“From my childhood, I have been a rebel. I protest against injustice,” says Rajkishor Sunani, a Dalit poet, singer and activist from Karlagaon village, around 110 kilometres from the Vedanta alumina refinery in Kalahandi district. “I joined the movement [against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills] in 2002-03. I wrote songs to make people aware, and I travelled from village to village to spread the message of the movement,” he says.

“At that time, my wife Leelabati and I lived in the villages here and sang songs,” Rajkishor recalls. People would invite the couple into their homes and give them food and shelter. The Sunanis, modest cultivators in their own village, had no source of income at that time and survived on the generosity of Adivasis. “My wife and I also went to jail in 2004 for protesting against Vedanta. I was detained for three months and Leelabati for a month. Even today, the nexus between the government and [mining] companies continues to suppress people’s movements,” he says.

The Niyamgiri hills, which spread across Kalahandi and Rayagada districts in southwestern Odisha, are home to the Dongria Kondh (or Jharnia Kondh, as many of them call themselves), a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), estimated to number only 8,000; other related Adivasi groups live in around 100 villages in the region. 

For long, the Dongria tribes have opposed a project by the government-owned Odisha Mining Corporation and Sterlite Industries (now Vedanta), a British multinational. The project proposed to mine their sacred hills for bauxite (used for making aluminium) for Vedanta’s refinery in the state's Lanjigarh tehsil.  

In 2013, the Adivasis unanimously rejected the mining of their land through a Supreme-Court mandated referendum conducted in 12 villages around Niyamgiri. Among others, the movement was led by the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, a collective of Adivasis, and many activists like Rajkishor.    

The Odisha government has since tried (so far without success) to overturn the referendum, and the refinery continues to operate with bauxite from other sources. The threats to the ancestral land of the Adivasis remain on the horizon.

Rajkishor Sunani sings a song while people gather around him to listen
PHOTO • Purusottam Thakur

Poet-singer-activist Rajkishor Sunani at the Niyamgiri festival in February 2018

'The world’s environment is being conserved to some degree only by such movements. Otherwise, everything would have been destroyed', Sunani says, as he plays the dhap and sings about the beauty of the hills

I met Rajkishor this year at the annual post-harvest festival in the Niyamgiri plateau, near Anlabhata village. He had trekked across six kilometres of hilly terrain to get here. The festival is held from February 23 to 25 every year, and is dedicated to Niyam Raja (roughly, the King or Giver of Law). In the evening of the second day and on the morning of the final day, when activists spoke about their experiences of people’s movements, Rajkishor sang. When he started singing, more people gathered around.

He sings passionately, plays instruments like the dhap (a frame drum), and draws large crowds. Apart from the people’s movement in Niyamgiri, he has written songs for other struggles too, including that in the Gandhamardhan hills of Bargarh district,  against bauxite mining by the Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO).

Now 55, Rajkishor has been a singer-activist for over two decades. He is also a member of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad (a political party founded by socialist leader Kishen Pattnaik), which has supported people’s movements in Niyamgiri and other villages of Odisha.

I ask him: what do you feel about the struggles you’ve been a part of? “The world’s environment is being conserved to some degree only by such movements,” he says. “Otherwise, everything would have been destroyed.” And to make sure it isn’t, he beats his dhap and sings of the beauty of the hills. Watch him singing in the video featured here (the lyrics are below the video image):

Watch video: Sunani's 'Song for Niyamgiri'

Song for Niyamgiri

We will never leave the mountain, stream, forest and our home
We will not give up the struggle, even if we have to sacrifice our lives
Dear friends, we will not leave the struggle 

The mountain, forest, and streams are our gods
The land is full of flowers and fruits that are like Kuber [the Hindu god of wealth]
Dear friends, the mountain, forest, land and streams are our gods
The land, water, air, sky and fire are the devata [god]

Our devata is the one ‘who always gives’ – our god is our life
Dear friends, the mountain, forest, land and streams are our gods
It is our Bha-ga-ban: ‘bha’ for bhoomi [land], ‘ga’ for gagan [sky], ‘ba’ for baayu [air] and ‘na’ for neer [water]  

The land provides us with greenery, trees, fruits and roots
The sky provides the air, and gives the water of the stream
The water flows like mother’s milk

Dear friends, we drink the milk of the motherland
You can stay alive after leaving your gods,
But we cannot live after leaving our god 

Whether or not it is true, we don’t know
How can you stay alive by giving up nature?

Oh dear! This science is the truth
Dear friends! Please accept the truth
And discard untruths!
The mountain, land, forest and streams are our main deities 

Our land is full of forest, fruits, roots and animals
We are neither Hindu nor Muslim nor Christians
We are the tribes and worshipers of nature
Dear friends, we are equal, man and woman
Dear friends, we enjoy freedom here  

Dear friends, the government and the corporates suppress us 
They’re together with each other
Dear friends, the mountain, land, forest and streams are our gods
We will save the forest, land, water, animals and people 

If the environment is destroyed, all of us will be dead
We, the farmers, labourers and daily-wage workers, all will be united
We will drive away those who loot us, only then we can survive…  

Dear friends, the mountain, land, forest and streams are our gods
Hey government! We will not be afraid of your lathis, bullets and jail
We will sacrifice for our motherland and not give up the struggle!
Wake up all the tribes and workers
If we are attacked, we, the children of the soil, will not remain silent
Our struggle will continue… 

Dear friends! We wish to remain in peace – and be free!
Dear friends, we are fighting for our rights!
Dear friends, let the corporate government get out!
Dear friends, the mountain, land, forest and streams are our gods...

Purusottam Thakur is a 2015 PARI Fellow, and a freelance journalist, photographer and documentary filmmaker who reports from Chhattisgarh and Odisha. He also works for the Azim Premji Foundation.

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