In the early morning hours of 18 March 2016, human rights activist Debaranjan Sarangi was picked up by plainclothes police from the Kucheipadar village of Rayagada District, Odisha. Debaranjan was in Kucheipadar to attend the funeral ceremony of his friend’s father.

While executing a non-bailable warrant issued by the court of Judicial Magistrate of First Class (JMFC) in Kashipur, the police stated that the arrest of Debaranjan was in pursuance of a criminal case registered in the Tikri police station of Rayagada District in 2005.

Debaranjan Sarangi. Pic: Debaranjan Sarangi

The case is reportedly related to a 2005 protest and agitation against the Utkal Alumuna Company in Kashipur block. In Kashipur, Utkal Alumina International Limited, initially a joint venture of four MNCs, came to the Kashipur block of Southern Odisha in 1993 to mine bauxite and to set up an alumina plant. This was after India embarked on economic reforms, inviting more MNCs into the mining sector.

Due to people’s resistance, all big companies have left the region except for the Aditya Birla group which appears determined to proceed with the original plan. In 2005, following protests against the enterprise, a non-bailable warrant had been issued against Sarangi under section 506 of the Indian Penal Code, which is apparently being executed now after a gap of 11 years.

Kucheipadar village, it may be noted, has played a crucial role in the anti-bauxite mining movement in Odisha.  Sarangi who has been closely associated with the movement for a long time is strongly and actively backing the community in its uphill and difficult struggle against displacement in the face of very powerful, oppressive and torturous repression by the state and its entire machinery.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) learnt later from his lawyer Kanhei that he had been arrested on some cases dating back to the year 2005 relating to the movement against the setting up of aluminium plant and bauxite mining in the area, and was produced in the Kashipur court and then remanded to judicial custody at Rayagada.

No one including his advocate had any clue whatsoever about the whereabouts of Debaranjan till he was produced in the court of JMFC, Kashipur the same evening. Without even considering his bail application the court extended his remand till 22 March 2016.

According to Dhirendra Panda, a social activist of Bhubaneshwar, Debaranjan received bail for two cases on 22 March, but the bail for the other two cases is uncertain as of now.

A strongly worded letter of protest from filmmakers, writers, cultural personalities and activists reminds the authorities:

The arrest of Debaranjan Sarangi is a clear violation of Articles 14, 19, 21 and 22 enshrined in the Indian Constitution in defense of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and human rights. Authorities have also violated the safeguards mandated by the Supreme Court in various decisions regarding the arrest of an individual.  Such arrests are not only undermining Indian democracy, but also the flourishing growth of all artistic creativity. Debaranjan has been put behind bars because he had the courage to show what he witnessed to the world through his expressions of film making, writing and speech. He is neither a Maoist nor a terrorist. We call upon the Odisha government to address the issues raised by the human rights defenders in the State of Odisha rather than imprisoning them and crushing the voices of film makers. We call upon the Odisha government to desist from such disgraceful attempts of violating the Indian Constitution and Indian democracy.

The Activist

Human rights activist Debaranjan Sarangi is also a documentary filmmaker, dedicated entirely to filming the movement that he has been involved in. Every single film he has made till date is on the same theme: the gross injustice being meted out to the adivasis in some pockets of Odisha in the name of ‘development’ and ‘mining.’ They also show the victimisation and killings of Christians by Hindu right wing activists. 

In a strong, scathing article in (19 March, 2016), condemning the allegedly illegal arrest of Sarangi, authors Biswapriya Kanungo and Trijeeb Nanda, write:

Debaranjan is a friend of poor, Dalit, tribal and many ongoing human rights struggles within and outside Odisha. He is well known as a writer, filmmaker and human rights activists. He has consistently criticized and exposed policies of destructive development, rampant mining practices, displacement, police impunity, the ugly politics of Hindutva and recently, issues of farmers’ suicide in Odisha. Debaranjan was also a part of Prakrutika Sampad Surakhya Parisad (PSSP), which strongly resisted against the operation of mining by Utkal Aluminium International Limited (UAIL) in Kashipur. For which probably this case was labeled against him by the state police as a gift for supporting the cause of innocent adivasis.

The larger context of Sarangi’s struggles can be traced way back to 2000, when three adivasis were killed in police firing. Between 2005 and 2006, hundreds of people were picked up by the police at random and placed behind bars on cases which they did not know even existed. Even today, people are being arrested for cases registered ten years ago.

The problem escalated because the government adopted a very ‘convenient’ way of ‘solving’ the issue by labelling every single struggle of the adivasis as a Maoist movement, though everyone knows that these adivasis are in fact the original inhabitants of the land. State sanction, however, makes it easier for the police to arrest them as part of the “Maoist menace,” picking them up at random to kill them, without allowing them to plead their innocence. In January 2011, security forces brutally killed nine people of Basangamali in Kashipur Block. Among them were five young adivasi girls.

Raising voices through films

Sarangi is one filmmaker who cannot be separated from his cause and his agenda. His film, The Conflict - Who’s Loss, Who’s Gain is a 90-minute film in Oriya sub-titled in English, produced by Pedestrian Pictures. It explores the lives of a tribal community in Odisha that seems to be caught at the wrong end of India's progress.  Mass movements towards globalization and industrialization have placed their lives and livelihoods at a greater disadvantage than ever before.

A still from The Conflict - Who’s Loss, Who’s Gain. Pic: Debaranjan Sarangi

The film also focusses on the communal violence in Kandhamal following the murder of Swamy Laxmananda on 23 August 2008, exposing the scarring violence inflicted by the upper castes on converts from lower castes in the area in the wake of the murder.

Anti-Christian communal violence started in the tribal-dominated district of Kandhamal shortly after rightwing leader Swamy Laxmananda was killed. The Government of Odisha admits that this resulted in 38 dead, three missing, 415 villages affected, 3,226 houses destroyed and 195 church and prayer houses damaged. 25,122 people were placed in government-run relief camps. Nobody knows how many thousands fled to other districts of Odisha and other parts of India.

Through his film, Sarangi raises angry questions about why adivasis should be made the sacrificial goats by the corporate global houses in the name of lop-sided development. His film also asks whether the tribals are being victimised by the forces of Hindutva. The film explores the conflict within and outside the community in the context of both communalism and globalisation.

“The violence in Kandha forced me to re-analyse the situation. I wanted to know why it happened and was left searching for answers. The film was what I learnt from my search and hence I would like the world to see it,” says Debaranjan in his director’s statement on his film.  “People need to know that such things happen. We can't keep ignoring how adivasis are treated in this country,” he adds.

The Conflict was his first independent documentary as a director and emerged as a courageous and pain-staking coverage of his investigation, depicting the lives of a tribal community in Odisha and offering a completely different perspective on the ‘development’ model that India tries to present in the public domain. It tells the story of the misfortune of the original people of the land – in particular the “Kondh” community with whom Sarangi had been working for eight years before he made this film – who are losing and will continue to lose land, their homes and their indigenous culture.

“Is it written on our foreheads that we are Naxalites?” asks an angry young adivasi in yet another hard-hitting documentary by Sarangi, At the Crossroads (2013). In a review of the film The Sunday Guardian wrote, “What emerges clearly through the film is how the state uses the labels of 'Maoist' or 'Naxal' to oppress entire populations so as to silence protests against neo-liberal policies.' 

In his director’s statement about the film, Sarangi writes:

In India, the post-independence Nehruvian era made ordinary people - mostly adivasis and dalits - lose their lands, forests and streams in the name of 'national development'. That development never reached them. While this state injustice continued unabated, the post-liberalization era made these very people `anti-national', 'anti-development' and `Maoists/Naxalites.''

Southern Odisha has been witness to this clash between the hapless people and the neoliberal development paradigm. The original inhabitants of the bauxite-rich pockets of Odisha have been displaced in a big way and their lands taken over. This has been accompanied by the CPI (Maoist) consolidating its presence in this area in the recent past. Sarangi’s 2013 film tries to explore the predicament, the dilemma and the confusion of the local people, especially of adivasis and Dalits in this war zone. It captures the intensity of old dilemmas while asking some new questions.

Another film, From Hindu to Hindutva deals with the issue of communal strife and intolerance that have been on the rise in the country over the past two decades. Shot after the Kandhamal riots, the movie talks about the processes and forces that lead to communal or sectarian polarization in society. These processes have been visible at several places, including Gujarat over the past two decades.

The director has tried to depict why Dalits and Adivasis were pitted against each other and how religion was used as a potent tool by fanatical right wing forces to foment trouble across the region. 38 persons were killed while three went missing. Sarangi asserts, through this film that the Indian middle class and its mindset has a major role in the processes of polarization at work in the country.

Unfortunately, the repression which the filmmaker has been highlighting through his art, has continued. The government machinery, including the police, has extended the same logic in suppressing the anti-mining struggle of the adivasis of the Niyamgiri Hills. In December 2015, the DVF (District Voluntary Force), a special constabulary unit of the Odisha Police formed in 2009 to tackle Maoism, killed three adivasis in the Karlapat sanctuary area (in the adjacent district of Kalahandi) and declared them Maoists. In March this year, Mando Kadraka, an adivasi was killed by the security forces, once again on the pronouncement that he was a Maoist.

Not only have these people borne the brunt of such state-backed repression, there has also been a brutal attempt to crush the voice of any form of opposition and force it into silence forever. Debaranjan’s arrest loudly proclaims this illegality, maintains the PUCL that has launched an all-out agitation demanding the immediate release of the film maker.

The PUCL further demands that the government of Odisha unconditionally withdraw all old cases that the local people and activists have been falsely charged with, and release all those who are already behind bars.

Unanswered questions

In an article in (16 November, 2010) entitled In the Undeclared War Zones of South Odisha, Sarangi raises several significant questions that need to be pondered on. It would be in context to quote them here as they shed more light on his areas of activism, which in turn may have led to his arrest. The film maker asks:

"Will tribal organizations be able to act even after state repression, or will we see another Andhra Pradesh-like situation where that government feels proud of “wiping out Maoism”, while leaving the problems intact?

Will we go to another ‘salwa judum- like situation where tribals would be sharply divided into two camps targeting each other?
Can this growing militarization of power of the state solve the problems of the masses?"

First in Kashmir, then in North East and now in central India, the mighty Indian state power keeps using military and paramilitary forces in name of ‘insurgencies’ and ‘Maoism’ to silence the resentment. But has it solved the problems of Kashmir and North East?

Why are city-based intellectuals keeping themselves away from the problems and becoming isolated from the general people? Haven’t the flood waters reached their doorsteps? Where are we headed?

Each question is perhaps more pertinent than the other but remain rhetorical for now. In the meantime, we all pray for the release of the person who has dedicated his life to finding solutions to these problems, no matter how painstaking the path may be.


From Kandaval to Karavali – The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar, March 2009, a report prepared jointly by a number of Rights Organisations and individuals

The Kalinganagar Tragedy – Development Goal or Development Malaise, Balaji Pandey, Social Change, December 2004, Vol. 38, No.4, pp.609-626