IT’S AN agitation that has been going on for 12 years now over land acquisition and related issues arising out of a National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) project in Barkagaon in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. In recent years, the protests have often turned violent. And whenever clashes have broken out between protesters and police, the spotlight has invariably fallen on one political couple.
Yogendra Saw, former Congress minister, was arrested Tuesday on charges of instigating violence at Dandi Kala village three days earlier,when four protesters were killed and and two senior officials severely injured — their colleagues say they were nearly lynched. Police insisted Saw was behind the violence while conceding he was not on the spot.
On the spot was Saw’s wife Nirmala Devi, sitting MLA from Barkagaon constituency once represented by Saw. Nirmala had been leading the agitation for 15 days until then and the violence broke out when police tried to take away. A mob attacked the police team and freed Nirmala, leading to police firing. Nirmala has not been seen in public since then; Saw was arrested from his home at Hurhuri village.
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The agitation is against a coal mining project in Pakri-Barwadih, one of three captive coal blocks awarded to the NTPC for a power plant. Long before the couple took up the cause, others had been raising it for years. And the older protesters are not convinced about the commitment of the couple.
Among them is Mithilesh Dangi, who founded the Karampura Bachao Sangharsh Samiti against the NTPC project almost immediately after the allocation and who later became the Aam Aadmi Party’s Lok Sabha candidate from Hazaribagh.
About the couple, Dangi said, “They have been associated with this agitation for, let’s say, three years. But they have never been in a leadership position in the agitation. We allow them to take up political space because she is the local MLA. Saw too has his own support base in the form of people from his community, who make up huge numbers in this area.”
Dangi said at least three different forums were involved in the latest agitation, named “kafan satyagraha”. As for himself, he said he had joined it reluctantly and later pulled out. He alleged that every time the couple has tried to take leadership of the movement, it has led to violence. The first time was in 2013, the second in August 2015, and then twice in May this year, Dangi said.
“In fact, this helps the administration in deflecting attention from the real issues. People who have been agitating for long get sidelined,” he said.
Awadh Kishore of Barkagaon, who used to be with the BJP and claims that he was dismissed for raising people’s issues, too questioned the couple’s commitment. “Whenever Saw feels he has become politically strong, he walks out of the movement. Whenever he feels he is weak, he joins it again. Since he or his wife is the MLA, and they have some people behind them, they manage it easily,” Kishore said.
Besides this agitation, Saw has made news for alleged Maoist links and for being arrested for allegedly having
founded and extortion gang. Before that, he used to be a police informant, police sources said.
Saw contested his first election in 2005 and lost. Over the next few years, he began championing the movement and won in 2009. He went on to become agriculture minister in the coalition government run by Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Hemant Soren.
In September 2014, he had to resign. Arrested members of Jharkhand Tiger Force, an extortion gang that that claimed allegiance to Maoist ideology, had named Saw as the founder and the main force. Saw was tracked down in Delhi the following month, by which time over a dozen criminal cases had been registered against him.
He was in jail when elections came later that year. His ticket was passed on to Nirmala Devi, who won by just 411 votes.
Once out on bail, Saw took up the land agitation again and protesters frequently obstructed the work of the NTPC, which named him in FIRs on September 29 and 30. In May, the district administration externed Saw from Hazaribagh before the Jharkhand High Court quashed the order on August 26.
Before Tuesday’s arrest, Saw had denied being involved in those disturbances or Saturday’s violence. “I have not
been in touch with my wife since Saturday,” he had told The Indian Express. There are people who will tell you all sorts of things. But I am telling them, don’t ask me, go and look at things on the ground.”
The police have accused Saw of having mobilised his group, called Tiger Force, for the violence. “Saw is accused of
conspiring to orchestrate the violence that led to firing and deaths. It is true that Saw was not present on the spot that day,” DIG (Hazaribagh) Upendra Prasad. “Efforts are being made to trace the MLA.”