Odisha police under Navin Patnaik’s BJD government arrested the Niyamgiri-based activist Lingraj Azad yesterday, according to a statement by the National Alliance of People’s Movements, and have filed a slew of charges against him, including of ‘sedition’. He was due to lead a protest march in Bhubaneshwar on March 11.

The statement signed by dozens of organisations and activists including Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy and Binayak Sen describes Azad as ‘a fierce fighter for the rights of the adivasis and one of the tallest leaders of Odisha’ who ‘has faced repeated physical attacks and harassment from the State for his struggle against systemic oppression and the corporate loot of natural resources.’

In this context, and in view of the recent Supreme Court order that still threatens to evict lakhs of adivasi families from their homes in violation of the Forest Rights Act, we republish this report from Niyamgiri, which was first published on February 25 here in Adivasi Resurgence

By evening, the men of the village have sat down at the bank of the river. A fire is burning in the open space between them. All around are steep hills. Youngsters have brought from the jungle something to drink from a tree that looks like a coconut tree, they call it ‘shalap’. On the river bank they all, one after the after, take sips of shalap. Darkness seems to become even deeper. The women are returning from their ‘dongars’ to the village. After the drinking of shalap, the younger ones move towards their respective ‘dongars’. (A ‘dongar’ is a small shelter made to guard the fields on the hills, where the youngsters of a village spend the nights to protect the fields from wild animals.) The entire village goes to sleep at exactly eight o’clock at night and gets up again at daybreak.

This is Lakhpadar village at the foothills of Niyamgiri in Odisha. Niyamgiri is a hill range located in the Rayagada and Kalahandi Districts of Odisha. To reach Lakhpadar village, we walked for about ten kilometres from Ambodla together with a young Odia poet named Subrat. Just before evening we arrived at the village. Hemant Dalpati, a social worker and an Adivasi poet writing in Odia language, had come to take us up to Ambodla town. Because he is part of the Niyamgiri Movement, Dalpati was suspended from his job and later he was served a prohibition order to even enter the Niyamgiri area. This is why we did not force him to come with us.

Lakhpadar village. (Photo: Jacinta Kerketta)

In the Niyamgiri hills and jungles live people belonging to the Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh Adivasi communities. These Adivasis have struggled for a long time against the invasion of companies like Vedanta and Utkal Alumina for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri. After a Supreme Court order to stop mining, the people today are struggling for their demand to remove the police camps that had been established around Niyamgiri. There are about 20 houses in Lakhpadar Village. All people of this place belong to the Dongria Kondh Adivasi community. They speak in Kui language. The population is about 100 persons.

The entire village wakes up at four o’clock in the morning. The women bring embers in a tile from the neighbour’s house, and the chulhas (oven/stove) light up with fire. At five o’clock rice and a vegetable dish made from spinach are ready. Just by sunrise the women take a basket each and start moving towards the hut in the fields. All their fields are on the hill side. In each hut there is a separate chulha (oven/stove). Some women come early in the morning and cook their meal in the hut itself.

In the terraced fields there are castor plants. In their huts, some women take out the seeds from dry castor plants. The Dongria girls have tucked sharp knives in their hair. On the handle of the knife, there are fixed some pendants, which are making some sound while they work. With the help of these knives, the girls take out the castor seeds quickly. The village remains empty throughout the day. It spends the time in its own ‘dongar’.

There are no locks put on the doors of the houses. Just one stick is put across the door, which signals the absence of any person from the house. The village girls sing songs in Kui language and dance every night. As they dance their songs resound in the darkness. Their naked feet are moving in special dancing steps. The older women sit in front of their individual houses and are listening. They are all smiling..

The hills of Niyamgiri mean everything to us

“Such a world – where the people expect each and every thing from the bazaar, where people don’t have the luck of clean water and clean air – in such a world we are not able to stay. We don’t even want to be a part of such a world. The very moment we were born, we saw the hills. Here day and night we can move about safely. Our women don’t have any fear. The hills give us a life without any violence. The people from the cities come here and bring violence with them. Here the streams bring coolness for us, and the hills provide shade. The jungle gives us all kinds of fruits and flowers along with spinach and other vegetables. We worship the flowing streams, the springs and the hills. We worship Niyam Raja. We live in the midst of these hills, and one day we will die just in his lap. Even if we die during the struggle to preserve these hills, then we will like to have died while fighting for Niyamgiri.”

In the darkness Lodo Sikoka’s voice is sounding. Lodo Sikoka acts as the leader of this village. He is connected with Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti that was created to save Niyamgiri. Since 2003 already he has been part of the Niyamgiri Movement. During the days of resistance he was beaten by the police, but he remained unbroken. There is pride in his voice. He belongs to the Dongria Kondh Adivasi community and speaks in Kui language. He also speaks Odia, and even understands a little bit of Hindi. He has tied up his long hair behind. Even in the darkness his eyes are shining. We were discussing with him until late night in the cold of December.

How do the Niyamgiri people look at the government?

He says, “We got an understanding of the government just in the course of the struggle. When the government prepared to construct wide roads to the hills of Niyamgiri, we got an idea that in reality this road construction is not for the development of the Niyamgiri Adivasis. This is for the companies that will come to mine bauxite.

“After that, the Niyamgiri people came together and started the struggle against this. For the first time then we understood what a government is. Maybe the government even could not know that Niyamgiri is not just the name of a hill and a jungle. But that there are Adivasi people also living here. If it knew, then it would have discussed with the Adivasis living here.

“In the course of the struggle, for the first time, the villages located in the jungle of Niyamgiri were given solar lights. The old people in the villages received old age pension and rice. Some people said that the jungle and the hills belong to the government, but the government itself belongs to the people. The jungle and the hills belong to the people who are living here. We want schools and hospitals on the hills. We don’t want here the companies and the police camps.”

What is the strength of the Niyamgiri people?

“The Adivasis of Niyamgiri don’t have money. There is no police force. Our strength is in our being united. When we take money, we don’t turn into business men. When money gets into people, it breaks them from inside. During the days of the Movement, some people tried to give me money, but I did not take it. The jungles and hills cannot be saved by relying on those who make political plans for the sake of money,” says Lodo Sikoka.

Lodo Sikoka [village leader] with Subrot. (Photo: Jacinta Kerketta)

Are the Adivasis against development?

“Once I was taken to a seminar in Mumbai. There the people were telling me that we Adivasis are against everything. That the government wants to develop us, but that we ourselves don’t want development. That we are against roads. I told them that we are not against schools and hospitals. We will never oppose the construction of a five-foot wide road in Niyamgiri. But surely we will resist the construction of a 50-foot wide road only for the invasion of the companies. Because then thousands of vehicles will pass daily via our houses. Police, contractors, business men, bazaars – all such things will enter here. Our women will be raped. When our children will be seen roaming alone in the jungles, then the police will call them Maoists and fire at them, like they are doing already today. Along with the jungles and the hills our entire life will also be ruined.

“Even after this, they kept repeating that we don’t want development. Then I said, ‘OK, give it in writing that even after widening the road the companies and the police will not enter the jungle.’ When they heard this, they all became silent.” With these words Lodo starts laughing.

What importance has money on the hills?

“On the hills of Niyamgiri money is not important. Even today we get other things in exchange for food items. There is a tradition of exchanging things. At the foot hill, there is a market place. Other people bring clothes, soap, oil, salt, rice. We take there dal, castor seeds, oranges, lemon and whatever is available on the hill. For things that we need, we do exchange trade.

“What can be achieved with money in the jungle? In the case of illness we prepare medicines from medicinal roots and herbs available in the jungle itself. At the time of birth, the children are born in the village only, and even then there are very few who might die. When we went for the first time with one man to the government hospital in the town, we spent quite a lot of money there, but the doctor did not give much attention to us. That man died there in the hospital. In spite of giving money we brought his body back home.

“This is not a natural death, it is a killing. In the villages we welcome death. We say goodbye to the body of the person who is going and bring back his soul to the house. But we don’t take money and kill someone.”

People say that life on the hills is difficult, there is poverty. How do you look at this?

“When we went to a big city for the first time, it was a very frightening experience. The city people get afraid when they hear about the tigers and bears in the jungle. But in the city, they are afraid of humans like themselves. This is even more fearsome than the life in the jungles and hills. We in the jungles don’t understand this, how can one be afraid of a human being.

“Our little girls are roaming in the jungles all alone. The boys bring down shalap from the trees. In the village is the youth dormitory for boys and for girls, where the young ones come together and debate. On the hills, there are streams and springs. There are fruits and flowers. There are all kinds of edible roots. We don’t have any shortage of food and water. There in the city, people buy water. The hills have given us all that which the government is not able to provide in the same way to the people in the city.

“That is why we don’t think that we are poor. For us the hills and the jungles are more important than the government. Here we are living without violence. Here our women are well protected. Here our language and our culture are well preserved. That is why our entire life is well protected not in the cities, but in these jungles and hills of Niyamgiri. Only when the hills will be saved, then we also will be saved. And these hills will be saved just because of our continuous struggle, therefore we will fight generation after generation to save them.”

Until late into the night, Subrat and I kept listening to Lodo Sikoka talk. The entire village was sleeping. It was very cold. The moon above the hill was listening to our discussions. When he smiled, the moonlight seemed to be spread out even more above the jungle. And it looked like the hill had wrapped itself against the cold with a shawl of white Bagudi flowers. The voice of the crickets was sharp. The sound of the spring was very clear to be heard.

We looked again towards the hill, together. Ahhh! This is Niyamgiri. The Niyamgiri that is fighting for its existence.

Jacinta Kerketta is a freelance journalist and poet from Ranchi.