Resistance and repression

Published : Mar 03, 2001 00:00 IST

In the Adivasi belt of Jharkhand's Ranchi district, a popular movement against the setting up of the Koel-Karo hydroelectric project that will involve the displacement of a large number of people, faces tough times.

A FADED green flag flies atop the shaheed smarak (martyr's column) at Tapkara village in Ranchi district of Jharkhand State. The flag is changed every year on March 2, one was told, in memory of five persons killed that day in a police firing at t hat site in 1946 while they were demonstrating, along with many thousand Munda Adivasis of the region, for the formation of a separate Jharkhand State.

Ironically, history repeated itself on February 2, in the newly formed Jharkhand. According to information provided to this writer by activists of the Koel-Karo Jan Sangathan as well as individual policemen and information and impressions gathered by thi s writer at a meeting conducted in the area on February 3, the police opened fire on an unarmed assembly of around 5,000 Munda Adivasis, including children, women and men. According to eyewitness accounts, the police fired more than 150 rounds, killing f ive persons on the spot. Five others succumbed to their injuries in the following hours, bringing the toll to 10. As many as 12 of those who sustained bullet injuries were treated at the Rajendra Medical College and Hospital (RMCH) in Ranchi. Many other wounded were being treated locally. Eight persons from six villages were reported missing. The dead have been declared shaheeds of the Koel-Karo Jan Sangathan and buried next to the shaheed smarak. Thus 1946 and 2001 have become one in Tapk ara chowk.

Amrit Gudia, a retired military man, was returning from the jungle with a load of firewood in the afternoon of February 1 when he saw a police jeep break the barricade outside Derang village and drag it to a distance, and then policemen lift it into the jeep. This barricade, which looks like the bamboo checkpost on a highway, was first erected in 1984 by the Koel-Karo Jan Sangathan to prevent the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and government officials from going to Lohajimi, a village b eyond Derang, where a dam was to be built on the Karo river. In 1995, when the government announced its decision to restart the project and a 'janata curfew' was imposed by the Sangathan, more such barricades were installed on the road leading up to the dam site. A round-the-clock vigil was kept near the barricades to prevent officials and the police from entering the area without permission. These barricades therefore were no ordinary checkposts but a symbol of people's resistance to the project.

A furious Amrit Gudia now dropped his load, ran up to the mud road and obstructed the progress of the police party. Why had they broken the barricade, he asked. They should have at least consulted the people.

His protests were met with abuse. He was beaten with lathis and hit with the butts of guns by four or five policemen. The police later claimed that he was drunk. This action of the police was viewed by the people as provocative. Pointing at a path on the side of the barricade, Soma Munda, president of the Sangathan, asked: "While going the police jeep used this path. Why then did they not return the same way but break the barricade? Neither the road nor the land on which the barricade was put up is gove rnment land; it is raiyati land belonging to two individuals, the late Marcel Barjo and the late Nathniyal Topno."

The Sangathan decided to call an assembly the following day. People started coming in by 8-30 a.m. from the surrounding villages, and by 3-30 p.m. there were around 5,000 people sitting outside the Tapkara police outpost.

The movement has been non-violent during its nearly three-decade-long struggle; this tradition was respected during the dharna too. Nobody was armed; there were neither the traditional bows and arrows nor lathis. "We would not have our children come with us if we wanted to be violent," said Biswasi Gudia of Derang village.

The assembled people waited for the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of Khunti sub-division, F.K.N. Kujur. The DSP and an official of magistrate's rank (who has the power to order a firing), arrived at 11 a.m. R.N. Singh, the daroga (police-i n-charge) of Tapkara outpost (under Torpa police station), and Akshay Kumar Ram, the daroga of the adjacent Rania police station, were present. Altogether there were around 40 policemen at the Tapkara outpost that day. While the people waited, the ir leaders presented the demands of the Sangathan. First and foremost, they demanded an explanation from the police authorities for breaking the barricade. Linked with this were three principal demands: that the officials who had ordered the beating of A mrit Gudia be suspended; that he be given a monetary compensation of Rs.50,000; and that the police reinstall the barricade.

The DSP said he could not meet their demands since he had no power to order suspension. So the people refused to move. In order to resolve the stalemate, the intervention of the local MLA, Koche Munda, was sought. He was brought on a motorcycle from Tor pa. The MLA, belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, was stated to have confirmed the sangathan's demands to be just. The officials then decided to send a wireless message to the Superintendent of Police (Rural). Soma Munda, Paulus Gudia and other acti vists of the Sangathan then came out of the outpost, as did the MLA.

By this time the people had been sitting peacefully for six or seven hours. According to eyewitness accounts, even as the Sangathan leaders started briefing the people about the situation, the two darogas came running out of the police station sho uting, "aadesh mila...aadesh mila (got the order... got the order)" and began a lathi-charge. The women and children, who were sitting up front, were the first to be hit. Almost simultaneously firing in the air began. This was not done in full vie w of the public but from inside the outpost. Countless holes in the roof of the outpost bear testimony to this fact. Firing at the assembly followed immediately afterwards. Some people who ran towards the back of the outpost smelled teargas.

There was now utter chaos. People started throwing stones at the firing policemen even as they ran to protect themselves. Some, like Lucas Gudia of Gondra village forgot that theirs was an unequal combat and stones were hardly a match for bullets. Lucas is reported to have gone right upto the window of the police station in order to aim better. He was shot at and died on the spot. As young Adivasi activist-writer, Sunil Minz, points out, the history of Adivasi struggles of Jharkhand show that whenever A divasis get killed in similar incidents rarely do they get killed from shots fired from behind. An Adivasi faces and fights authority, even if armed. This fact was reiterated by other Sangathan members: "If we wanted to use violence, no policeman would h ave gone back alive. Their firearms would not have stopped us. We were in our thousands."

In the stampede that followed, Kumulen Gudia of Koynara village, who was five months pregnant, fell and was stamped over by running feet. She was carried later by other women until Dumkel village, 2.5 km away. She was then put on a cycle and wheeled the remaining 3 km of uneven terrain to her own village. She was unconscious for two days.

Samuel Topno of Gondra village was tortured by the police in his injured state. Admitted to the neuro-surgery ward of the RMCH, he said: "As soon as the firing started, I started running towards the back of the police station. Four policemen chased me an d fired. A bullet hit me on my left foot and I fell. Three boys tried to help me but fled when the policemen came after us. They put me on a sack and carried me to the police camp. Initially they thought I was dead and left me. But when they realised tha t I was alive, they started considering how to kill me. 'If we use bare hands, or fire from close range we could be in trouble,' I heard one of them say. They brought a log of wood and placed it on my neck. Two policemen then stood on either end of the l og. When I still did not die, they just kicked me on the head with their boots."

Another person who had a similar experience is Francis Gudia, also of Gondra village. After being shot in the top right part of his chest, he tried to drag himself away from the site of firing. "Some of my companions were helping me when the police came. They were threatening us and using abusive language. They took me to the police camp where they dumped me next to the dead, kicked me with their boots, then left me."

Samuel Topno, Francis Gudia and two others were sent by the police to RMCH a few hours after the firing. No attempt was made, however to dress their wounds, which continued to bleed. One of the injured died on way to the hospital. Most of the others who had sustained serious bullet injuries were treated locally that night. Vijay Gudia, general secretary of the Sangathan, pointed out the difficulties they had in trying to reach the injured to Ranchi that night itself. In the general atmosphere of terror that prevailed, nobody with private transport was willing to go. Nine of the seriously injured were taken by Sangathan members in the early morning bus to Ranchi.

School-going children had also joined the dharna on their way back from school. Of the five who died on the spot, three were in secondary school. Some other children were wounded, such as a Class IV pupil from Derang village, who was injured in both legs . According to reliable sources, a woman was also hit, though she has not yet been located. In the days immediately following the firing, Sangathan activists were going from village to village in order to determine how many were killed, how many were inj ured and how many were missing.

On the evening of February 2, after the firing, the police broke into a house where Silai Gudia, a youth from Lohajimi village, had taken refuge. Sticking the butt of a gun on his chest, the policemen accused him of brick-batting. Beating him, they took him to the Tapkara outpost. The police broke the doors of the houses of four non-Adivasis who were living close to the police outpost and arrested them. These four had been living in Tapkara for years and were engaged in masonry, carpentry and brick-maki ng locally. They were taken to the outpost and locked up. That evening they were made to load all the stuff from the out-post into vehicles. The police vacated the outpost around 1 a.m. with all their belongings as well as the bodies.The arrested were ta ken to Torpa police station and locked inside the inspector's room for the night. The following morning, they were made to unload the stuff from the vehicles. Naresh Gupta, one of the arrested, said: "We were made to work like labourers. We were not give n any bed or blankets even though the night was cold; nor did we get anything to eat or drink until our release the following day at 4 p.m."

A burnt police jeep stands outside the Tapkara outpost. A motorcycle in a similar state stands nearby. The outpost itself is almost completely destroyed. Its three rooms are scarred. The asbestos sheeting of the roof has been shelled, the doors and the w indow frames have been pulled out, there is debris and ash everywhere, pieces of brick lie scattered outside. Amid the ruins and remains one can just about make out Satyameva Jayatae (truth will be victorious) written on the front wall of the outp ost.

People claim that the police burnt the vehicles and wrought the destruction themselves as part of a strategy to enable them to claim that the public had turned violent and the police firing was therefore justified. Pointing at the missing tyres of the ch arred jeep, traders who live opposite the outpost said that the police had first taken the tyres off before setting the vehicle on fire. The motorcycle was then cast into the flames; a private vehicle, it had been seized by the police a few days earlier.

Not far from the outpost is a huge banyan tree. Its leaves are burnt, like the charred remains of three upturned jeeps lying under it. According to local sources, these three jeeps were set on fire by the civilians of Tapkara after the firing began. Some newspapers carried photographs of the burnt body of a policeman found some distance from the outpost. R.N. Singh as well as two dozen policemen were also reported to have sustained injuries in the brick-batting.

Several explanations have been offered regarding the incident. The official version is that the police had received some information regarding the presence of Maoist Coordination Committee (MCC) activists in the area and that the patrolling was part of t he ongoing anti-naxalite operation in the State. However, it is possible that the MCC's name was used as a pretext. Interestingly though police patrols in the area had ceased since the imposition of the 'janata curfew' in 1995, the DSP had gone to patrol the area as recently as December 22, 2000. Some people wonder whether this patrolling had anything to do with the incident on February 2.

Who ordered the firing? Was it ordered by the Superintendent of Police (Rural), whom the police officials at the outpost were trying to contact, or the magistrate who was present? Or was the decision to fire taken on the spot without official sanction? W hoever ordered the firing and whether or not it had official sanction, post facto, the police claim that the situation as it developed justified the firing. Official action following the firing seems to be based on this assumption. The Divisional Commissioner and the Deputy Inspector General of Police were reported t o have visited the Tapkara outpost that night, but they made no attempt to contact the people. The police officials involved in the firing have not been suspended. When asked why this was so, the Senior superintendent of Police, Neeraj Sinha, said that p rima facie there was no justification for immediate suspensions: official action would follow only after a high-level inquiry. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Babulal Marandi continued with his election campaign in Ramgarh as per schedule.

Members of the Sangathan feel that the police repression is aimed to weaken the people's resistance against the Koel-Karo project and to pave the way for the NHPC again. "When in the height of the struggle no incident occurred, why now? Lashon ko gira kar Koel-Karo nahi bandhaiga. Jab gaonvalai raji hongai tabhi" (Koel-Karo will not get built by laying down dead bodies... but only with people's agreement), said Santosh Horo.

The Sangathan has demanded a judicial inquiry into the incident, identification of and punishment to police officers and other personnel responsible for the killings; payment of Rs.5 lakhs to the families of those killed and Rs.2 lakhs to those seriously injured as compensation; appointment of only Adivasi police officers to police stations in Adivasi-majority areas of Jharkhand, and the cancellation of the Koel-Karo project. When a cheque for Rs.2 lakhs was offered to the relatives of each of the decea sed, it was refused. On February 8, a sankalp divas (vow day) was organised, when thousands of people vowed that they would not allow the construction of the Koel-Karo dam. They also resolved to keep the movement non-violent as it had been in the preceding decades.

The police firing is a clear violation of the democratic rights of the people of Koel-Karo. That people should expect the police to be accountable for their actions is an important part of democracy in practice. Breaking the barricade was no small incide nt. "Hamare gaon mai hamara raj" (our rule in our land) may be a slogan yet to be realised in other parts of the country, but in the heart of the Munda "country" (as S.C. Roy described the Mundas and their land in the early years of the 20th centu ry) it has been practised for long. The social and political system of Mundas is far more advanced than that of mainstream Indian society. Decision-making, for example, is based on consensus. There may be heads like Mundas and Parha rajas, but they do no t expect others to be subservient to them, nor would the others allow that. Each Munda Adivasi, like members of other Adivasi communities in Jharkhand, expect to be part of the decision-making process. That people belonging to such a society and culture should have assembled in large numbers to defend their rights and to demand an explanation for behaviour they do not understand is not surprising. Citizens are told time and again that they should not take the law into their own hands, but what happens w hen the police do the same?

This is not the first time that the State government has used gun power to silence people's power. Indeed, police firing has become part of the 'dialogue' that the state has with the people when they have tried to practise democracy. Between 1981 and 198 6, in Singhbhum alone, there were 17 police firings. This is what the police did in Chandil in 1978 and in Icha in 1982, where too the people were protesting against the ongoing construction of big dams on the Subarnarekha and Kharkai (part of the Subarn arekha multi-purpose project). In both Chandil and Icha the firing had an adverse impact on the incipient movements, which took some time to reorganise. The people of Koel-Karo are alert to their fate and determined that what happened to Subarnarekha and Kharkai should not happen to Koel.

Bela Bhatia is a researcher based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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