Muzzled in Jharkhand

Unable to deal with rising protests against land acquisition, the Jharkhand government is digging up old cases against activists to silence them. Soumik Mukherjee reports

Gagged Xavier Dias was earlier honoured by the Jharkhand government for fighting for tribal rights

IN YET another case of witch-hunt against grassroots activists, the Jharkhand government on 24 November arrested anti-mining activist Xavier Dias and five of his colleagues. The State was acting on the basis of a 21-year-old case for their alleged role in leading a protest against Tata’s iron ore mine in Noamundi, in the West Singbhum district. This is the latest in a spate of arrests, which started with Dayamani Barla’s detention amid a crackdown on the land rights movement in Nagri village near Ranchi.

Though Dias and his colleagues were granted bail on 26 November, the arrest raises questions about the intentions of the current BJP-led government in the state. Jharkhand was formed in 2000, after a long movement for separation from Bihar, as a new state meant for the tribal-dominated population of the region.

Dias was a part of the movement for a separate Jharkhand when the Bihar Police filed the case against him in 1991. Ironically, when the state was formed, he was honoured by the state government for his role in the ‘freedom movement’, and assured that he and his colleagues would be acquitted of all the charges against them. “This is a State ploy. They never close the old cases and use them whenever they want to,” says Dias.

The arrest follows a long period of police harassment and intimidation. “The persons arrested with Dias are all mining labourers. They couldn’t stand the police harassment and surrendered before the court along with Dias,” says Gopinath Ghosh, Dias’ colleague.

Dias has dealt serious blows to the pro-mining policies in Jharkhand, infamous for its mining scams, and has vehemently opposed land acquisition for mining projects.

The current scenario of growing people’s movements in the state explains why the BJP-led government is raking up old cases against these activists. Dias’s arrest came when he was preparing for a protest against the expansion of a mine owned by Tata in Noamundi.

The villagers of Noamundi have written a letter to the Central Pollution Control Board alleging that the expansion doesn’t follow the norms set by the agency. “Even the public hearing for land acquisition was a fraud. It was held inside the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) facility, heavily guarded by the police. The villagers had no say in the entire process,” says a protestor on condition of anonymity.

Dias believes that efforts to silence dissenting voices will only increase in the future

Dias believes that these efforts to silence dissenting voices will only increase in the future. “People’s movements and dissent among the masses against land grabbing and other anti-Adivasi activities have reached their zenith in this state. The government fears a retaliation from the people, so they’ll keep detaining those who lead such movements,” says Dias.

Earlier last month, Barla, who was leading a protest against land acquisition in Nagri, was detained in connection with a six-year-old case. Since her arrest on 16 October, her bail plea has been rejected thrice by the Ranchi High Court. “Barla is a person who can mobilise the people and the state fears such people. Look at what happened to Sunilam in Madhya Pradesh,” says Dias.

The arrest of Barla and Dias are indications that a state meant for tribals has strayed far away from the original vision with which it was formed. Not only are leaders being detained, criminal cases are also being slapped on minors in Nagri for ‘destroying peace’. All this seems to suggest that it will take a long time for the ‘freedom fighters’ of Jharkhand to achieve what they fought for.

Soumik Mukherjee is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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