Odisha- Gram sabha ball set to roll for Vedanta bid to mine at Niyamgiri Hills


Kondh Lady

Gram sabha ball set to roll

Satyanarayan Pattnaik & Sandeep Mishra, TNN | Jun 1, 2013, 01.20 AM IST

BHUBANESWAR/ KORAPUT: Adhering to the Supreme Court‘s order to conduct gram sabhas to decide the fate of Vedanta bid to mine bauxite at Niyamgiri hills, the state government would on Saturday serve notices to hold such meetings in 12 villages of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, official sources said.The decision to issue notification seeking receipt of objections from tribals residing at the 12 villages followed the Orissa high court appointing the district judges of Rayagada and Kalahandi to act as observers to oversee proceedings of the gram sabhas in their respective villages, which are located on the Niyamgiri hill slope.

“The high court has communicated to us its decision to nominate the district judges of Rayagada and Kalahandi to oversee the proceedings in their respective districts,” secretary, ST and SC welfare, Sontosh Sarangi told TOI on Friday.

The Supreme Court, in its April 18 ruling, said a judicial officer of the rank of a district judge should serve as an observer during the gram sabhas. The apex court had directed that gram sabhas be held within three months to examine the community, individual as well as cultural and religious claims of the Dongria Kondh.

The state government has selected five villages (Tadijhola, Palberi, Phuldumer, Ijurpa and Kunakado) in Kalahandi and seven villages (Jarapa, Khambesi, Kesarpadi, Batudi, Serakapadi, Lakhapadar and Lamba) in Rayagada to conduct palli sabhas. Rejecting certain activists’ allegations that the government chose the villages at random, a senior officer said these villages lie on the hill slope and the government had informed the SC about it on December 6, 2012, through an affidavit. “Nobody had raised any objection about them then and it was in the context of that affidavit that the final judgment came,” the officer said.

“This is the first phase of conducting palli sabha (gram sabha). On Saturday, notices in both Odia and Kui languages will be served to the tribals residing at the seven villages in our district. They will be given six weeks to submit their objections, if any, before the palli sabha is held,” said collector (Rayagada) Sashi Bhusan Padhi.

“The required forms to be distributed among tribals have been printed in Odia and Kui and the officers will read out the notice before each household. The officials will also use loud speakers to announce the purpose of the palli sabha at the respective villages. Hoardings of the notice will also be put on at the villages. The entire process will be video recorded. Besides, the notice will also be published in local dailies for wider publicity,” Padhi added.

Official sources said a similar process would be followed in Kalahandi. The tribals after filling up the forms will submit them at the respective forest right committee, which will be present at the palli sabha. After six weeks, starting June 1, in consultation with the concerned district judge, dates for the palli sabha will be announced, officials added.

Vedanta’s one MTPA alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi has been closed since December 5 following acute shortage of bauxite.

 

Vedanta mining: Government seeks Judicial Officer from HC


By Express News Service – BHUBANESWAR

27th May 2013 12:28 PM

The State Government has requested Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court to nominate a judicial officer of the rank of district judge as observer for the proposed gram sabhas to be conducted for deciding grant of mining lease to Vedanta Group for bauxite mining.

In an official communique to the Registrar General of the High Court, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes Development Secretary Santosh Sarangi said the Supreme Court has directed that the proceedings of the grama sabha should be attended by a judicial officer of the rank of district judge who will sign the minutes of the proceedings.

In its April 18 judgment, the Supreme Court said grant of mining lease to Vedanta Group for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills will be subjected to clearance by gram sabhas on the cultural and religious claims of the tribes and forest-dwellers of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts.

The apex court has directed the State Government to place issues concerning individual, community, cultural and religious claims of Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Traditional Forest Dwellers (TFDs) before the gram sabha which would decide the same in three months.

The court also directed that the proceedings of the gram sabha shall be attended as an observer by a judicial officer of the rank of the District Judge nominated by the Chief Justice of the High Court of Orissa.

“The judicial officer shall have to sign the minutes of the proceedings, certifying that the proceedings of the gram sabha took place independently and completely uninfluenced either by the project proponents or the Central Government or the State Government,” a three-member bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam, KS Radhakrishnan and Ranjan Gogoi said.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) had recently asked the State Government to ensure that the entire proceedings are held in an independent manner, uninfluenced by any vested interests and without coercion.

Governor SC Jamir recently summoned three senior officers of the State Government to apprise him of the steps taken on the directive of the Supreme Court.

Principal Secretary, Steel and Mines Rajesh Verma, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes Development Secretary Santosh Sarangi and Chairman and Managing Director of Odisha Mining Corporation Saswata Mishra reportedly told the Governor that instructions have been issued to district collectors of Kalahandi and Rayagada for conducting gram sabhas in 12 villages as per the apex court guidelines.

 

Supreme Court tells Centre to decide on POSCO’s mining license


Fri, 10 May 2013

By Newzfirst 5/10/13

New Delhi – The Supreme Court on Friday set aside the Orissa high court order which had quashed state government‘s petition to allot iron ore license to South Korean steel major POSCO in Khandadhar hills in Sundergarh district for a multi-crore steel plant.

A bench headed by Justice R M Lodha asked the Centre to consider all the objections raised by various parties pertaining to the mega steel plant and take a decision.

The court was hearing cross appeals filed by the state government and a mine and mineral company challenging the Orissa high court’s order on the issue of iron ore mines.

The state government of Orissa and Geomin Minerals & Marketing Limited had challenged the orders of the Orissa high court which had quashed the notification issuing iron ore mining in over 2,500 hectares in the Khandadhar hills in Sundergarh district to POSCO.

The high court, on July 14, 2010 on the petition of Geomin Minerals, had set aside the state government’s decision.

Geomin Minerals had contended before the high court that it had applied for the prospective licence for Khandadhar iron ore mines much before POSCO.

The High Court had set aside the notification issued by state government in 1962 reserving all mineral bearing land for exploitation within Orissa and take a fresh decision on it.

The high court had further said that all mineral bearing land reserved by the state government prior to 1987, without the approval of the central government would not be deemed to have never been reserved.

The Orissa government, which had moved the apex court, on October 29, 2010 on this issue, had contended that the high court could not have quashed the state government’s grant of licence to POSCO as it was under section 11 (5) of Mines And Minerals (Development And Regulation) Act, 1957.

The Orissa government had further contended that Section 11 (5) gives power to the state government to “grant a reconnaissance permit, prospecting license or mining lease, as the case may be, to an applicant whose application was received later in preference to an application whose application was received earlier”.

The state government in January 2009 had recommended POSCO to the central government for granting prospective licence for Khandadhar iron ore reserves.

This was challenged by Geomin and later 16 other firms who have also applied for mining leases also intervened.

Geomin, in its petition, had submitted before the apex court that the high court “does not take into account the pleading made by it” and “has traversed beyond the pleadings and prayer made by it”.

(PTI)

 

Vedanta HQ in London mobbed by Protesters, as SC gives Gramsabha Powers to decide


Header image alt text

Protest at Vedanta HQ as Supreme Court decision announced

Indian Supreme Court judges today handed the final decision on Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine to the Dongria Kond tribe and farmers living around the mountain. Two Gram Sabha’s (village councils) or local self-government within 10km of the proposed mine should announce their decision to the Ministry of Environment and Forests within three months1. The decision will have a major financial and reputational impact on Vedanta and may force them to close their Lanjigarh refinery, costing them billions.

In London, activists from Foil Vedanta and other grassroots groups descended on Vedanta’s nominal Mayfair headquarters later today celebrating what they see as a victory for local self-determination, but calling for thorough independent oversight of the decision making process which they say is wide open to abuse by Vedanta officials and state police. They held a loud noise demonstration, and held a banner stating ‘MoEF: No u-turn on Niyamgiri’ while shouting slogans with a large megaphone. The protesters again called for Vedanta to be de-listed from the London Stock Exchange for poor corporate governance and human rights crimes.

Protesters in London today staged a loud protest at Vedanta’s headquarters in reaction to the Supreme Court’s judgement to leave the final decision on Niyamgiri to the people affected, which they see as a victory for self-determination and tribal rights. They again added their voice to demands by parliamentarians and financiers that Vedanta is de-listed from the London Stock Exchange for its poor corporate governance, illegal operations and major human rights violations such as those committed at Niyamgiri.(1)(2) In January Foil Vedanta handed documentation on a variety of abuses to the Financial Services Authority who are now investigating the company’s abuses and the case for de-listing2. In February David Cameron again used his India visit to pressure Indian PM Manmohan Singh to allow Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine.

Foil Vedanta’s Samarendra Das says:

For ten years Vedanta has harassed local people and committed major abuses and illegalities in its attempt to push this flagship project through. For ten years farmers, Dalits and Adivasis living around Niyamgiri have fought to save their traditional communities and their sacred mountain, from a mine which would give just four and half years worth of bauxite for the 6 million ton per year refinery as planned by Vedanta Aluminium.

The Supreme Court is right that decision on the mine should be with those affected by it – the ancient inhabitants of the mountain. But the Dongria and others have stated their disagreement over and over again through Gram Sabha’s and mass rallies. We know that Vedanta officials have been very active in lobbying the judges leading up to this decision, and are concerned that the villagers will be under heavy harassment from Orissa state and Vedanta officials. We call for many independent observers to oversee this crucial process.

We demand that Vedanta is now de-listed from the London Stock Exchange in recognition of it’s proven abuses of law and Human Rights.”

The judgement states that the decision making process at local councils will be overseen by a judge appointed by the Orissa High Court. Vedanta officials and police have been repeatedly accused of trying to force villagers not to oppose the project in the past. As Dongria Kond activist Lado Sikaka states:

“We will continue our fight even if Vedanta gets permission. Are these Judges above the Law? In effect, they act as if they are. Niyamgiri belongs to us. We are fighting because We are part of it. Our women are harassed and we are called by the police and threatened not to go to rallies. Last month they have been working like Vedanta’s servants.3

The ultimate decision will now rest with the Ministry of Environment and Forests who will accept the local council’s decision within three months(3). The Ministry banned the mine in 2010 after the N.C. Saxena committee warned that mining in Niyamgiri will severely affect the ecology and the habitat of the primitive Dongria Kondh tribe that lived on the mountain slopes. In February the Ministry again stated that they would not allow the Niyamgiri mine as Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran told the Supreme Court “We are completely against the mining operations.4

Senior Counsel, Sanjay Parikh, who has fought the case for the Dongria Kond said today:

“The historic judgement delivered by the Supreme Court today recognises the community, cultural and religious rights of tribals. The Dongria Konds can now establish the abode of their Niyam Raja. The Supreme Court verdict is significant as it recognises the rights of tribals against mighty mutlinational corporations”.

Vedanta is currently at a shareholder confidence low, as Societe General downgraded their shares to BB- or ‘sell’ status several weeks ago and suggested that they are unlikely to get permission to mine Niyamgiri5while Standard and Poor have also downgraded Vedanta’s shares to BB6. Societe General’s recent report states:

‘Niyamgiri bauxite reserves were central to Vedanta’s aggressive expansion plans in aluminum…Vedanta’s management was overly confident and committed too much capital without getting all the relevant clearances7.’

Vedanta are also in more trouble as a major acid gas leak earlier this month led to mass protests at Vedanta’s copper plant in Tamil Nadu, India, which have forced the plant to close until the National Green Tribunal has made a recommendation on whether it should be allowed to re-open at all. Their report is expected on 29thApril8.

The Niyamgiri project has been racked with controversy from the start, as a spate of recent coverage points out: The Lanjigarh refinery built to process the bauxite from the hills was illegally constructed, the court case presided over by a judge with shares in the company, and the refinery should never have been given permission without including the associated mega mine in impact assessments9. A cover story in major Indian glossy Open Magazine in December details evidence of corruption and collusion between Vedanta and the Odisha state government, local officials, judges and the police to force the project through10.

See the video of today’s demo here, and another short clip here.

More photos on demotix here.

See video of celebrations on Niyamgiri mountain as the verdict was delivered and an interview with Kumuti Majhi here.

Press Coverage:

SC grants Gram Sabha power to decide the fate of Vedanta refinery

 

When excess mining got a legal seal #Odisha


pic courtesy, Reuters

Debabrata Mohanty : Bhubaneswar, Mon Nov 12 2012, 01:22 hrs

A key mining regulator, The Indian Bureau of Mines, allowed excess mining to carry on in Orissa by raising the permissible limit of those responsible, says the state government, which recently slapped a penalty on several leaseholders.

The IBM, however, says that excess mining is not illegal as long as the companies involved pay the royalty for what they have extracted. In fact, because of an amendment to mining rules, the state and the Centre continue to debate what constitutes illegal mining.

The IBM, with its headquarters in Nagpur, approves the mining plans of each company for a period of five years with predetermined annual limits under section 5(2)(b) of the Mines & Minerals (Regulation & Development) Act, 1957 and other rules such as Mineral Concession Rules, 1960, and Mineral Conservation & Development Rules, 1988. A lease period of 20 or 30 years is, therefore, divided into four or six mining plans. After the state government gets the IBM-approved mining plan, it grants or renews a lease.

When the first signs of excess mining in Keonjhar and Sundargarh showed in 2003, IBM officials on the ground spotted it. Official sources said that under the MC&D Rules, 1988, IBM officials are empowered to cancel the lease or impose penalties. It instead revised the mining plan, the sources said.

Documents with the steel and mines department show that in Khandabandh mines in Keonjhar, the IBM had approved extraction of 3.60 lakh tonnes by Tata Steel in 2006-07. The company raised 7.64 lakh tonnes, and again 7.42 lakh tonnes in 2007-08. The next year, the IBM raised the limit to 7.06 lakh tonnes without imposing penalties. In 2002-03, when the limit was 24 lakh tonnes at Joda East mines, the Tatas mined 30.5 lakh tonnes. The next year, the IBM raised the limit to 40.1 lakh tonnes.

“The mining plan/scheme is an instrument to systematically conserve the ores and not finish them overnight. Once a mining plan is given for five years, it should not be revised midway, but that’s what the IBM did,” said Orissa director of mines Deepak Kumar Mohanty. “They didn’t levy any penalty on over-mining and instead set new limits the next year. If you are going to condone illegalities, why have a mining plan/scheme at all?”

IBM officials say excess extraction is not illegal as long as the miner pays the royalty. “Once royalty is paid on excess production of ore, it can’t be called illegal mining. This was more like irregular operations,” said M Biswas, regional controller of mines with the IBM.

Biswas rejected the state’s allegation that the IBM failed to detect irregularities in mining. “We have done our duty and the state government is doing its job,” he said. “The IBM should not be blamed for the wrongs. It has taken action against certain mines by suspending their operations.”

Chief secretary B K Patnaik had written to the Union Mines Ministry about the IBM’s inaction, and the mines secretary wrote back to say that 20 per cent excess mining for a given year is condonable. This July, the ministry amended the MC Rules, 1960, saying mining outside the lease area is illegal but excess mining inside the lease area is not. The state government finds this difficult to accept. “Where is the rule in the MMDR Act that says 20 per cent excess mining can be allowed?” says the state director of mines.

Jayant Das, president of the Orissa High Court Bar Association and a lawyer on mineral matters, said, “The IBM had all the information to be able to crack down on illegal mining. But companies continued to over-extract from mines which had a deemed renewal status. This is not possible without a quid pro quo arrangement.”

Environmental activist Biswajit Mohanty, who has filed a PIL in the Orissa High Court demanding a CBI probe into the scam, said, “If deemed renewal by the state steel and mines department was the main cause of excess mining, the IBM’s negligence or condoning gave the miners the licence to loot.”

 

Supreme Court raps Odhisa government for favouring Posco #goodnews


NDTV | Updated On: November 06, 2012 21:08 (IST)
New Delhi: The Supreme Court today slammed the Odisha government for favouring Posco over others in granting prospective licence for Kandahar mines.

Geomin, geological and mineral resource management services provider, had alleged that the state government overlooked other companies including Jindal steel and chose Posco. The company challenged the state’s govt decision in Orissa High Court, which in 2010 cancelled the prospective license (PL) for Posco and asked the state government to reconsider all applications all over again.

Unhappy with the HC ruling that stopped short of granting the license to it, Geomin moved the supreme Court, which began hearing the appeal today.

Geomin said it had applied for the license in 1991, while Posco sought it only in 2005. On the other hand, the Odisha government contested in the court that Posco was the best among all applicants.

Hearing the plea, the Supreme Court observed: “Is it the way of assessing comparative merit? These are great natural resources. Their best use must be ensured. Merely because someone is big, other players can’t be disallowed. That means no one else can play. The big will become bigger and the bigger, (become) biggest. The ‘big’ factor has influenced the entire decision-

 

Orissa High court for law to check witch-hunting cases


, TNN | May 18, 2012,

CUTTACK: The Orissa high court asked the state government on Thursday to formulate a special law to check witch-hunting in the state. Division bench of Chief Justice V Gopala Gowda and Justice S K Mishra said the government should introduce a bill in the legislature to enact a law to tackle the menace of witch-hunting effectively.

The bench gave the suggestion while adjudicating on a PIL filed by social activist,Sashiprava Bindhani, seeking introduction of an Act to stop the heinous crime in the state. The bench observed the state should formulate a preventive strategy to eliminate such practices.

The petitioner had pointed out many women in the state are being branded witches and tortured brutally. Some are even gangraped and at times smeared with urine and human excreta. The petitioner had cited there is an urgent need to formulate a stringent law that could act as a deterrent to witch-hunting. Due to the absence of any specific law in the state regarding the crime, the accused get away easily, the petitioner added. She pointed out Jharkhand and Biharhave formulated a special law to check witch-hunting, but Odisha is yet to take any concrete step to deal with it.

Taking note of the allegations, the high court directed the state government to create public awareness at the gram panchayat level to eradicate the superstitions of witchcraft. The court also suggested health camps should be organized in villages to detect cases of psychologically disordered persons, who claim to be witches. In order to avoid the witnesses turning hostile in such cases, the investigating agency probing into the cases should take steps to record their statement under section 164 of code of criminal procedure, 1973, the court ordered.

“The court has observed that along with the main accused, the tantric and the persons, who provoke others to commit such inhuman acts against woman should also be booked and prosecuted under the sections of Indian Penal Code,” said the petitioner’s counsel Sujata Jena. “The court has directed that all the guidelines should be strictly observed by the authorities till a suitable legislation is passed by the state legislature,” Jena added.

 

THE FULL JUDGEMENT BELOW

 

Mrs. Sashiprava Bindhani vs State Of Orissa And Others on 25 April, 2012

ORISSA HIGH COURT : CUTTACK

W. P. (C). Nos. 17638 of 2011 and 6287 of 2012

In the matter of applications under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India.

—————

In W.P.(C) No. 17638 of 2011

Mrs. Sashiprava Bindhani … Petitioner

Versus

State of Orissa and others … Opposite parties

For petitioner – M/s. Sujata Jena, G.B.Jena and Satyabhama Nath

For opposite parties – Mr. Debashis Panda, Government Advocate

In W.P.(C) No. 6287 of 2012

Odisha Rationalist Society … Petitioner

Versus

State of Orissa and others … Opposite parties

For petitioner – M/s. Kshirod Kumar Rout, T.K.Nayak, C.R.Mohanty, Ms. J.Naik and S.K.Rout

For opposite parties – Mr. Debashis Panda, Government Advocate

—————

PRESENT

THE HONOURABLE CHIEF JUSTICE MR. V.GOPALA GOWDA

AND

THE HONOURABLE MR. JUSTICE S.K.MISHRA

————————————————————————————————————- Date of hearing – 25.04.2012 : Date of judgment – 25.04.2012 ————————————————————————————————————- 2

S.K.Mishra, J. In these writ petitions, the petitioners pray to direct the State

Government for framing of guidelines to deal with the cases of witch-hunting and to

protect women from such hunting till legislation is framed in this regard.

2. The petitioners in their applications have described the instances of

murders on the allegations that the deceased was practicing witchcraft. The

petitioners have pleaded about several such incidents in the State of Orissa. It is

further pleaded that the persons committing the murder do so under the influence of

‘Gunias’. As such, it is pleaded that the propagators of the crime are generally not in

a fit state of mind while committing the crime. The person often believes that he is

doing the right thing while committing murder of a person, who is alleged to be

practicing witchcraft. Such state of affairs is prevalent in all the tribal districts of the

State.

3. The petitioner pleaded that India is a signatory to the universal

declaration of human rights to give protection to women from discrimination and all

sorts of violence against them. Besides, the United Nations’ International Covenant

on Civil and Political Rights prescribe that all persons are equal before law and

entitled to equal protection of law. Government of India is a signatory to the same in

the year 1966. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination

against Women (CEDAW) resolved that the countries which have ratified the same

should take appropriate steps to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

Article 5(a) of CEDAW further provides that the State shall take appropriate

measures to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women.

Witch-hunting, which is prevalent in several States, leads to dispossession, torture

and murder but as of date, although India is a signatory to CEDAW, no steps have

been taken to enact appropriate law to curb the menace of witch-hunting, which is 3

prevalent in this State. States like Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh have already

taken steps to eradicate such practices but our State has not taken any steps with

regard to eradicating such practice. Therefore, the petitioner prays that appropriate

direction be given to the State to enact law in this regard.

4. The petitioners rely on the reported case of Bishaka and others v.

State of Rajasthan and others reported in AIR 1997 SC 3011, wherein the

Supreme Court has taken into consideration the provisions of the CEDAW and has

held as follows:

“16. In view of the above, and the absence of enacted law to provide for the effective enforcement of the basic human right of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment and abuse, more particularly against sexual harassment at work places, we lay down the guidelines and norms specified hereinafter for due observance at all work places or other institutions, until a legislation is enacted for the purpose. This is done in exercise of the power available under Article 32 of the Constitution for enforcement of the fundamental rights and it is further emphasized that this would be treated as the law declared by this Court under Article 141 of the Constitution.”

It is, therefore, urged that in view of the fact that there is no legislation

to tackle the problem of witch-hunting, this Court should give direction to the State

Government to introduce appropriate law before the Legislature and in the

interregnum provide guidelines to prevent witch-hunting in the State of Orissa.

5. It is seen that the Legislature of Bihar has passed the Prevention of

Witch (Daain) Practice Act, 1999 (Bihar Act 9 of 1999). Similar Act has also been

passed by the Legislature of Chhatishgarh.

6. Witch-hunting is also seen in the State of Karnataka and a Committee

consisting of eminent Professors was asked to investigate and report about the

practice of Banamathi. Banamathi is the Kannada word for witch. The Committee

after careful and detailed investigation of a large number of cases and on the basis of 4

discussions with number of persons, who were considered to have knowledge on the

subject, came to the following conclusions:

“People have been suffering from this so called witchcraft i.e. Banamathi due to various causes. Some of the prominent causes have been fear, ignorance, superstition, personal and family problems, poverty, religious feuds, and village politics. This phenomenon of Banamathi is more prevalent in remote villages cut away from the main stream of life. It is also a fact that most of the victims are women. Even among women those belongs to marriageable and child-bearing age groups seem to be more prone to this problem.

All the sufferings of the victims attributed to Banamathi fit into familiar patterns of mental and physical diseases. Most of these are psychiatric cases. Many of these attacks were induced by a simple suggestion by the doctors and were also terminated by a similar suggestion. These people have been suffering from a variety of psychological disorders. Hysterical neurosis, a form of psychiatric disturbance, is the most common. This is characterized by episodes of abnormal behaviour, like screaming, developing fits, becoming unconscious, tearing away of clothes, inability to speak and so on. Theses are directly understandable in terms of strong socio-cultural beliefs, family and personal problems, poverty etc. It is common knowledge that such internal conflicts resulting in hysterical neurosis are found in other countries also. Their effects would be in accordance with the prevailing social and other conditions. In a few villages these psychological disturbances have assumed the form of ‘mass hysteria’ as witnessed in Yadlapur and in Benekanahalli villages. There are other kinds of neuroses like depression, obsession etc. from which some of the victims have been suffering.

The phenomenon of Banamathi as already mentioned has been in existence for decades and is deep rooted among some sections of the people in North Karnataka which formed part of the erstwhile Hyderabad State governed by the Nizam. This malady exists in some parts of the present Andhra Pradesh adjacent to Gulbarga and Bidar Districts also. The belief has been handed over from person to person and passed on from generation to generation. In fact, the belief in Banamathi is so deep rooted that even common physical ailments such as asthma, leprosy, tuberculosis, anaemia, and vitamin deficiency diseases are attributed to Banamathi. Susceptible and ignorant people have become so sensitive and scared that they think of suffering from the effects of Banamathi whenever they are not feeling well. The fact that even normal variations in the yield of 5

milk of a cow is also attributed to Banamathi shows to what extent the pernicious belief is deep seated in their minds.

The second category of the phenomena belongs to the appearance and disappearance of the objects, falling of stones, burning of sarees etc. It is very significant to note that nobody had ever witnessed those phenomena during the process of their actual occurrence. No body saw either the clothes catching fire or scares during the process of their marking. As already mentioned two persons were caught by the villagers when they were trying to throw stones. Besides, falling of stones is reported in many parts of the State and it is also interesting to note that according to such reports there was no falling of stones when a vigil was kept. A careful scrutiny of these phenomena will lead to the conclusion that there is no evidence of the working of any supernatural force. Many of the phenomena attributed to Banamathi must have been deliberately performed by persons due to various reasons such as to attract attention, to get sympathy, or to avoid extra work. These are all of common occurrence familiar to the doctors in the field of psychology and psychiatry. It may not be out of place to mention that nobody ever came forward to perform ‘Banamathi’ on the members of the team when they publicly offered themselves as subjects on many an occasion.

Thus, based on a careful analysis of all the available data and a close and searching examination of a large number of victims, the Investigation Committee has come to the unanimous and firm conclusion that the so called Banamathi is not due to any supernatural cause.

It is a fact that there has been a lot of suffering on account of these mental and physical problems. It is also a fact that vested interests have been using Banamathi as a means of exploitation. Attributing these phenomena to supernatural causes they have been reaping a rich harvest. Some of the families are ruined on account of spending large amounts of money in the hope of getting a cure of the ill-effects. Poor villagers and gullible people are being cheated.

The Committee would like to point out certain strong supporting factors which have lent credence to belief in Banamathi. The fact that many educated people, officials and men of public importance implicitly believing in Banamathi has also been responsible for its continued widespread belief among large sections of villagers. As we know superstitions are widely prevalent in our country. All of us know that an educated superstitious person is more harmful to society than his uneducated counterpart. Besides, occasional, nay, frequent dubious and unscientific reports, articles, and statements in some 6

newspapers tend to give a final seal of confirmation to the existence of some kind of witchcraft. In fact the phenomena attributed to Banamathi are not peculiar to places in Gulbarga or Bidar Districts. They are widespread in all parts of the state and the country. But they are called by different names. All these can be attributed to the same root causes excluding any supernatural force.

Another important reason for the spread of Banamathi is that the Police Department under its existing laws are helpless and cannot take notice of cases coming under the purview of Banamathi. This has indirectly given a free hand and also encouragement to persons who in the name of Banamathi scare innocent people and exploit them.” (Emphasis supplied)

7. Thus, it is clear that this social malady is prevalent because of the

ignorance of the people and an effective measure to control the same is necessary to

be taken. The Committee of Elimination of Discrimination Against Women of the

United Nations in the 51st Session held between 13th February to 2nd March, 2012 has

given its concluding observations on the elimination of discrimination against women.

The Committee also recommended to eliminate stereo-type and harmful practice. At

paragraphs 21 and 22, the Committee observed as follows:

“21. The Committee recognizes the rich culture and traditions of the State party and their importance in daily life. However, the Committee expresses its serious concern about the persistence of harmful norms, practices and traditions, patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes, regarding the roles, responsibilities and identities of women and men in all spheres of life, as well as the State party’s limited efforts to address such discriminatory practices. These include, in particular, polygamy, bride price (lobola), and in certain regions, virginity testing and witch hunting. The Committee is concerned that such customs and practices perpetuate discrimination against women and girls and that they are reflected in women’s disadvantageous and unequal status in many areas, including education, public life, decision-making and in the persistence of violence against women, and that, thus far the State party ahs not take sustained measures to modify or eliminate stereotypes and harmful practices.

22. The Committee urges the State party to :

(a) Put in place, without delay, a comprehensive strategy to modify or eliminate patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes 7

that discriminate women in conformity with the provisions of the Convention. Such measures should include efforts, in collaboration with civil society and community and religious leaders to educate and raise awareness of this subject, targeting women and men at all levels of the society;

(b) More vigorously address harmful practice by expanding public education programmes and by effectively enforcing the prohibition of such practices, in particular, in rural areas;

(c) Use innovative measures that target media people to strengthen understanding of the equality of women and men and through the educational system to enhance a positive and non-stereotypical portrayal of women; and

(d) Monitor and review the measures taken in order to assess their impact and to take appropriate action.”

8. From the above, it is clear that the CEDAW also endorse witch-

hunting as one of the harmful practices. The State should formulate a preventive

strategy to eliminate such practice. This Court, therefore, is of the opinion that the

State should introduce a bill in the Legislature to enact law to tackle the menace of

witch-hunting effectively. There should be concerted efforts to spread awareness to

eradicate the superstitions among the people. In the meantime, we recommend the

guidelines in following paragraphs for prevention of witch-hunting in the State of

Orissa. It shall be the duty of the State and the District Administration to prevent or

deter commission of witch-hunting and to provide protection to citizens from being

victim of witch-hunting. The State shall also provide procedure for prosecution of the

persons who endangers human life on the allegation that she is a witch.

9. For the aforesaid purpose, witch-hunting means and includes:

(i) Any person accuses another or defames a woman by calling her ‘Dayan’ or ‘Dahani’ or any other name or symbol suggesting her to be a witch; and

8

(ii) Any person/persons jointly or individually harms another person either physically or mentally or damages her property calling her to be a witch, shall be known to be practicing witch-hunting;

10. Whoever forces a woman to drink or eat inedible or obnoxious

substances on the allegation that she is a witch, shall be punishable under the

provisions of the Indian Penal Code or any special law attracted to such

commission of offence.

11. Any person calling another a ‘witch’ or being possessed one, uses

criminal force against her, or instigates or provokes others in doing so or abate with

intent to harm and/or to displace her from the house by using criminal force or

intimidates, which amounts to specific offence under the Indian Penal Code or any

other law, the authorities shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with the law

by lodging complaint in the Police Station.

12. The authorities also prevent any person from acting as a ‘tantric’ or a

‘witch doctor’ in the area claiming to have possessed spiritual and magical powers

to cure witch-craft or in possession of super-natural powers and performs any rituals

to free the woman from the evil spirit or entices a woman or any person or her

behalf with a promise to bless the woman with a child or performs any ritual on

behalf of any person with an intention to harm the woman, should be prosecuted, if

such an act amounts to any specific offence under the Indian Penal Code or any

other law.

13. Preventive steps.

In the meantime, the authorities shall take appropriate steps to prevent

witch-hunting and in particular take the following steps : 9

(i) Public awareness programmes should be launched in the Grama Panchayats to eradicate the superstitions of witch-craft;

(ii) Health camps should be organized in different village level to detect cases of the psychologically disordered, which may lead to a false acquisition being possessed or being a witch;

(iii) The Investigating Agency in cases involving allegations of witch-hunting, in order to avoid the witnesses turning hostile should take steps to get statement of the witnesses recorded under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

14. These directions are not exhaustive. The State may, in addition to such

steps, take suitable and appropriate step to tackle the menace of witch-hunting.

Accordingly, we direct that the guidelines should be strictly observed by

the authorities till a suitable legislation is passed by the State Legislature. The State

Government shall introduce an appropriate bill in the State Legislature within a

period of one year.

The writ application is accordingly disposed of.

………………………….

S.K.Mishra, J.

V.Gopala Gowda, C.J. I agree.

………………………….

V.Gopala Gowda, C.J.

Orissa High Court, Cuttack,

Dated, April 25, 2012/JNS.

 

Sri Aurobindo, Heehs and the fragility of faith


GAUTAM CHIKERMANE

We banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and provided the moral justification for a barbaric fatwa on his head by Iran’s then spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As a result, Rushdie had to take refuge in the UK. Last month, we prevented him from coming to India and speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival, hammering one more nail in the coffin of free speech in India. In case you wish to read it, the book is available here in PDF form, freely downloadable.

We drove MF Husain, India’s best-known painter, out of India. For his paintings of Hindu goddesses, Husain faced eight cases in various courts of the country — all were dismissed in an April 2004 judgement by the Delhi High Court — his house was attacked by Bajrang Dal activists in 1998, his art vandalised. The Muslims found a quawalli in his film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities blasphemous and he had to withdraw the film in 2004. Husain had to flee to Qatar, become a Qatari national and died a non-Indian.

And now, right under our noses, even as the national discourse is moving against banning books and towards free speech, another intellectual is being hounded. This time, it’s Peter Heehs, an American historian, who has who has lived in and served the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for 41 years, set up the Ashram’s Archives department, has been the founding editor of Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research, and was part of the team that has brought out the Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. The ban in question is on his scholarly biography of Sri Aurobindo titled, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo.

If Sri Aurobindo was still residing in his “cave” at Pondicherry, he would have welcomed the book, critiqued it — but most important, he would have read it. But if an April 9, 2009 notification by the Orissa government is to be taken seriously, this is what it suggests: we have not read the book but the select excerpts given to us by interested parties is enough evidence for us to ban the book. For those who enjoy legalese, you can read the notification here.

So far so good. During the course of my investigation into this affair, this notification was given to me as “evidence” by a party that’s fighting another case against the trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, holding them responsible for harbouring Heehs and seeking their removal. This group of people and the petitioner — Mrs Gitanjali JB, who in her writ petition to the High Court of Orissa at Cuttack has said she lives in Balasore, though the last time I tried to contact her, I was told she lives in Chennai — are allegedly related. Although I could not independently verify the relationship, it is pretty clear that the two are working together. So, when they emailed me the “evidence”, they forgot to attach another document that supported this senseless notification.

This is a February 13, 2009 report written by the IG Police Intelligence to Dr K.C. Sarangi, OAS, the deputy secretary to government, home (special section) department. According to the IG’s report, Heehs’s book is not available in Bhubaneswar or Cuttack and “hence its entire contents are not known but photocopies of extracts of the book”, that form part of Mrs Gitanjali JB’s writ are. Based on this shallow, incomplete and clearly prejudiced evidence — and without undertaking the rigour of independent investigation by attempting to check the context within which these extracts have been provided — the IG has suggested to the government that the book “appears to be blasphemous” and “appears to be a fit case for invoking action u/s 95 Cr.P.C”. I can only pity the Orissa government for having such an incompetent officer in charge of such a critical function. You can read this illiterate piece of literature here.

In its November 4, 2008 order, the Orissa High Court ordered Mrs Gitanjali JB to make a representation before the Ministries of Home and Information and Broadcasting and the book should be published only after getting a no-objection certificate from them. The Home Ministry has not taken any decision so far. So, in its April 20, 2009 order, the Orissa High Court adjourned the case, “with the direction that the Central Government may take a decision as early as possible”. There has been no decision since then. What are they waiting for — Godot? They should either say yes or no or that it is beyond their brief. Its silence speaks of a frozen government, unable and unwilling to do its job.

Courts have their own processes and the legal system works on its own time. But it is curious to note, as senior lawyer AG Noorani did, the five objections of this order. These include “unprecedented abdication of judicial power and responsibility in favour of an outside authority; worst of all, the State” and the fact that the author and the publisher need to be heard in the interest of natural justice. Do read the piece here.

When Heehs appealed the setting aside of this notification, a three-judge bench was formed. “When the book has not been published in India, it is not traceable to any call of action for such a ban and for such a notification,” Heehs’s lawyer Prasanta Kishore Ray said. “So, banning this book amounts to banningfreedom of expression. It amounts to banning thinking. That is how the three-judge bench were shocked to hear that the book has not been published in India.” In a January 17, 2012 oral order, the court called upon the Advocate General of Orissa, Ashok Mohanty, to justify this notification, Ray said. I doubt if Mohanty will have any.

One last point on Heehs’s book. This time I invite you to a sojourn in time, all of 30 years ago. In a November 8, 1982 judgement, the Supreme Court declared that Sri Aurobindo’s teachings cannot be said to be of a religious nature. “Numerous utterings by Sri Aurobindo or the Mother unmistakably show that the Ashram or Society or Auroville is not a religious institution,” the judgement said. “There can be no better proof than what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother themselves thought of their teachings and their institutions to find out whether the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and his Integral Yoga constitute a religion or a philosophy. The uttering made from time to time by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother hardly leave any doubt about the nature of the institution. It was on the basis that it was not a religious institution.” You can read another excerpt here.

The point: if Sri Aurobindo is not a religious entity and his teachings not a religion, how can his biography hurt any religious person? This is a question that many devotees, in their blind faith, ignore. India is home to gurus and spiritual teachers. All of them stated clearly that they are not professing a religion but a way of life, call it spirituality if you must. To convert those words, those ideas, those books, those teachings into a religion is the biggest crime against their own gurus. If Sri Aurobindo were around, he would have shuddered to have been called an author of yet another ‘religion’ and steered clear of anything to do with it.

Those terming Sri Aurobindo’s yoga a religion need to do their homework. If they are unwilling to go through the rigour of reading, the least they should do is what Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator The Mother suggested: “When you have nothing pleasant to say about something or somebody in the Ashram, keep silent. You must know that this silence is faithfulness to the Divine’s work.”

Returning the issue that’s bigger and vaster and more precious than any single book or person, I find that as a society, India’s level of tolerance and toleration — something we push strongly for in other countries, the Bhagwad Gita being banned in Russia that I wrote about earlier, for instance — has fallen to depths unseen. We use whatever tools we can to curb free speech — threat, violence, politics, power, goons, police, state, non-state and this new development of abusing the due process of law that results in delaying books from being published.

I had a discussion about free speech with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Center for Policy Research, one of Asia’s most respected think tanks. “Why do we tolerate,” he asked. “I feel safe when offensive people are tolerated. I can conclude that if society can tolerate these bozos, surely I’m safe. It’s a psychological security.” That’s on the physical front. But go a step deeper and here’s what those lining up to curb free speech in this name or that issue need to understand. “We put ourselves under God’s yoke when we are furthest away from god,” Mehta said. “Right now, there is a fragility of faith.”

Let Heehs’s book not fall at the alter of that fragility.

Do check out the totally intolerant comments on the blog

Dont expel the Historian