Posts Tagged ‘Odisha

This is Jhina Hikaka’s very first detailed interview with media after being reunited with his family.(Published on May 13, 2012)

The irony is stark. Odisha legislator Jhina Hikaka feels “claustrophobic” in his well-guarded official residence. “It seems as if I have been chained,” says Hikaka.

Indeed, it looks as if the 36-year-old tribal MLA from Laxmipur constituency in southern Odisha has been held captive in his own house. Eleven policemen guard him round the clock. His six-room apartment is like a fortress. A security guard at the front door wants to know your business. Inside, there are more armed guards in the lobby.

Days after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) member was released by Maoist abductors, Hikaka is still to taste freedom. “The security was provided by the government after I was released by the Maoists,” says Hikaka, wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of bermuda shorts, in his first detailed interview after the release. Before he was kidnapped in March, just one police officer in plainclothes guarded him.

Hikaka is still shaky about his 33 days in captivity. He recalls how it all began. He was picked up by the Maoists at around 1.30am on March 24 when he was barely two kilometres from his village.

“Around 30 armed men stopped my car. My driver and security officer were ordered out. Our cellphones were taken away. Then I was taken into the jungle.” The trek was long and arduous. After walking for over 30 kilometres through a hilly terrain, he was brought to a Maoist camp. “They had told me that they would let me go after having discussions with their leaders. But the days passed, and no discussion took place. I started getting worried,” says Hikaka, who was provided with a lungi, a towel and a shawl at the camp.

Some days later, he was told by the Maoists that they had placed their demands before the government. But when he heard that the government had not responded, he wrote a letter to chief minister Naveen Patnaik, alleging that his abduction was not being taken up seriously because he was a tribal. “I was very frustrated and depressed when I wrote the letter.”

When the negotiations did not work out, the rebels told him they would take up the matter with the praja — or people’s court. On April 25, he learnt that he was being released. “But funnily, my first thought was how I’d walk all that way back to village,” he says with a smile.

A day later, he was left near a mango orchard in Balipeta where his wife Kaushalya and advocate Nihar Ranjan Patnaik were waiting for him. Hikaka was overwhelmed when he saw his wife. “I was shocked to see that she’d turned so frail in a month,” he says. The MLA too lost 8kg in the jungles. “I wanted to hug him but didn’t get a chance in the presence of hundreds of villagers who’d come to greet him,” adds Kaushalya.

After his release, Hikaka was asked to move to Bhubaneswar for security reasons. “But I am waiting to go back to my village and my constituency,” Hikaka, who belongs to Koraput district’s Dumuripadar village, stresses.

That’s not going to be easy. In fact, even his tenure as an MLA is uncertain. His abductors had taken a written undertaking from him that he would resign as an MLA and sever ties with his party after his release. But 17 days since his return, Hikaka is still a legislator. “The Maoists did not give any deadline. I haven’t discussed the issue with my senior party members yet,” he explains.

But there are rumours that he may be kidnapped again if he doesn’t resign. There all kinds of stories in Odisha about the abduction, with some holding that Hikaka was picked up because a deal between the ruling BJD and the Maoist-backed Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS) fell through.

The Opposition has claimed that the tribals helped the BJD get their candidate elected in the Koraput Zilla Parishad elections in March this year. In return, it further alleged, the government had agreed to the CMAS’s 10 demands — which included leniency.

The BJD has denied that there was a deal — and Hikaka echoes that. “We did not have any such agreement with the CMAS.”

Hikaka is a quiet man. Not fluent in Hindi or English, his answers are brief. A Kui tribal, he is the only son of his parents, his railway gangman father and homemaker mother.

After finishing high school from Laxmipur, he graduated in political science from V.D. College in Jeypore in 1999. He began working as a community organiser in the Centre-funded District Rural Development Agency in Koraput, where he worked for 10 years, while doing a masters degree in mass communication and sociology from the Indira Gandhi National Open University.

He entered politics in his thirties. He was given a ticket for the first time in the 2009 Assembly election.

Kaushalya didn’t want Hikaka to join politics, convinced that it was a dirty world. But Hikaka, who is also a qualified lawyer, knew his calling. “I had to be either a politician or a community worker — my effort has always been to come closer to my own people,” he says.

But his constituents differ. Though he is popular in the Laxmipur and Dasmantpur blocks of his constituency, villagers in the other two blocks — Narayanpatna and Ban-dhugaon — complain that he hasn’t done much for them. “We haven’t seen him ever in our village,” alleges Rassai Nachika, a villager in Narayanpatna.

Tilsui Hulka, a farmer in Basnaput village, is more scathing. “There is a single primary healthcare centre with just one doctor. Schools have no teachers. Acres of cultivable land lie barren because of lack of irrigation facilities. There are barely any roads in the village. He has not worked for our development,” he says.

Hikaka doesn’t deny the charges, but holds the Maoists responsible for the lack of development. “These are the blocks most affected by the Maoists. A sum of Rs 15 crore is lying unused because the Maoists and the CMAS don’t allow development projects,” he holds.

He adds that he did try to bring up the issue during his days in the jungles. “I tried to convince them but they don’t want development.”

At one point, Hikaka even asked the Maoists to give up the gun. “But they didn’t listen,” he rues.

Kaushalya, his wife of 10 years, has been sitting quietly all this while. She now gets up to receive guests who’ve come from the neighbouring Malkangiri district. Pleasantries are exchanged, and then the guests want to know what he ate in the Maoist camp.

“I was served roti and tomato chutney for breakfast, and rice and daal for lunch and dinner,” he says, adding that the rebels did not hurt him in any way.

Since his return, Hikaka and his wife have barely got any time to spend with each other because of the crowds of visitors. The two, however, did manage to go to Puri to pray at the Jagannath temple there. “We went also to Chilika to see the dolphins. The kids were very happy,” says Hikaka, whose sons, Rohit and Kiran, are seven and four, respectively.

Right now, he is thinking of getting back to work. He doesn’t know when that’s going to happen. He admits that he fears for his life. “But that will not stop me from working for the people,” he says.

The quasi-political organisation, Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, operating in Odisha’s Koraput and Malkangiri districts, has often been described as the frontal wing of the Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee of Maoists. The organisation has been in the news since the abduction of Jhina Hikaka in March. It was alleged that the abduction was the result of a deal going sour between the BJD and the Sangh. Speaking to The Telegraph from a secret location in Narayanpatna, Sangh leader Nachika Linga maintained that the deal had taken place.

lIs it true that the Sangh is a frontal organisation of the Maoists?

We fight for the tribal rights and have nothing to do with the Maoists. Our mission is to destroy all the illegal manufacturing units of country liquor operating at our villages and give the land that the government has forcefully taken away from the tribal community back to them.

lBut why did the Maoists demand release of the Sangh members while they were negotiating with the government on Hikaka’s release?

The Maoists support our work for the tribals. They also feel that the Sangh members, who have been arrested, are innocent.

lWhat is your fight with the government about?

We want the government to give back the land taken away from the tribal people. Plus, the government should address basic problems, such as lack of irrigation facilities and healthcare centres and scarcity of teachers in schools. There is no anganwadi centre operating in Narayanpatna. Around 84 per cent people live below poverty line in Koraput. It’s been more than 60 years since we got Independence, but the government has paid no heed to our basic needs.

lYou are on the “most wanted” list of the state police. There are over 60 cases against you ranging from murder to waging war against the state.

These are false allegations. The government should set up an inquiry commission on this before issuing arrest warrants against me.

lDid you have an agreement with the BJD in which you said you would help the party win the Koraput zilla parishad’s presidential post if it agreed to your demands?

Yes that was the deal. MLAs, including Jayaram Pangi and Jhina Hikaka, signed it.

lWhat were the demands?

We wanted the government to remove all criminal charges against our members, who were earlier acquitted by the judiciary. Plus, we asked for an independent inquiry into the Narayanpatna police firing that took place in November 2009, in which our comrades Andru and Singhana were killed. We also asked for prohibition of liquor at our villages and all-around development. But, none of our demands has been met so far. Hikaka did not speak to chief minister Naveen Patnaik about our demands.

lThe Maoists took a written undertaking from Hikaka that he would resign as an MLA after his release. But, he hasn’t resigned yet. Does that mean he may be abducted again?

The Maoists released Hikaka because he was a tribal. Since Hikaka hasn’t kept his word, there is a possibility that he may be abducted again. He should now severe ties with his party and work for the people, especially for those in the most backward blocks — Narayanpatna and Bandhugaon.

lWhat is your support base? And what is your next course of action?

We have over 35,000 members. Our fight against the government will intensify in the coming months. We are planning to form a parallel governance system with the help of villagers to take care of our needs. Also, our uncontested elected leader, Juro Mauka, in the Koraput zilla parishad would ensure that welfare schemes reach our villagers.

Tribal areas are the new and happening tourist spots in India. But tribal groups gain little from efforts by tour operators and government departments to sell tourism in these underdeveloped regions.

“If you are able to approach a tribal armed with arrows and bow, without at once wanting to take a photograph… If you wish to realize true adventure trekking in uncontaminated places, but with the safety coming from experience… Well then come with us to Orissa!!!”

Those are lines from Italian tour guide Paolo Bosusco’s website. That’s not the only one inviting foreign visitors to the interiors of Odisha. A government website promotes Daringbadi as the “Kashmir” of Odisha and exhibits photographs of bare-chested Saora men dressed in breechcloth.

Bosusco’s site has pictures of indigenous Dhurwa women — with colourful tattoos on their arms, near their breasts and chin, and wearing brass metal earrings and neckpieces. The images come along with photographs of scenic hillocks, dense forests and muddy rivers in the tribal belts.

If you are tired of the usual tourist spots — mountains, monuments and markets — there is always tribal tourism. Private operators and government tourism departments — in Odisha, as well as in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — are showcasing their tribal areas as the new and happening tourist spots.

Last month, Bosusco and fellow Italian Claudio Colangelo were kidnapped in Odisha by Maoists, just before the abduction of legislator Jhina Hikaka. On top of the Maoists’ list of 13 demands for their release was an end to tribal tourism.

“Adivasis are not commodities of tourism and adivasi areas are not recreation spots for tourists. Announce this clearly and arrest those who violate it,” it said.

Government departments have been for a while seeking to promote tourism in tribal areas. Of the 62 tribe groups in Odisha, the ones that are mostly put on show are 13 “particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs)”. These include the Bonda, Koya and Gadaba people of Malkangiri and Koraput, Kutia Kondh of Kalahandi and Phulbani, Dongria Kondh of Kandhamal and the Niyamgiri Hills and Saura of Gajapati. The Bonda women are held up as exotic for their ringa — a tiny skirt made of fibre — and strings of multi-coloured beads; Koya men for their bison horns.

“Foreigners want to catch up with the colourful tribals in the weekly markets. The barter system that the tribals follow to sell iron and brass jewellery, utensils made of pumpkin skin and dried fish also interests them,” says Kandhamal collector Rajesh Prabhakar Patil.

Foreign tourists come through travel agents operating in Puri and Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. A six-night-seven-day package usually costs Rs 30,000. “Foreigners want to know about the lifestyle, attire and food habits of tribes. What is wrong in that,” asks a senior tourism official of Odisha.

Quite a bit, say tribal rights activists, who see the promotion as an effort to exhibit the people like exotic animals. “Tour operators in Odisha often make the people sing and dance. It is disturbing that tribals are seen as objects of entertainment,” says human rights activist Sujato Bhadra.

On the one side of the debate are tourism promoters who see the exercise as beneficial to the state, to tribals and visitors. Odisha earned around Rs 161 crore from 50,000 foreign tourists who visited the state last year. Of this, more than Rs 20 crore came from 5,000 foreign tourists — mostly from Italy, followed by Holland, Belgium and Germany — who visited tribal areas.

But the outcry against the promotion has already led to some changes. Since last month, foreign tourists have to take permission from the district magistrate for visiting interior areas. The rules also restrict foreigners from taking photographs of the tribes and visiting the areas at night. “Tribal tourism should not be encouraged at all,” Union tribal affairs minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo stresses.

Since the kidnapping, foreign tourism has already seen a drop. Benjamine Simon, president of the Travel Agents Associations of Orissa, says it has received requests for 100 cancellations. “Only a few people will come to see Puri or Konark. The main attractions for the tourists are the tribals, not the temples and the sea.”

The issue at stake is not just that critics see tribal tourism as human safaris. What makes such tourism efforts risky is the fact that many of the areas are dominated by Maoists, whose cadres are mainly drawn from indigenous groups.

Now the Rayagada district administration in Odisha has barred the entry of foreign tourists into tribal areas for security reasons. “Rayagada is the gateway to Kandhamal, Kalahandi and Koraput districts for tourists but is affected by Maoists,” says district collector (DC) Nitin Jawale, who had earlier stopped tourists from taking cameras to the villages.

Simultaneously, however, government efforts to highlight local customs continue. Koraput DC Sachin Jadhav, for instance, has big plans. “We want to club our ongoing dance festival Parab with Malyawant in Malkangiri and Chaiti in Rayagada. Tribals of all three regions can come together to display their talent,” Jadhav says.

Maoist interlocutor B.D. Sharma, who was active in negotiating the release of the kidnapped men, finds the idea “obnoxious”. He says: “Tribals sing and dance for their own pleasure, but visitors should not be invited. This is an intrusion into their privacy.”

Experts point out that tribal communities gain little from the multi-crore business, which mostly benefits tourist operators and hoteliers. “At times, foreigners give away money generously. Otherwise, tribals have no earning from tourism,” says Sunil Pradhan, a pastor in Daringabdi, who belongs to the Dongria Kondh tribe.

What irk the activists most is that tourism is being promoted in neglected regions that lack basic amenities such as functional schools and primary healthcare centres and clean drinking water. “All four primary healthcare centres and over 200 schools in Daringbadi are almost dysfunctional. There are no proper roads either,” says Kailash Chandra Dandapat, who runs an NGO there.

Bhadra is more scathing: “It is disturbing that the government kept these tribals illiterate for years only to display them in front of foreigners.”

Writer Varavara Rao, who has been vocal on the issue of tribal tourism, believes it can only flourish if basic issues of land rights and exploitation by money lenders are addressed. “The perception that tribals are anti-development is wrong. They support the Maoists because the latter assure them they’ll fight for their rights. It is about time the government addressed the real issues.”

Anthropologist Jayaprakash Rao agrees. “If the government wants support in its tourism schemes, it should build up a long-term dialogue process with tribals and Maoists to take up developmental projects.”

Some believe that giving tribal communities a role to play in tourism may resolve the conflict to an extent. “We took the tribes into confidence. They sell tribal art and the money is put into a village fund for development. Maoists don’t oppose us,” says Jharkhand Tourism Development Corporation managing director Siddarth Tripathi, who started tribal tourism last year.

Is that the answer? The jury’s still out.


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