The arrest of tribal rights activist Hidme Markam from Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district on March 9 is yet another incident that is symbolic of the growing attack on Adivasi rights and democracy in India. Her alleged abduction on the occasion of International Women’s Day points to the state’s history of oppressing social and human rights activists confronting repression.
Markam was arrested from a gathering of women in Sameli, Bastar that commemorated the death of a 27-year-old woman named Pande Kowasi whilst in police custody.
Markam’s arrest has led to a conflict, with some locals claiming she was an activist, who was booked in some old cases and arrested without any warrant.
The police claimed Markam was an absconding Maoist insurgent who faces serious charges in five cases registered between 2016 and 2020. Markam has since been lodged in the women’s section of the Jagdalpur central prison.
The police have, so far, arrested her in a case relating to an armed attack on a police team in 2016; she is awaiting arrest in at least four more cases.
But social activists in Bastar point out that the former government-school cook has been part of virtually every major civil rights movement in Dantewada in recent years and was a regular at public gatherings, big and small.
Who is Hidme Markam?
Markam hails from the State-Maoist armed conflict, in a village called Burgum in Dantewada and belongs to the Gond tribe, one of India’s largest. . She is the Convenor of the Jail Bandi Rihai Committee (Committee for Release of Prisoners), a platform that advocates the release of thousands of innocent Adivasis incarcerated in false cases.
Tribal leader Soni Sori, who was present at the time of arrest, has demanded her immediate release and claimed that Markam — arrested on false charges — is a respected activist in the region.
In an online conference organised in November 2020 by women’s groups across central India, Markam vociferously narrated about the Nandraj Pahad (mountain) agitation, which has been underway since the last couple of years in the iron-ore rich Bailadila mountains of Dantewada district.
With more than 1,300 million tonnes of iron ore deposits, among India’s largest—the Bailadila mountains have been long sought after by mining companies. Adivasi villagers who live off the land and see it as a sacred site have protested the mining, and, in particular, fake resolutions submitted on behalf of village councils or gram sabhas, to allow permissions to clear forests for the Bailadila Deposit 13 mine, its official name.
“No matter which party is in power, they support big companies and do not care for us common Adivasis,” Markam told the conference. “Villagers who protest against the government handing over these lands to corporations are being jailed. We have lost faith in the government but will continue to fight to save our sacred lands and our forests.”
What does her arrest mean?
In the last few weeks, Markam recorded a video message for Survival— a human rights organisation fighting for tribal poeple’s rights — in which she describes the way Adivasi women are treated in India. She said, “They’re being beaten every day, they’re being jailed every day. Every day, wherever our women go, they face the same kind of abuse. The only possible way forward is for all women to be united, for our water and forests, for our lands – to save them from mining.”
In India those who dissent, especially Adivasis and their supporters are often branded ‘anti-national’ and are accused of sedition or held under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
While security forces, Maoist guerrillas and alleged police informers continue to lose lives in an endless war, there has also been sexual violence against women during security operations and forced surrenders of villagers falsely depicted as Maoists.
The action against Markam, say activists, only serves to underline what had prompted their mobilisation on March 8– police impunity and its debilitating impact on Adivasi women.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)