Updated: Mar 20
New Delhi: On 1 November 2020, in an online conference organised by women’s groups across central India, Hidme Markam, an Adivasi activist from South Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district narrated how armed conflict in the region was impacting women villagers.
“We can no longer go to the forests freely to gather forest produce, or farm on our lands where (paramilitary) camps have come up,” Markam, a slight, soft-spoken woman in her late 20s, said at the conference, the proceedings of which Article 14 reviewed.
Markam is from the Gond tribe, one of India’s largest. She grew up in the heart of the State-Maoist armed conflict, in a village called Burgum in Dantewada. It is home to more than 1,000 people, where there are more women than men, and the female literacy rate, according to the latest census data available, was less than 7% in 2011.
The official literacy rate and Markam’s own lack of formal schooling reflects the larger alienation in Adivasi lands, where the local languages of Dravidian origin, Koya and Gondi, are, usually, not used in schools and do not reflect in official data and policies. Schools do not run for years because of the conflict with security forces occupying schools and Maoists blowing them up.
Colleagues and family members said that prior to her work as an activist, Markam was a mid-day meal cook in a government primary school near her village for a few years before she became a part of local protests against paramilitary camps in the villages and an an iron-ore mine on traditional Adivasi land.
In the November conference, Markam, went on to speak about what is locally known as the Nandraj Pahad (mountain) agitation, underway since the last couple of years in the iron-ore rich Bailadila mountains of Dantewada district, a district where more than 76% of the population is Adivasi and an equal number live below the rural poverty line.
With over 1,300 million tonnes of iron ore deposits—among India’s largest—the Bailadila mountains have been long sought after by mining companies. Adivasi villagers who live off the land and see it as a sacred site have protested the mining, and, in particular, fake resolutions submitted on behalf of village councils, or gram sabhas, to allow permissions to clear forests for the Bailadila Deposit 13 mine, its official name.
“No matter which party is in power, they support big companies and do not care for us common Adivasis,” Markam told the conference. “Villagers who protest against the government handing over these lands to corporations are being jailed. We have lost faith in the government but will continue to fight to save our sacred lands and our forests.”
Three months after the conference, Markam, a member of the Chhattisgarh Mahila Adhikar Manch, a network of women’s groups in the state, is herself lodged in a prison in the town of Jagdalpur in the southern Chhattisgarh district of Bastar.
Markham Joins Over 6,000 Adivasis In Jail
On the afternoon of 9 March 2021, while a two-day programme to mark International Women’s Day and discuss issues impacting the region’s women was underway in Dantewada’s Sameli village, police and paramilitary forces swept in on the open-air meeting, organisers told Article 14.
A video shot on a cellphone by one of the attendees shows men and women in uniform dragging and bundling Markam into a SUV as her colleagues protest.
Markam’s arrest is the latest episode in a long-running conflict in Chhattisgarh involving the state, a four-decade-long Maoist insurgency, and local Adivasi communities. The latter maintain that officials, no matter which party is in power, back mining corporations and bend laws meant to protect locals, dependent on land and forests for survival.
Chhattisgarh has close to a fifth of India’s iron ore and coal deposits among other minerals. The conflict is particularly acute in the militarised and densely forested, iron ore-rich Bastar region—the size of Kerala with a per capita income a third of the national average—where marginalised communities like Markam’s struggle for constitutional rights.
While security forces, Maoist guerrillas and alleged police informers continue to lose lives in an endless war, there has also been sexual violence against women during security operations and forced surrenders of villagers falsely depicted as Maoists.
The conflict has led to thousands of illiterate, impoverished Adivasi villagers, often accused of Naxal offences, spending years as undertrials in the state’s prisons.
In September 2019, responding to popular agitations against such incarceration, the government of Congress chief minister Bhupesh Baghel had set up a special commission headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice A K Patnaik to review the cases of over 23,000 Adivasi undertrials, including over 6,000 in prison, as the Hindustan Times reported in December 2019.
Markam, an advocate for Adivasi prisoners through a Bastar-based platform called the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch (Prisoner Release Forum) now joins the ranks of such undertrials herself.
Her lawyer, Gayatri Suman, who was present at the Sameli meeting, told Article 14 that Markam was taken away even as officials from the district were speaking to the organisers, with an audience of a couple of hundred women from villages around the region who had come for the programme.
“They showed us no warrant for her arrest, nor had the police intimated her family that she is going to be arrested,” said Suman. “Despite our vehement protests, they snatched her and took her away.”
‘Maoist With A 1 lakh Rupee Bounty’: Bastar Police
According to a press release by the Dantewada police, a search unit had been deployed in parts of the district on 9 March after receiving information about Maoist rebels. On its return, the police said, “spotters present with the search party identified Hidme Markam as the head of the range Janatana Sarkar (literally people’s government, a reference to a parallel state of the Maoists), and she was taken into custody after questioning”.
In the 9 March release, the Dantewada district police called Markam a “Maoist with a 1 lakh rupee bounty” and listed four first information reports (FIRs) against her, including two from 2016 (FIR No. 7/2016 & 9/2016) and two from 2020 (FIR No. 3/2020 & 4/2020). The release was issued in the name of a “Kawasi Hidme”.
A second release from the same day by the police listed five FIRs against Markam, including from 2016 (FIR No. 7/2016 & 9/2016), 2017 (FIR No. 7/2017), 2019 (FIR No. 17/2019) and 2020 (FIR No. 3/2020). The cases relate to alleged Maoist violence including killings by the rebels, bomb blasts, and firing on security forces.
Charges in the FIRs include eight sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, three sections of the Arms Act, 1959, and three sections of the Explosives Act, 1884. The offences include rioting with deadly weapons, murder, and attempt to murder.
Suman pointed to the discrepancies in the names in the two releases and said that authorities were yet to provide “concrete evidence” to link Markam to these serious charges. For example, in the FIR of 2020, all the accused listed by the police are said to be men.
Inspector General of the Bastar Range Sundarraj Pattilingam did not respond to multiple calls and texts over two days from Article 14 seeking comment on the evidence against Markam and the reasons for her arrest.
Markam’s younger sister Hiteshwari Markam told Article 14 that her sister was innocent and the family who lives in the village of Burgum learnt about the arrest from the media. “I heard that in some cases the accused is someone called Hidme Kawasi. But we are not Kawasi,” Hiteshwari said. “We are Markam.”
Rinchin, an environmental activist and author who was present when Markam was arrested said the young woman was stunned by the police action against her, as were others at the gathering.
Her lawyers said Markam broke down in court later that day. Another of Markam’s lawyers, Xitij Dubey, who was present in the Dantewada court when Markam was presented to secure her judicial remand, told Article 14 that proceedings “unfolded very quickly” and prosecutors provided no details.
“We are still unclear as to what is the basis of her arrest, and are awaiting more information,” said Dubey. “We shall know more details when she is presented in court again on 19 March.”
‘I Will Take It Up With The CM:’ Congress MLA
Suman, Markam’s lawyer, said her client had attended public gatherings and programmes since 2017-18 at a time when the police alleged she was carrying out deadly attacks on security forces and civilians.
“She has met ministers, MLAs and officials including the District Collector and police officials on numerous occasions to raise issues of Adivasi undertrials and loss of forests and displacement due to mining. Jail Bandi Rihai Manch has even met with the chief minister in 2019.” said Suman. “How does this square with the police booking her in multiple cases of violence dating to the same period?”
For example in a June 2019 public rally attended by hundreds of villagers in Kuakonda, Dantewada, Markam and other activists raised the issue of the region’s jails being packed with tribal villagers, and handed over representations on the issue to local politicians.
Vikram Mandavi, the Congress party MLA from the adjoining district of Bijapur told Article 14 that he had met Markam on multiple occasions in public meetings, such as the one in Kuakonda, where she had cited issues of Adivasis in prison and of women.
“I have received many calls here following her arrest,” said Mandavi. “I will take it up with the Chief Minister, and if something wrong has happened, we will certainly draw attention to it.”
Markam’s younger sister Hiteshwari told Article 14 that her elder sister was the family’s main support and took care of the siblings, an ailing mother and the family’s rice farm. Hiteshwari said she attempted to meet her elder sister in jail following her arrest but was not allowed to.
“We live with a lot of economic hardship and are feeling worried about her arrest and how shall we pull through this,” Hiteshwari said, as she broke down.
Many activists in Chhattisgarh have criticised Markam’s arrest.
Bastar-based activist Soni Sori, who was accused of being a Maoist and spent over two years in jail from 2011-14, told a public gathering last week that Markam was being “framed” for her work on issues of excesses by security forces, mining and displacement. Sori told Article 14 that she knew Markam as a young resident of Burgum from when she was a government school teacher in the region.
“After I was released from prison in 2014, many people in my community knew of me and Hidme sought me out too,” Sori said. “She was always socially conscious and gradually began working alongside me, and asking questions about what was happening to people in Adivasi society. She was an important emerging voice from an area in the heart of the conflict, which is not easy.”
Mine Owned By Govt, Run By Adani
Colleagues explained how Markam was keenly involved in the Nandraj Pahad anti-mining campaign in the Bailadila mountains.
In June 2019, thousands of Adivasis gathered over a week to oppose a proposed mine at a sacred site of the Nandraj Pahad (mountain), the cutting of trees and forged gram sabha resolutions around the mining project of Bailadila ‘Deposit 13’ in Dantewada. As per the Forest Rights Act, forest clearance proposals need to be placed before the gram sabha to discuss, and award or withhold consent.
The Bailadila project is a joint venture between two public sector companies, the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) and the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation, and Adani Enterprises Limited, among India’s most powerful corporations.
In June 2019, NMDC said that Adani was awarded a contract for the Bailadila project as the mine developer & operator. Responding to the June 2019 protests, chief minister Baghel had halted the project and announced an inquiry into complaints by gram sabhas of the takeover of their forests by fraud.
Alok Shukla, an anti-displacement activist and convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a state-wide network of environmental and human rights groups said though an official enquiry found the gram sabha resolution was fake, the state government had not scrapped the mine’s clearance.
“Instead it is trying to resume mining, even though like the case of Niyamgiri, the Nandraj Pahad is sacred to local Adivasi communities,” said Shukla. “In such a context, the arrest of outspoken young activists from the area like Markam is telling.”
‘Endless Saga Of Baseless Arrests Of Tribal Activists’
Women’s groups have sent an open letter to Baghel asking him to intervene for Markam’s release.
“As convenor of the Jail Bandi Rihai Manch (Committee for Release of Prisoners), she has been vocal in the demand for release of thousands of innocent adivasis implicated and incarcerated in false cases,” the letter said.
“Her sudden ‘arrest’ in ‘old cases’ raises many questions including why the State is going after her now, when she was all the time present in public and in fact met many important authorities including the Governor, Chief Minister, Superintendent of Police, Collector etc demanding the release of arrested adivasis, an end to construction of paramilitary camps in the region and halt to mining,” said the letter.
In a statement issued last week, the Chhattisgarh chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, an advocacy group, called for Markam’s immediate release. “We demand an end to this endless saga of baseless arrests of tribal activists on charges of Naxalism,” said the release. International advocacy organisations, such as Survival International and Frontline Defenders have also raised the issue of Markam’s arrest.
Jacinta Kerketta, a noted Adivasi poet from Jharkhand, told Article 14 that she had last met Markam during a programme around issues of mining and Adivasi rights in late February in the bauxite-rich Adivasi district of Koraput, Odisha, located across the border from Bastar.
Kerketta recalled that Markam spoke “movingly” about the struggle by Dantewada’s tribal communities to save Nandraj Pahad. “As I heard her, I felt worried that she might be targeted,” said Kerketta.
A video released by Survival International, an advocacy group, on 16 March shows Markam at the Koraput programme, where she said: “The only way possible forward is for all women to be united for their water, forests and lands, to save them from mining.”
“Hidme’s arrest and the manner in which it was done reiterates for us Adivasis that governments cannot tolerate anyone among us who speak up against the takeover of our resources,” Kerketta said. “They silence emerging voices like Markam and urban Indians remain ignorant of the extent to which we are exposed to such brutalities relentlessly.”
(Chitrangada Choudhury is an award-winning journalist and member of the Article 14 editorial board. She works on issues related to the environment, indigenous and rural communities)