This is a small story of give and take. Mostly take.
It’s early September. I’m at the modest, rented home of Xavier Dias in a northern suburb of Ranchi, and we’re discussing issues of business and human rights.
Of Goan origin, Xavier is among a group of former urbanites outraged with realities of rural and tribal India who settled in Jharkhand some decades ago. His activities have ranged from campaigning for Jharkhand’s separation from Bihar to taking on businesses and government to safeguard the traditional, individual and property rights of tribals. He is the motive force behind the Jharkhand mines area coordination committee, part of an influential citizens’ rights agglomerate.
Why aren’t you in jail? I ask him, a joke to acknowledge the increasingly hard place activists inhabit, with law usually used to restrict such activities. Xavier laughs wryly.
It’s now three months later. Xavier has just been released on bail in Chaibasa, close to Jharkhand’s main iron ore strip, along with five others, all tribals. With several local villagers, Xavier had blockaded Tata Steel Ltd’s pelletizing plant near the ore hub of Noamundi in 1991, arguing for compensation for several things, including sacred groves and graves of a village that were located in the plant’s premises—which Xavier charged had been constructed on “grabbed lands”. Villagers were also incensed with a case of molestation in which some women of the Ho tribe were allegedly attacked by a few Tata Steel employees. The fracas snowballed; there was an incident of firing upon protesters. The blockade spilled over to nearby railway tracks. Xavier and his colleagues were arrested, and released on bail. The case continues to this day, with the original 15 arrested down to seven on account of deaths.
In 2010, the lawyer representing this lot joined Abhijeet group, claims Xavier, without handing the case over to another lawyer. Chaos followed. The local court at Chaibasa got upset on account of notices which went unanswered, it issued a notice of arrest which did not reach the accused, and so on. Xavier and the other co-accused surrendered to the court a week ago. The concern among rights groups is that in Jharkhand’s charged, quite coercive business-and-politics-versus-the-rest atmosphere, due process may be tempered by undue influence to hobble a key activist—and warn his colleagues to back off. (There are several ongoing movements against Tata Steel and other businesses.)
There is immediate precedence. Dayamani Barla, a tribal-rights activist who many claim is responsible for ArcelorMittal not being able to go ahead with the acquisition of tribal-inhabited forest lands in Jharkhand for iron ore mining, was arrested in mid-October. This was on the basis of a first information report from 2006 for leading a protest that included blockading a road to ensure job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Denying her bail for a relatively minor offence suggests the real reason: she infuriated the establishment with her stand, most recently against land acquisition in Nagri, a village north of Ranchi. Here, villagers are resisting 227 acres of farmland being given over for the Ranchi campuses of the Indian Institute of Management, the Indian Institute of Information Technology and the National University of Study and Research in Law.
This is relatively minor, going by what happened in Tamil Nadu over the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, where earlier this year several hundred locals, mainly fisherfolk, were bizarrely charged with sedition for voicing their concern about nuclear safety in the wake of the tsunami-related Fukushima incident in Japan. It is also relatively less ominous compared with the gathering storm in Chutka, Madhya Pradesh, the proposed location of another state-run nuclear power plant. Here, after a gram sabha this past October resolved to not part with village land for the project, word arrived from the office of the collector of Mandla, the nearest government satrapy, that the mostly tribal villagers would be arrested were they to resist acquisition of their lands.
As with these and numerous other ongoing situations across India, the concern in Jharkhand is one of escalation of such conflict. And the easy use of law, singularly by government or with tacit understanding with businesses—both private and state-run—to browbeat citizens into submission. Instead of dialogue, apply arrogance of power.
I recall Xavier telling me how for such issues, it is pointless to appeal to businesses and governments on grounds of ethics. “They look at things in a clinical way with zero emotion. They don’t care at all about morality.” Now he has time to mull over such wisdom.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org