One Year After Arrest, Organisations Demand Adivasi Activist Hidme Markam's Release

The 28-year-old Adivasi activist was arrested for her anti-mining activism, fight against big corporations and participation in the movement to secure the release of political prisoners in Chhattisgarh.

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New Delhi: A year ago, on International Women’s Day, 28-year-old Adivasi activist Hidme Markam was arrested. She was arrested from a gathering of women in Sameli, under Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, while protesting the death of a 27-year-old woman Pande Kowasi in police custody.

Markam’s anti-mining activism, her fight against big corporations and her participation in the movement to secure the release of those who had been wrongfully arrested have made her the target of the state authorities, alleged rights activists and lawyers. 

A year later, at a press conference organised on Wednesday, March 9, activists from groups such as Adivasi Lives Matter, Front Line Defenders and lawyers demanded the release of Markam while pointing to the large-scale systemic violence and targeted harassment of Adivasis by the Indian state. A host of human rights organisations came together for the press conference including Survival International, Hindus for Human Rights and PUCL Chhattisgarh.

Hailing from the Koya tribe, Markam launched the Jail Bandi Rihai Committee, a group campaigning for the release of thousands of Adivasis who have been criminalised, branded as “Naxals” and held, often for many years. When arresting Markam, the police claimed that she was an “absconding Maoist insurgent” who faced serious charges in five cases registered between 2016 and 2020. 

Since her arrest, an international campaign has been launched against the “arbitrary arrests” of Adivasi rights defenders and activists.

Speaking at the conference, Deanne Uyangoda, a Front Line Defenders activist, said, “The arrest of Hidme is emblematic of all such arbitrary arrests. Hidme Markam’s case is representative of so much more. It represents how the Indian government has managed quite successfully to target human rights defenders.”  

Also read: When Process Is Punishment: Hidme Markam’s Activism and the Sketchy Cases Against Her

Continuing further, she said, “Hidme was targeted a year ago. What is particularly damning is the use of her identity, the work she did, arbitrary detention, the threat of custodial violence against women.” 

“Currently, we do not see any response from the Indian government to the international community or the local community. The multiple charges against her are about prolonging her detention. We believe the Indian state is targeting her, and her arrest is politically charged. It points towards the dangerous forms of reprisal for speaking up against big corporations,” Uyangoda said.

Prior to her arrest, Hidme recorded a video message for Survival International – a human rights organisation fighting for tribal people’s rights – in which she describes the way Adivasi women are treated in India.

She said, “They’re being beaten every day, they’re being jailed every day. Every day, wherever our women go, they face the same kind of abuse. The only possible way forward is for all women to be united, for our water and forests, for our lands – to save them from mining.” 

Activist Soni Soriwho witnessed Markam’s arrest, said: “She isn’t a Maoist as police claimed. She has been fighting for jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest and land) of tribals in Bastar. She had been going to the offices of the superintendent of police (SP) and collector frequently and met with many prominent personalities…to raise tribals’ issues… Have you ever heard of a Maoist going to the SP or collector’s office, meeting the chief minister, governor and revealing their identity openly?”

Soni Sori in Bastar, 2018. Photo: Sukanya Shantha

Survival International’s latest report points to how women fighting for rights in tribal areas are being targeted: 

 “Brutalised for resistance: the assault on indigenous women in Modi’s India points out how women have stood in the front line against the security forces that are acting in the interests of the mining corporations – protecting their communities, lands and futures.

In so doing, they have faced police baton charges, teargas, rubber bullets and live rounds. Rather than protect them, the security forces are a major source of the violence the women experience. Adivasi women who stand up for their lands and rights and against the injustices that their communities are facing are targeted for both their defiance and their gender.

There are high rates of sexual abuse of Adivasi women in the districts with high levels of mining and mining resistance movements. Women defending their lands face additional threats of sexual violence, public stripping, acid attacks and defamation. By threatening and brutalising Adivasi women, the perpetrators – usually the security forces working in the interests of mining – hope to intimidate and suppress the whole community’s resistance.

Activists state that Markam’s arrest is symbolic of the crackdown the state is unleashing on those who are resisting the corporate takeover of Adivasi land.”

Speaking at the event, academic and researcher Bela Bhatia said, “Village after village, there is a pattern of arrests with several people languishing in jails under the draconian UAPA law. While the Chhattisgarh government quotes a very small number of those incarcerated, there is no cognisance of the number. While we fight for Hidme, there are unknown persons, invisible, thousands of people on the ground in Bastar.” 

Chhattisgarh houses a fifth of India’s coal deposits with policies to ease mining activity, ensure faster clearances and large-scale militarisation of the region. As a result, indigenous populations continue to fight to save their lands while bearing the brunt of constant fear of intimidation, harassment and arrests. 

Jo Woodman of Survival International, speaking at the event, stated, “While we fight for Hidme, there are unknown persons – invisible – thousands of people on the ground in Bastar. The government is using tactics of intimidation, torture and acid attacks. Draconian laws are being used to ensure that arrests are made without a trial.

It is crucial to ask why is this horror being inflicted on Adivasi people? If it wasn’t for the riches underlying Adivasi land in a bid to ensure a crackdown against those who resist the takeover of the land.”