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The man behind the fight against Vedanta

india Updated: Aug 28, 2010 22:52 IST
Gautam Chikermane

The blackish-blue welts of the beatings on his back are as clear as the yellow-blue-red set of beads around his neck. But more than his pinned hair or two nose rings, it is his eyes that hold you.

Brown, with an inner strength, there is no arrogance or celebration of the victory he engineered a day before. If one word could describe them, it is "dignified".

And 20 days after a four-day beating, Lada Sikaka Majhi, a Dongria Kandha tribal in the middle ranges of the Niyamgiri Hills, speaks as his community does: in a matter-of-fact way.

"We were on our way to Delhi for a meeting," he said as we waited for Rahul Gandhi's rally in Lanjigarh, a village in the Niyamgiri foothills. Suddenly, 15 plainclothes men with machine guns stopped the car and took me away. They beat me up. 'You are a Maoist,' they said. They took me to Rajgarh police station, where I was further beaten."

Majhi was picked up because he was a leader of Niyamgiri Suraksha Parishad (NSP), a loosely-organised group of tribals and activists fighting the Orissa government and the Anil Agarwal-managed Vedanta Aluminium Ltd over extraction of bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills, home to 8,000 Dongria tribals.

"I have talked to Majhi," Kalahandi police chief Sudha Singh told HT when he was released on August 12.

"He will reach home by tomorrow."

Majhi, however, stands by his ordeal.

Go 64 km northeast from Lanjigarh to Bhavanipatna. Green Kalahandi president Sidhartha Nayak, who has fought with the tribals, remembers that day.

"When I asked them why they were taking Majhi away, one of them put a gun to my forehead. 'Why are you against the company (Vedanta)?' he asked me. He told us to stay where we were, else they would kill us and took Majhi away. I was scared."

Vedanta chief operating officer Mukesh Kumar denies this.

"Ask the people here about the development work we have done and you'll see for yourself," he said, armed with data that suggested Vedanta was the victim.

"The day we leave, you will see the reaction of the people who have benefited from development. We have been waiting for the bauxite and bleeding... We are going to ask the Orissa government to give it to us from somewhere else."

The environment ministry statement that prevents Vedanta from mining is seen to be partly in tune with the religious sentiments of the Dongria and partly political. Two days after the statement, Rahul flew down to address a rally of tribals and Congress workers.

"I am your soldier in Delhi," he told them.

"Our government in Delhi will fight for you."

The fight is not over, though.

"Our mountain has been saved," said NSP president Kumti Majhi.

"But the rakshas (Vedanta factory) too has to go. The dust from the factory is spreading, killing our cows and goats."