Adivasis marching on February 17. Photo by Jeet Singh Arya.

Several thousand people from India’s indigenous tribes protested against the arrest of ten local villagers in eastern India last week.  The local population feels persecuted by authorities, who for their part suspect tribe members of supporting the Naxalites, a Maoist rebel group formed in the 1960s.

The protests began on February 16, three days after ten locals were brutally arrested in the village of Hamirgarh, in the Bastar region (Chhattisgarh state). The police accused those they arrested of having links to Naxalites, the armed rebel group that continues to fight the Indian government in several of the country’s states.

All those arrested were quickly released, except for one man, a cook at a primary school, who the police accused of being an accomplice to the murder of a police informer six months earlier. On February 16, about a thousand tribe members, known in India as Adivasis, gathered outside the police station in Tongpal, a nearby town, to demand the cook’s freedom, and blocked off the local highway for 17 hours.

Adivasis marching toward the Tongpal police station on February 17. Photo by Jeet Singh Arya.

“People first protested the cook’s arrest, and then started making other demands”

Jeet Singh Arya works in development. He lives in the region and decided to photograph the Adivasis’ protest.

People first protested the arrest of the cook, who is still in detention today. Then on the morning of the 17th, protesters and police clashed in Tongpal – police beat the protesters with sticks.
 
According to our Observer, this protester was beaten by the police. Photo by Jeet Singh Arya.

Three men were arrested, and the protesters dispersed. As they fled, they left most of their belongings behind – bicycles, cooking utensils, clothing… there was stuff everywhere! In the afternoon, they gathered again, this time asking for freedom for the three men arrested earlier that day.

Protesters left many items behind when they were violently dispersed by the police. Photo by Jeet Singh Arya.

On February 19, the three men were freed. They said they had been beaten and tortured by the police. Tongpal’s police chief denied this, and claimed that the bruising on the men’s bodies was a result of the street clashes.

The three men who were arrested on February 17 in Tongpal were released two days later. Bruising was visible on their backs, which angered protesters. Photo by Jeet Singh Arya.

"The Adivasi are tired of arbitrary arrests"

After the three men were freed and transferred to a hospital, protesters clamoured for the policemen to be brought to justice for mistreating these men. They also took the opportunity to denounce arbitrary arrests in local villages, like those that took place on February 15 in Hamirgarh.

The movement grew every day, with 5,000 people from several different villages joining in. People came with food and cooking pots so they could stay on the scene. After the three men were freed, they marched toward Sukma, which is about 50 kilometres from Tongpal. They hoped to put pressure on the regional authorities so that their grievances would finally be heard.



The protest movement grew day by day. Photo taken on February 22 by Rohit Singh Arya.

"The local population feels harassed by the police and the army"

In the Bastar region, the police and the army are hunting for people who have links to the Naxalites. They go into homes, and arrest innocent people every day… So of course, the local population feels like they’re being harassed.

In 2005, a tribal anti-Naxalite movement called Salwa Judum was founded by a local man. However, it was later manipulated by local authorities and became a sort of militia. [Editor’s Note: In 2011, Salwa Judum was dissolved by the country’s Supreme Court, which found the movement guilty of human rights violations.]

Security forces are more and more present in this area. [Editor’s Note: In 2009, authorities launched operation “Green Hunt”, sending tens of thousands of police officers and paramilitaries to fight the Maoist rebels]. Fighting between the rebels and the security forces causes hundreds of deaths every year, including many civilians.

In truth, the Adivasi are caught in a tough spot between the Naxalites and the government forces… But they do generally feel closer to the Naxalites, since they are more alike. The Adivasi are marginalized both socially and economically, and have lost their land by big mining companies. That’s why some of them sometimes join up with the Naxalites.

On Monday, the Adivasi protesters finally went home. According to local journalist Malini Subramaniam, the police managed to placate the protesters – for the time being. “The local police declared they would take measures against the policemen who beat the three detainees within two weeks”, Subramaniam told France 24. “The Avidasis said they would protest again if nothing is done by then.”