The saga of Odisha’s ‘silent’ resistance to dispossession : A panel discussion on a book launch

Madhusree Basu

A summary of the panel discussion that took place on Oct 25 on the book 'Reading Dispossession: The Odisha Stories' written by Ranjana Padhi and Nigamananda Sadangi

Resisting dispossession
Dispossession is akin to an ideological warfare where the thin line between consent and coercion collapses. An orchestra is at work 24x7 drumming in the common sense around ‘development’. This propaganda cloaks dispossession as benign or as a panacea.[…] It effectively masks how the process of land acquisition is deeply flawed,
write Nigamananda Sadangi and Ranjana Padhi in their book Resisting Dispossession: The Odisha Story.

On October 25th, the Indian edition of the book, published by Aakar Books, was launched through a panel discussion. The event was online, as is the enforced custom these days. It was especially disconcerting to be attending such an event across the web and hence once again being reminded of the various forms of ‘distancing’ that the State and the Corporate were taking full advantage of, that too in the occasion of publication of a book that mourned ‘distancing’: distancing of people from their land, livelihoods and history, distancing from their comrades, their family and their dignity.

However, the panel of excellent speakers and listeners made the intense three hours pass too soon. Introduced by K. K. Saxena from Aakar Books and moderated by V. Geetha, the speakers in the panel were Manoranjan Mohanty, M. Rajshekhar, Bela Bhatia and the two authors – Ranjana Padhi and Nigamananda Sadangi. All of them are veteran democratic rights and human rights activists and writers, deeply involved with people’s movements in various parts of India.

“Humbling tales of granular and lived sense of dispossession” – V. Geetha
The book”, V. Geetha said, “is a fascinating walk through India’s history of political economy.” Though it keeps the coastal, forest and mineral-rich state of Odisha at its center, and engages with personal narratives as its principal form, the book also tells us the broader story not necessarily restricted to Odisha. It is the story of India’s postcolonial journey from the Nehruvian state to the public-private partnerships to neoliberalism as well as the role of the regional governments in imposing toxic ‘development’ plans on its people, who continue to reject it as best as they can.

In a moment when the country is turning fascist by the day, the panel struck a note of hope. It reminded us that the memory and the history of people’s movement narrated in their own voices could still give us hope, bringing to us intense sorrow, but also a very tangible happiness that had the potential to make us and our struggles feel alive. It was especially significant in the context of Odisha – a state that was continuously exploited and simultaneously ignored as a location of resistance in the national narrative of political movements in India since the colonial times. The book reminded us that the State had always committed inhuman atrocities to the people, and, when we feel overwhelmed by the apparently insurmountable State-Corporate nexus, we must go back to those sagas. These sagas do not theorize, nor generate worldwide condemnation, but whispers to us how Dalits, Adivasis, peasants, fisherfolk – women and men at the receiving end of the dispossession – resisted that dispossession thrust upon them by the same nexus.

The sagas gathered in this book speaks of the Dhobi who lamented the loss of his customer’s clothes and partial vision in his own left eye – all taken away by the police as punishment for giving water to a few injured people. They speak of the ox named Nila, who kept travelling back to the village, where the family that he lived with were evicted from in the name of development. They tell us about the girl, who would have been dragged away like others by the CRPF men if not for her promptness. One of the men, who had dropped some money in her pitcher when she went to fetch water, even claimed to be her husband! Sagas that the middle-class is taught to think of as insignificant collateral damages in the flashy, big picture of development.

In a time of social media representation and statistical data, Ranjana and Nigamananda, authors with “novelists’ eye for details” refuse to give us numbers, while they talk about movements led by such unnamed men and women nowhere to be found over the internet. The authors even managed to perform the unusual task of writing a book about the ‘people in movement’ without turning it into a book about the organizations or parties that led or claimed to lead these movements. These are “humbling” stories, as Geetha said, speaking of the “quiet tenor of these struggles” narrated in the book. Other than the long introduction, about which Ranjana suggested the readers in jest: “Skip it, and move to the actual chapters,”(a suggestion better not paid heed to) there are 10 chapters. All of them speak of different movements in Odisha against lang-grab for dams, bauxite mining, alumina or steel plants, or against the denial of the Adivasi rights to the forest, fisherfolk’s rights to the water, and all ordinary people’s rights to smaller livelihoods so that they were left with the sole option of working in the large plants forced on them.

Geetha also pointed out how the predicament of the people gained further complexity in the late 1990s, in the onset of the neoliberal era. At this juncture, the fight was also “to retain their identity as justice-seeking people,” who were then forced to revisit their “relation with nature and each other.” And all the while, in between struggles, victories and defeats, the people had to keep digesting their own doom on an everyday basis, with the dams rising, the waters receding, the Forest Rights Act violated, the Samatha judgment unimplemented, the “boundary walls of the steel plants refusing to retreat.

“[This book is the] First reading recommended on Odisha history” – Manoranjan Mohanty
The first speaker in the panel was Manoranjan Mohanty – a democratic rights activist, researcher and Social Science teacher, whose work is pointed towards a politically creative society. As an activist and a PUDR fact-finding team member, Manoranjan has been part of many of the movements mentioned in the book. A subject that repeatedly came up during the panel discussion was ‘ways to seek solidarity’. Manorajnan spoke from his own experience about some of the instances of organic solidarity between some of these movements. As a believer of creative potential existing in every human irrespective of class, caste, gender etc., he expressed his belief that such struggles always “tried to bring the creative potential out in the open,” no matter what. The anti-land grab struggles in “Kalinganagar, Kashipur might be suppressed, but they shaped the movement,” in their confrontation with the Capital. Irrespective of whether they won or lost, they always conveyed their message to the historical context.

Manoranjan was fascinated by the authors’ methodology, by the beautiful wealth of primary sources. He said, from the testimonies in the book it was clear that for those facing and resisting dispossession enforced by colonial, postcolonial and now also the global capital, possession or ownership meant something completely different than how the capitalist bourgeoisie understood it. It was always counted in terms of connection with the community and “the public-ness of the relationships with the wealth” (not ‘resource’, but ‘wealth’, he emphasized). The State justified the dispossession of these people in the name of building a new nation or in the neoliberal context, vision of achieving high growth that would trickle down to everyone’s benefit. With the help of these justifications, Odisha, possessing 60% of the country’s bauxite reserve, 98.4% chromite, 91.8% nickel, 67.8% manganese etc., entered the vicious circuit of exporting minerals and importing machineries required for industries based on these minerals.

However, Manoranjan’s face visibly lit up as he spoke about the Right to Earth movement in Gandhamardan that saw a people’s victory over BALCO (Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd), stopping the mining work in 1989. He was also happy to describe the movement in Gopalpur that saw the victory of flower over steel in 1998 – the Kewada flower being a long term means of sustenance for the locals that the Tata steel plant attempted to replace. For him, ‘rights’ did not mean certain claims recognized by the State. Instead, a right was meaningful to him only when it arose out of a struggle, finding its form mutually along with other struggles.

Manoranjan also spoke of major setbacks in these anti-land-grab struggles. One vital setback was that every rights movement in Odisha (and elsewhere) such as the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti and others – even progressive Gram Sabhas – were named by the State as Maoist initiatives, thus criminalizing dissent and defense. No less grave was his observation how the political leaders learned very little from these struggles. In the pre-neoliberal days, when these movements still had the power to act as game-changers in state elections, the political parties never did much beyond co-opting some of the organic mass-leaders. He said, the struggles also failed due to the unworthy leadership of middle-class, upper caste, patriarchal men, who often especially betrayed women comrades and turned into middlemen between the people and the Corporate/State. The narrow single-project-based attitude was responsible for these failures as well.

On a happier note, Manoranjan announced that the Odia edition of the book was going to published soon. Just like him, we were all bowled over by its title: GaanChhadibuNahin, JamiChhadibuNahi (Won’t let go of my village, won’t let go of my land)

“The Adivasis live like tongue between the teeth” – Bela Bhatia
The next speaker was human right activist and writer Bela Bhatia. She spoke about this book in terms of her long and deep engagement with cases of violation of forest rights and other rights in Bastar. She narrated how the violated laws – PESA, FRA, necessity of seeking permission from the Gram Sabha for occupying land etc. were often fruits of long and hard struggles; yet they were ignored by the State-supported Corporates as mere playthings, despite court orders such as the 1993 Girish Bhai Patel PIL, in which she herself was involved.

Often facing the brunt of the terrorism blame-game played by the State herself, Bela described how the Adivasis faced extreme violence from the CRPF, paramilitary forces and vigilantes, but were readily criticized and penalized by all if they resorted to violence in any form. That did not mean, she added, that the non-violent struggles did not end up facing police violence, such as in Kalinganagar, Odisha. The MPs and MLAs from forest regions, despite being Adivasis, were often co-opted. The Adivasis truly had nowhere to go since the Parliament election was fought between two main political parties that thought exactly alike in terms of economy and policing. If at all anyone was responsible for the so-called violence that Adivasis might have sought to in their defense, Bela said, it was the State. The same issue was addressed at length in Ranjana and Nigamananda’s book.

These were old debates, Bela admitted. But we are nowhere close to shelving them. Bela described how earlier the Adivasis could at least move around freely inside the forest. Today, they could be arrested at the slight whim of the CRPF, kept in custody without any information to the family, and at an appropriate moment, at the presence of some convenient press, be rechristened as a Maoist.

According to Bela, whereas the book Resisting Dispossession underlined what democracy is not, writing a book such as this was in itself an act of resistance.

“How does a society come to appreciate where it stands?” – M. Rajshekhar
M. Rajshekhar is involved in immersed journalism, working earlier for The Economic Times, then The Scroll, and now on his upcoming book. He raised a few important questions in the context of Resisting Dispossession, the central inquiry being: ‘Why do people resist some dispossessions but not all?’ Indeed, as he pointed out, the rights of access to education and health for the working people were often violently denied by the State. But no movement of a stature comparable to the Niyamgiri or the Gandhamardan struggle surfaced against one of these issues. According to him, these were the new-age forms of dispossession – descendants of the earlier forms of dispossession such as eviction and criminalization – since all of these amounted to extracting resources in order to benefit only a handful few.

Rajshekhar’s partial explanation to his own question was that the mediator institutions that could efficiently explain the graveness of these new form of dispossession to the people were dysfunctional. Interestingly, as examples of such institutions, along with Trade Unions he mentioned poetry and folklore, recalling how poets like Paash, who were integral part of people’s struggle, played this role of ‘explainers’ that he found lacking now.

Later observations by Manoranjan Mohanty as well as Arun Patnaik on the issue of education added to Rajshekhar’s inquiry. Manoranjan, in the context of a question from the audience regarding private education provided by Adani and Vedanta Groups, mentioned that in the 1910s, in Australia and Canada, the indigenous children were put in special schools to be taught European values; later the governments in the both these countries formally apologized for such impositions (the parallels could be drawn easily, though an apology could not be aspired even as a distant dream). In Arun Patnaik’s comment, the matter of education was mentioned in the context of solidarity. In a way complementing Rajshekhar’s explanation, Arun mentioned that as stated in the Gramscian discourse, without an alternative education program, “the need to come together in action programs does not come from within.” Arun emphasized that education must be thought of as an essential part of the movements in order to avoid sectarianism.

Though it was not discussed in great detail, just as the gap in the understanding of possession, the gap in the understanding of education and culture across class and caste was perhaps quite different too. This has been repeatedly addressed in Resisting Dispossession in its very choice of documenting people’s voices instead of theoretical discourses. This gap was also touched upon in Arun Patnaik’s narration of the BALCO story. While being part of the same movement, the ‘activist’ and the ‘ordinary people’ had strikingly different visions, such as, the people trusted in BALCO and later felt betrayed (“BALCO broke the oral contract, but Rajiv Gandhi will save us!”), whereas the activist held BALCO (and Rajiv Gandhi) an enemy right form the beginning; the people found their energy to keep the struggle up from their faith in forest gods and goddesses (“The Goddess is crying here” – in the context of hilltop mining), which was beyond the activists’ imaginations. It was vital for the movement to close those gaps.

As Rajshekhar correctly said, “most people live despite the State.” If the State took over even the trifles that these people lived on, perhaps only then they revolted. But at least in the case of education and health, Rajshekhar felt, the people were not sufficiently aware of their systemic deprivations and losses.

“[In the book] We were connecting the movements through writing” – Nigamamnanda Sadangi
Nigamananda belonged to the Balasore district in Odisha – the district headquarter and the theater of many actions. In his panel-session, he reminisced about his college days in Balasore. It was 1988 and the movement against National Test Range was rising up in the Baliapal region: “Women walked down the road holding babies in their left arms and cloth bags in their right arms with puffed rice, shouting Bheetamati chhadibunahi, chhadibunahi. Honestly, I did not understand anything of the movement at that time. But, that powerful image got etched firmly; even today, the image pops up in my mind, whenever I think of or hear about anti-displacement struggles,” he said. That was the point of initiation of his deep connections with almost all the people’s movements in Odisha.

Anti-BALCO movement (1980s), Chilika movement (1990s) and the Narmada Bachao Andolan inspired their generation of students greatly. In his own words, they were dreaming that in place of the classical class-struggle of workers and peasants, a new kind of movement would emerge and bring about larger social transformation. That dream led them to take more and more interest in these struggles, to actively organize support and solidarity, to get almost wedded to these struggles, to get emotionally invested. For him, Resisting Dispossession, in a way, is a part of that relationship.

As if in response to previous observations and questions on how to build mutually supportive relationships and stay connected between the movements in Odisha, Nigamananda commented that such solidarities existed, though not always recognized by ‘intellectuals’, whose field of action remained alienated from the people, outside occasional leadership roles. Like a few instances such as Manoranjan mentioned earlier, Nigamananda in particular recalled the Kashipur movement, in which such network-building efforts were made, even with those displaced by sanctuaries. In his opinion, two important platforms managed to build such strong and meaningful relationships in between movements: the Deshpremi Jana Samukya and the Daman Virodhi Manch.

Since neither the State-sponsored nor the Corporate-sponsored historians documented these movements, Nigamananda acknowledged that this book was able to gather the facts solely thanks to the people’s narratives and the documentations painstakingly maintained by the people themselves or the grassroot activists. Srihari Nayak, a retired teacher of Jagai High School (passed away in 2015) did this for Baliapal, Prasanna Sahu (now Swami Somabesa) did it for Gandhamardan, Karunakar Supakar for Hirakud dam and the list kept growing. These detailed documentations were vital in keeping the interconnection of people’s movements intact and alive in the coming decades.
Nigamananda narrated how Ranjana and himself came together as co-researchers, after the first set of interviews taken by Ranjana of activists such as Bhabani Bhuyan and Gouri from the Baliapal movements, and later, of some of the participants in the Kashipur movement. In his story of the collaborationhe described how with Ranjana’s faith in him and her persuasions, he became “an accidental writer”. However, as Ranjana pointed out, the ‘accidental writer’ was also the ‘true people’s historian’, possessing the rare wealth of patience and empathy within political work.

Each of these movements deserves a book-length treatment, not just 20-30 pages as we’ve done” – Ranjana Padhi
About a week after this panel discussion, Mathura Honaga, one of the two Adivasi leaders in the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Mancha in Kalinganagar, breathed his last due to kidney failure. He was there in the book, but passed away before he could see the Odia edition. As with each death of a comrade, with Mathura as well, a part of the struggle died, perhaps to be reborn again in the inspiration that his life generated.

Had Nigamananda and Ranjana not written this book, many of these movements and individual narratives would have remained as untold, unprinted history. But what if one asked whether these could be called authentic history in the first place? The authors responded in advance: “People’s memories are in abundance and so were their emotions and thoughts that they shared freely. But the catch was that they mixed up incidents and their timings. Sometimes we were confused, could not follow the storyline, the chronological order. As you all know, memory has its own life and own way – add certain things and discard others. But the people who have lived these histories and have been living it, linearity of time matters less for them. As women of Gandhamardan told us, ‘We participated in the struggle when we were newly married or had first or second child. Now, we are grannies. So many things did happen. How can we tell you all things in every detail?’ So, we had to search for written literature that the movement itself had produced…” such as the documentations of Srihari, Prasanna, Karunakar and many others. There would have been more, if old age, diseases, accidents as much as State-Corporate atrocities and betrayals hadn’t claimed so many lives before and during the time the book was being written. In her session, Ranjana read out such a list of such deaths, while also further elaborating on the making of the book.

After she spoke about the structure, materials used and form of the book, about its narrations and its silences, a major contradiction ingrained in the participation of the intellectual middle-class came up in her discussion: “Mountains are not freaks of nature, just standing there, but they are retained by backbreaking labour of the Adivasis.” She said, these labouring people were not part of agricultural or trade union movements, but they kept the land, the rivers – this contribution has not really been addressed and thoroughly documented in the history of national political movements. In her own words: “We are beneficiaries of  neoliberalism, but we want Niyamgiri to stand! What are we doing [for it]?

Is such an attitude of the middle-class ‘sympathizers’ so very different from the ‘charity welfare model’ that the State-Corporate nexus boasts about as their ‘return gift’ for the human as well as environmental loss that they cause? When Dodi Kadraka from Niyamgiri was tortured for four hours, the police reprimanded him for going against a government that gave them rice at one rupee per kilo. A mountain inhabited by Adivasis could be bought by charity, and these welfare schemes seemed to pave the way for the bauxite in the mountain. This sham of welfare tidbits had to be challenged and boycotted. In this context, the Odisha movements showed the way several times.

Once again in terms of solidarity, Ranjana drew strong parallels between the Odisha movements resisting dispossession and other Asian, African and Latin-American sagas of resistance. Compared to the Odisha Stories, many of those struggles were perhaps well-documented and widely culturally engaged with. We hope that this book will inspire more such interconnected works on regional stories of people’s resistance in India, not only in the form of books or articles, but also theater, dance, images and songs. Just as, in particular, Resisting Dispossession: The Odisha Stories would not be complete without Ganghadhar Sahu’s poetry and songs, Video Republic’s documentation of the Niyamgiri struggle or even Karen Haydock’s cover image, as Ranjana admitted.

End note
The authors completed the manuscript in 2018. Palgrave publication rendered a good production in short time, but the book was exorbitantly priced abroad. The authors got the contract modified and Aakar Books – brought it out despite the pandemic restrictions and the tightening of rules and strictures for publishing houses. Once the English version was done with, as the Odia book was getting printed, the authors discovered that the printing costs had already gone up; the price of paper and printing ink had shot up during the pandemic! And, so it goes.

The entire panel discussion is to be found in two parts in the following links -

Nov 14, 2020

Madhusree Basu

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