discourse of a violent scuffle between the protesters and the police that led to ‘provoked’ police firing.
His family claims that they lost track of Pavan around 5 am that day, during the police firing. Pavan was the only male member of his family present; the others all travel to either Nagpur or Kolkata for work. After he disappeared, 25 women from around his village accompanied his mother and younger sister as they frantically asked after him. Meanwhile, the families of the other victims and the demonstrators blocked the road to protest against the police action and take their injured to the hospital.
At only around 2 pm did Pavan’s family hear from the villagers of Dadikala that he was alive, but had been injured in his abdomen and was in police custody at the Dadikala police camp.
“When we went to the camp they abused us,” said a relative, who asked not to be named. “They said, ‘First you throw stones at us, and then you come here and ask about a boy. He’s not here, get lost’.”
They were told that they should talk to the commanding officer, “Lekin aap ke saath maar-peet ho sakti hai (But you could also get beaten up).” They tried to get the local media to access the police camp to confirm whether Pavan was there, but to no avail. After another unconfirmed sighting at 6 pm, they went to the site of the protest, where Abhishek’s body was kept. When his body was taken for a postmortem to the Hazaribagh government hospital, they realised that Pavan’s body was at the hospital as well.
They insist that the police had let the injured boy die.
A litany of violence
Ranjan’s family also allege that he was shot two hours after the firing at the protest site. According to them, a police van driving by fired at him as he was cycling to school. Rajkumar, a relative, talked about how the young boys of Dadikala told him Ranjan was killed, forcing him to rush to the site and then carry the boy on his shoulders all the way to the hospital. “There was blood all over my clothes, they had shot him in the neck.” He was pronounced dead at the Sadre hospital in Hazaribagh. Ranjan was a second year BA student.
Fifteen-year-old Amit Kumar Ravidas from Sindwari was shot in his leg and lower waist, and is now recovering at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences hospital. He claims he was on his way to tuition classes when he was shot and was not part of the protest.
Other injured included Gibrail Ansari (24) from Kankidadi, who was shot on his shoulder and back, and Nizam Ansari (40) from Dadikala who was shot in his chest. Both have been admitted to a private hospital in Ranchi and have been forced to take loans to pay their medical bills. Their neighbours have tried to help, collecting Rs 12,000 for their bills, but this is nowhere close to the treatment costs.
A photograph of Rajesh Sao, a 19-year-old from Sonbarsa, sitting dejected and alone on a hospital table, clutching his bloodied arm, has gone viral. He was presumed dead by most people, but is actually at the Bhagwan Mahavir Medical Hospital in Ranchi. His family needs money for his operation. His father Mahadev works as a coolie and Rajesh is a first year Inter student.
On October 2, four old shepherds in Chipa Khurd came running back to the house of Mahtab (one of the victims), talking about how the police just beat them up. They were grazing their animals when the police started to hit them, saying, “First you throw stones at us and now you bring your cattle here”. As this discussion continued, people ran to their rooftops to watch the police’s every move.
About an hour later, the Rapid Action Force entered the village and the villagers ran into the fields or hid in their homes. The police forcefully entered the house of Mohammed Rafique and beat his family members. They detained eight people, including Mohammed Arshad who was once a policeman himself but had decided to become a teacher. They were released later that day.
In the neighbouring village of Dadikala, 86-year-old Amirruddin alleged that the police had entered his home, broken chairs and overturned his motorcycle on the same day.
All of this paints a single, dystopic picture – once the government gave the police permission to open fire on October 1, they did not hold back. Given political sanction, neither the law nor human decency were any kind of deterrence. All that mattered to the police, it seemed, was to ‘right’ the ‘insult’ an angry population inflicted on them.
The questions are no longer of whether there was a mob that was instigated by the MLA Nirmala Devi or if the mob was instigated by the police. The conversation across the villages is that the blame falls on the NTPC and the administration for the conditions they created. ‘Aangrez ka zamaana (colonial rule)’ was an oft-repeated reference, as were invocations of Kashmir, which were soon followed by how such ‘haryali’ land is being taken away.
The police, universally, will always be a symptom.
Villagers today are refusing to go on the record, fearing that they will be identified as one of the ‘500 unknown persons’ the police has listed in their FIR. They have already faced police firings in 2013 that claimed the life of one, and in 2015 a police firing claimed multiple injuries, as well as midnight raids in villages in May of 2016. In 2007, villagers at a public hearing ended up as the 400 accused when they protested against the arbitrary hearing that had company representatives hiding in rooms in fear of angry villagers.
‘This is not your land’
On the day of the police firing, one of the most popular Hindi dailies out of Hazaribagh, Hindustan, ran a curious little report on page six. It stated that the government was planning on taking back 500 acres of ‘gairmazurwa’ land previously given to the raiyots in Barkagaon, in order to give it to the NTPC. The story, and the incident later that day in Hazaribagh, only reinforce the discourse that land reform and redistribution has been officially done away with completely.
Yet the conversations over land acquisition in Karanpura are diverse. This protest is decentralised – it has had many local centres over the past 12 years. The concerns, however, overlap irrespective of demands, caste equations, location and tactics.
Mohammed Mumtaz sits with the family of Ranjan in Sindari. When the conversation about the NTPC begins, he begins to talk about the reality of dealing with the fact that when the government is with the company, there is no hope in protest. He used to be a private driver but is now a driver for the NTPC. He is not unionised and when asked about workers’ rights, he goes on to say, “There is no difference between a private limited and a private company, if the company decides to remove you, they will, what can one do.”
Then there are others, like Sudhlal Sao from Jugrah village, who vehemently say they will not give their land no matter what the price. Another leader, Mithilesh Dangi of the Azadi Bachao Andolan, often cites the Supreme Court verdict of July 8, 2013, case no 4549/2000 which states that land owners are the real owners of the minerals below their land, reports said. A few years ago, there was a coal satyagraha where villagers would remove small amounts of coal themselves to sell in the market, but the government demolished those small village-built mines.
Shiv Kumar, the grandfather of Abhishek, spoke to The Wire about the meeting in May with chief minister Raghubir Das where they talked about the demand for Rs 70 lakh per acre and a job for every family. The chief minister said “Dalaal ke saath nahi baath karega, bas bisthapit ke saath (Won’t talk to the stooges, only with the displaced)”. He speaks positively about that meeting with Das in May, which was eventually followed by the people in the neighbouring villages being attacked for protesting. When asked how much land his grandson would have had, he answers none.
A few months ago, Deepak Das, an Ambedkarite leader of the Karanpura Bachao Andolan spoke in a public rally in Barwani, Madhya Pradesh, on the banks of the Narmada. Ironically, he stated how the people of Karanpura kept over 32 companies at bay over the past 12 years and was greeted with thunderous applause from the displaced Adivasis of Narmada.
Their organisation has been unanimously against mining in a multi-crop valley where agricultural development is pitched against coal. Ilyas Ansari, from the same organisation, is the cousin of Mahtab Alam. “The most people who’ve ever been displaced in this country for development are from Jharkhand, for whatever national reasons or development reasons,” Ansari said.
“After all these years, I just wonder what the people of this country think about the people of Karanpura?”