SIX severed human palms, preserved in a locked trunk at Kalinganagar in Jajpur district of Odisha, have fuelled a 12-year-long struggle for dignity.
The palms of protesters, allegedly chopped off by government officials during the 2006 Kalinganagar agitation in Odisha, have not been buried with the bodies as they are yet to be identified. “We have repeatedly requested the bureaucracy and local politicians to conduct DNA tests so that these palms can be buried with the respective bodies,” said Motilal Tigu, 24, a resident of Jajpur’s Ambagadia village, where the trunk with the hands, preserved in formalin, lies in the community centre. “We are just given excuses that these tests cannot be done. No clear explanation. We have no choice, except to relaunch the agitation,” Tigu added.
Adjacent to Ambagadia’s community centre, a Martyrs’ Tower, which has an arrow on top, marks the Birbhumi memorial site. Rocks, with names of the dead, mark graves of those who died in police firing during a protest against land acquisition for a Tata steel plant at the Kalinga Nagar Integrated Industrial Complex (KIIC) in Jajpur. The pillar, gravestones, and palms together represent what has been called one of the worst instances of police firing in the history of Odisha, in which 13 people from the local tribal population were killed. And since 2006, every January 2, the local tribal population gathers every year to pay homage to the dead. This year’s Kalinganagar ‘Martyrs’ Day’ was attended by roughly 15,000 people.
While locals allege that officials chopped off palms in anger over attacks by the tribals who resisted the land acquisition, the administration claims the palms were removed during the postmortem procedure to help with “identification”.
“Doctors (who performed the post-mortem) are best qualified to comment on why palms had to be removed,” said Vinaytosh Mishra, IG Balasore, who served as SP of Jajpur in 2006.
The three doctors, who allegedly removed the palms, were suspended and later reinstated on the orders of the Odisha High Court. Doctors Bibekananda Swain, Shantanu Sahu and Anup Nath Sharma refused to comment. Another senior police officer, who also served in Jajpur in 2006, requesting anonymity, said, “The hands were removed because no one was claiming the bodies. We needed fingerprints for identification.”
The victims’ kin question that, pointing out that the bodies were not disfigured and hence easily identifiable. “My brother, Bhagaban Soy, was only 28 when he died. The bodies were returned to us 2-3 days after the firing, after we blocked roads. We laid him to rest without his hands. Without DNA testing, how will we know which pair belonged to whom,” said Lalmohan Soy, 26, whose brother died in the 2006 agitation. “The fingerprints story is untrue. They not only cut hands, but also genitals of men and breasts of women. This was not highlighted in 2006 because many of us (victims’ families) were too ashamed to reveal that they were mutilated like animals,” Soy alleged.
The outrage following the police firing led to the appointment of three commissions to inquire into the incident. The report of the last commission, led by former judge Pradyumna Kumar Mohanty, was submitted to the state government in 2015, and tabled in the Odisha Assembly in December 2017.
While ruling out punitive action against any government official for the 2006 killing and maiming of the bodies, the commission instead made three recommendations — welfare schemes for the displaced, employment for one family member of the tribals killed and additional compensation to the families.
Former Odisha DGP Amiya Bhushan Tripathy dealt with Kalinganagar in 2006 as member of the National Human Rights Commission. He was later appointed chairman of the Independent Grievance Redressal Group of Tata Steel at Kalinganagar. “Chopping palms (for fingerprints) was unnecessary. I have never heard of this elsewhere,” Tripathy said.
In villages surrounding the industrial complex — Ambagadia, Mirigi Chara and Gobara Ghati — young tribal men from the Ho community are seething with resentment over the DNA tests. “People are mistaken if they think the issue has been settled. The DNA test is non-negotiable,” said 19-year-old Dubulia Jarika. “We last approached the Jajpur collector five months ago, but nothing happened. Our MLA does not give us an audience. We met (Chief Minister) Naveen Patnaik once in 2008, and he said he would help us identify the hands. Nothing happened,” said Amara Banara, president of the Visthapan Virodhi Mancha (VVM), the organisation that fronts the Kalinganagar struggle.
“VVM has failed us,” says Lalmohan. “Maybe our leaders compromised. We have not. We were young in 2006, but we will now reignite the struggle for the dignity of our dead.”
Jajpur collector Ranjan Das and MLA Pritiranjan Gharai did not respond to requests for comment.