Vedanta protests: Families of both killed demand answers, probe on

Sampad Patnaik
Dani Batra's wife Saindri Batra with sons Chandan and Laban, and Dani's brother's wife Sarbati (right).

The family of Dani Batra, who died during a clash between security personnel and local protestors at Vedanta's Lanjigarh plant in Odisha earlier this week, says it fears he was mercilessly beaten to death by security personnel.

Kalahandi district police said Monday's clash also led to the death of a security officer, Havildar Sujit Minz. Vedanta, which has estimated losses of around Rs 15 crore to its infrastructure, has also announced Rs 25 lakh as compensation for both deceased.

On Thursday, the Batra family shared with The Indian Express a WhatsApp video that it claims is of Dani. The video shows security personnel retrieving a man from a pond and purportedly performing CPR on his limp body. The pond, which locals say is around 10 feet deep, is located within 700 feet of the gates of the Vedanta plant.

The Batra family now demands a precise account of how Dani's body ended up in the pond.

Confessing that she does not know whether Dani could swim, his wife Saindri Batra on Friday said, "Two questions are haunting me. If he did not know how to swim, was he beaten so badly by OISF (Odisha Industrial Security Force) personnel that he still ran into the water for shelter and drowned?"

"If he knew how to swim, was he so badly injured that he could not swim and drowned?" she continues, adding "his postmortem report and an investigation into his death should be released immediately".

Sources in Kalahandi police said Dani's autopsy report states he drowned. "There are some injuries on his body, probably from police batons, but the report says they are not fatal," the source said.

The Batra family says Dani had not participated in Monday's protests outside the gates of the plant. "He wasn't even there to protest. Contractual workers like him were waiting for the plant gates to open. Dani, who worked for Vedanta for a decade, was paid by the day," said Sarbati, wife of Dani's brother.

Vedanta has clarified that Batra was employed by its contractor, K S Engineering.

Kalahandi SP Batulla Gangadhar has promised that his investigation will be completed soon, after which he can brief the press. As the probe continues, locals allege that "OISF brutality" during a "small protest" by (neighbouring) Rengopali villagers led to "death and injuries", while OISF personnel say these are "manufactured stories".

The OISF is a dedicated police unit providing security to state-owned and private industrial projects. Vedanta has declined to share its financial commitment for OISF services. CEO Ajay Dixit has said that the "OISF acted in self defence and with restraint".

OISF Inspector Ashok Roul said the force would never take on a crowd "that numbered up to 150, carried weapons and appeared to be executing a preplanned attack". His colleagues added that the lathi charge followed an attack by miscreants and an officer's death.

"Sujit (Minz) was killed because he did not join our (OISF) team as we took up defensive positions, looking at the size and anger of the crowd. He stayed back in the security room, convinced that the mob will not attack. He was locked from outside, after his petrol doused body was set on fire," said a team mate from the Vedanta OISF unit.

In Sundergarh district's Kinjirkela village, the family of OISF Havildar Sujit Minz, 38, is devastated. "He was burnt to death. I can't imagine the pain he must have experienced," his older sister, Surati Kujur, told The Indian Express over the phone. His wife, Seemarani Barra, a Junior Engineer (JE) with the state government's Department of Water Resources, says she has not been given a full picture of how her husband was killed. She has also demanded that the autopsy and investigation report be released.

Surati said it is "unfair that the protestor gets the same amount as the protector", referring to Vedanta's Rs 25 lakh compensation announced for both Batra and Minz.