Criminalising Dissent

21 Mar

“Why do people protest?” I have been thinking about it for some time. I do think they do so because they are angry and hurt.  They protest against the government because are convinced that it is not performing and they are hurting because they are being deprived of what is rightfully theirs. It is due to this that my main contention is that all protests are issue based.  While the issue might concern a larger section of the society it is only a small section that is really sensitive that actually protests actively.

India has a long history of protest; the relatively peaceful freedom struggle being one such instance. Satyagraha, non-cooperation and civil disobedience are means of protests that have been used successfully to achieve varied goals.  This is in contrast to protests like dharnas (fast), rail rokos (stop the train) and bandhs (shut downs) that have been completely taken over by politicians for seemingly trivial reasons. Situations have changed; seems like people have started to assert once again. Examples in the recent past are the anti corruption movement for passing a strong anti corruption law and the protest after the gruesome rape in Delhi. One such struggle that we have been witnessing is the long drawn protest over natural resources.  In India, natural resources and places where they are found are important in people’s lives. Many worship these places as the very abode of God. However the unrestricted exploitation and commodification of these resources by the government has angered a lot of people. In this paper  my focus is on the anti POSCO protest that is going on in Odisha for nearly a decade.

Tracking the History:

On June 22, 2005, the Orissa State Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with POSCO-India, subsidiary of the POSCO Corporation of South Korea. The MoU pertains to setting up of an integrated iron ore mine, steel plant and private port. The estimated investment was Rs. 51,000 crore or $12 bn. Those critical of this project point out that:

  • There was almost no linkage with local and national economy.
  • Royalty for the extraction of Iron ore is very low.
  • Steel was going to be processed without paying full land, water and electricity tax (due to the SEZ status) and exporting it.

As per the MoU, 4,004 acres of land was allocated for the steel plant in Jagatsinghpur District. Of these, 3,000 acres were officially classified as forestland despite the fact that betel vine, cashew nut and other cash crop were being cultivated.  To make matters worse, this project will displace approximately 4,000 families though, due to the above mentioned manipulation, only 270 odd will be officially entitled to compensation.

In wake of this, in August/September 2005, the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) was formed to oppose the project.Though most of the protests in that region gets to be projected as having links with the Maoist, in reality the  anti POSCO struggle is a genuine  people’s campaign. Immediately after this, peoples blockade was declared in three-gram panchayats affected by the plant. This blockade did not allow the entry and exit of government officials and POSCO employees.   A series of protests followed the blockade. The Union and State governments took different decisions. Some of the major decisions and actions are as follows:

  • In December 2009, Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) cleared the diversion of forestland without following the mandatory procedures. A major one being that gram sabha (means a body consisting of persons registered in electoral rolls at village level.) did not certify the clearance though it is an obligatory condition.
  • In May 2010, 25 platoons of police descended in the district areas of Jagatsinghpur and attacked and injured the protestors.
  • In July 2010, the Odisha government began to take over the forestland being cultivated by some people and paying them compensation cheques. The Ministry of Environment constituted a special four-member committee chaired by former Environment Secretary Meena Gupta to look into the ‘relief and rehabilitation’ and ‘settlement of rights under Forest Rights Act’.
  • In August 2010 the sub committee on Forest Rights Act confirmed the issues raised by PPSS and the letter written by D. Raja Member of Parliament belonging to Communist Party of India (Marxist). It recommended the Environment Ministry to withdraw the illegal clearance and halt the on-going process of takeovers. MOEF issued a ‘stop work’       order to Odisha Government on POSCO but allowed the clearance of the land to stand. PPSS wrote to the MOEF seeking the withdrawal of the illegal forest clearance and rejected Meena Gupta Committee.
  • Three members of the committee presented detailed documentary evidence to show that forest clearance was illegal and that the provisions of the  Forest Rights Act had not been implemented. It was noted that the  state government had given false statements and the environmental clearance was farcical. They recommended that the clearances should be withdrawn. Meena Gupta had a dissenting opinion and according to her the forest clearances can stand.
  • In March 2012, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) delivered a judgement that suspended the conditional environment clearances and directed the Ministry of Environment to carry out ‘fresh review’ of the POSCO project. The NGT bench consisted of Justice CV Ramulu and Devendra Kumar Agarwal. The tribunal observed: “A close scrutiny of the entire scheme reveals that a project of this magnitude, particularly in partnership with a foreign country, has been dealt with casually, without there being any comprehensive scientific data regarding the possible environmental impacts. No meticulous scientific study was made on each and every aspect of the matter, leaving lingering and threatening environmental and ecological doubts unanswered.”

Before the tribunal’s verdict the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) pointed out irregularities in the allocation of land to private promoters, misuse of emergency provisions for land acquisition and under-valuation of compensation by the Odisha Government.

The NGT’s judgment had come days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, promised business leaders in Seoul that government was “keen to move forward with the project,” while adding, “India is a stable and profitable long-term investment opportunity.”

Impact on the Protestors:

PPSS that has spearheaded the protest continues to oppose the acquisition of land for mining by POSCO. The people of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujung gram panchayats have fiercely fought the Odisha government and POSCO project to acquire land for the project. The villagers say they are constantly under the threat of either the police or the company goons.

Hundreds of false cases have been filed against the protestors and villagers. The filing of false cases curbs the fundamental freedom of the people. The cases and warrants against 2000 people has targeted the entire village and they are under constant threat and unable to leave. The paradoxical part is that most of the complaints have left the number of accused open ended;  any person can be implicated in any case. Government officials have filed large numbers of these cases during peaceful demonstration by the members of PPSS.  One example is that of Shri Abhaya Sahoo, the President of the PPSS, who was arrested on two occasions and has over 50 cases registered against him. In some cases he has maintained that he was not even present in the village on the day of the alleged offence.

The inability to leave the village has impacted access to health and medical help. There are no doctors, no health centers in the vicinity and virtual siege prevents them from taking medical assistance from outside the village. Most of the arrests that have taken place because people were forced to take medical help.

In all this what I cannot understand is why is the government so insensitive to peoples demands and wants. At the end of the day the government is ‘supposed’ to cater to the welfare of the people. I was further taken aback when I read about the recent developments in Jagatsinghpur district.

Last month (February 2013) the state government started forcibly acquiring land for POSCO steel plant. The state deployed about 16 platoons of police personnel at different areas of the project. In what is seen as a calculated and strategic move by the police hundreds of police personnel barged in to  Gobindpur village before sunrise and razed 13 betel vineyards to the ground. During this process police could not escape a clash with members of PPSS. The police officials including male police beat villagers particularly women and children causing serious injury. Many villagers were taken into custody without any information and sent to Kujang sub jail.

On March 2, 2013 hired musclemen of POSCO in compliance with Odisha police threw bombs    at the anti POSCO activist in Pantana village. The bombing killed three people Manas Jena (32), Nabanu Mandal (35), Narahari Sahoo (52) and severely injured Laxman Paramanik even while they  were attending the anti POSCO meeting.  This happened  because police refused to arrive at the spot of bombing or arrange an ambulance to take people to the hospital.  They arrived at the site 15 hours after the incident and took charge of the bodies. The Superintendent of Police (SP), Satyabrata Bhoi, declared in front of the media that the people who died were “agitators … taking to violence and making crude bombs. The three died while making bombs,” It is due to this that it is alleged that the  entire incident appeared to be scripted by the police.

I fail to understand why use bombs when the protest was peaceful in the first place. The people who were killed and injured in the attack were leaders of the PPSS. I feel the attack is nothing more than an act to scuttle the protest by killing the second string leaders. It appears as if the police will stoop down to any level to ensure the land acquisition even if it means killing a few people. It is amazing how Indian government reacts to killings of Indians, even if it is accidentally, by foreigners or in foreign countries, but fail to look inward. Matters of our own backyard where police and other state machinery is involved in killing our people is treated with disdain. .

A more saddening incident  occurred on the March 7, 2013. Two mothers of Dhinkia and Gobindpur villages in Jagatsinghpur went naked before the paramilitary station in Mangalpada near Gobindpur village. A rally that was led by mothers and children went to a temporary paramilitary station. While taking off their clothes, they constantly shouted, ‘why have you come here?, what do you want to see?’. Why should women be pushed to  take such a drastic step? This was reminiscent of what had happened in the North East of India. It was seen as an expression of anger and protest over the intrusive presence of police and paramilitary forces in the area. In response to this, the police instead of being shamed, lathi charged (baton charge) the protesters and used tear gas. Thirty-five women received serious injuries in their legs, chest and backs. The police did not think it necessary to seek treatment for women who sustained injuries; instead it registered cases against 31 people.

This act is a gross indication of the provocation by the police and paramilitary forces that led to women taking such a drastic step. The one thing I realized and learnt from this incident is that the protestors would do anything to protect their land and the authorities anything to acquire it. It appears that such dissent and protests are going to be witnessed more and more and every attempt will be made to tarnish every dissent as a criminal act.

As a citizen I am ashamed of what happened and how things were handled by the state machinery. As a society we have collectively failed and let matters reach such a level. I begin to question as to what kind of state I am living in?:

  • A state where people are put in jails, beaten up, killed because they protest and don’t agree with the government’s decision.
  • A state where the police has complete immunity to act the way they want.
  • A state where a tribunal suspends the environment clearance and it is disregarded and yet no attempt is made to book the violators for contempt of court.
  • A state where the media is more or less silent about the protest and  NGT had suspended the environment

It is here that I could not but think of the Preamble that states:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a _[SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC] and to secure to all its citizens:

Justice, social, economic and political;

Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all

Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the [unity and integrity of the Nation];

In our Constituent Assembly this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do hereby Adopt, Enact and give to Ourselves this Constitution.

Seems like we have let ourselves down, it is a collective failure.  The values of liberty, equality and fraternity enshrined in our constitution, is being violated time and again. What is happening in Odisha is just one instance of many such incidents. . In the neo liberal age I don’t think the laws of the land ensures it. May be it’s a good time to introspect the role of the state and even the highly ambitious preamble of ours. To begin with, the government should ensure that at least those responsible for the killing and other brutalities are punished and paramilitary forces are withdrawn. It is time that state takes in to account people’s views and opinions and respect them as fellow humans.

 By: Ashwin Parthasarathy


Anti-Posco activists booked for semi-nude protest

Anti-POSCO agitation: Livelihood, mobility of the villagers under threat, says Fact Finding Report

Bomb Atack by POSCO backed Mafia kills Farmers

Captive Democracy

Crude Questions about Crude Bombs: Biju Mathew

Dhinkia and Govindpur Mothers go Naked to Protest against Forcible Land Acquisition for POSCO: Minati Dash

POSCO’s Steel Dreams Laid To Rust

Posco Protests: A Cause Divided

Pre-dawn police crackdown on village at POSCO site

Protest Against Killing of Anti – POSCO Activists and Forcible Land Grabbing in Odisha

Stripping for protest: What drove women villagers in Odisha to go semi-nude in fight against Posco

The rediscovery of protest

Timeline of Events Relating to Forest Rights in POSCO Area

Voices of the People Vs POSCO: Updates from Jagatsinghpur District, Odisha

Violence at POSCO site

Why dissent?


One Response to “Criminalising Dissent”

  1. jankipandya March 28, 2013 at 7:19 am #

    The unwillingness of authorities to allow people to voice their dissent, and as you rightly say criminalising them has brought governance and people at loggerheads each seeing the other as a enemy, diluting the essence of democracy and the right that it gets along, the right to protest. Especially the current government has maintained its distance from the people and sabotaged this right quiet too often.

    A very interesting read. Thank you!

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