We are at a secret location in the heart of India’s tribal belt, in the deep south of Odisha State, Eastern India.
A small river, with steep banks and enough water to deter our vehicle from crossing, runs through fields of millet surrounding a hamlet of mud and straw houses.
Thickly forested hills frame the idyllic scene.
This is rural “Mother India”, where the rich dark earth has been farmed by the Adivasis – India’s indigenous people – since time began.
Of India’s 1.2 billion people, approximately 70 million belong to the so-called “Scheduled Tribes”, or Adivasis.
The term “Adivasi” is derived from the Hindi word “Adi”, meaning “of earliest times”, and they still believe in their ancestral spirit gods.
There is no concept of individual ‘ownership’ of the land. For them, the land and forests are sacred and belong to all members of the community.
In Odisha, several Adivasi tribes have come together to form the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, meaning Tribal Land Union or Movement.
Five-thousand-strong, and armed with traditional weapons, this militant group says it is fighting for human rights and for the return of stolen tribal land.
Adivasis claim they are caught between the two fires of an escalating Maoist “Naxalite” insurgency and the Indian government’s paramilitary backlash in their disputed homeland.
In recent months the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh has gone on the offensive, evicting hundreds of non-tribal families from land they claim was stolen – and driving-out alleged illegal liquor sellers and moneylenders.
Equal Times was granted an exclusive interview with the land movement’s leader, Nachika Linga.
He is surrounded by tribal Ghenua warriors; all dressed in red and armed with axes and traditional bows and arrows.
We are seated under the boughs of a giant Banyan tree. Hundreds of Adivasi villagers have come to the “Mela”, or meeting, to hear Nachika Linga berate the forces who exploit his people. Nearby, a choir of women dance and sing freedom songs.
“Whether it’s the police or Naxals, they have only one mission – making war. They’re bringing this war to us and killing us. It’s unjust,” says 35-year-old Linga, a former bonded farm labourer, once jailed for his political activities.
“Do we have a mission of war? No. We only have our traditional arms of bows and arrows. This is how we have always lived in the forest. We are sons of the soil. No government has done any development. There are no roads, no drinking water and no education.”
“Crafty moneylenders and businessmen have cheated and looted our people by giving them liquor. In the last 60 years the little that has come here has been grabbed by these people,” he says.
Where Linga and his people live is verdant, mineral-rich land in and around the district of Koraput. Situated some 550km southwest of the Odishan state capital, Bhubaneswar, it is also under threat from rapacious mining companies and lower-caste Dalit carpetbaggers, claim Adivasis.
Throughout the tribal areas Adivasis and Dalits – both considered outsiders by mainstream Hindu society – are locked in a bitter struggle for resources and land.
In the village of Pangapolluru, tribal Ghenua warriors accused Dilip Kumar’s family of being illegal liquor traders and moneylenders — and smashed up their home.
A member of India’s once “Untouchable” Dalit caste, Dilip declines to speak directly about the attack, but says: “Yes, we’re afraid of the Adivasis because of the way they suddenly arrive with weapons and then do whatever they want.”
Only a kilometre away is the tribal hamlet of Patamanda, from where the attackers allegedly came.
Its serenity belies the recent wave of violent unrest.
One woman cleans rice, another pounds millet, children play happily and a man teases his pet monkey.
Tribal elder Nari Madinga tells me: “Oh, you’re talking about that Polluru. Yes, there was a family there who were brewing alcohol. The Chasi Mulia warned them several times to stop what they were doing. They wouldn’t listen and that’s why they were driven away.
“Earlier the land was stolen by giving liquor and other things. Later the land movement got the people their land back. Now we are united and cultivating the land and living happily.”
And then, patting the axe slung over his shoulder, he warns: “We’ve had these weapons since childhood, we are forest people. During our lifetime we will never give up our weapons. Even after death we will still keep them.”
(David Browne/Parachute Pictures)
This area of southern Odisha is at the centre of the so-called “Red Belt”, 1,000 kilometres of remote territory that arches through five Indian states.
Maoist guerrillas called Naxalites operate throughout the region.
They take their name from the town of Naxalbari in West Bengal, the scene of a famous armed workers’ rebellion in 1967.
Today, an estimated 25,000 insurgents, active in a third of India’s 600 administrative districts, regularly ambush police patrols and attack railway stations, trains and government armouries.
Last year 450 civilians and 140 security personnel were killed in the fighting.
Meantime, paramilitary forces, based in the town of Narayan Patna, deny targeting civilians.
“I admit sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between Naxals and innocent civilians. It all depends on the intelligence,” concedes Assistant Commandant Phuskar Bharadwaj of the Central Reserve Police Force.
“But we are not suppressing anybody and we are not torturing anybody. We are confident about that.”
Appropriation of tribal land for industrial lemongrass plantations is also threatening local food security, claim Adivasis.
Nachika Linga argues: “What kind of work are the people getting on the lemongrass plantation? Are they surviving from it? Are they growing rice or millet or cereals?
“If food is grown then everybody can survive, but not with the lemongrass planted by these companies. That is why we are protesting. If farmers have the land they will definitely grow and harvest food for the people.”
Several lemongrass plantations, run by businessmen from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh State, have been looted and burned in retaliation.
But with tribal labour cheap and prices high for the distilled oil – which is used in medicine, food and insecticide – the lemongrass business continues, nevertheless, to expand.
Mandi Jamri, a 57-year-old landless agricultural worker says: “The landlord asked us to work here and said he would pay us some money. We’ve been promised 60 rupees per day (around $1) and it’s already eight days, but we still don’t know how much money we will get.”
Illicit alcohol brewing and selling is the catalyst for much of the conflict between Adivasis and Dalits.
Made from forest fruits and raw “jaggery” sugar, the traditional homebrew has its role in tribal society. But drinking is only sanctioned on ceremonial occasions.
Adivasi activists say the Dalit bootleggers, who distil a lethal hooch known as “country”, are luring their people into a vicious cycle of alcoholism and debt; with tribal land being sold cheaply to pay off loans and buy yet more booze.
Hundreds of rural Dalit families have been attacked and evicted and fled to the district capital of Koraput.
Some have found refuge in an old government college, where Golok Bihari, a 19-year-old student, tells me: “Suddenly hundreds of men appeared with sticks and axes. Some people were eating, some were working and the children had gone to school. They surrounded the village and attacked us.”
Grandmother, Roma Naik, aged 48, continues the story: “As we were fleeing we asked them why they were beating us. They said they’d kill all the men. Then the men escaped into the forest wearing women’s saris (dresses).
“They also said they would behead the children. So we were scared and left the village, leaving our houses and wealth.”
But Koraput District “Collector” Gadadhar Parida, the highest civilian authority in the area, tries to play down the crisis.
“No sir! It is not a state of anarchy,” he stresses. “The Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh is a frontal body organised by the tribals to serve the tribal interest. Individually they might be exploited but as a group there are trying to serve their own interests.
“We are trying to see that our tribal people don’t go astray, that they remain in the mainstream. More or less they are simple tribal people. They can be persuaded by anyone. So from our side we have always been trying to persuade them not to take the law into their own hands.
“If somebody has cheated a tribal and taken away his land it is the responsibility of the government to see that the cheated land is again restored back to the tribals.”
As Odisha’s Minister of Finance, Surjya Patro is responsible for all land issues in the state.
Back in the state capital Bhubaneswar, at his home, he tells me:
“We have sent one sincere junior I.S. [Indian Civil Service] officer who is looking after those two blocks to restore the lands to the tribals. It is going on.
“It is not true to say the government is not doing anything for the Adivasis. The general tribes are very happy with the government. Whatever development you see has been done by this government.
“Since 2008 when Naveen Patnaik [the Chief Minister of Odisha State] came to power he has made a lot of developments in the state, and particularly in the tribal area we have done a lot of work.”
It’s a view not supported by Professor Manmath Khundu, a former director of the Academy of Tribal Language and Culture in Bhubaneswar, who speaks six Odishan tribal languages and has studied tribal communities in the United States, United Kingdom and Yemen.
“Actually lots and lots are spent on tribals officially but how much actually reaches them that is a big question. Maybe one per cent, two per cent reaches them and 98 per cent is just swindled, siphoned off,” says Professor Khundu.
“Unfortunately, Adivasis have a very bleak future because development is not tribal friendly and development here means ‘de-tribalisation’, losing their own language and culture.
“If you call this development then ultimately there will be hardly any tribals left at all.”