Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh, an organisation working for the rights of Dalits and Adivasis on Monday demanded the repealing of the Forest Conservation Amendment Act, 2023, alleging it poses an “existential threat” to the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities of southern and western Odisha.

The organisation, held a press conference at the Press Club of India also demanded that the Odisha Police stop working as “henchmen for corporates” and withdraw false cases against those who are peacefully protesting “against deprivation of their homelands”.

The statement comes after the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was reportedly invoked against a tribal group from the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha. The group, according to the activists, has been fighting against bauxite mining for almost a decade.

The Dongria Kondh tribe, one of the world’s oldest surviving indigenous peoples of Eastern India, have led the Niyamgiri movement in the mineral-rich state of Odisha. They have been fighting to resist the destruction of the Niyamgiri mountains, seeking an end to what they term as “state repression and corporate loot through anti-tribal policies”.

The protest against withdrawal of the UAPA cases has now intensified. It is being led by the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS), and has been a leading voice in the illegal mining agitation as well.

According to reports, the issue started when nine members of NSS were slapped with UAPA charges, as “police action against Left-wing extremism.” The charges have drawn widespread condemnation, with NSS leader Lingaraj Azad berating both the Rayagada district police and the state government during a press conference.

Civil society also has raised concerns calling the situation ‘alarming’. Speaking to the media, Colin Gonsalves, Supreme Court lawyer and Founder of Human Rights Lawyers Network (HRLN) said all this is being done ahead of 2024 elections.

He focussed on the recent amendment passed by the Central government: the Forest Conservation Bill 2023. “Environmentalists are also not able to understand why this bill was introduced. What will be the effect of this in the elections? The thing is that by bringing these amendments the Central government will be able to overrule the Supreme Court judgements,” Gonsalves told the media.

The three SC judgements are: The Samata Judgement which held that no private party can do mining in a Scheduled Area; the Niyamgiri Judgement which held that the allotment of lands to tribals under the Forest Rights Act has to be completed first before any public project is considered; and the Godaverman judgement which held that “forest” means all forests naturally found and not just notified forests.

“The amendment says, which is also the deadliest part, that if the Central government wants to start a project, they can ignore the Tribal claims. Start the project, take the money, before the code of conduct is implemented.

“You can go to any Tribal land to do this and after that it will be the responsibility of the state government to file the claims. But at that time settling the Tribal claims would be impossible because by that time the land would already be given,” Gonsalves said.

Speaking about the recent arrests in Odisha, Jitendra Meena, Adivasi activist and Assistant Professor of History at Delhi University said that the Tribals are “fighting to survive”.

“Niyamgiri is not the only place where this type of agitation is taking place. The government is trying its level best to snatch the land of Tribals from the Central part of India,” Meena said, adding that “there is no space for dissent in Odisha”.

According to a statement by MSS, on August 5, two Adivasi activists associated with the Niyamgiri movement, Krushna Sikaka and Bari Sikaka, were meeting villagers in the Kalahandi district to discuss the upcoming celebrations for the World Adivasi Day. During this time, they were “forcibly abducted” by plainclothes Odisha police from Lanjigarh Haat.

The statement added that when NSS members attempted to inquire with the police about the whereabouts of their fellow activists, the police denied any involvement. In response, a protest was organised in front of Kalyansingpur police station.

During the protest, the police allegedly tried to forcibly arrest another Adivasi activist named Drenju Krisikaa, but the villagers’ collective efforts prevented this arrest.

On August 6, the Odisha police filed an FIR against nine adivasi activists associated with NSS under UAPA and several sections of IPC. Those charged include two senior NSS leaders, Ladda Sikaka and Drenju Krisika, and two youth leaders, Manu Sikaka and Samba Huikia.

Dalit activist Lingaraj Azad was also named, as well as two other NSS members, Gobina Bag and Upendra Bag. The FIR also includes British Naik, an activist of Khandualamali Surakhya Samiti, and Lenin Kumar, a solidarity activist.

They have been charged under various IPC sections, including Sections 147, 148, 109, 294, 188, 353, 332, 307, and 149, as well as under UAPA (Sections 16, 17, 18), and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act (Section 7). These charges pertain to offences like unlawful assembly, causing hurt to public servants, disobeying, attempting to murder, engaging in terrorist activities, conspiracy, and raising funds for terrorist activities under UAPA.

The Campaign Against State Repression released a statement strongly condemning the slapping of UAPA on activists calling it an act to suppress people’s movement against corporate loot.

“These abductions and the use of so-called anti-terror laws against Adivasi activists few days prior to World Adivasi Day on August 9 of is part of a larger attempt at state suppression of the larger democratic struggle that the people in Odisha, particularly the Dongria Kondh tribe, have been fighting in a bid to resist the corporatized destruction of the Niyamgiri mountains through various mining projects,” read the statement.

Meanwhile, in an FIR registered at the Kashipur police station on 12 August, more than 150 people, known and unknown, were booked under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections pertaining to rioting, kidnapping, carrying deadly weapons, attempt to murder, use of abusive and defamatory words, and criminal intimidation among others. The FIR also mentioned sections under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1932 and Arms Act 1959.

“Each time someone was picked up by the police, they were not produced before a magistrate for several days. this is in clear violation of the law,” the MSS alleged. They added that President Droupadi Murmu should ‘take notice and express concerns over the criminalisation of indigenous people in Odisha’.