Archive for the ‘Custodial Beating’ Category

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Where Individuality Means Waging War Against The State

September 29, 2011

The Curious Case Of Lingaram Kodopi

Testimonies from the burnings of the villages of Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram were also collected by Lingaram and can be found on youtube here.

This article first appears in abridged form in DNA on the 26th of September, 2011.

I got a call around midnight in the Delhi summer. It was Lingaram, the young Muria adivasi from Sameli village in Dantewada, then studying in Noida’s International Media Institute of India. Linga’s misfortunes never seem to end: first he was accused of helping the Maoists, then tortured in the police station toilet, forced to be a Special Police Officer, then released with the help of a habeas corpus petition. In a few months, he would be dealing with encounter killings in his village that left three dead, to only add to the targetting of his family members by the Chhattisgarh police, and then to be accused in a press conference by Senior Superintendent of Police Kalluri of being a mastermind of an attack on a Congress leader, and that Lingaram would be the sucessor to Maoist leader Azad.

‘Javed bhai,’ He asked me that night in Delhi, ‘do you know where I can get a Che Guevara t-shirt?’

Silence.

‘Linga, you wear that T-shirt in Dantewada, you’d be the first man in jail.’

Lingaram chuckled uncontrollably.

Prankster.

A young man who is repeatedly targetted by the state of Chhattisgarh wants to wear a t-shirt with a face of a revolutionary while he traipses around the forests as a newly-trained video journalist, with the clearest of intentions of trying to help his people.

That alone, is his first crime against the state. Lingaram wants to help the adivasis, his own people, which means, to ensure them a fair stake in their forests, their lands, and their rights, which is completely against the policies of the state of Chhattisgarh. That alone, is a crime. That alone, makes him a Maoist sympathizer.

A simple idea, enshrined in the idea of the dignity of the human being: that he should not be shot, that she should not be raped, that they should not lose their children to war, that they should not lose their forests and their way of life to the profit margins of companies, and the idea of economic growth.

Lingaram was arrested again on the 9th of September, 2011 from his village of Sameli in Dantewada, for allegedly facilitating Essar Steel’s payment of protection money to the Maoists.

He was arrested along with B.K Lala, a contractor.

That Essar Steel pays the Maoists is a fact that was well-known in Dantewada. In 2009, when the Maoists blasted the 267km pipeline that carried iron ore slurry to Vishakapatnam, one local journalist was quick to quip: ‘It’s collection time!’

Essar Steel pays local journalists too to keep their mouths shut. That also everyone knew. Local journalists need to collect their own advertising revenue and they get that from companies.

As for Essar Steel paying the Maoists, this is no new phenomena. Contractors and companies have paid the Maoists in almost all the districts where they have a ‘liberated zone’. You don’t cut a single beedi leaf or mine a single rock of ore without paying the Maoists.

Lingaram, would’ve been one of the rarest breeds of journalists in a district of Muria and Koya adivasis: he would be one who knew Gondi, who spoke the language of the people in the furthest hills, with the quietest whispers.

His story on the Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram burnings is available on youtube, and his story quotes adivasis who want justice, who want ‘karvai’, nor ‘kranti’, they want investigations, not anything else. It is there for everyone to see, called ‘Dantewada burning 1.mov’

Linga knew his district too and what his people would tell you. He would tell you that the development by the Essars and Tatas is not development for his people. He would tell you how even though the National Mineral Development Corporation and the Bailadila mines have been around since the 1960s, it has not brought any upliftment to the hundreds of adivasi villages around it.

But why is he really in jail?

The state of Chhattisgarh has an unwritten set of rules about how an adivasi is meant to behave. You don’t organize, you don’t agitate, you don’t protest human rights violations, you don’t protest against the state, and you certiainly don’t protest against industrial development, which the drafters of the new Land Acquisition bill will tell you in the introduction to the bill, that ‘urbanization is inevitable’….. and these adivasis better understand that.

Lingaram joins all the other adivasis who stood up for their rights and started to ask questions about the kind of development that was thrown onto them without a choice: Manish Kunjam, an ex-MLA was given death threats and has been living on borrowed time, Kartam Joga, Supreme Court petitioner against the Salwa Judum who is in jail on absurd charges, Kopa Kunjam, human rights activist who refused to be bought by the state.

They’re all guilty of trying to help their people.

The Maoists too, claim to help the Adivasis. And while some people would like to ensure that those two things, ‘the Maoists’ and the ‘adivasis’ are the same thing, there’s also another adivasi voice dissenting amidst the dissenters that says, ‘but they kill our own people.’ Lingaram, the so-called Maoist sympathizer, would last call me when he needed help to ensure his uncle could get treatment after the Maoists shot him in his leg.

Linga also had that voice, the voice to profess his complete independence: free of being called something. I still remember the one thing he said with most emphasis, the first time I met him: ‘I just want to be my own person.’

Individuality, according to the state of Chhattisgarh, is also called Waging War Against the State now. Individuality would mean, that a young boy who is being forced by two warring parties to come to their side, doesn’t need to choose his allegiances but can be his own person.

A Brief Note on Kuakonda Block: Lingaram’s Testimony

One day in Kuakonda block: a mother and her child look on as security forces who commandeered their vehicle return to base camp, about thirty minutes after an IED blast that injured three security personnel and led to the arbitrary detention of four adivasis, including a young boy. The incident took place on the 2nd of May, 2009.

Lingaram had given a testimony in the Independent People’s Tribunal in Delhi on the 9th of April, 2010, three days after the Tadmetla killings that left 76 security personnel dead. The entire testimony is here:

“My name is Lingaram, from Sameli,  Dantewada.  I am a driver and my family has a car, in which I can ferry people.  We  have  some land on which we farm.  I am not very literate.

I was watching TV at home, around September last year.  Five  motorcycles came, with 10 people, who were holding AK 47s. They took me to Koukonda. They asked me questions such as “where did you get the bike from?  How do you go about in style?”  My family is fairly comfortably off, but they accused me of being a Naxalite.  They  tortured me and wanted me to become an SPO.

In the meanwile, my family members filed a writ of habeus corpus. I should have been released. But they kept threatening me that I would either be killed by them—in a fake encournter, or by the Naxalites.  Finally, I  agreed to be an Special Police Officer. They took me for the Court hearing and kept me in a fancy hotel—but before the judge, I said that although I have come here of my own will, I now wish to return to my family and village.  So the police had to let me go.

But on the way back, while I was being accompanied by my family and villagers in cars, the security forces stopped us again, and arrested me again and were trying to force me to go back to the police station.  However, I managed to flee, but my brother was taken by them instead.  A few days later, they again came for me. And have been threatening my father also.

I have been living in hiding since. The police are still looking for me.

Who is not grieved by the killings of 76 people? But I feel that even though the stated target of the police is the naxalites, the real target is somewhere else? Why are we (adivasis) being harassed by the police because of what the Naxalites do?  Why can’t we adivasis wear a good watch, drive a car without being picked up by the police?

Our village has 1800 people, the block has 30,000 people.

I fear that because of what has happened recently (the killing of 76 security forces), the entire town of Chintalnar will be razed.  Just because of coming here to testify, God knows what will happen to me.  But I have to die in any case, how long can I live in hiding?

There is news that some mineral has been discovered in the hills close to our village. And I think that is the real reason that the police is there, not because of the Naxalites.

We have a Gram Panchayat but it has no meaning.  It is full of Marwaris and non-tribals.  If we write and send them something, they bury it and make sure that it doesn’t reach any of the authorities.  We have no education, no health, nothing.  Calling us Naxalites is simply an excuse to terrorize us.

We have a school in our village upto the 5th class.  The teachers come for only one day in a month, and collect a full month’s pay. We want real education.

The only time the politicians come is during the elections.  No one comes to our areas except the police force. We complained about the teachers—but to no avail.  We are told that till Maoists are there, we can’t get any relief. When we tell the Maoists we want education, they tell us that they aren’t here for us, adivasis, but for a ‘class war’.

There is no NREGA in our region. We were organized under an organization to collect forest produce, but were told that we are Naxalites. How is it that the Marwaris can come and steal our forest produce and make high profits, but when we, adivasis try to collect it, we are called Naxalites?

We get enough from our land to feed us.  What is development?  NMDC has operated in our area for 52 years but has only caused destruction. Naxalites don’t help us, but they don’t hurt us either.  If having a company nearby could give us development, then considering that Bailadila (NMDC mines) is 20 km from us and has been there before the Naxalites, then we should have had a lot of development. What is the reason that we still have no education and no hospital? Not one hospital in 52 years!  When our Adivasis go to Bailadila for treatment, they humiliate us and don’t admit us to their hospitals.”

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The War Dogma

July 8, 2011

This article appears in the July issue of Agenda/Infochange for the theme on the ‘Limits of Freedom’.

“So what is this in my contract? What does it really mean that I need to fulfil my role as a reporter?” I had asked my editor a week before I headed back to Dantewada, not as a freelancer anymore but as a reporter for The New Indian Express. “That you have to show some level of professionalism,” he replied curtly. “And that means?” I shuddered. The word ‘professionalism’ had strong leanings towards corporatism in my mind. “That you need to just write the truth,” he said. “Marry me,” I said, overjoyed. That’s all I wanted to do.

I left his office, went home, packed, took the first bus to the ‘jungle’, and wrote a story about the aftermath of a combing operation in the village of Gompad. The story would be printed a few days later as the lead story. The photograph showed Katam Suresh, an 18-month-old baby whose fingers had been cut off by members of the security forces. That was my first published story. It was November 15, 2009.

Dantewada 2009 was a very different place from Dantewada 2010. In 2009, Dantewada wasn’t yet the place where 76 jawans were killed, where a civilian bus was hit by an IED, where Arundhati Roy had gone walking with comrades, where the ‘army had to be sent in’, or where the media pundits had anything much to say about the place. In 2009, the emptying of 644 villages, the displacing of an estimated 60,000-200,000 people, the burning, the looting, murdering, raping of adivasis, the fratricidal violence of the Maoists and the Salwa Judum, and the daily anxiety of existing in a civil war for four years wasn’t news. That a young baby had been shot dead by the CRPF in Cherpal wasn’t national news even though the local press picked up the story.

It was January when I first reached Dantewada as a freelancer. Nineteen adivasis had been murdered at Singaram, a fair distance from the forest guest house where I was residing in Bijapur. It was news in the local newspapers, and in Andhra Pradesh’s Telegu media, and in Tehelka. That’s where it ended. Maoism and tribal issues were out of sight and out of mind for the blind and mindless mainstream media. Much later I would learn that a group of anthropologists and human rights workers had gone to Delhi to attend meetings with the editors of numerous media, on the realities of Dantewada and the atrocities of the Salwa Judum. Their response was silence.

I was hoping to take enough pictures to help bring the ‘truth’ to the public consciousness. But before I was allowed into the more sensitive areas of Bastar district, I was warned that I’d need a little ‘get-through-the-checkpoint’ press card. “Many cadres of the Maoist party are illiterate, and they don’t take kindly to strangers. But they have been taught to identify P-R-E-S-S,” said a local journalist. Large areas of the district were out of bounds for the general public and the press. However, in 2009, anyone with a press card could go almost anywhere. The truth was instantly available, provided one was willing to give it time and a good pair of boots.

I spent months in Dantewada running my boots into the ground.

I know there are no universal truths, no feeble ideologies, no nationalist dirges, development gospels, human rights, no individual glories. The one simple basis to hold the entire knife’s edge of ‘stepping into’ a war is a faint humanism that exists when you sit quietly and look at the woman whose face has been slashed with a knife, and wonder why. You end up sympathising with fathers who cut the necks of their adult sons after they’ve had too much to drink. You wonder if that’s the whole story. You know it’s not. You ask why a teacher who asks, ‘Why are you killing innocent people’ is stabbed by the Maoists. You ask why an orphan is now a feared soldier; you ask why his village is now desolate, unlived in and empty. You ask why the Maoists killed a young woman’s father…

The more I delved, the more I realised that nothing is what it seems. The black-and-white binary certainties are like landmines that naïve idealists and careerist apologists for the status-quo tend to tread. What certainties? That the Maoists are bad? Or the state is only driven by corporate interests? Or that the Maoists do good, and the government has never done any good in 60 years? Or that the Salwa Judum are just state-backed vigilantes whose sole purpose is to uproot the tribals from their lands?

To look at Dantewada clearly one has to look through a myriad shattered crystals.

A lot depends on where you stand. Are you standing between a crying mother and the barbed wire across which state officials are conducting an autopsy on her son whom they shot dead? Or across from a young boy whose leg was filled with shrapnel from a Maoist grenade? Or in a police van getting beaten up by the police for reporting on the burning of a village?

You report the details, caring little for abstract politics or the power struggles in the upper echelons of society that are so cut off from the realities of human suffering. Every time a politician opens his mouth, his statements reek of irrelevance when set against the bloodshed. And the war goes on; the unimaginable terror in central India does not fuel anti-war sentiment in anyone but a small minority of citizens. The mainstream media happily propagates war. A mention of the burning of villages to a senior sub-editor of a newspaper is met with citations of the Jnaneswari massacre or the killing of 76 jawans. Do atrocities justify atrocities? Is war the only solution to atrocity? The state and media do not allow you to humanise any aspect of conflict. War is a business, and business is devoid of sentiment. Dead jawans don’t appear on TV to say war is bad, yet we need war to avenge our dead jawans.

While state atrocities are overwhelming, the justifications for Maoist terror appear shallow especially when read in the context of the dynamics of power. Yes there is indeed structural violence, and the breakdown of democratic space contributes to the downward spiral of violence and counter-violence. But power is structural violence too.

The word ‘revolution’ is as casually used and as ambivalent as the term ‘democracy’. We notice quite easily that for millions of Indians neither has ever existed, for the country has never quite rid itself of its colonial past. All this is clearer in central India, and in the actions of the state against islands of popular resistance in places such as Narayanpatna, Lohandiguda, Kalinganagar, Kashipur, Jaitapur, Jagatsinghpur and Sompeta where police firing and arbitrary arrests have been and continue to be perpetrated with impunity.

A journalist has few choices. Write what the state wants you to write and stay alive, especially if you’re a local journalist who lives in the war zone. Write the truth, publish the report and believe that the government and the rest of the country will be sympathetic to the concerns of the people; after all, we are a democratic nation. Dissent, if voiced sharply enough, will draw in opposition parties, generate public debate, and lead to an eventual victory for the people. Or else the journalist believes that if there is no democracy then there is no such thing as journalism. Then the rulebooks become pointless and have to be thrown out.

In 2010, when the central government finally started to pay attention to what the state of Chhattisgarh was doing to its people in Dantewada, it initiated Operation Green Hunt — a consent-seeking name for the actions of the Chhattisgarh state over the past five years. All attempts to bring the truth to the public consciousness, and to the attention of the powers-that-be, culminated in a minister declaring that he’d wipe out the Naxalites and then bring development.

It’s done wonders for my career though. Thank you, Mr Chidambaram. After Operation Green Hunt I became one of the first English daily journalists working in the area.

After months of reporting on atrocity after atrocity committed by both sides, I have found myself witness to one of the greatest crimes in the country. Of course, I had always questioned the myth of conflict journalism — the belief that news of atrocities would lead somebody far away, in a position of power and motivated to stop them, to intervene, to help end the war. That is pure fantasy. The war continues…

After a point it’s not about writing the truth but living with it.

I have been documenting the end of an entire community in the name of profit, development and the big (fake) picture: the so-called greater good of superpower India. Human suffering is all too real and inevitable, but to go through life without realising that much of it is unnecessary is tragic.

The adivasis don’t have to lose their forests, and the soldiers don’t have to die.

As a journalist, you’re supposed to walk away, go home, chew on the fat of life, and call ‘it’ — death, war, destruction and bottles of beer — nothing but a job. That’s very convenient especially if you don’t want to challenge the status-quo. Is that what conflict journalism is supposed to do? Or are those the natural demands of the nature of truth?

Journalism’s only been around for a couple of hundred years or so. Truth and the demand for truth are older. They belong to the first time a caveman wondered why another caveman was stealing his food and calling it ‘development’. As for mainstream corporate journalism, prostitution has been around longer and is a more legitimate profession with more ethical constraints. What may we say of the ethics and norms enforced by the Time magazines of the world, who use the photograph of a girl with a severed nose to propagate a war? Are these the ethics required of journalists working in the ‘developing world’? The same ‘developing world’ that is trying to exist against the very forces whose wars they propagate? The photograph of a defaced Aisha Bibi, unsurprisingly, won the World Press Photo award for Photo of the Year even as photographs of children blown apart by predator drones don’t seem to win awards. An ethic to vie for.

To them, the Third World is a vicarious frenzy, the ultimate downer, humanity’s hellhole. Go to the Congo, go to Rwanda, write about a million rapes, murders, and every detail of bloody mayhem and unimaginable poverty. Fit all this into a narrative that says the Third World can never govern itself without the help of the West, the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, and foreign intervention. They’ve been saying that about the Middle East since the Balfour Declaration. Now, thanks to one street vendor who burnt himself on the streets of Tunisia, they are eating their words.

Our media hasn’t the maturity to think about whether adivasis can govern themselves or not, but they happily follow the inherited ethics of corporate journalism without much ado: neutrality, distance and objectivity. And that is a joke because they’re not neutral, they’re too distant from the ground, and they’re definitely not objective. Nowhere in the press are the causes of the insurgency ever spelled out to the world. Nowhere are the combatants on both sides (by both media) looked at as human beings.

I can’t live with the truth that journalism is a bullshit profession if truth has been transgressed. When war is the message of the messengers, in a world that is already stricken with terror and fear. And we are at love-war with ambivalent language — there are those who call murders encounters, pogroms riots, genocide development, and hatred patriotism; and there are those who call revolution social transformation. Truth is too often packaged as propaganda. One becomes only too aware that reports on atrocities are used by the ‘other’ side to propagate their war, and they call it a people’s war — this is the strangest contradiction of anti-war reporting.

Does a journalist only subsist within words and images? When we need not words but actions to ensure that a spade is called a spade, that a rose is a rose is a rose? In a world where acts of terror are far more vitriolic than words of love, is the message the only purpose of a journalist? To write, to protest, to write and keep writing?

Truth is, I don’t know.

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The Non-Nation

April 16, 2011

The Non-Nation

And A Short Story Of Racism

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
-Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), French economist

‘But are the tribals doing anything with that land?’

‘We need the steel, the adivasis need to be compensated for their land properly. And in my experience, I have seen the companies pay handsomely but the money is lost in the lower levels of governance.’

‘How much money would be enough for your land?’

‘The tribals are the ones responsible for destroying the forests.’

The above statements are some of the most common observations/insights made by non-tribals about tribals and the ‘largest land grab since Columbus.’ But before we get to them, I’d like to write about another story of murder in Dantewada.

On the 23rd of January, 2011, a Special Police Officer Ismael Khan was shot dead in Dantewada, as he watched a murgga fight at the market. It was not a gunfight, it was a targeted assassination by all accounts. And while it was nothing new to Kalluri’s Dantewada, there was something that troubled me about this one particular SPO’s demise. I knew his name, I knew something else about him.

There is a story untold: the story of Ismael Khan is the story of Kottacheru, and the story of Kovasi Dhoole, and the story of Dantewada and the adivasis of Bastar – the danger of a single narrative is the danger of the constant narrative – of violence,  and counter-violence. Yet the single narrative needs to be repeated as a vain elegy for every passing statistic that shall appear at the end of the year by the Home Ministry, about the Maoists killed, or those the Maoists have killed, or the Security forces killed in ambushes or assassinated, on the great canvas of the gaping divide between the rich and the poor, the fat and the dispossessed.

But what is the story of Kovasi Dhule and Kottacheru?

‘‘Nine of our people were killed in our village,’ Said Maala (name changed), another IDP from Kottacheru. But when I asked him for the names of the killed, he only gave me five names – the five people who were killed by the Salwa Judum. Then another woman, reservedly gave me the name of ‘Kovasi Dhoole,’ a young woman who was coming home to Kottacheru. And she wasn’t clear about how she died.

‘Did she die when the Salwa Judum raided the village?’ I had asked.

‘No.’

‘Did the Maoists kill her?’

She was quiet.

Eventually, over the course of six months, after interviewing over 14 villagers of Kottacheru in three different locations in Khammam district, including Kovasi Dhoole’s sister, I managed to piece together the story of Kovasi Dhoole and the story of Kottacheru.

In 2007, Kovasi Dhoole was a young woman on her way from Nagaras to her village of Kottacheru. She was stopped at Errabor police station and allegedly detained against her will. She only reappeared two months later, as a SPO, married to another SPO, a ‘turrka’ or Muslim, according to the rest of the villagers of Kottacheru. They also alleged that she was forced to become a SPO, and there was no ‘consent’ in the marriage.

A while later, on the 9th of July, 2007, a combing operation was ambushed near the village of Gaganpalli by the Maoists. 25 security personnel were killed via the use of IEDs placed in the trees and small arms fire. The security personnel retreated out of the jungle and it would take them three whole days to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades. Kovasi Dhoole was one of the injured who was abandoned to the Maoists who found her bullet-ridden body. She was still conscious and breathing. Yet there was no mercy killing. For some reason, the Maoists took her injured body and left it at the road, hoping someone would take her to the hospital.

No one did.

Kovasi Dhoole from the village of Kottacheru, bled to death.’

The SPO, or ‘turrka’ who had married her was Ismael Khan. Before Salwa Judum, he was a dukaandaar at Errabor.

Death comes a full circle.

Every story without heroes ends simply with the death of the antagonists.

Yet why do I write about just another story of a dead soldier and a dead adivasi in Dantewada and what does this have to do with racism?

The story of Ismael Khan, is a manifestation of a cultural hegemony when it is armed – ‘join us,’ at the point of the gun. That the Salwa Judum is populated by young men, tribal and non-tribal with a state-as-god-given right to power is not a myth.

War has now become a way of life for a group of men living together in society. And they have created for themselves, over the course of the last few years a legal system that doesn’t need to work, and a media without any moral code but empty nationalism that glorifies their actions.

And when everyone from the Collector to the dukaandaar is an amateur anthropologist who knows what the tribals need and how they should live, one needs to wonder when it is openly evident that Operation Green Hunt, in its many forms, was a long way coming.

And why? Let us go back a bit and put things into context.

The furthest, darkest heart of central India is not where civilization or development hasn’t completely trickled down, it’s the place where the post-colonialist face of India is still stark-naked, where the mass delirium of India’s token democracy has not brainwashed people who’ve been very conveniently erased from national consensus.

The administration, when it functions, can only acted as an anodyne for a superstructure that is almost entirely exploitative.

One of the most apologetic analysis of the situation in the jungle is that the people need ‘development’ or an administration that functions. Apparently if every village had electricity, a handpump, functioning ration shops and NREGA schemes devoid of corruption, there’d be no insurgency in the first place. Yet one thing that is missing in the entire narrative, is the explicit racism of the majority of the mainstream Indian population when dealing with the ‘other’ – a fascinating metanarrative of the mainstream believing that the adivasis don’t see democracy, or their rights, or their ‘development’ as ‘we’ do, just as the West believes about the East.

Firstly, both schemes, NREGA and the PDS, indirectly imply that the people cannot get work nor feed themselves. Yet why does that situation exist in the first place?

In the jungles, the state itself has been oppressive for decades. In many areas, the only face of the state visible to the tribal is the Forest Department that has routinely exploited, beaten, arrested and robbed the tribals of their land and forests not just for the last few years but for decades. The tribals would be happy as ever if such civilization never reached them. The Forest Department is a part of this same bureaucracy – IAS, IPS, IFS, all of the same crop of the most brilliant, brightest, minds or worst nightmares of the indigenous tribals of India – a  ‘collector’, a word that denotes a collector of taxes, a post-colonial colloquism, but more importantly, a part of that same super-structure that has kept the adivasis away from their forests.

Recently, a survey by the Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy put India’s bureaucracy as ‘the worst in Asia.’ What a surprise. But are our bureaucrats really such special beings or are they merely a manifestation of the culture and society that they are coming from?

This is what one of the members of the Constituent Assembly, Professor Shibban Lal Saksena had to say about the tribals in 1949, during the Constituent Assembly Debates,

‘That these brethren of ours are still in such a sub-human state of existence is something for which we should be ashamed…..I only want that these scheduled tribes and scheduled areas should be developed so quickly that they may become indistinguishable from the rest of the Indian population.’

That apparently, was a much common point of view during the debates of the Constituent Assembly that was elected to write the Constitution – the tribes were ‘sub-human’ and they had to be like everyone else. In other terms, that is called cultural genocide.

Even today the non-tribals will happily go to the Schedule Areas to cheat, manipulate and exploit tribals. I still remember a non-tribal contractor happily telling me that ‘you just come to Dantewada to make money in whatever way possible,’ and in the very next breath, he mentions how, ‘everything this Manish Kunjam is doing is all futile.’ Fighting for tribal rights, is apparently futile. And when half his party workers are in jail, and their hartals in jail are met with beatings, the state is doing its best to tell him it is futile.

A prominent journalist working in Dantewada who has often written about fake encounters and state atrocities had another interesting observation about industrial development: after spending his entire day with villagers from Lohandiguda, who spoke about false cases and state repression, who openly said they had no desire for the 35 or 50 lakhs of rupees for their fertile lands; he would turn to a foreign correspondent and tell him that this district needs Tata’s steel plant and development: so mining is okay if you don’t shoot the tribals?

‘What development?’ I had asked surprisingly, ‘how would Tata’s plant benefit the tribals here?’

‘That it won’t.’ He responded effortlessly.

Let’s not forget that Mr.Chidambaram had once accused a social activist fighting for tribal rights, for wanting to keep tribals as ‘hunters and gatherers.’ The intellectual bankruptcy in that statement alone is enough proof of Mr.Chidambaram’s utmost condescension of over 80-90 million people of the country. Adivasis are farmers, Mr.Chidambaram, and if they are hunting and gathering to survive, it’s because the Forest Department has kicked them out of the forests and built plantations over the land they cultivated.

But there is more, ‘Yes, we can allow the minerals to remain in the ground for another 10,000 years, but will that bring development to these people? We can respect the fact that they worship the Niyamgiri hill, but will that put shoes on their feet or their children in school?’ – Thus Spake Chidambaram.

‘Will that solve the fact that they are severely malnutritioned and have no access to health care?’

Apparently the massive exploitation and the dispossession of their forests doesn’t have anything to do with a tribal’s inability to feed his/her family. On the 22nd of March this year, over 64 tribals and Dalits from Bolangir, one of the hungry KBK districts (Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi) of Orissa, were rescued from virtual bonded labour at a brick kiln in Hyderabad. They had been working without pay for over five months and faced regular beatings by their contractors.

There are an estimated 600 brick kilns (2005 figures) populated with tribals and Dalits from Orissa in Andhra Pradesh, and there is an endemic debt-trap, brought on by advance payments by ‘sardars’ or middlemen – and the worker and his family has no choice but to work in the brick kiln until he can pay off the advance, and often faces abuse in an almost un-regulated industry thriving in the universe of unequal power.

On the 28th of March, 2011, 44 adivasis and Dalits from Bolangir and Nuapada had to be rescued from a brick kiln at Pattancheru Mandal after one of the contractor’s relatives tried to rape a tribal woman.

Apart from that, almost all the workers complained of meagre weekly wages, threats and beatings. The incident of attempted rape was merely the breaking point. The muslim husband-wife contractor-duo responded by calling it all lies, and that the adivasis were all just drunk.

The adivasis wanted go back home. The contractors wanted them to continue working.

After the perpetrator was taken away by the police, every conversation with the mistrys and contractors attempting to bring better working conditions for the people were met with responses like, ‘these people are all cheaters.’

‘they lie like this all the time.’

‘they don’t understand reason.’

Nearby contractors who also ran a brick kiln sat on the sidelines gave their wholehearted support to the Muslim contractor and his family. And class, the great equalizer plays its role.

One Matang couple who live in a village in Nandurbar in Maharastra without land of their own, and work in Brahmin fields for Rs.50 a day during the harvest season, had quite easily filled his shoes as a contractor-exploiter for the adivasis at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh.

‘They were such nice people,’ She said, about the contractor-duo and their alleged rapist-relative, ‘these Orissa people had to ruin everything.’

Even their own workers caught up with me and told me that they weren’t treated well by them either. And while they went back to work, the 44 men, women and children from Bolangir and Nuapada were taken away by the government’s labour department and put on a train back to home – Bolangir, where droughts and hunger deaths had put the district in a spotlight, where all the recently-rescued said that they had no land, or if they did, there was no irrigation facility to help make it productive.

There are no figures on how many adivasis from the KBK districts migrate to work under adverse conditions at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh. There are independent estimates in thousands while they’re almost invisible to the government.

And funny how the starvation deaths in Kalahandi, were used as arguments by Vedanta’s lawyers to justify the mining of Niyamgiri.

And yet ‘they’ – the ‘rulers of the country’, want an Adivasi battalion formed for the Dantewadas and Lalgarhs – like there hasn’t been enough fratricidal violence in the Red Corridor.

Instead of starving them, let them kill each other while we mine their mountains.

The state is not just oppressive, but the people have been for decades. The adivasis are seldom treated as equals by non-tribals and it’s not just ‘development’ or a corruption-free administration that the tribals need to rescue them (and themselves) from insurgencies.

There is more.

Insurgencies are symptomatic of the very idea of a nation-states. The fantasies of nationalism, these post-colonial hangovers, along with a bunch of elitist clowns with delusions of grandeur have drawn imaginary lines across communities where the majority literally drives minorities into the hole, and there will be identity-driven self-assertions of rights. A thousand times over, I’ve heard adivasis call themselves Muria, not Maoists, Kondhs, not Maoists, Muria, not ‘Indians’, Kondh, not ‘Indians.’ The Maoists from Andhra Pradesh in Dantewada had managed to build a base because they spoke Muria, they spoke Koya, they let the tribals remain tribals (to an extent) + (apart from entirely militarizing their society).

Now, has the Indian mainstream ever allowed minorities to be minorities? Have they allowed the tribals to at least decide their own fate?

Yes, we have. The Indian Constitution has one of the most progressive laws in the world – PESA or Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) Act, where the tribals are allowed to govern themselves with their own Gram Sabhas. The Supreme Court would not have the right to veto a decision of the Gram Sabha if it said it didn’t want Tata or Jindal or Essar to build on their land. And yet, these Gram Sabha resolutions have been violated by the administration repeatedly across the Fifth Schedule, with complete impunity, often in the favour of big business, as well as the upper caste landlords, thekedaars and non-tribals.

So now as I brought it up, I must ask, why is our administration routinely flouting PESA resolutions?

This is what one of the Collectors of Bastar, J.P. Vyas had to say to Anthropologist Nandini Sundar, in 1992 about a proposed Steel Plant being set up in Bastar and the displacement it would cause.

‘If the people were consulted beforehand and asked for permission, inherent in this, is the possibility that they might refuse. And then where would the government be?’

He had gone on to tell her that the people were ignorant and once the experts decided where the project would be, there was nothing more to be said – (from her book on Bastar, Subalterns and Sovereigns).

Today, there are state-organized public hearings, where the representatives of big companies often tell the tribals, ‘there are other things here that are too technical to understand.’

Another brilliant expert, I had encountered, worked in the ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Authority) Badrachalam, who didn’t know who the Murias were, and he requested that I tell the tribals to leave the jungles and come and live closer to the road so the government welfare programmes can reach them.

All of it pretty much summing up that the ‘tribals don’t know any better,’ that they ‘need to do something with their land’, or that land, life and livelihood can be equated with money.

I wonder where that idea comes from.

What becomes only too evident, is that we have a social apartheid, where we have an invisible, un-written set of value-judgements upon an entire class of people who live out of sight and out of mind, and we’re aping the West who’ve colonized, butchered, enslaved, and murdered indigenous societies for centuries, and we are too far from evolving into a democracy they have never been, and could possibly never be – one that is egalitarian, just and equal, impassioned yet restrained, and where the words ‘development’ would belong to the people, and not politicians and their wanker-overlords.

To be a nation that is simply accepting of diversity, not just by shallow pretence but by substance. But we are just another half-democracy, half-republic and half-nation that needs to cannibalize itself to survive.

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Narayanpatna: Movement On The Run

February 5, 2011

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 6th of February, 2011.

‘Nachika Linga’s owner’s house used to be this one,’ Says the Border Security Force commander, regarding the newest BSF camp set up at Podapadar village, one of the flashpoints of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh movement. The house in question belonged to Nila Kancha Parida who literally owned Nachika Linga – a bonded labourer on his own land who used to earn Rs.5 per month, eventually a leader of a tribal movement, and now, one of the most wanted people in Narayanpatna block. It is literally petty symbolism that the once-oppressor’s house is now used by the Border Security Force to track down members of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, who stood up for their land rights in 2009.

Today, their entire movement has gone underground, over 150 of their members and their supporters are in jail, including Gananath Patra, of the CPI (ML), who was arrested as a Maoist, as well as his associate Tapan Mishra, who has already clashed with officials in the prison after going on numerous hunger strikes. Yet the vast majority of the CMAS live in fear further within the jungles, often on the move, without food, in constant risk of being apprehended.

Nevertheless, six Kondh tribal women and four infants had gotten onto the Hirakhand Express at Koraput railway station on the 25th of January 2011 to travel to Bhubaneshwar. For many of them it was the first time on a train. There was never any need to go to Bhubaneshwar, or anywhere beyond their jungles in Narayanpatna or Laxmipur before. But secretly, and quietly, these six women travelled to Bhubaneshwar, and were told that they would have to testify at a public hearing, to the National Human Rights Commission.

All six women have lost their husbands to state violence.

Balsi Kendruka w/o Andru of the village of Baliaput, Narayanpatna lost her husband on the 20th of November firing/’camp attack’.

Sonai Kendruka w/o Singana of the village of Podapadar, Narayanpatna lost her husband on the 20th of November firing/’camp attack’.

Kamla Tadingi w/o Ganguli of the village of Bagam, Narayanpatna lost her husband when he was picked up by the police in Narayanpatna, and died in custody in Koraput Jail on the 12th of April 2010.

Kamla Sirika w/o Ratna of the village of Siriguda, Narayanpatna lost her husband when he went for treatment for an unspecified illness to Narayanpatna town, and was arrested by the police and died in a hospital in Berhampur on the 8th of June, 2010.

Saibo Honika w/o Jimme of the village of Jogipalur, Narayanpatna lost her husband when the security forces raided her village. He was allegedly drowned in Janjawali river.

Singaru Huika w/o Katru of the village of Talameting,  Laxmipur was shot dead by the security forces the day after the Maoists had raided the nearby NALCO plant where they killed ten CISF jawaans and lost four of their own on the 12th of April 2009. Katru Huika is suprisingly even mentioned as a ‘public witness’ in the FIR filed regarding the NALCO attack.

And the women barely spoke at the hearing.

The irony is that K G Balakrishnan, chairman of the NHRC returned to Delhi a day before the hearing. (The bigger irony was that he would have been sharing the dias with the senior advocate Prashant Bhusan who, along with his father, had indicted him as one of the ‘eight corrupt Chief Justices of India’),’ in a now-famous affidavit.

The hearing itself indicted the government of Orissa regarding ‘state repression on the rise in the state particularly on people’s movements against displacement and land grabbing.’ As for the recent spate of encounters in Bargarh, Keonjhar, Jajpur and Rayagada, it had called for ‘an independent and impartial investigation’.

The Way Of The Gun

Since the firing on the 20th of November, 2009, still widely considered to be a ‘camp attack’ by the police and the administration, all that the Kondh adivasis of Narayanpatna have seen is the slow militarization of their lives. Not only have three BSF camps been set-up in Narayanpatna block, but Maoist activity has also been on the rise. There had been one IED blast that claimed four civilian lives in January 2010, and since then there have been numerous IEDs recovered by the police in regular intervals. Just recently another IED exploded on the 11th of January, 2011 near Jogi Palur, injuring three government officials.

There have also been a series of killings by the Maoists in August of 2010, most infamously, of Anand Kirsani, the leader of the embryonic state-backed anti-CMAS group, the Shanti Committee, who was also a Zilla Parishad member and a Congress party leader. The Maoists also killed a member of the CPI (ML), Arjun Kendruka as an informant. Another villager, Ghasi Kendruka from Gotiguda village was killed on the 15th of August. The General Secretary of the CPI (Maoist) Ganapathy himself has stated in a recent interview about the gains made by his party in Narayanpatna block, and against the ‘revisionist’ tendencies of other members of communist parties working in both Narayanpatna and Bandhugaon block. And there has been no secret that the Bandugaon movement and the Narayanpatna movement have been at odds over the last two years.

And yet the core issue remains land.

While the Shanti committee has been ‘finished’ after the murder of their leader Anand Kirsani, there is still no gaurantee that the paddy that rightfully belongs to the tribals would not be illegally split 50-50 between the tribals and the non-tribal Sahukars and ‘landlords,’ as had happened last year, after the suppression of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh.

Cultivation is taking place in many of the strongholds of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh at Narayanpatna, and yet the BSF presence is ominous. On the 27h of January itself, reports emerged that 6 homes in Musalmanda village of Narayanpatna were allegedly burnt down by the security forces.

Images from a video capture of the burning of the homes of Narayanpatna.  Courtesy – Source.

A Soldier’s Crisis

‘You know what would solve this whole Maoist problem?’ Asks a BSF commander, ‘There should be mandatory military service in either the CRPF or BSF by all citizens of India. This way some politician’s son can also end up at Podapadar.’

The imaginary border is drawn across the jungles, cutting across mainstream India and that which belongs to the Kondh of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh at Podapadar. The Border Security Force is once again strategically isolated as most security camps within the jungles are. A school functions a few metres from the camp, and hillocks surround the camp.

‘If we’re attacked, we’re on our own,’ Said the commander, ‘And we had asked for another spot, but they gave us this one.’

And the risks don’t stop there.

‘You don’t even have to ask us about mosquitoes,’ Said a BSF soldier, laughing, who mentions there have already been a handful of malaria cases in the camp.

Yet what remains striking is that the BSF soldiers were aware of the existence of bonded labour at Narayanpatna block. ‘Five generations of Nachika Linga were slaves.’ Mentions the BSF commander, yet the manhunt against him continues.

No one in Narayanpatna ever forgot the ‘dead or alive’ posters of Nachika Linga that were posted across the town.

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Invisible Cities: Part Five: A Place Called Mandala

January 2, 2011

 

‘Andolan ka matlab kya hai? Andolan matlab maar khana, andar jaana, bahaar aana, ladaee karna, ladte rehna.’

‘Aaana free, jaana free, pakad gaya toh khana free.’

‘kitni lambhi jail tumari, dekh liya hai, dekhenge. Jab tak jail mein chana rahega, humara aana jaana baana rahega.’ – A song in Mandala, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan.

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 2nd of January, 2011.

The story of the slums of Mandala cannot be told without the struggle of her poorest inhabitants against the demolition drives that literally come like the monsoons. In December 2004, homes were broken down in Mandala as part of the now-infamous demolition drive where it has been estimated around 85,000 homes were broken down across Mumbai. Then in 2005 after the Court’s had allowed the people of Mandala to rebuild their homes, they were broken down again.

Back then, the bulldozers had first come to Mandala slum to demolish Janta Nagar and Indiranagar in 2005. Only the women were present during the day as the men had all gone to work. Their first instincts were to lie before the bulldozers. To stand before them. To resist.

Yet as soon as a lathi-charge commenced, a fire had also started in the back of the slum. Many slum dwellers started to run back to rescue their property and their loved ones as others were beaten by lathis. The bulldozers eventually broke through the human barricades and tore into the slum.

And just across the highway at Annabhau Sathe Nagar, only as recently as the 14th of May 2010, had the bulldozers come and demolished an estimated 500 homes.

This is Mankhurd, literally, the dumping grounds of Mumbai – both the thrash and the slum dwellers of Mumbai, thrown out of the centres of the city, are thrown into rehabilitaion colonies. It is a part of Ward M or Chembur East, where, according to a Mumbai Human Development Report published in 2009 by the Ministry of Housing And Urban Poverty Alleviation, there are the maximimum number of resettlement colonies and over 77% of the population as per the 2001 census lives in slums. It has the highest illiteracy rate in the city, as well as a child mortality rate of 66 per 1000 births, which is even higher than the child mortality rate of war-torn Dantewada which is 56 per 1000 births.

The literacy rate for women in Ward M is the lowest in Mumbai – a mere 58.4% of the population, yet Anwari Sheikh, a mother of 11 children is an inspiration to the people of her slum. She’s one of the faces of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan that was born during the demolition drives of 2004-2005.

One day after the demolition, another slum-dweller had approached her as she was rummaging through the remnants of her home.

‘Ek mahila hai, humare jaise hi hai, woh humko maddat kar sakti hai.’ (There’s this lady, just like us, and she may be able to help us.’

Then they went and met Medha Patkar.

‘Medhaji said that if we could get her 100 women to fight, she’d fight with us. And that was easy, from day one itself we had 200 women.’ Says Anwari Sheikh.

She would then travel to Delhi by train with her youngest infant grappling in her arms. She remembers vividly the day she met Sonia Gandhi. This was in 2004, right after the Lok Sabha elections and the victory of the Congress.

‘Hum garib log ne aapko vote diya, aur aap humko bhul gaye?’ Anwari spoke boldly. And she would continue to speak boldly against every official and politician for the next six years fighting for the rights to a home, that they should be allowed rights to the land, and the freedom to build on it themselves. She would help to organize her own people, she would march, she would barge into offices, she would get beaten, her neighbours would get arrested, they would all stand before bulldozers, spend weeks in Azad Maidan in protest to the demolition drive. And it was here, on the 6th of April, 2005, that she was witness to the infamous lathi-charge that had numerous people injured and arrested, where filmmaker Anand Patwardhan would have his camera broken and Medha Patkar would be pulled by her hair by a policeman.

‘Humara rally koh todna hi tha us din,’ (They had to break our rally that day), Said Santosh Thorat of Annabhau Sathenagar of Mankhurd, who was beaten up that day as well, ‘Hum 6,000 log the, aur aane walle samay mein, kya malum, hum 22,000 log ho sakte the?’ (there were 6000 of us there, and who knows? Maybe in the coming days there would’ve been 22,000 of us?’

Santosh Thorat of Annabhau Sathe Nagar was originally in the police force as a home guard. Little did he know was that in 2005 he’d be part of the police force that had to demolish his own slum of 3000 homes. Yet he managed to make a deal with the demolition crew and his superiors to spare his house. Yet when he was sent for some other work, he returned to find his house demolished as well.

He left the force soon after. Even remembering the woman who returned home to find it demolished with her children inside. Luckily, the children hid under the cots and survived.

Bahut gaaliya diya woh din,’ He says today, in his home now rebuilt. He is another face of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan that is helping his slum fight for rights, especially the right to a home under the Rajiv Awaas Yojana scheme.

‘We all have different demands from the government, but we all fight together.’

Yet it has been six years now. And while the Andolan has managed to shake the administration, and even acquire a mythical proportion that leads activists across the country to come to Mandala to learn how the people organized themselves, their most basic demands are forever held in limbo to the government’s promises.

The struggle within

‘Hum thak gaye,’ Said Anwari Sheikh.

On the 30th of December 2010, there was a meeting that never was. After years of struggle, the slum dwellers of Mandala were meant to meet the Union Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Shelja Kumari. They had collected all the papers from all the residents – ration cards, voting cards, electricity bills – everything that works as a proof of residence and a cut-off date of 1995 and 2000. But the Minister didn’t come.

‘Humarae bade ladke chidd jate hai andolan ke saath, kyunki mein kaam nahi kar paati hu.’ (My older sons are irritated with the Andolan because I can’t work otherwise), she says, ‘Lekin ghar ka maamla aisi chotti baath toh nahi hai.’ (But the matter of a house is not such a small thing.)

In Anwari Sheikh’s house, her children have been working to provide for a family as well as for the Andolan. She doesn’t have eleven mouths to feed, but eleven sons and daughters who work. Her husband lost his job after their house was demolished in 2004. Yet there are often domestic disputes. One of her young 14 year old sons has been seen in close proximity to known-gangsters of the area. And while she tires, she knows she has to hold onto whatever shreds of hope that she sees.

Similarly, Santosh Thorat hasn’t been able to work since he started to work for the benefit of the people in his slum. His biggest challenge beyond the fact that his slum could be demolished, is the lack of a toilet for the 3000 homes in Annabhau Sathe Nagar. The issue of water is another problem. Water supply in Mankhurd is controlled by a few private individuals who’ve monopolized it enough to demand money for a commodity that is now a known human right – the right to water.

‘Zindagi sangathan mein hi nahi hota hai.’ He says.

And in completely contradiction – ‘Sangarsh hi jeevan hai.’ Would say Mohammed Umar of Mandala, who, as part of the Andolan, runs three small day-care centers for the smallest of children of Mandala. He has also helped to set up a stiching center to teach young girls and boys how to sew. Once they learn, they provide for themselves.

‘When I was young itself, we had to learn to fight.’ He says, ‘Back in Sant Kabirnagar in U.P., we lived in a town that had no electricity back in the late 70s. The price of kerosene had skyrocketed when I was studying for my tenth.’

‘It was so bad, that our parents used to get us to keep putting off the kerosene lamps at night so we didn’t waste it. And none of us could study. And then we had to face the teacher’s cane.’

‘So one day all of us kids, we got together and we decided we had enough.’

‘We went to the petrol pump, and let’s just say it all ended with a riot, an inspector with a stone hitting his head, and a school that the government decided to light up with it’s own money for it’s students to study.’

‘If you want something, you have to fight for it.’

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The Summer Of Our Discontent

June 5, 2010

Madvi Hidme of the IDP settlement of Kamantome in Khammam district can only manage to feed his three daughters Laxmi, Anita and Parmila a little rice with some imli.

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 6th of June,2010.

Summer 2010, and it is becoming evidently clear that the adivasi refugees from the Maoist-Salwa Judum conflict in Dantewada, residing in Khammam district have either no access to water nor food. There are an estimated 16,024 IDPs identified in 203 settlements in Khammam district alone with a 110 settlements in the Reserve Forest. At the same time, the Forest Department is struggling to prevent the clearing of forests by the IDPs for podu cultivation.

Kamantome

There was a dead scorpion in their only source of drinking water – a miasmic well dug into the dry riverbed adjacent to their IDP village of Kamantome in Khammam District of Andhra Pradesh. Four Adivasis in their village were already sick, everyone suffers from rashes, no one has any work, barely any food – all they eat is a little rice with imli.

Kovasi Santo (6 years) has been lying in bed all week, barely eats and barely talks and his mother Maasa doesn’t know what to do. No doctor has visited them yet.

Shamala Idma can’t work, can’t get out of bed, complains of pain in his stomach and vomiting. Two other men complain of similar symptoms. One man has malaria. They all say they started to fall sick when they started to drink that water.

In November 2009, the Child Rights Commission had recommended that handpumps be built in the village of Kamantome but there are still no handpumps as of the 31st of May, 2010, as the temperature regularly crosses the 47 degree Celsius mark, and is slowly and infamously being recognized as one of the cruellest summers in recent time.

Kamantome started as a settlement for Gotti Koyas or Murias when they migrated from Chhattisgarh for land, and to escape the Salwa Judum-Maoist conflict. Their homes were broken down by the Forest Department in 2005 yet they returned a few years later.

Eventually, an encounter would take place in 2009, one tribal would be killed as an alleged Maoist, two would be arrested and booked under Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act. Both would be eventually released. One of them, Madvi Hidme, now with his three infant daughters in Kamantome recollects how his hands were tied behind his back, hung by the ceiling and then beaten and interrogated in Badrachalam police station for information on the Maoists.

Truth is, the police had acted on an evidently erroneous tip-off received from the neighbouring village of Ramchandrapurum that is also native to Gotti Koyas, with whom the villagers of Kamantome are in constant conflict over, owing to the limited resources available in the jungle. In Ramchandrapurum, Maoists had killed two people earlier. It has a handpump (built by missionaries) and is over a kilometre away from the village of Kamantome. It may be the closest handpump to Kamantome but the villagers will never go to it.

They spend all their days trying to beat the heat, as no work is available to them. They received NREGS cards and all the villagers last received their payments in April. Kunjam Deva worked to receive a payment of Rs. 1038 on the 22nd of April. All the money he received was used to repay loans he took last year to buy rice for his family. Of the 20 families in Kamantome, this pattern is repeated. And now they have very little rice left for this year and no money and no work.

‘Even if we have work, what’s the point as there is no water?’ Said Madkam Mulaiya s/o Ganga. ‘There is no food either, the rains failed last year.’

There isn’t a single child in Kamantome that doesn’t suffer from malnutrition. Kovasi Santo’s sunken stomach isn’t just indicative of hunger in one family – almost all the children have thinning hair and the symptoms of Grade 2-Grade 3 malnutrition – bloated bellies.

‘We sent an application to build a handpump in Kamantome three months ago,’ Says Srinivas Rao, the Mandal Parishad Development Officer. A year ago, a similar application to build a handpump in Kamantome was rejected by the Forest Department. In fact, no handpump can be built on Reserve Forest Land or in any of the 110 IDP settlements in the Reserve Forest – the IDPs are legally encroachers. There are even allegations made by members of the administration that the Forest Officials routinely hamper their efforts to help the Muria or the Gotti Koya. And it’s no secret that the Forest Department wants to send the IDPs back to Chhattisgarh.

‘At times, we’ve broken their homes down some 7-8 times,’ Says DFO Shafiullah, Badrachalam North Division, ‘And yet they come back.’

A few days ago, on the 25th of May, 2010, another IDP settlement of Chalampalam in Murmuru Panchayat was  broken down by the Forest Department.

‘The entire jungle is a honeycomb,’ Said DFO Shafiullah, ‘In three compartments of the Reserve Forest, 141, 142, 143, right in Murmuru, there has been at least 60-70 acres of forest land cleared by the Gotti Koya.’

‘They have done a lot of damage to the forest.’

DFO Shafiullah’s North Division is directly connected to the state of Chhattisgarh and sees a regular influx of migrants and IDPS. Satellite imagery confirms that there’s been regular felling of trees in the entire division.

Chalampalam

Kovasi Seema with his son Nagesh stand before the remnants of their home.

In the village of Chalampalam, the Muria claim that it were the ‘Dorlawalla’ who had called the Forest Department to break their homes. While the Dorla from the neighbouring village of Simalpad support the Muria in Chalampalam, the Dorla from Murmuru village do not. Historically it has been the adivasis who protect the forests, and now they are protecting it from the adivasis who’re starving.

In the 22 homes in Chalampalam, almost all the villagers take money from the Dorla to feed their families in the months where they have no work. They will take money from the Dorla or the non-tribal landlords, and during the ‘mirchi’ cutting season, they will work for lower wages to repay the debt. For instance, the regular price for wage labour would be Rs.60 or Rs.70, yet they’d work only for Rs.50. This is a widespread practice in Khamman district.

‘We’ve offered some Gotti Koya Rs.100 to work under the NREGS,’ Said MPDO, Srinivas Rao, ‘But they are very sincere people, they’d still work for Rs.50 for the locals to repay debts.’

In Chalampalam, Madkam Ganga’s house was broken by the Forest officials and Rs.500 was allegedly stolen. He is unmarried and has no children and lives alone. He points out to the small tuck box where he kept his money, and then locks the box. He only started to lock the box after he lost his money.

Kovasi Seema s/o Devaiya also claims that the Forest Department stole around Rs.1000 from his home. He has a one year old child, Nagesh.

Madkam Hidma s/o Dima is a cripple. The forest officials dragged him out of his house before tearing off the roof of palmera leaves. His two daughters, one 18 years old and another 12 years old, and his wife Laxmi, are the only ones in his family who can work.

Laxmi Madkam’s husband Hidma is a cripple. He was dragged out of his house at Chalampalam by Forest officials who then vandalized their home.

‘We all have problems with food,’ said Kovasi Hoonga, who said that even three cows have died in his village from lack of feed.

Then there is another aspect of Muria life – they refuse to drink cow’s milk.

‘Why don’t you drink cow’s milk?’

‘If we did, there’d be nothing for the calf.’

In fact, the Muria would rather starve than drink cow’s milk, at the same time, they secretly cut down trees in the hope of cultivating enough land to feed themselves but are hampered by the Forest Department. Back in Kamantome I had asked the Muria about the allegations of the Forest Department –  ‘The forest department thinks that if given the chance, the Muria will cut down all the trees.’ I said.

‘If we did, then where would we live?’ They replied.

‘We need a policy change,’ Says DFO Shafiullah, ‘These people need to be rehabilitated.’

The Invisible Drought

One of the two sources of water for the villagers of Kamantome.

The only source of water for the IDP settlement of Chukalpar had dried up this year. There was slight reprieve for the IDPs due to rains caused by cyclone Laila.

In the village of Chukalpaar in Chintur Mandal of Khammam, there are over 28 families who have no voter cards, no handpump, no electricity, no NREGs and they survive by getting ration from Chhattisgarh. Their only source of water for the last five years has been a small rivulet that dries up in summer. They then dig a well into the riverbed for water. But this year, their wells dried up and they started to walk two kilometres in the 46 degree sun to get water from the village of Edugurrallapalli. Then it rained for three days thanks to cyclone Laila. It filled up the little wells in the riverbed but the villagers know it will all dry up in another week.  The monsoons, they think, shall only come to them in a month.

In the revenue villages of Pungutta and Amdalpeta in Paiga Panchayat of Chintur, their only hand pumps ceased to work. The villagers had complained to the Mandal Development Officer but their handpumps haven’t been repaired yet.  Now they are all dependent on water dug out from the riverbed, or handpumps in the next village that are over 2-3 kilometres away.

Boringudem isn’t named so because there is a handpump or a boring in their village, it is named so as a majority of the villagers in the village work in Vijayawada as labour for a company that specializes in digging borewells. While they receive a decent amount of money – around Rs.5000 that covers their food expenses, their village has no handpump and no boring.

In Kotthur village that is directly adjacent to the main Chintur road, the villagers get water from a small ‘nalla’ or stream nearby. They complain the water tastes terribly foul and that they have no handpump either.

In Dehiyalaware in Paiga Panchayat in Chintur there are over 26 homes that have existed for the last 12 years. There are no IDPs in this village who have escaped the Salwa Judum-Maoist conflict, but mostly migrants hoping for land even though all their ‘patta’ (title) applications have been rejected. ‘We don’t let them come live with us, we know there’d be problems if they came here.’ Said one villager who refused to be named.

Their village has no handpump either and the villagers walk a kilometre to get water from a well dug into the dry riverbed.

‘Is it difficult to sleep at night in this heat?’ I asked.

‘Very difficult, it’s almost impossible to sleep in this heat.’ He replied, ‘We go to the river and take a bath and try to sleep as our bodies feel cooler. But by the time we walk back home, it’s hot again.’

‘Why don’t you just sleep next to the river then?’

He laughed.

‘There are lots of police in this area and if they find us near the river they might think we are Naxalites and take us away or kill us.’

Photography Post-Script

Laxmi, Parmila and Anita. The three infant daughters of Madvi Hidme of Kamantome village.

Rawa Devi (6) of Chukalpaar village suffers from Pyoderma, a bacterial infection.

Widow Padan Hoongama, of the IDP village of Challampalam that was torn down by the Forest Department.


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Development for Dummies

April 21, 2010

This article appears in two parts in The New Indian Express on the 25th of April, 2010, here. And here.

Just as the NMDC mines are in Kirandul at Kuakonda block, a few kilometres away, the house of Bhima Mandavi in Badepalli was burnt down along with all of its produce in 2009 and 2006. Since the inception of the Salwa Judum in 2005, all healthcare services, schools and angaanbadi services were discontinued in his village.

‘I have always believed India is destined to emerge as an important industrial power. It is only through rapid industrialization that we can find meaningful solutions to the problems of mass unemployment and underdevelopment. Of course, considering that nearly 70% of our population lives in rural areas, we have to lay adequate emphasis on increasing agricultural output and agricultural productivity. Yet, since the per capita availability of land is less than 1.5 hectares, there are severe limitations to expanding employment opportunities in agriculture on a large scale. Therefore, we have to find ways and means to accelerate the process of industrialization and also to ensure that this process is sufficiently labour intensive.’ – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the 1st of May, International Labour day, 2007 in an inaugural speech for the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development.

 Young labour at work on a road in Dantewada, 2009.

We, the forest people of the world – living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forest land, roaming around with our herds – have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, that let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests, and the forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us. – from the Dehradun Declaration of June 2009, by the National Forum for Forest People’s and Forest Workers.

The villagers of Hiroli waiting outside Kirandul police station for the body of Channu Mandavi who was killed in an encounter on the 12th of April, 2009.

Lingaram Kodopi from the village of Sameli, of Kuakonda block of Dantewada district, as previously reported was locked up in the toilet in the police station for over forty days and forced to become an SPO. Through the help of activists and the court he was able to free himself, yet the harassment continued until it became impossible for him and his family to live in his village. A few months after he escaped, an encounter had taken place on the 23rd of January in his village of Sameli where four adivasis were killed. The violence never ends for his people yet this article is not about how his people die, but how they live.

He recently gave a testimony to a packed hall room in Delhi for an Independant People’s Tribunal on land acquisition, resource grab and Operation Green Hunt. He was asked by one of the jurors the billion dollar question – ‘What kind of development do you want? Where do you expect the government to get money for schools, education, etc. if they are not getting revenue from the mines? Do you want development, mines and all, or do you want to stay away from this whole process? How can you oppose the state’s developmental policies and still ask for schools, education, etc? Look at Delhi, don’t you think it is well developed, with superb streets and buildings? Don’t you want your adivasis to live like this, and become lawyers, doctors, etc?’

‘Who wouldn’t want that kind of education, sir?’ Lingaram responded, ‘But development around our state is poor, in fact it is pathetic. The NMDC mines have been there for years and they have not brought development. We don’t want that kind of development where the mines come and everything else is supposed to follow from that supposedly, when it hasn’t with NMDC.’

Lingaram Kodopi isn’t wrong. Taking the National Mineral Development Corporation in Bailadila in Chhattisgarh as an example, below are the details of an RTI query filed with the NMDC regarding one of the most direct so-called benefits of industrial development – employment generation:

Question: What is the percentage of tribals employed in executive positions of the PSU,NMDC? Answer: The total number of ST Executives in NMDC was 45 and the percentage is 4.82%, as on 31st Oct 2006.

Question: What is the percentage and number of Scheduled Tribes employed directly by the Bailadila projects (BIOP) of NMDC in non-executive positions? Answer: The percentage of the Tribals employed directly by the BIOP in non-executive positions is 31.41% and the total number of ST’s employed directly by BOIP is 935.

Contrast that number of 935 + 45 tribals to a conservative 40,000, or alleged 200,000 adivasis who hit the streets of Dantewada on the 14th of 2006, to protest against the Salwa Judum and the land acquisitions of Tata and Essar. If just less than a thousand tribals directly benefit from the mines that have existed in South Bastar for over 30 years, what are the estimated 475,975 adivasis (2001 census) supposed to do?

There is no secret for the adivasis that industrial development is a sham. Yet what about agricultural development?

This land is your land

Lakhmu, from the so-called ‘liberated-zone’ had once asked me what had happened in my village (Mumbai) on November, 2008. He heard a lot about it from the radio and the newspapers that came to his blacked-out, isolated village in the middle of Dantewada. I told him what I knew. I started with the VT station firing – Kasab and his partner gunning down commuters at will. I told him about the killing in the kitchens of the Taj. Lakhmu was appalled. He was horrified with every detail I offered him.

‘How could anyone do that?’ He asked me and I had no answer.

This exchange took place on the 20th of November 2009. Six days later, the country marked the first year after the Mumbai attacks. Just 9 days ago, Lakhmu’s village of Tatemargu was attacked, and security forces had allegedly killed four people, raped three and burnt down over 60 buildings with all of its produce. All in the name of development – ‘I will wipe out the Naxalites, and then I will bring development.’ Said Union Minister Chidambaram, a while ago.

And I asked Lakhmu, what he thought about development. He said, ‘We’re fine. Just give us a road so we can go to the market, and electricity. Everything else we can fend for ourselves.’

And I could see why. Tatemargu, was described as ‘the number one village in Konta block’ . And it was an agricultural success story. The ultimate irony for me was that I could only assess its success by sifting through its remains. There were homes that lost forty quintals or rice, there were homes that lost a hundred kilograms of corn, mahua and imli, and right there, all of it was ash. There were no noticeable signs of malnutrition amongst the infants, alcohol prohibition was in place, there were vast numbers of livestock, huge homes built with brick and cement, bought by the adivasis from Andhra Pradesh by the cash earned by selling rice.

‘How is there so much rice cultivated here?’ I had asked Lakhmu. And he replied that it is about water. And the village of Tatemargu has access to water – ponds were dug by all the villagers, by the instructions of none other than the Maoists themselves.

So now what about water?

The villages of Dhurli and Bhansi of Dantewada are famous villages by now. Essar Steel wants their land for a 3.2 million tonne steel plant: they want 200 hectares from Dhurli and 400 hectares from Bhansi.

All the meetings between the villagers and the company have taken place through the people from the Collector’s office, or the Sub-District Magistrate’s office. Mahendra Karma himself would drive down to the villages to convince the villagers to part with their land. Meanwhile, the Maoists have threatened to kill the villagers who accept Essar’s compensation packages and surrender their ancestral land. They have killed two people from Bhansi who had accepted their proposals in 2006, and allegedly acted as their agents. A majority of the villagers say no to compensation for land, aware that money runs out, while a few have asked for shares in the company, tacitly of course.

Now, let us consider the amount of water that the 3.2 tonne steel plant would need on a daily basis. The proposed Essar project would require around 80,000 meters cubed of water per day. This would also affect those living downstream from the plant. Now, consider that the average amount of water consumed per person in rural India is 100 litres per day. How much water is the steel plant going to be taking from the adivasis then?

‘The entire Sankani river is red,’ Says Mangal Kunjam of the village of Goomiyapal in Dantewada district. The river Sankani runs through Dantewada town, the Bailadila, the NMDC mines, and over thirty villages, ‘I’ve spoken to so many villagers and they all have the same complaints.’ Continues Mangal, ‘Those who depend on the river for fishing, say there are no fish. Those who depend on the river for cultivating their land, say their fields are suffering. This is not development for us.’

‘You’re an educated boy, you’re even going for training to work with the NMDC.’ I had asked Mangal, ‘I’ll still ask you, would you prefer industrial development or agriculture?’

Without hesitation, Mangal replies agriculture and the cruelest tragedy is that this choice is never left to the adivasis. Barring economic policies, MOUs and land acquisition decisions, ever since the Salwa Judum came into being, agriculture has more or less ceased to exist in a majority of villages. The idea of dragging and herding people from their villages into mismanaged state-run camps left the fields empty, left people without any alternative but to choose other professions, to become SPOs, landless labourers in other states, – the choice of agriculture, to till their own land, taken away from them.

‘We get enough from our land to feed us.’ Continued Lingaram Kodopi from Sameli, in Kuakonda. Kuakonda block didn’t suffer as much from the looting and arson of the Salwa Judum and only in 2009 has the violence really intensified in the block. ‘What is development?  NMDC has operated in our area for 52 years but only caused destruction.  Naxals don’t help us, but they don’t hurt us either. If having a company nearby could give us development, then considering that Bailadila (NMDC mines) is 20 kilometres from us and has been there long before the Naxals, then we should have had a lot of development. What is the reason that we still have no education and no hospital? Not one hospital in 52 years. When our people go to Bailadila for treatment, they humiliate us and don’t admit us to their hospitals.’

At the same time, near the Bailadila hills there are 14 extremely high grade iron ore deposits, worth billions yet there are again villages that have never even been surveyed by the government. This pattern shall now repeat itself as the Collector Reena Kangale has recommended 108 villages in Dantewada to be exempted from the census.

An activist once had a story about one of these villages where he met a young boy and asked him, ‘Has the government ever come to your village?’

The boy allegedly replied, ‘Yes, they came twice, once to burn it to the ground, and the other time they raped a woman.’

The story might be apocryphal yet for many villages it isn’t so farfetched. For these villages, it is easy to presume that there is absolutely no healthcare and no education. The same is reserved for villages beyond the Indravati, in Abhujmaad and the same is reserved for villages that once had access to both education and healthcare, but it was withdrawn by the government once the Salwa Judum went into full swing, on the grounds that these villages supported Maoists.

‘What happens in your village when someone falls really sick?’

‘We take them to the hospital in Badrachalam (Andhra Pradesh),’ Replied Lakhmu from Tatemargu, nonchalantly, ‘But sometimes, they just die.’

In 2006, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), a reputed humanitarian organization that won the Nobel peace prize in 1999, began to work in Bastar, to treat the adivasi victims of the civil war between the Salwa Judum and the Maoists. In 2007, they were accused by the government of Chhattisgarh of providing healthcare to injured Maoists. The government had asked them to restrict their activities to the Salwa Judum camps and not venture into the jungle.

And now as the state of Chhattisgarh has asked for 108 villages in Dantewada to be exempted from the census due to ‘inaccessible terrain’ and ‘prevention by the Maoists’, one wonders how the government can even send it a single paracetamol tablet.