Naxal-backed tribals in Orissa’s Koraput district on Tuesday forcibly reoccupied lands that non-tribals, local businessmen and other outsiders had cheated them of many years ago.
About 200 tribals, with red bandana-like pieces of cloth on their heads and wrists, marched into the rain-soaked agricultural fields in Koraput’s Narayanpatna block, 560 km southwest of Bhubaneswar, and started tilling them. Another group of 150 tribals, armed with swords, spears and other sharp-edged weapons stood guard.
The area of land occupied by the tribals could not be ascertained. Everyone was too scared to speak as Koraput is the heart of Naxal territory in Orissa. HT had first reported (Koraput headed the Lalgarh way on June 22) how the district administration is practically non-existent in some parts of this remote district and how local villagers now take their complaints and grievances to the Maoists.
A land loser, who spoke to HT on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said: “The Maoists killed nine security personnel on June 18. When the police cannot defend themselves, how can they protect us?”
On June 18, the Maoists had completely cut off Narayanpatna block from the rest of the state by felling trees on the highways leading into it. They then killed nine personnel of the Orissa Special Strike Force, the elite anti-Naxal commando force, by triggering a powerful landmine when they approached the area to remove these felled trees.
When contacted, Koraput district Superintendent of Police Deepak Kumar told HT: “No FIR has been lodged (about the occupation of land). So, the police cannot do anything. Anyway, it’s a civil dispute and will be handled by the revenue department.”
Narayanpatna block development officer BDO BM Bhuyan switched off his mobile phone as soon as HT asked him about the takeover of land on Tuesday.
The modus operandi of this land grab is simple. When HT had visited the district in June, Madhusudan Pondu, 72, of Balipeta village in the Narayanpatna block, had said: “They came and hoisted red flags on our agricultural lands, signalling the end of our possession over it.”
The “movement” by tribals to forcibly reoccupy land that was historically theirs is being spearheaded by Chasi Muliya Adivasi Sangha (Tribal Farmers’ Association, better known by its acronym CMAS), which is allegedly backed by the Maoists.
According to Srikant (he uses only one name), the state convener of CMAS, tribal land cannot be transferred or sold to non-tribals without government permission under the law.
The government has no records of how much tribal land has been sold or transferred to non-tribals.
“But traders, businessmen and non-tribal outsiders have taken over nearly thousands of acres in Narayanpatna and (in neighbouring) Bandhugaon blocks over the last few decades. The government did nothing; hence, we have launched this agitation,” he said.
While that is true, the Orissa government has at last woken up to the issue. Over the last fortnight, state revenue minister SN Patro has repeated several times that land taken away illegally from tribals would soon be restored to them.
His department is in the process of setting up camp-courts in Koraput and some neighbouring districts to implement this promise, but the Naxals have clearly beaten the government to it.