Two days after the Centre denied clearance to Vedanta Resource's R4,500-crore bauxite mining project in Orissa's Niyamgiri Hills, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi reached out to the tribals who had opposed the project.
Taking a dig at the Naveen Patnaik government in the state, he said: "True development takes place by respecting the interests of the poor and tribals."
He was addressing a gathering of about 3,000 colourfully dressed Dongria Kondh and other tribals at Jagannathpur village, 2 km away from Vedanta's alumina plant and about 550 km southwest of Bhubaneswar.
Speaking in Hindi, Gandhi told the audience on Tribal Protection Day: "I am your sipahi (soldier) in Delhi. Whenever you need me, I will be there for you."
The crowd responded with the slogan: "Rahul Gandhi amaro bhai, Niyamgiri chharbo nai (Rahul Gandhi is our brother, we won't leave Niyamgiri).
Soon after landing near the meeting venue, Gandhi was introduced to anti-Vedanta activist Lada Sikaka Majhi, who had allegedly been kidnapped and tortured by the state police last week "for being a Maoist". Gandhi greeted him with a hug.
"This is the happiest day of my life. Niyamgiri has been saved. But Vedanta's alumina refinery (which gets bauxite from Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand) has to go also," Majhi said.
The Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-10,000-strong primitive tribe, consider Niyamgiri Hills to be their god. Two rain-fed rivers and the hills provide them with food, water, fruit and sustenance.
The Vedanta mining project had threatened to uproot them from the hills where they have lived for centuries.
The Dongria stir had gained international fame as celebrities such as Bianca Jagger took up their cause. The western media has even dubbed the tribe the "real Avatar" (after the James Cameron directed Hollywood blockbuster).
Niyamgiri Surakshya Parishad president Kutia Majhi said: "During his last visit to Niyamgiri, Rahul Gandhi had assured us the rights of the Dongria Kondh tribals would be protected. He has kept his promise."
Earlier, the crowd had waited patiently as Gandhi arrived an hour behind schedule, listening to patriotic songs blaring over the public address system.
A troupe of tribal dancers broke into a traditional welcome dance on a make-shift stage adjoining the main podium as soon as his red and white chopper appeared on the horizon.Listen to podcast