India Indigenous People Coal
India’s abuses of tribal women defending ancestral lands from mining
May 03, 2022
Tribal (Adivasi) women march against Adani's coal mines in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Image V. Ramamurthy

This story is taken wholly from the text of a Survival International brochure summarising its 2022 report on the abuses of women in India.

'The truth about Adivasi women land defenders must come out: we are literally saving the country and the world … and they are abusing us for it.'

Indu Netam, Gond Adivasi leader.

Indu Netam, a leader of the Gond people, a large Adivasi (tribal) group in central India.

Introduction

Adivasi (Indigenous) lands are increasingly under attack in central India under the premiership of Narendra Modi.

Mining companies – both state and private – are determined to access the resources beneath these lands, including coal and metal ores. Hundreds of thousands of Adivasi people – across six central Indian states – could be dispossessed if this mining rush continues unchecked. Currently, the government plans to double coal mining to one billion tonnes a year.

Most of the proposed new mines are on Adivasi lands. The rights that the Adivasi communities have to their lands, their ways of life, their sacred spaces and to give or withhold their consent to mining are being violated in the rush for mineral riches. Ignored and abused by the state and national governments, Adivasi communities have no option but to resist through direct action. These brave resistance movements demand two things above all else: an end to the violation of their rights, and the protection of their lands from extractive industries.

Adivasi women of India's Hasdeo forests protest against new coal mines, including those by Adani, in central India. Image Vijay Ramamurthy

Rather than stand with their citizens, government agencies are acting in the interests of the mining corporations, attempting to crush the resistance movements, often violently. A Survival International report details the extent of that government-sanctioned repression.

At the heart of these movements are Adivasi women, sitting in front of bulldozers, organising marches and protests, protecting their trees, standing firm against the assault on their lands and rights. They are paying a terrible price: Adivasi women are being abused at an appalling rate – physically and sexually – and are losing their liberty and even their lives. This is a triple punishment: for being Indigenous, for being women, and for standing up for their rights against powerful interests.

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Adivasi women defending their lands

Over and over again, women have stood in the front line against the security forces that are acting in the interests of the mining corporations to protect their communities, lands and future. In so doing, they have faced police baton charges, teargas, rubber bullets and live rounds. Rather than protect them, the security forces are a major source of the violence the women experience.

At an International Women’s Day event in Chhattisgarh in 2021, Adivasi activist Hidme Markam was bundled into a vehicle and taken into custody on a string of trumped-up charges, despite her name not matching the information the police had pertaining to the cases in question. Hidme’s arrest appeared to be punishment for her active resistance to the mining of a site sacred to her Adivasi people.

In the coal belt across the state of Jharkhand, Adivasi women have been standing in front of mineworkers, using their words and bodies to stop the felling of trees and destruction of their lands. In Odisha state, there has been an accelerating rush for land and resources in the Adivasi areas since the 1980s, which has been strongly resisted by movements with women at their very centre. In Gandhamadan in the 1980s, women put their babies on the road in front of the police and bulldozers to show that future generations’ lives depend totally on stopping the mines. In the 2000s Dongria Kondh women stood firm against the mining of their sacred Niyamgiri Hills, even when they were arrested on trumped-up charges.

In West Bengal, Adivasi women are leading the resistance to the Deocha-Pachami coal mine project, which would displace 21,000 people. Women have declared their determination to stop the mine and held a huge protest meeting, which local politicians and police tried to stop. After one woman was beaten by police so severely that she miscarried, the women demanded – and received – a written apology from a local political leader. Their battle continues. Adivasi women are resisting in these ways because, they say, their land is their life: the centre of their cultural, economic and spiritual existence.

The devastation caused by coal mining in India.

Brutal repression of Adivasi women defending their lands

Adivasi women who stand up for their lands and rights and against the injustices that their communities are facing are targeted for both their defiance and their gender. There are high rates of sexual abuse of Adivasi women in the districts with high levels of mining and resistance to mining. Women defending their lands face threats of sexual violence, public stripping, acid attacks and defamation. By threatening and brutalising Adivasi women, the perpetrators – usually the security forces working in the interests of mining – hope to intimidate and suppress the whole community’s resistance.

Sexual abuse of Adivasi women by security forces

Rape and sexual violence as weapons of punishment, intimidation and control are used with horrific frequency by India’s security forces against Adivasi women across the mining belt. In 2016, the National Human Rights Commission slammed the Chhattisgarh government for the sexual abuse of Adivasi women by security forces in Bastar. They highlighted 16 cases – the tip of a vast iceberg. A report by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) found sexual abuse by security forces to be 'rampant' and 'used as a systematic means of torture and repression'. The study concluded that 'perpetrators enjoy the impunity of the uniform, armed might and political and corporate backing' and the violent treatment of Adivasis aims to 'batter the citizens of Chhattisgarh into submission to corporate-led industrialisation'. Women are taken from their homes, fields, forests and dragged away. They are sexually abused in police lock-ups and in prison. They are even shot at and then raped when they are incapacitated.

Villagers protest at the treatment of Hidme Markam, arrested for opposing Adani-developed mines.

In 2017, a deputy superintendent of Raipur jail, Chhattisgarh, Varsha Dongre, issued a whistle-blowing statement on the violence against Adivasi women and girls in prisons, for which she was suspended. She stated: 'The fact is that the forests are rich in natural mineral resources and in order to sell them to industrialists and capitalists, the forests need to be vacated. But the tribals will not vacate them because it is their home. They too want Naxalism to end but the way the protectors of the country rape their daughters, burn their houses and send them to prison in false cases, who do they turn to for justice? … I have seen 14-16-year-old Adivasi girls being stripped naked in police stations and tortured. They were given electric shocks on their wrists and breasts. I have seen the marks. It horrified me.'

Gender-specific violence

Adivasi women who stand up against the might of the state and corporations which are seeking control over their lands and resources are punished viciously. Security forces, for example, justify squeezing Adivasi women’s breasts by saying they need to ascertain if they are producing milk, claiming insurgents are rarely mothers. Adivasi women face gender-specific violence such as beatings of pregnant women and acid attacks. A particularly gruesome feature of the violence against them is the sexualized mutilation of victims - before and after death.

Adivasi women protest against a proposed cluster of coal mines, including ones developed and operated by Adani, in the Hasdeo forests, October 2021.

Extrajudicial killings

In areas with movements actively resisting mining, ‘encounter killings’ happen alarmingly regularly. The police and paramilitary forces claim they ‘encounter’ armed rebels and fire in self-defence. After huge efforts, activists have managed to get official investigations into some of these killings. They rarely corroborate the government’s version of events. There is state complicity in these crimes at high levels. In 2021 an investigation into the extrajudicial shooting in 2013 of eight Adivasis, including four children in Edesmetta, concluded that the ‘encounter’ was a 'mistake' and the victims were unarmed Adivasis, not Maoists. In 2020 six women from the village were 'beaten up' for questioning police actions. Fear, distrust and resentment are strong in the area. Wave upon wave of this brutality and state-sanctioned disregard for Adivasi lives have accumulated to make Adivasi people in mining areas extremely wary, and painfully aware that the government and its agents are acting directly against their interests and rights. Adivasis’ vibrant, peaceful movements have proved amazingly effective in the face of such horrific repression, as shown, for example, by the Dongria Kondh tribe stopping a billion-dollar mine on their sacred Niyamgiri Hills.

Conclusion

Adivasi peoples are striving to keep the forests standing and the coal in the ground. They are fighting for their ‘jal, jungle, jameen’ (water, forest and land), and for all the species they coexist with, the climate and the future. Their sustainable ways of life are being undermined by the theft of their lands and persecution of their leaders and communities. For their central role in defending their lands, Adivasi women are being brutally repressed and abused. Sexual violence by so-called security forces is commonplace in the highly contested areas where Adivasi people are defending their lands, and the state is working with corporates to open the areas up to mining. Adivasi people say again and again they will lay down their lives before they will give up their lands, because their cultural, spiritual and economic connection is so strong.

Adivasi people in Chhattisgarh take their protest on the road, marching 300 km to the state capital against Adani's coal projects in the Hasdeo forests.

The state takes them at their word, killing Adivasi men, women and children with impunity. Even when investigations do occur, they rarely lead to justice for the victims or prosecution for the perpetrators, who are a mixture of police, paramilitaries and ‘goons’ – thugs working in the interests of the mining operations. Campaigning with Adivasi women in their fight to protect their lands and rights should be a global priority.

India’s legal obligations

These violations of Adivasi rights are in direct contravention of national laws and international obligations.

Under the Constitution and laws of India, Adivasi peoples have the right to their own livelihoods and subsistence, to protect their lands, manage their affairs, give or withhold their consent for projects on their lands, practise their own religions and determine their futures. By privileging the profits of mining corporations over the rights of Adivasi peoples, Modi’s government is undermining the rule of law.

Even more fundamentally, Adivasi people have the right to life; the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty by a court of law; the right to freedom from oppression and violence; and the right not to be discriminated against because of their identity or gender. As Indigenous Peoples, Adivasis have rights which are enshrined in the ILO Convention 169 and under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The international community must ensure Narendra Modi meets these obligations and ensure that India immediately ceases incriminating, incarcerating, torturing and murdering Adivasi people for protecting their lands, lives and rights.

Recommendations by Survival International

Survival International calls upon the national and state governments of India to:

  • Implement the Constitution and laws that govern Adivasi issues fully, in letter and spirit.
  • Ensure no mining occurs on Adivasi lands without their free, prior and informed consent.
  • Respect the right of Adivasi village councils to protect their lands and determine their futures.
  • Free all Adivasi political prisoners and those held under false charges for protecting their lands, rights and lives.
  • Equip the state and national human-rights commissions with the human and financial resources necessary to function effectively.
  • Commission an independent nationwide investigation into the violation of Adivasi lives and rights in mining areas.
  • Thoroughly investigate all allegations of sexual violence by security forces and bring the perpetrators to justice.
  • Train all forest officers, police and paramilitaries in Adivasi and women’s rights and ensure immediate dismissal of any who are found guilty of abuse of those rights.