Gadchiroli Ground Zero: The Adivasi Struggle Against 'Development' That Displaces

Activists opposed to displacement and mining in Gadchiroli speak about the new wave of state repression, adivasi culture, their own struggles with higher education, government policies and people’s movements.

Gadchiroli (Maharashtra): Over 76 trucks and heavy moving vehicles from the Surjagad mining site or Thakurdev, the holy mountain for the Madia Gond adivasis, have been burnt in Gadchiroli in the past few months. Two adivasi women, who accused the special anti-Naxal force of rape, have been ‘kidnapped’, and many village elders and anti-mining activists have been arrested. In the middle of that, two anti-mining adivasi activists recently won the zilla parishad (ZP) elections. Sainu Gotta, a political leader who was previously a ZP member between 1992-1997, and Lalsu Nogoti, an Indian Law Society’s Law College (ILS) alumni lawyer and activist, won from Gattapad and Bamragad respectively. Along with them is Mahesh Raut, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) alumni, who has been actively working with the adivasis of Gadchiroli since 2011. “I didn’t come here to work with the people,” he said. “People were working from the beginning itself, I just joined them, learned from them and started working with them.”

Raut is also a central convener and committee member of the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan (VVJVA) in Jharkhand, which, along with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, was recently accused of working as a front organisation for the CPI (Maoist) by the central government. “We ran for the zilla parishad elections here in Gadchiroli and won. And people now say the Maoists have entered the zilla parishad,” Mahesh laughs. “I want to ask, if the Maoists entered electoral politics, then isn’t their entire ideology of the past 50 years finished?”

The Wire met Mahesh and Lalsu in Gadchiroli on the day they had been campaigning to directly provide tenders to the adivasis for tendu patta collection, instead of working through middlemen. “We’re actually all gram sabha activists, that is our main work.”

One hot afternoon in Hemalkasa village in Bhamragad block, they had invited contractors to openly and transparently apply for a tender in a public meeting with members of numerous gram sabhas. In three meetings so far, none of the contractors agreed to the minimum fixed price for the adivasis and their respective sabhas. “Looks like the time is up for them to put their tenders,” announced Lalsu at the public meeting. “We should remind them again that we are the masters of our forests.”

All of them had vastly different journeys but are at the forefront of the latest development versus mining quandary the state and the people find themselves in.

To begin with, what exactly happened outside the lawyer’s office at Nagpur where two adivasi women, who alleged rape against the security forces, and activists, who tried to bring them to court, were arrested by the police?

Mahesh: On January 20, near Etapalli there was an incident near Gattapad. Two women from Naitala village of Chattisgarh were visiting their families in Maharashtra. Later, their family had approached our movement, and spoken to Sheela Gotta, who was an ex-sarpanch and now is a sabha samiti sadasya, and they told her that their girls are missing. Later, they went inquiring and they found out that at Gottagutta, the police had brought them in the morning and taken them to Gattapad police station. When the families approached the police they said that they had to make some inquiries and the women were with them. When they were released, they went to a nearby village where a lot of people gathered around them and that was when the women told Sheela that the C60 (Maharashtra’s special anti-Naxal force) had misbehaved with them. They had been physically assaulted and abused. This is what the women themselves had shared with us.

After that, the village elders and everyone went to the police station and asked for legal action. The police said that if the women were saying this, they needed to keep them. So, they kept them again in the police station. The villagers demanded an FIR and a medical test, but they refused. Then on the January 22, when the villagers and Sheela went to visit them, the police started to say they had no one with them. When on January 21 evening, the police had taken custody of the women in front of the villagers and now they were claiming they didn’t have them. Word spread across the villages that this had happened. So on the 22nd many people from different villages started to surround the police station and sit on a dharna quietly. The police eventually saw that the crowds had some four thousand people. That was when they said that they sent the women for a medical test to Gadchiroli. This they said on the afternoon of the 22nd. They said they had sent the girls that morning for a medical, without anyone who they knew or informing their families. And they wrote, that Nirbhaya 1 and Nirbhaya 2 were sent to Gadchiroli.


Lalsu Narote, addressing villagers about the need to stand together, irrespecitive of the risk of one season’s produce, in case no contractor agreed to their demands. Credit: Javed Iqbal

That was written in the FIR?

Mahesh: No. That was what they gave the people in writing.

Then what happened?

Mahesh: At this point everyone was at Gottagutta and when people went to Gadchiroli police station they didn’t let anyone from their village or family meet them. No one with any idea of the law or process. See in our adivasi culture, whenever something like this happens, people go to their traditional leaders, their Gaitas, their Bhumias or their Majhis. And Sainu is the traditional leader of this area. So when he went with the families to meet them, he wasn’t allowed.

And on the 22nd when they were returning, the police stopped them and confiscated their car. The police started to visit the houses of activists. Later at 2 am they picked up Sheela and Sainu and took them to the police station. They accused them of obstructing the medical test. But they were outside the station, so how did were they obstructions?

Then by the 23rd there was no news of the girls, there were no medical reports, the families were not allowed to get the reports. But we heard that the police took the women away. And here’s where it gets interesting, the collector and the SP told everyone that the report came on the 23rd, but the DIG (Anti-Naxal) told the Indian Express on the 22nd that the medical report had come clean.

Eventually things calmed down a bit and activists went back to their work. The women and their families were sent back to their villages. The police put out some press notes on how Sainu and Sheela are working for the Naxals – which are all lies. Then on the 25th the girls and their families approached Sainu and Sheela again.

They said their medical test was done only two days later. They said that they were made to wash their clothes. Anyone with any knowledge of rape cases know that the sooner the evidence is gathered, the better. We understood what the matter was.

They said they wanted to take the matter forward and they wanted legal help. Our people told them that we can support them, but they have to do most of the work by themselves. They agreed that they wanted to go to a lawyer. Then on the January 28, they met the lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod at the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) office in Nagpur, where they were preparing their affidavit. Around 4 p.m. they were going to the bathroom nearby (the HRLN office has no bathroom) and Sheela was escorting them. It was then that someone tried to grab the women from behind. Sheela instantly raised an alarm and Sainu saw this happening but he was taken away in a Sumo vehicle.

The lawyers tried to get them to identify themselves but they refused, however one of our Gadchiroli activists recognised them and said they were from the Gadchiroli police. They then called the Nagpur police to say they wanted to arrest Sheela, because she was involved in organising the morcha at the police station on the 22nd at Gatta, that she attacked the police and threatened government officials.

They filed this FIR and accused her of these things when they realised she had taken the women to Nagpur to meet lawyers. And for something like Section 353, obstructing a government official, the police from Gadchiroli come to arrest her all the way to Nagpur.

Here the question was, they came to arrest Sheela and Sainu but that day in Armori, they arrested Ramdas Jarate, another activist who was working on the election campaign.

They brought an entire police force to even take the two victims away. The lawyer asked why and they said because there was an accusation that they were forcefully brought to Nagpur.

All this happened around 5 pm

Then the hearing happened on January 29 and here’s where it gets murkier. The day before, the police told the lawyer that the girls were brought forcefully but they filed the FIR against Sainu only the next day. It was like they presumed the accusation.

The girls were in police custody for around 16 hours by then. And what we feared happened – they reversed their testimony even when we wrote in our application that the girls could be threatened and out of fear, they might change their position. Then after that, on the 31st, when Sainu and Mangesh got bail, they re-arrested them.


Villagers surround the Gattapad police station after news spread that the police ‘misbehaved’ with two women. Credit: Special Arrangement

Who was Mangesh?

Mahesh: Mangesh is a local villager who had just hitched a ride from Gadchiroli to Nagpur, and he was arrested. Then on the February 4, they re-arrested Jarate, then they arrested our activist Jayashree, then on the 5th, when Sheela went to give her application for the elections, they re-arrested her. They were looking for me as well. They were asking around for me with my photo, ‘where does he live?’ Then on February 11, they arrested two more people. They put Section 365 (kidnapping) on us. Then they added Section 364(a) (kidnapping for ransom) on us, which is non-bailable. All this was done so no one could get bail by February 14. By then the matter quietened down.

The courts had told the girls they were free to go and so the police took them back to Chhattisgarh.  And now the matter rests as one where Sainu is accused of kidnapping them, of forcing them to give false accusation of rape against the police. And this there is a similar case on eight of our activists.

I have often found that for years now, the only response the state has to accusations against the police is that you’re doing Naxal propaganda and that you’re maligning the image of the police or destroying their morale. Your comment?

Mahesh: See, many times when we raise the issue of incidents like this in areas like Gadchiroli, it is labeled as just a human rights violation. And suddenly we see a another argument that these human rights wallahs are demoralising the armed forces by accusing them of human rights violations. And two camps emerged out of it – one raising questions based on reality and the other defending everything in name of patriotism and nationalism. And people were forced to take sides.

Whenever people raise any matter of violence, we’re labeled as anti-national or doing naxal propaganda. It becomes easy for the police to curb any voice of dissent.

We don’t see these incidents of violence or repression as a matter of human rights only. We need to understand why there is repression, why this heavy militarisation, specifically in tribal areas. It’s a matter of who own resources.

Whatever is happening in Gadchiroli, ranging from illegal arrests, false cases on people, it has direct relations to the anti-mining protests.

The state is smart, it is reducing matters to the argument of human rights and nationalism only. It’s upon us to expand the analysis of this repression, to raise the struggle to a level which will address these human rights violation issues in totality.

What happened after the truck burnings of December 20? Did the repression increase after that?

Mahesh: Yes, it did. But see, people have always opposed mining here. It is important to understand that it was always by democratic means for years. In the Surjagad area alone, mining has been proposed in 12 places. In Korachi block also, mining has been proposed in 12 places. If you look at all of Gadchiroli, some 15,000 hectares will be affected directly by mining and 40,000 acres by mining-allied activities. And this in the dense parts of the forest.  It will destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people.

People have protested against this democratically, by giving their gram sabha resolutions against it, they have written to their ministers, to the human rights commission, to the Central government, to the ST/SC commission. They have told them how it will destroy their culture. It will attack our constitutional values. People are holding meetings. People are not being aggressive.

In the middle of this, the Maoists, functioning the way they do, went and burned down the trucks. They don’t use the documents that we do, they don’t have democratic means. The state saw this as an opportunity. They used the excuse of Maoist violence as a way to destroy the democratic means. And they went to village after village, beat people up, arrested them. They have taken at least 30 people to the police station, arrested some of them, there are four people with Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act cases. On one activist from Hedri, who they picked up on the January 13 the date of arrest shows as the 18th. There are a lot of people in Surjagad, from across 70 villages, who are being picked up and regularly harassed.


Contractors sit in the middle, listening to proposals and rules laid down by the Gram Sabha representatives before they can apply for a tender. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Was there open people’s support  in burning the trucks?

Mahesh: People are not angry with the trucks, they’re against mining. Just one day if they go and do a dharna and stop trucks, what will happen? The police will arrest some activists, that won’t stop mining. We believe that it should permanently be shut down legally. Stopping it in the middle here and there won’t make a difference for us.

Let us look at the government’s policy. On one hand there is enthusiasm and support for the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and for the manner in which gram sabhas are earning crores in the sale of forest produce, but on the other hand there is this belligerent push for mining at Surjagad. Why this kind of dual policy? How many governments are actually functioning at Gadchiroli?

Mahesh: There are a lot of places where there is no administration here. The problem is that at some places where the only government face people know are the forest department or the forces. There are times when a good collector comes to Gadchiroli, there is promotion for community forest rights and PESA, but from the other side there is also repression, the forest department behaves like a landlord or the police is repressive. Health and education is also seen differently.

The thing is, there has been a long history of struggle in Gadchiroli over resources. There has been a strong social fabric in the villages, there have been a lot of changes now, people wear different kinds of clothes, they live in different houses, but the basic social fabrics and attachment to nature is still there. The thing about the adivasis of Gadchiroli is that they have adopted change from outside in their own ways but they have not left their attachment to nature.

There has been a long struggle for rights, for tendu, for bamboo, there was an awareness among people for their rights. When people were fighting for PESA, there were people from Gadchiroli who went on a march to Delhi. There were lots of different kinds of movements here. The Maoists have also been active on daily wage issues around tendu for 30 years now. The ‘Hamara Gaon Hamara Raj’ (our village our rule) slogan was active in many areas from the beginning. Then PESA came. And from the beginning people thought the jungle was theirs, not just since the law was implemented.

The adivasis of Gadchiroli actually think PESA is their law, that they helped implement it. Earlier, people used to just get daily wages but now there’s a paradigm shift where even the royalty goes to the villager. Bamboo that used to be sold for Rs. 8 is now being sold for Rs. 50. They used to get Rs. 4 out of 8, and now out of that Rs. 50, in general Rs. 15 goes to the gram sabhas, and Rs. 35 goes to the labourer.

If we look at what happened historically in other adivasi areas, there have been countless struggles for resources, for the forest. But the difference between those places and Gadchiroli is that in those places there was also a struggle against mining, against dams, against displacement. That didn’t happen in Gadchiroli. Until now.

Yes, from the same jungle from where people are earning crores without destroying the jungle, the state is trying to mine it. That is very contradictory and it shows the state’s lack of understanding and double talk, on one side it talks about how it is facilitating the rights from PESA, which we don’t say they’ve given, but that the people have fought to claim.

In other areas, they don’t even want to facilitate this kind of development, here they were made to. Here Jairam Ramesh had come to Gadchiroli to facilitate the forest rights patta work, a lot of paperwork happens for it, and the same land is being given as allotment to mining companies. On one side they want to show that they are a welfare state, but on the other side they show how they’re a corporate-friendly state.


Over 70 vehicles were destroyed at the Surjagad mountain by the CPI Maoists in December, which accentuated a wave of arrests across the region. Credit: Harshit Charles

Historically, adivasis have been paying for India’s so-called industrial development for years. From one side they lose land to caste-Hindus, and the other for development projects. In all my time documenting displacement, I have encountered mostly two kinds of policy makers – industrialists, and government officials. One, those who are truly unaware of adivasi society and two, those who know that industrial mining will destroy adivasi culture. But they go through with it anyway over considerations for the economy or growth. How would you speak to the second group?

Mahesh: One must ask, that if you have a television at your home and if after three months, you change your television and someone dies for that, isn’t that wrong? Every time you buy a new iPhone, you want to get an iPhone 6 and now an iPhone 7, and each time somebody is dying for that.

You have presented your wants as your needs and as development, and thousands of adivasis are dying for that. We all have the right to life, to have a good life, to have basic amenities, and that is also a demand of our movement. But how does that happen, and how is it happening? Those in the city who call for mining for their development, I have to ask them, how much are they using, and how much is the company profiting? We are not just talking about the adivasi people here. This is a question about all the people of the country. The laws being born right now are meant for the poor? If there is so much steel and iron produced in this country, why are so many people homeless?

When there is mining in other countries, mining starts later, legally, there are notifications, the community itself is a stakeholder, they’re re-rehabilitated in a similar habitat, and the state does the mining, not private corporations. We believe that people should have control over their own resources.

Lalsu: A lot of the educated people in our society were discussing this yesterday – what are the different concepts of development, what are people in the villages thinking, what do they want? A lot of the people who are in the government now, are not rooted with the people. They are yes people, like they sit in a classroom nodding heads. But the people who are in the villages, who know what the issues are, it is their voice that has to be raised – what do they want to say? Do they need a gas cylinder, a buffalo? Do they need a road, do they want mining? There are a lot of people in the gram sabha who take decisions on their own about what people want. Even in my own sabha they do this. Let’s give a pandal, microphone, a television and we say ‘no, there is no need for all that in our village, we will give you a list of what we want’. When some officials who are connected to the government have lost touch with the people, they think the same way the government always does, that this is how development should happen.

This is why in Bamragad, Etapalli, Sironcha, we found candidates rooted to the people, who could enter the system, to raise the voice of the adivasis.

The tragedy is that we can’t just speak about mining at the sabha level, it won’t shut down. I may be a zilla sabha member, but I can’t talk about framing laws. We don’t know how far we can go. But there are  some things I can do, I have a voice now, adivasi samaj ka vyakti hu mein. I can write to officials. Just to give you an example, there’s an SDO I recently called up to say that the BDO in our area is not allowing us to open a bank account and he’s not working on FRA and PESA. I had already sent them letters, I didn’t sign that I was a ZP member, I just wrote that I am Lalsu Nogoti. When he started talking to me on the phone, he asked if I was an officer, or a member of some people’s movement, and when I told him I am a ZP member, his tone changed.

People in the adivasi resistance don’t really speak to the bureaucrats, they feel they don’t work for the people.


Over 70 vehicles were destroyed at the Surjagad mountain by the CPI (Maoists) in December, which accentuated a wave of arrests across the region. Credit: Harshit Charles

There’s also a question of adivasi culture and industrial development and the internal rifts it creates. About what kind of development, about whether to leave traditional culture, to integrate into ‘mainstream society’, to go to Delhi, etc.

Lalsu: Today’s youth who study, those who go to school only get a job-oriented education. After you graduate, you only get a job. There is nothing in the education that reflects the kind of things that are in an adivasi’s life, like the land or the forest. The kind of education you’d get in a Ghotul, you don’t get it. How to survive in a forest, how to understand the forest.

We will become a master, a patwari, or work in a company. And a lot of young people who are leaving their villages and going to companies. There are some 500 or so young people who have left their villages from this area, from Bamragad, Etapalli, and they have gone to Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad, to work for some company. And if you go and see how they live, some 10-20 of them live in a small room in a jhopadpatti, and when they return after 4-5 months, they come with a mobile phone, a pair of jeans, some dark glasses, shoes, and they come home and say we’ve become developed. When I went to Mumbai and lived with some 11 boys for some work, I noticed they don’t speak their own language, they didn’t even let people know that they were Madia Gond or Adivasi, or what is their culture, or where they’re from. No one around them knew who they were, from the company people to their neighbours. They want to be city people.

I too went to Fergusson college and I know many students from here who go now. When people would ask where they’re from, they say they’re from Nagpur.

Mahesh: I had a similar experience. There was a student with us in TISS. When you first asked him where he’s from, he said Nagpur. Then after 2-3 weeks he’d say he’s from Gadchiroli. Then two months later I find out he’s from Aheri.  Then he finally admits where he is originally from. There is always this inferiority complex. And there’s a reason for this. It’s the ashram schools that the government started supposedly for adivasi development. The teachers are mostly non-tribal who teach that the adivasis are backward, that they are different. The teachers themselves say you are poor, you are uneducated, tum log magaas ho, you will have to improve. This has affected the consciousness of generations of adivasis.

Lalsu: All happened to us. So, when I first went to Pune. I didn’t really know much to adjust so well, I thought the ones who are padha likha are clever people.


Mahesh Raut and Lalsu Narote. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Did you also hide your identity?

Lalsu: I was a little sharper, I was from Hemalkasa, no? I had no mother, no father, but I knew that if I told people I am from Nagpur, no one would help me. So, I told them where I am from, ‘Oh, you’re from Bamragad? From a village where there are so many forests and so many Naxals?’ A lot of people helped me then.

It was B.D. Sharma who said, that if a youth from the villages goes to the city, it’s a loss to the people. If I had failed and come back, and worked with the people, then it’s good. I was slowly drifting away. People thought, that whatever I learn, it won’t be for the people. He won’t know how to fix tools, he won’t know how to hunt.

Mahesh: Education shouldn’t be just to make a blind worker. Which is what Lalsu bhao first said – education should exist to increase consciousness, understanding and then people will make their own decisions. When the state uses the words ‘mukya dhara’ or mainstream, we find that term very problematic. How is your mainstream our mainstream? In our andolan, we believe everyone should have equal rights. Then let people decide. But in today’s situation, it is working for the market. There has to be preparation for the syllabus specifically for adivasi society like it is happening in other countries.

Both of you have seen this ‘mainstream’. What did you learn from it and what brought you back?

Lalsu: I knew I had to come back home from the very beginning, when I went out there. My story is different. I was the first educated person in my home, with some kind of understanding. I never knew my father, he died when I was a child. And in our culture, a widow re-marries. My father was a village Gaita and people say he was killed because someone else wanted to be Gaita. But all of that is past now.

So, I used to be around the village, work in this people’s fields, in different houses, go fishing, take people’s animals out to the fields, the people of the village thought if I live like this, I’d die. So, that was when they sent me to Amte’s ashram at Hemalkasa, that’s where I’d get food at least. When I went there, I met someone there who saw I did not have any proper clothes but said I can take whatever clothes I want from this room there. And I went to that room and I wore some two or three pants and shirts there, which were very big for me. Bahut bade log hote, kapde donate karnewalle. For three years I wore those oversized clothes. I started to live with the headmaster, my education started and I started living there with another adivasi youth.

When I was in the 7th standard, I realised I could memorise anything I tried to study. It was in Etapalli tehsil where I had come third. There were only three of us from Hemalkasa. They gifted us an Marathi-English dictionary. After 10th, I came second and that was where they sent me to study at Anandwan.  I was studying in the 11th when one of Baba Amte’s friend’s from Pune had come and the Amte’s discussed me with her – about whether I could be sent to Pune to study. She was apparently a managing trustee of Fergusson College and she agreed.


Two forest fires – one across the Chhattisgarh border and another in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli. Ever since the Forest Rights Act have been used by the Gond adivasis of the region to effectively sell forest produce, there have been articles in the mainstream media claiming that the adivasis are destroying the forest. Credit: Javed Iqbal

In all the years you were there, what was the thing that bothered you the most about ‘mainstream society’?

Lalsu: When I first went to the hostel, I cried a lot. At Fergusson College, there is this gate called Masaba where so many people come and go, where for one month I couldn’t understand how no one could recognise you. What was I to do here? I never understood. One thing I used to love though, is recognizing trees from home. There used to be this forest near Fergusson and I used to roam there. If I saw a Tarotta tree, I’d remember the ones at home. The people didn’t look at us, but the trees were there. I really loved that. Of course there isn’t a single Mahua tree there. But I saw a Gorga at the botanical garden.

Life was very different at Fergusson, I had a lot of problem with food. They used to only give us a cup of rice and you know how adivasis eat rice. Then there was bhakri, which I couldn’t eat. I used to try and swap my bhakri to get more rice. I don’t think that I ever felt I ate enough at Pune.

You didn’t make any friends in Ferguson’s?

Lalsu: It took time to make friends there, unnar dikhana padta hai, to show one is different, you make friends. Nowadays, there are many people who re-connect with me on Facebook. People from ILS to Fergusson write to me, asking about our times, how we studied together. My name also has appeared in the media, even with your story for instance.

Later in Fergusson though, there was a big group of us involved in social movements, I worked with the Students Federation of India (SFI), we worked with a lot of progressives, Kishore Jadhav, Vidrohi. We had morchas, meetings, we travelled to Mumbai. And I was exposed to movements back then. We never did too much work, but I was made the zilla adeskh of SFI.

There was a time I was out of the hostel and I didn’t get into a government hostel. So, I was put up with a family by the Student Welfare Association (SWA). That was horrible. One didn’t have to pay for it but you were like a paying guest. They troubled me a lot. I told them where I was from, they didn’t care, they said I just have to do work, ‘bring all your documents and we will just burn them, shiksha ka koi arth nahi (there’s no meaning in education). What will you do after studying?’ I used to tell them ‘no one is educated from my home, and if there is no meaning, I will burn it myself. You people are educated, you speak English, let me study’. They used to feed me leftovers, I lived there for a year. They were musicians, tabla bajane walle, Ramcharitmanas type people, every week they had events. They had a very big house and where I used to sleep there were dogs. One night I went to drink water and the dogs attacked me. I could’ve died.

I don’t tell anyone this story. There are some 250 students from here now over there, with the SWA.

After that I got into a government hostel which was 15 kilometres away from ILS and I used to travel by cycle every day.

Around that time someone who was a lecturer at ILS who taught family law met Prakash Amte who told her about how there is someone from the Madia Gond community in her college. When she came back, she asked the classroom if there was anyone from Gadchiroli? I stood up. I met her later in her cabin, she asked me about how I was living, studying, and later she helped me get the poor student’s fund, with references, and after that I got by with paying for my room, with food, travel. Then I was coordinating the night classes for the diploma courses in human rights, labour laws and cyber laws.

Finally I finished my law, I did my masters in journalism. I also thought journalism was very interesting. I studied journalism and law. I worked with movements and NGOS a lot with Vidrodhi, to SFI to AISF. I worked with NGOs a lot, in Pune for instance I worked on PESA. I worked with Oxfam, CGNET, Yashwantrao Chavan Fellowship, in 2011 I had gone to Phillippines on a training for indigenous lawyers from conflict areas.

I have never been aggressive in my language about human rights, I often worked institutionally, but I knew something had to be done for people’s rights here. That was when I met people like Mahesh, I remember meeting him at a bus stand…

Mahesh: The next day the police picked up Lalsu.

Lalsu: Yes, because I tried to resolve a fight in a village between two Bhumias. The one who didn’t like what I said, called the police.


While last year saw a wave of mass beatings and harassment of the Gond adivasis around the region, the burning of the trucks led to dozens of arrests, which activists claim are arbitrary. Credit: Harshit Charles

How have the state administration or the police reacted to a Madia Gond being a lawyer?

Lalsu: The state officials are okay. It’s at the village that the people don’t respond much. They just think ‘vakil’ is my name. The officials have read about me in the newspapers at least. People across the area know there’s a lawyer in Bamragad and that he’s studied in a very big college. That’s all they know.

Mahesh: Last year when he was picked up by the police, quite a lot of villagers went to the police station.

On that note, how has your legal training helped with dealing with the police?

Lalsu: When they pick me up, I tell them to take me to court. You can’t keep me in the police station. Once I had a fight with the policeman who wrote my religion down as ‘Hindu’ in the caste and religion bracket. I asked him why did you write Hindu? He asked, what do you know? I told him, that if you don’t remove that, I will put a case on you. Bilkul nahi likna.

What about you, Mahesh? How did you see the mainstream? You come from a relatively privileged background, as a Kunbi, an OBC. When did you start realising what the adivasi situation truly is, or engage with your own identity?

Mahesh: See the mainstream? I’ve lived it. In Gadchiroli itself, you have two Gadchirolis. One is the adivasi Gadchiroli, the original Gadchiroli, where the forests are still there. Then there is the plain area, the settled farm areas, the non-tribal areas, where they more or less finished all the forest. That is where I am from. I was born in Chandrapur, but since I was three, I grew up in Gadchiroli. I grew up in a village, in a school with near a river. There was little schooling, a lot more mischief…

Your schools must’ve been worlds apart in manner of quality of education?

Lalsu: I was in Hemalkasa, my school was better.

Mahesh: Mine was a zilla parishad school, leaky roofs and everything.

Near my own village, there were two adivasi families, and they are still there. There used to be an adivasi badadev pooja and we never had the same festival. And I wondered about it when I was young. And growing up, the ‘mainstream’ would use the word adivasi in a very negative connotation: ‘why are you dressed like an adivasi?’ ‘kya re tu adivasi ke jaise kar raha hai,’ things like that. A lot of people used to talk to that, luckily my father was a little conscious and we didn’t have that, but our extended family was very castiest. Our village had a lot of Dalit and OBC families. The extended families used to vent a lot at the Dalit families. But my father was educated, and all his friends were the Dalits from school.

Police security for the gram sabha meeting at Hemalkasa. Credit: Javed Iqbal

What did your father do?

Mahesh: My father was a farmer, but my grandfather didn’t let my father get a job. He got a placement in the irrigation department but he didn’t let him do. Dada was a patil, and he wanted his son to do the same. This is why the OBCs are so backward. Father eventually did become a police patil. My mother is actually from a political family, my maternal grandfather fought in the freedom struggle. He was affiliated with the Congress up till 2011 when he died. He was a bit more progressive and I have always spent more time around him.

I grew up in a village which also had a lot of caste. And in that time I never understood: why they only come and work in our house? Why don’t they have their own land? I used to naively get angry and tell my friend why does your mother work in our fields? Work in your own no? Only later I understood the politics about that.

When I was in boarding school, there was a non-tribal friend once who used to talk about how the Naxalites used to keep exploding bombs and there were daily firings in his village. Even in my mind I developed that picture of violence and war and I sometimes question the media on this same thing, this image that is created. It was later when I was on the 9th standard, that a friend of mine who was from a village close to the Indravati said that that whole image is false, there is no daily firings, and bombings and all this. His village today, in government parlance is still ‘naxal infested,’ and he told me how it actually is. He was also the person with whom we used to go collect Mahua for some extra pocket money.

It was only post the 10th that I started to understand caste. I used to like history but a family member forced us to do science. I used to still read about history. Post-12th I wanted to be a journalist. And it was during Vajpayee’s government where there was a lot of talk about changing the constitution and there were a lot of events and debates regarding that. That was when I was reading parts of the constituent assembly debates.

It was around this time, that my family pressurised me to get a diploma in education, as an assured job. That I was the oldest, I should support everyone. My father had passed away when I was in the 9th. So, I went to Nagpur to study D.Ed in an English medium. There forget adivasi or Dalit, there if you say you’re from Gadchiroli, you’re backward. ‘Oh you’re from a Naxal area?’ And they used to think I was latu-tapu, stupid. My English teacher went so far to say, ‘you’re from Gadchiroli, the Naxal area, I heard that people in your area don’t even use water to clean after you shit, that you use leaves’. That was the day I realised there was a problem. It was only when they saw my admission records, and saw that I was the third topper that they laid off a bit. They also saw how I was good at debates, at inter-university debates, I got them prizes. Two years went there.

This was a time when I used to think I had to challenge myself. That I should get a high paying job and also help people. That I go into higher education. I used to tell my mother that I can’t do 12th and D.Ed and die.

At that time, I had the Kendriya Vidyalaya job and I was posted in Goa. I was the youngest [in my family] to get a permanent job at the age of 19 and a half. My pay at that time was Rs. 28,000. I had a nice view of the sea some 500 metres from my quarters. I was lucky to have a principal, a retired army guy who was supportive and he gave me all my leave-days to deal with college admission. At that time, there was potential in IMT Nagpur, IMDR, Wellingkers, Symbiosis and then TISS.

I got into TISS for MA in social work and here I had a lot of problems with my family. They couldn’t imagine how someone would want to leave a permanent job for an MA.

(Lalsu laughs)

They thought I was mad. My uncles came and tried to talk to my mother, how someone who could get a permanent job at such a young age could just give it away. That also one ded lakh ka fees ka MA. I never went home to deal with any of the pressure, I just went to TISS and some of my friends helped with my fees.

At TISS it wasn’t so good. I had an inferiority complex. There were people from Fergusson, Symbiosis, from LSR, from St. Xaviers, from JNU. It took me two months to realise that they were talking about what they were saying about us me in English. I stated to talk back to them in Hindi.

Then I was in the student forum and I was the convener later, I was active. It was at TISS where there was a lot of clarity, where conceptual ideas, the things I had seen, what people used to say about adivasi people, it helped me to get to a deeper meaning. This wasn’t through just the course, but through the other people around me.

It was 2011 then, when I started to travel through Gadchiroli again. I also got a research fellowship from TISS on understanding development in conflict-prone Central India. We were living in Aheri then, and we travelled more and met more people. I was introduced to PESA, to B.D. Sharma and Bharat Jan Andolan. I also met Lalsu that same time. And my guide then asked me that I should just apply for the Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD) fellowship. I debated with myself whether I should or not, and the only condition I had was that I’d do it, if they place me in Gadchiroli. My reference then itself was the collector of the district.

The collector himself was clear that if one was going to work, one has to work on a long-term basis. Not just for Indira Awas or to build toilets. I said I wanted to work with the forest rights, on rights-based approaches, on PESA. He also figured that the PMRD is not for someone to sit in an office, it is for fieldwork, so he sent me to Aheri.

One of the things was there was no proper community forest rights in South Gadchiroli there and we worked on that a lot. I also never travelled in any four wheeler, there was a scooter that went from village to village, it’s an iconic two wheeler now.

In 2013, you may remember they tried to say I was in touch with the Maoists. I don’t want to mention that again. After the 2014 elections, I felt I had to leave PMRF and I did in November 2014. There was less freedom then, the government’s priority programs changed. I couldn’t just work to implement schemes on making toilets on swach bharat when people’s life and livelihood were at stake.


Shivaji Gotta was arrested in February and his family alleges that he was arrested to pressurise his father Saenu. Credit: The Gotta family

How did Jairam Ramesh feel about your work?

Mahesh: He was supportive. He supported the rights-based approach, FRA and PESA.

How did your family react to you being accused of being a Maoist?

Mahesh: They were worried but they were okay. It was good that the police themselves proved it to them what big liars they are, in the way the kind of news they spread. My sister has a file of all the paper cuttings and the accusations of the police. ‘Mahesh Raut ne ye kaha who kaha… in log inhake sampark me the…’ What? When did I say that?

They were worried about me never earning too much money. But they haven’t stopped me from working in the andolan. Now, I manage to get some money through trainings, lectures, some translation work. Then you don’t have to spend so much also when you work with people.

The veteran

Sainu Gotta won the ZP seat by over 500 votes. His predecessor was neither vocally against pro-mining. His village of Gattapad is almost ground zero for the agitation against mining at Surjagad. He won even when voting in his area shut down at 1 p.m. as it continued in the town till 3 p.m. ‘They know that the votes were dropping for me, for so many people were coming to vote.’ He would say. In Surjagad, the organization couldn’t actively campaign, because most of the leadership was already arrested, including Sainu and his wife, for the so-called kidnapping case concerning the women who accused the police of rape. There was literally no open meetings and campaigning. Yet it was the highest voting record in the region.

“The SP himself had travelled in the villages to tell people not to vote for me,” said Sainu.

“The  police propaganda is mostly against Sainu,” Mahesh said.

Sainu Gotta’s son Shivaji was arrested on the March 20, 2017 for alleged murder. A forest guard from Mandla who had lived in Gatta for the last 15 years, married an adivasi girl, and took some land and settled in the village was killed. The Naxalites have claimed responsibility for killing him.

“The police said that the victim’s woman had mentioned on record that my son had threatened him,” Sainu said. “But when we spoke to her, she said she hadn’t given any report like that. She said she never gave any report that Shivaji Gotta had killed him. Then a few days later, she comes to court and says that Shivaji had killed him.”

“How is Shivaji a Naxalite? He lived in the village and lived minutes away from the police station. The FIR states that the killing happened on the 18th and then two days later you say that the accused are Shivaji and unknown Naxalites. He has an aadhaar card, an election card, what kind of Naxal has all of that?” Sainu asked.

“This is all being done to destroy our PESA law. They misbehaved with those two girls, they arrested me and my wife. Then they arrested my son. He just did the farming work at home. They said they just called him for inquiry, that they would leave him, then they brought him to court and said he killed a man. Who do we go to? We have to go to no one but the court itself?”

“There is a lot of disturbances in our area. How will people accept all these false cases they’re putting on people?”

“When the trucks were burning, the police were just looking at the smoke, they never even went there then. Then they arrested people one month later.”

You were in the government before, from 1992-1997, and now you’re openly critical of government policies, how do you negotiate with other officers?

Sainu: I may be against government policies, but have never been openly antagonistic against the other officers. The way I work is with diplomacy, we work on the issues, on farming, on water, and legally we work. No one has attacked me yet but the work is to take the schemes to the people.

A few days ago, there was a report in a major mainstream newspaper against PESA and FRA saying that the adivasis are burning thousands of hectares of forest for Tendu production. Is there more to this?

Sainu: The jungle has always been burning. For years the jungle has been burning, but only the forest bed burns, the trees don’t burn, the bamboo doesn’t burn. Then when it rains most of these small plants grow back. We used to do it before to check the scorpion population. There is a problem though, there are some medicinal herbs that we’re losing in the forest fires. And now we have programs in the villages to check on that.

Sainu Gotta

Saenu Gotta is a prominent leader who has often worked with the state for development work in the region and is one of the leading faces in the region against mining. Credit: Javed Iqbal

You have had your association with the Congress, you’re a village Gaita, you have access to ministers. When your son was arrested, did you try and contact any of the people in the political mainstream?

Sainu: They said they’d help, they were shocked, how could this happen. But nothing happened. They said when they get a whole report they will get a better picture. How could they put this kind of oppression on you?

How do you see the contradictions taking place within adivasi society, and the lack of response from the state to your voices? How do you speak to a state that doesn’t wish to listen? 

Sainu: Of the 500 teachers who entered our schools under my watch in 1992-1997, not a single one spoke up about the anay-atyachar on our people. They never speak about the vikas, the damanYeh adivasi log dehat chodd ke, apne makaan banarahe hai sheher mein. People used to say to speak to the government you need some adhikar. But we realized that doesn’t work. The people have given us a mandate now, and we will speak up.

We want to tell these people that we have constitutional rights, they haven’t taken our consents, they build police stations all over the place. We are fighting democratically, we know that there will be no development to us, they will destroy our culture, our forests. And we will keep speaking about this.

Javed Iqbal is a freelance reporter and photographer.