Adivasi resistance and mining in Gadchiroli: An interview with lawyer-activist Lalsu Soma Nogoti

Harshit Charles
Elections 2024
30 September, 2021

In 2017, over seventy gram sabhas—village councils—of the Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra fielded their own independent candidates in the zila parishad—district council—elections. Two of the candidates won. One of them, Lalsu Soma Nogoti, is the first lawyer from the Madia-Koitur community—commonly referred to as Madia-Gonds, and categorised as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, or PVTG, by the Indian government. Nogoti has been one of the community’s most prominent voices protesting mining and violence against indigenous people by the state security forces. He was also the only Adivasi fellow at the 2017 Indigenous Fellowship Programme by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

In an interview with the independent reporter Jyoti Markam, transcribed and condensed by The Caravan’s copy editor, Akash Poyam, Nogoti spoke about the ongoing struggle against iron-ore mining in Gadchiroli’s Surajagarh area. He discussed how the Indian state’s policies are against the interests of Adivasis, and why an employment-oriented education system does not fit Adivasi culture.

Jyoti Markam: In 2007, the conglomerate Lloyd Steel started iron-ore mining in Gadchiroli’s Surajagarh hills. Can you tell us why the mining poses a threat to the Madia-Koitur people and about the ongoing resistance movement against it?
Lalsu Soma Nogoti: The mine in Surajagarh started as early as 2005–2006 and covers 348 hectare of land—which is also the ancestral land of PVTG groups such as the Madia-Koiturs. But the most important thing is, the profit returns or royalty that the company claims to give can be earned by Adivasi families within just one year from the sale of tendu leaves, bamboo, medicinal plants and other forest goods. We have proven this in last few years. Surajagarh in particular remains a historical place since Veer Baburao Shedmake, a Koitur leader who rebelled against the Britishers, hid in the Surajagarh forest. Moreover, Surajagarh is home to Thakurdeo, the ancestral spirit of the Koiturs, and every year in January a large jatra [fair] is held on the hills [in his honour].

At present, I see that there are two different voices on the mining in Surajagarh. One group is completely resisting mines, which are taking place illegally. In fact, most of the ongoing mining is illegal, because wherever there are Adivasis, there is forest, and so there are minerals. And these regions are part of the scheduled areas under the Indian constitution, which provides safeguards for Adivasi communities, along with other safeguards under laws such as the Forest Rights Act or the PESA [the Panchayat Exclusion to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996]. This group of people, which largely forms members of traditional village bodies, argue that the company can do mining wherever they want but we don’t want mines in Surajagarh at any cost. They say, “Mining is destruction.”

The other group argues that the mining can take place in Surajagarh, however, the local communities should get work in the mines and benefit from it. Various organisations have been formed for resistance against mining. If the company sees that certain organisations or groups of people are resisting too much, then the company is offering them some money to keep quiet. As a result, some people are also resisting the mines, hoping that they will also get some money.

In the name of employment, several mines are being introduced in Adivasi areas, such as Raoghat and Bailadila in Chhattisgarh. Bailadila mines, which were opened during the British colonial rule, have become disastrous. The Adivasi women of the region are being forced into prostitution, because the mining has created certain conditions that make Adivasi communities vulnerable.

Markam: Adivasi issues have long been erased from the public discourse, and even large-scale state violence against Koitur Adivasis—such as the crackdown by the Salwa Judum—is missing from news media. As someone who has also been a regular columnist for Marathi newspapers, how do you look at this?
Nogoti: The mainstream media in the country is certainly not concerned about people such as the Adivasis of Surajagarh or other Adivasi regions. There are so many issues of Adivasi communities that remain hidden from the news media—of hunger, accommodation, labour rights and so on. In fact, media has stereotyped and misrepresented Adivasi communities. For instance, Gotul—a community centre of the Koitur people for meeting, entertainment among other things—has been termed as “sex centres” by outsiders and is still misunderstood.

When Salwa Judum started in 2005, my native place was among the most affected from the violence. [The Salwa Judum was a state-sponsored anti-Maoist group comprised of Adivasi youths]. In my aunt’s family, one daughter went and joined the Maoists out of fear, while the son was recruited in the police forces. Such is the situation.

When our people go hunting, children are sent in one direction, parents in another. Similarly, during Salwa Judum, the mother had run away to one state and children to the other—wherever they could run and hide to avoid the massacre and violence. And no one took these grave issues seriously, especially the media. The Supreme Court ultimately declared Salwa Judum illegal. Adivasi areas are also deprived of basic healthcare facilities. In my native place Bhamragarh, more people have died of malaria over the past year than of COVID.

The absence of news about resistance movements against mining and violence does not mean that they are not happening. Across central India, people are fighting, but the media remains silent and instead focus on trivial issues. Take, for example, Silger in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur, where Adivasis have been sitting in protest for over one hundred days against the opening of an army camp or police station. There is no one who steals in these villages, people are content in their world, but a large police station is being proposed there—for whom? Once the camp opens, it will be a threat to Adivasi communities, the instance of fake encounters and cases of rape will increase. Yet, this movement has not been given any coverage in any national media.

Markam: You pointed out the situation in Chhattisgarh and that there seems to be a universal pattern of state violence in the region. How do you look at violence by the Maoist fighters as well as the state security forces on Adivasis?
Nogoti: I want to state it clearly that Maoists are one of the longest-running peoples’ resistance movements across the world. But we [referring to Adivasi communities] also condemn them for their violent means and believe that nowhere in the world has peace been acquired through violence. The first thing that should be brought into consideration is: why are people picking guns and joining the longest-running Maoist movement? Is there an issue with the existing system or corruption?

Moreover, it should be acknowledged that the level of oppression and exploitation of Adivasis by the forest officials ran deep even before coming of the Maoists. And even though they followed violent means, the Maoists were certainly able to protect Adivasi communities from the physical and sexual exploitation by the forest department and other government officials. They also helped increase in labour wages and in increasing cost of tendu patta, and helped awaken Adivasi communities to their identity and rights, among other things. So even though their fight is illegal, it helped Adivasi communities in the past.

When I think about how there’s a similar pattern of violence in Bastar, Gadchiroli, Malakangiri and other parts of the Dandkaranya region [in central India, which comprises regions from various states]—large enough to be a separate state or a country—I realise that it is among the territories with the dense forest, hills, rivers and rich mineral resources. The dalals [referring to capitalists] and the government are eyeing this land and trying to take control of its resources. The approach seems to be that if militarisation or activities like Salwa Judum continue, then people will themselves run away and vacate the village—leaving it free for extraction of resources. Another factor is that when Adivasi communities across Dandkaranya demand their rights over jal-jangal-jameen [water-forest-land], the forest department and the government feel threatened and that could be another reason for the increase of militarisation and suppresses dissenting voices. 

Markam: In the face of the policies of the BJP government at the centre, what is the present condition of the tribal struggle in central India? What are the larger demands of Koitur community in Gadchiroli, Bastar and Dandakaranya at large?
Nogoti: Firstly, we should look at the resistance movement of indigenous people across the Dandkaranya region. Every such resistance movement has been simply dubbed by the state and the government as being supported or encouraged by the Maoists. This is largely not true, as these resistance movements are only raising demands for their rights prescribed under the constitution, and demanding that provisions under legal safeguards—FRA, PESA—for Adivasis should be followed. So, the Adivasi peoples’ resistance is constitutional in its approach.

Also, the resistance of people here is for asmita and astitva—our identity and existence. While the presence of Maoists has put a lot of pressure on the common people, they are still following constitutional means to fight for their rights. When I was studying in school, somewhere I was expecting that the books would teach me about my ancestors, my spirits, my history, my culture and language, but there was nothing. I used to feel, what’s even the point of studying then? It is a reality that Adivasi culture, history and worldview is not even part of the schooling or education system [in India]. Therefore, our movement is primarily focused on identity and existence.

Secondly, I feel that Adivasi language, religion and culture have been pushed to the margins. Why is there no recognition of our language Gondi, but of Marathi and Hindi? Why can't we be allowed to argue in the court in Gondi? My religion is mentioned as “Hindu” in my certificate, even though we are not Hindus.

Thirdly, the state repression in my region is so frequent that people can be arrested, detained at police station without any charges. When they go for hunting or fishing or farming, they are shot dead in fake encounters and claimed to be members of the Maoist party. These are numerous fake cases filed on common Adivasis in the region. Last year itself, in a small nearby village, six people were charged under UAPA [the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act]. These are people who have families, kids, who do farming, and hold an Aadhar card given by the Indian state. And in turn, our own politicians have cheated us. The current MLA of the region had promised before the elections that if he comes to power, he would not let Lloyd touch Surajagarh hills. But after winning elections, he has already proposed to bring a railway line till Surajagarh for mining activities. People have been facing these false promises for years.

In Maharashtra, the police calls for hinsa-mukt or violence-free policy. But they are the ones committing violence on people. In Adivasi areas, where there is peace and people are living a content life, there is no theft, and it’s the police which comes to houses and loots money, chickens, and other belongings of the Adivasis. They are the ones committing rape on Adivasi women. The first and foremost demand of the Adivasi people of Dandkaranya is to end this violence. Moreover, from Raoghat to Surajagarh, the people’s demand is to shut illegal mining taking place on Adivasi land. People are also demanding the rights to education in Gondi, their mother tongue and the curriculum to include Adivasi history, culture and worldview.

Markam: Can you tell us about your childhood and growing up in an Adivasi village in Gadchiroli?
Nogoti: I was born in a small village of Bhamragarh in Gadchiroli district. My mother’s village, Karkeli, falls in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. My mother and their relatives’ certificates name them as Muria, but we are one and speak the same language, Gondi. No one in my family was able to attain formal education. My siblings never went to school, neither did my parents. When I was very young, my father passed away. A few years later, my mother remarried. In the Madia-Koitur community, there is no concept of widower, and being a widow or remarrying is not considered a taboo, unlike in the caste-Hindu society.

Both my parents were not around when I was growing up. I would take the cattle of villagers for grazing and they used to give me food in return or work on their fields. I lived in someone’s house, my brother and other siblings lived in someone else’s houses, and we managed our lives in this manner. Due to lack of proper food, I became malnourished. Seeing my situation, the villagers decided to send me to Hemalkasa [village]—where they had heard of an ashram being run by [the social worker] Baba Amte, which provided education and health facilities. However, their motive was not to send me there for education, but for the free food and clothes that was provided in the ashram.

I began my schooling from nursery in Hemalkasa. To my own surprise, I was good at studies. In eighth standard, I secured first rank and was invited to Anandvan—the parent organisation of ashram, which also runs a college. I finished my high school and first year of college at Anandvan. At the time, I had heard that people become doctors after studying sciences. But I heard that one needs lots of money to become a doctor, so I was scared and the option was ruled out. So, I took arts. I enrolled in BA at Anandvan. During this time, I met a friend of Baba Amte, Dr Dariyashiv, on whose land Pune’s Fergusson College was built. He offered to take me to Fergusson College. At Pune, I stayed at a government-run hostel and finished my second and third year, under Savitri Bai Phule University. Fergusson was an institute where Adivasis were scared to even apply. There are many Adivasi communities in the region, such as Mahadev Koli, Bhil, Katkari, but no Adivasis were studying there, and it was mostly sons and daughters of IAS [Indian Administrative Services] officers, politicians and rich people.

The government-run hostel had a policy of earn-and-learn. I was introduced to a social activist, Shobhana Ranade. She used to receive a lot of letters and postcards from common people and prominent persons. My job was to reply to these. I only had to work for one hour every day and she used to give me Rs 500. Similarly, there was an elderly blind man who needed someone to read the newspaper to him. I did similar other odd jobs for my expenses during my studies. I was not too fluent in Marathi, and I used to face taunts from it from other students. In fact, when I went for admission and told them my name, the person at the counter asked me, “Are you from out of state? You have written Maharashtra by mistake in your form.” I said that I am from Nagpur, since no one even knew of Gadchiroli. When some students got to know that I was from Gadchiroli, they would ask me, “Are you a Naxalwadi?” [a Naxalite].

Markam: How did you become a lawyer and an activist?
Nogoti: At that time, the Gadchiroli region, bordering Chhattisgarh, was frequently in the news for police encounters and increasing Maoist activities. Long ago, one person from our village was arrested and taken to Nagpur jail on charges of being a Maoist and he did not have any legal support. I was aware that there were no Adivasi lawyers in my region—most of them belonged to non-tribal communities—and therefore becoming a lawyer seemed even more important.

I finally managed to get admission to the ILS College, Pune—one of the most prestigious law schools of the country at the time. During my LLB course, I also pursued an MA in Sociology from another university. Later, I also did Masters in Journalism. After finishing my education, I stayed back in Pune and got the opportunity to attend several classes such as a diploma course on labour laws, international laws and so on. 

In 2006, after finishing my education in Pune, I returned to my native place, Bhamragarh, and wanted to serve my people. I had started practicing with Surendra Gadling, a lawyer and activist currently jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case, at the Nagpur court. While I was in Nagpur, I realised that my Gondi-speaking people, for whom I was hoping to study law, were nowhere to be seen in the city. Therefore, I went back to Bhamragarh and started practising in the district court at Aheri. In this period, I also came in touch with several NGOs working on Adivasi rights. In 2006, when the Forest Rights Act was formally introduced, I also assisted in drafting and finalising the act.

In 2011, I went to Philippines to attend a training program for Young Indigenous Lawyers and represented the country. In 2014, when PESA rules [referring to the rules under the Panchanyat Extension to Schedule Areas Act, 1996] were introduced in Maharashtra for the first time, I started working on the implementation of the law in Gadchiroli. We propagated the idea of “maava naate, maava raaj,” meaning “our village, our rule,” and emphasised the powers enshrined to gram sabhas under PESA. The result was such that the country’s first Community Forest Rights (CFR) was given to Medalekha and Gadchiroli has the highest number of Individual Forest Rights and Individual Forest Rights in the country. [CFR gives the gram sabhas rights to conserve or manage the community forest resources, while IFR gives rights to individuals for self-cultivation and habitation.] We formed several village-, block- and district-level bodies for giving the tribal communities land rights under PESA. While working on land rights and mining issues, I realised that our issues should be brought to the front in international organisations such as the UN. In 2017, I was selected for the UN Indigenous Fellowship program and attended a one-month fellowship at Geneva.

Markam: As an Adivasi lawyer and activist, have you experienced threats and harassment?
Nogoti: About three years ago, in one of the villages of Etapalli tehsil [in Gadchiroli], I was conducting workshops on PESA and Forest Rights Act. I was accompanied by another Koitur activist from Chhattisgarh. Someone informed the police that a lawyer and an activist were “provoking” people in the region, so they came and surrounded the house where we were staying. They entered the house and started throwing our belongings one by one. They threw away my camera, my documents and other things. I kept telling them, “I will cooperate and show you everything,” that I was a Zila Parishad member, an elected representative. But they did not listen to a word and made us walk 20 kilometres to the police station. Villagers told the police that we were their guests and they had cooked special dinner for us, that once we are done eating, they would themselves bring them to the police. But we were detained at the police station for the entire day. There have been several such instances, where the police detained me and common villagers.

I should also tell you that the Pegasus virus that’s been on news lately for targeting of activists, lawyers, writers and intellectuals by the Indian government, lists my name as well. I don’t know how. I am someone who lives in a village inside a forest, where the mobile network never stays consistent and goes off every half an hour.

Markam: Why are new tribal leaders not emerging from these areas?
Nogoti: I feel that when Adivasi children go to school and then college, they are never taught about their own history, identity, culture and so on. Most of the writers who write school and college textbooks belong to Hindu right-wing ideology or RSS. Adivasi communities have led several rebellions against the oppressors, but these histories are not part of their curriculum or even of the media and public discourse. The existing education system has fooled them, and it does not help them think about the ongoing injustice. Some people come and ask me, “Why are you opposing mining? It is going to give us jobs.” I tell them, “You will surely not get employment, but instead will lose.” The education system does not teach them about their rights.

That’s why I believe that Gotul, which is considered as traditional education institution of the Koitur people, should be revived now. Moreover, this education system is designed for “employment.” When young Adivasis come to me asking for help to get a job, I don’t know what to tell them. Employment or government job is like becoming a naukar—servants. But we are the indigenous people, we are the malik, the owners of the land and the forest. So, this existing employment-oriented education system does not fit well with Adivasi communities.

Markam: What would you like to say to Adivasi youth?
Nogoti: In Surajagarh, since mining started, various communities have been resisting. Whenever we conduct a meeting in Surajagarh against mining, the majority of the attendees are illiterate people. There are many parents and elderly people who are part of the protest, who come to me and ask to read or write something. Meanwhile, their own kids are educated but are not helping. I feel really worried about this. Even the few people who are school teachers or in other government positions do not come out to protest, arguing that they would lose their jobs if they did. After studying in Pune, I tried to support and help many young students to apply and go for education, but I was not really successful. Instead, we are seeing that young Adivasis are joining police and armed forces and are killing their own people.

Our language is dying, we are identified wrongly as “Hindus” and people are even losing our names and adopting other cultures. Our names, the names of our spirits, our villages, and places, have been changed. We have been left with nothing. And even the land, on which we are standing, is slowly slipping away. But I believe that we can collectively do this. And I appeal to the people to support our movement in Surajagarh. Seva Johaar!

This interview has been edited and condensed.