Archive for the ‘Jharkhand’ Category

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Once Upon A Time In Jamua, A Caste War, Election Violence And A Land Struggle

May 4, 2014

(5 of 50)

Nakul Ram Turi of Dudhwatol village in Jamua block of Giridih, Jharkhand, was among four people hospitalized after Bhumihars from the neighbouring village attacked them on polling day on the 10th of April, 2014, resentful of them voting for CPI-ML.

‘Hum log maarne nahi gaye teh, hum log vote dalne gaye teh. (We went to vote, not to fight) Said Govardan Rai Turi of Dudhwatol village of Giridih, where members of the Bhumihar caste had violently chased them away on polling day on 10th of April, 2014.

It was at Booth Number 320 at Gardih village, in Jamua block of Giridih District, that comes under Koderma Lok Sabha Constituency, where on the 10th of April, 2014, the members of the Turi Dalit caste alleged that they were beaten up and chased away from voting by local Bhumihars, resentful of them voting for the CPI-ML.

In the 2009 elections, Babulal Marandi, strongman of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, won 1,99,462 votes, with runner up Raj Kumar Yadav from the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) who gathered 1,50,942 votes. In this election, it is said that the fight is between JVM’s Pranava Kumar Verma and Rajkumar Yadav again, with a landscape littered with the red flag of stars of the ‘Maley’ as the CPI-ML is called in the districts, and the Bharatiya Janta Party, whose flags are on the larger more prominent homes off the roadside.

Dudhwatol, a Turi famlet of around 30 homes, is a mere eight to ten minutes from the block headquarters of Jamua and I met two local journalists from prominent Hindi-dailies who had yet to report on the incident of poll violence a whole 10 days after.

The village of Dudhwatol is a known bastion of the CPI-ML. In 1984, the villagers were moved to where they’re settled now after their liberation from bonded labour, which is still prevalent in parts of Giridih today. They recall with pride, one of their leaders ‘Basru’, who was with them in their agitations against bonded labour, and the right to land. ‘Basru’ or Ibnul Hassan Basru, was a member of the Communist Party of India who would eventually join the CPI-ML in 2002. He succumbed to cancer in 2009.

According to testimonies from the village, on polling day of the 10th, they all started from their village in groups, six at a time, or five at a time, none of them travelling alone to the polling booth at nearby Gardih. When they first got there, two Bhumihar men were already in the booth. The election officers were all sitting on the verandah outside. As the men stood in line to vote, they felt that their women should vote first, so they could go home earlier. Naghu Rai Turi and then Tulki Devi, Kunti Devi, Devanti Devi and Kinku Devi would vote without any trouble. When it was Uma Devi who went in line to vote, she recalls, that they had cut the power line as she didn’t hear her the beep from the EVM. She was then told by a man inside the booth, ‘Tum log button bol, hum daba lenge.’ (Tell us which button, and we’ll press it.)

As she would protest, the villagers allege that a Manoj Narayan Dev, a Bhumihar from the nearby village of Jiyotol, the Bhumihar para of Gardih, pushed Uma Devi away from the booth, apparently molesting her in the process. ‘Hum log agal bagal mein teh, aur woh chilane lagi, toh hum log bhagke aye. (We were nearby and she started shouting, so we ran to her)’Would say a witness to the incident. Just as an altercation started, a police vehicle arrived, where the villagers allege (was constable Ashok Narayan Dev, from the same village as Manoj), who started to lathi-charge the villagers from Dudhwatol. The villagers from the Bhumihar caste, both young and old, also began to attack the Turi villagers with sticks and stones. They started to beat Santoshi Turi, whose arms would be left swollen. And eight people would be injured, four would be hospitalized – Lakhan Rai, Nakul Rai, Govardan Rai and Rittal Rai, all with deep cut wounds on their scalps, that could’ve only been caused by stones.

According to Sunil Singh, a CPI ML party worker who witnessed the incident, their votes were then divided between Congress and BJP. When I asked which party the Bhumihars supported the response was ‘Any and all – sometimes BJP, sometimes Congress, sometimes JVM.’

The next day, on the 11th of April, a day after a polling, over seventy people from Bhumihar-dominated Jiyotol would again enter the village and start ‘gaali-galosh’, much to the anger and chagrin of the villagers.

The men gathered outside, confronting them.

‘Kya kya bole yeh log? (What did these people say?) I asked the group of villagers of Dudhwatol.

‘Ma-behen waale gaali!

‘Marenge salle ko!

‘Sab ka haath-perr todd denge, haath kaath denge!

‘Marenge madarchod ko!

‘Aurat ko pakkad pakkad ke pitenge!

The attackers would eventually leave after there were phone calls made to the CPI ML Block Secretary, Ashok Paswan who called up the Daroga, who went straight to a Mukhiya from Chorgotta Gram Panchayat, Upendra Singh. While Upendra Singh was unavailable to comment, Ashok Paswan recalls their conversation went on the lines of, ‘Hum aapne log ko samja lenge, aap aapke log ko samjalo. (We’ll handle our people, you handle yours) The mob would then withdraw, and have left an agitated and alert people on the lookout for further attacks.

The Election Commission, while taking cognizance of 6 other booths where there has been booth tampering and the breaking of EVMs, claims to not have received any reports of booth capturing from Gardih, and the Superintendent of Police Kranti Kumar has marked the incident as ‘a conflict between two groups with a rivalry,’ and in a report to the Hindu, he has apparently ordered an enquiry. Suryanarayan Dev, one of the Panchayat Samiti members of Gardih, whose family the villagers of Dudhwatol explicitly accuse concur that there was a conflict on polling day, but it was the ‘Maley’ people, who were booth grabbing, who were harassing election officials, and chasing away voters, before the police arrived and lathi-charged them. He did not file any complaint with the election commission, or call for re-polling.

An FIR was lodged in the Naodiha police station on the 11th of April of 2014, along with a counter-FIR by the Bhumihars. 100 young men from Dudhwatol were named to eight of the Bhumihars.

Caste is land

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Anup Turi points at land lying fallow due to conflict with the Bhumihars and the Forest Department.

Land is central to the dispute. Dudhwatol is a village afflicted with migration to urban centres, to Delhi, to Mumbai, with countless young men recalling stories of working across the country. Many still didn’t return to vote, and many were informed of the attack only a few days later.

Entering the village from Jamua one crosses vast expanses of grassland which is unaffected by farming, land that is apparently used by the Bhumihars as a grazing ground, and was abandoned from farming in 1984 once the Turi’s were settled there after their liberation from bonded labour. The other side of their village, is forest land devoid of any forests, except for a bamboo plantation, and land that was given to the Turi’s in the 1980’s; land whose ‘pattas’ (deeds), brown-tinted faded pieces of paper the villagers hold dear, but mean nothing to the Forest Department that has interfered with their attempts to farm repeatedly over the past few years. The Bhumihars claim that that was land given to them during the Bhoodan movement, and is still a Reserve Forest, although there is no sight of any trees, and the Turi’s point out cultivation in progress by the Bhumihars themselves.

Beyond this disputed forest land, is a river that has still not run dry.

‘Do you see that ditch?’ Said Anup Turi, ‘That was what the forest department dug to stop us from farming, and you can see that the ditch takes a turn at where the Bhumihar land is.’

Baldev Turi and his son Mantoo Turi and Ravinder Turi were in jail for 15 days, charged under Section 26 of Indian Forests Act in 2013. He was farming one acre and 20 decibel, and the Forest Department refused to acknowledge his patta. They sent him a notice to come to Giridih court again, by the 12th of April, 2014, and he refused to acknowledge the notice, saying it is too far and he doesn’t have the money and has to look after home.

They continue to work with CPI ML in a struggle for land, and to return their lost land over the past few decades, which has also been taken over by the Bhumihars. The few houses built in the village through the Indira Awas Yojana were built after the Panchayat took Rs.10,000 from the families, in contravention of its rules. Once a village that used to vote for the Congress, and once where the labour was worth two kilograms of rice, it is now evident to all of them that there is an excess of land in their vicinity.

Conclusion

(48 of 50)2

10 days after the incident, the village prepares for a wedding. Young boys run around in excitement, two old men play the dhol, while women sing songs, dancing slowly to the jhumka. The young men of the village set up scaffolds and cook in the centre of the village. Beby Turi, aged 18 from Dudhwatol met Rajnish Kumar Turi, aged 20, of nearby Kurobindo village, during ‘chowkidaar’ training, or police training, and are getting married on the 20th of April, 2014.

The threat of further attacks by the Bhumihar villagers has dissipated but a sense of anxiety prevails.

‘Hum log ka bharosa hai ki Maley walley hamare saath hai. (We trust that the CPI ML is with us)’Said one of the village elders. But it becomes quickly evident that they are all 30 minutes away, and that the villagers are on their own in the event something would happen. They all know about Bathani Toli, they know about Laxampur-Bathe.

‘Yeh Bhumihar log kabhi sudrenge? (You think the Bhumihars will ever improve?) I had asked after a tirade after tirade on tales and tales on daily abuse, threats, from all their Bhumihar neighbours.

The question elicited muted laughter and jitters, and a ‘Nahi sudrenge (Never) from amidst the crowd.

‘Party mein hai Bhumihar log? (Are there Bhumihars in the party?)I asked

‘Ha leader log hai, (Yes, there are leaders)said one, man. ‘Ha, aur Sunil Ji hai. (Yes, Sunil is there)Said a villager elder.

Everyone’s attention moved towards a middle-aged man with a crew cut, sitting quietly in the corner. His name is Sunil Singh, he is a Bhumihar from the same village Gardih and a cadre of the CPI-ML.

‘Aap samja sakte aapne logo ko? (Can you talk to your people?)’

‘Inko bhi target kiya hai. (They have targeted him too) Said a village elder for an embarassed Sunil Singh.

‘Yaha samanti ka takat hai, (This is the strength of feudalism)’ Said Sunil Singh, ‘Usko samanti ka takat nahi chalana chahiye. Mein bhi nahi chalana chahta hu, sab ka adhikar hota hai. Issi par samaj ka hota hai, jaati-vaad ka hota hai, hum kisi jaati ka nahi! Yaha koi jaat par nahi vote dere, yaha insaf par vote dere hai.’

(He shouldn’t use the power of feudalism. I also don’t want to use it, everyone has their rights. This is where society and casteism comes into play. We’re not from any caste. Nobody here is voting on the basis of caste, we’re voting on the basis of justice).’

‘Aur insaf peh yeh log roziroti, mazdoori kamane walle log he, aur aap ke pas kaam kar rahe hai, aur aap log ko job hai, das baara bigha zameen hai, aap paise walle hai, yeh log aapse takkar nahi kar sakte hai. Sau rupiye kamake yeh log kitna ladiaye karenge?

(And with justice, these are daily wage labourers, and they’re working for you, you people have a job, have some land, you have money, how will these people fight with you? How much can these people fight after earning a hundred rupees?)’

‘Aapke gaon walle aap ko kya bolte hai? (What do your fellow villagers say to you?)I asked Sunil.

‘Aap yeh Soodoro (Dalits) log ko kyu bhakaya, humne bola hum adhikar par kaam kar rahe hai.’

(Why have you incited these Dalits? I said that we’ll work for their rights and livelihood.’

On wedding day, most of those who lived on daily labour had returned mid-afternoon, the sounds of singing would mute as a loudspeaker would begin to blare popular songs. Lunch was served to all the visitors, journalist, Bhumihar or ‘Maley’. The conversations over voting were secondary, it was land, land and the marriage on everyone’s mind.

Election Result

At the day of counting on the 16th of May, 2014, the CPI ML’s Raj Kumar Yadav was trailing the BJP’s Ravindra Ray by a handful of votes throughout the day, but would eventually lose by a margin.

BJP won with 365,410 votes, with CPI ML coming in second place with 266,756 votes.

JVM came third with 160,638 votes, Congress came fourth with 60,330 votes, and AJSU with 25,522 votes.

Post-Photograpy

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Baldev Turi and Mantoo Turi who were imprisoned for 15 days under section 26 of the Forest Rights Act

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The villagers of Dudhwatol and Govardan Turi who was wounded on polling day

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Bhumihar grazing grounds leading to the Dalit village of Dudhwatol

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The Marxvadis in Wasseypur

May 4, 2014

(49 of 66)

A Marxist Coordination Committee party office in Wasseypur, Dhanbad of Jharkhand.

There are 17 independent candidates and 15 party-affiliated candidates in the Dhanbad-Bokaro Lok Sabha seat in Jhakrhand, which went to the polls on the 24th of April, 2014, where there were often long queues. Before polling day, there were more makeshift election offices in Muslim-dominated Wasseypur in Dhanbad than there were schools, health centers and anganwaadis.

When you enter Wasseypur’s main road before polling day, it was carnival season. Every party, from the Congress, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, the Trinamool Congress, to the Marxist Coordination Committee have two to three to four or five makeshift offices, one after another, opposite one another, with of course the exception of the Bharatiya Janta Party, who’ve just put up their flags, and the Aam Aadmi Party, who has no visibility. All cramped, competing for space, and in every other moment another party vehicle passes by blaring songs and exhortations, trying to win the favour of the Muslim voter.

In a free school Disha Education Center, run by human rights lawyers, government servants and small businessmen, a voter awareness camp was run on the 15th of April, after children were asked to bring their parents to the meeting. Little children were made to recite three things to their mothers, sisters and grandmothers (no men showed up) –1. ‘Vote dehna chahiye,’ (You should vote) 2. ‘Vote acha candidate ko dena chahiye’, (Vote for a good candidate) 3. ‘Agar acha candidate nahi hai, toh NOTA button dabana chahiye (If there’s no good candidate, then press the NOTA button).’

One boy kept getting the third part wrong, ‘Agar acha candidate nahi milta to? (What if there are no good candidate?)Asked a teacher.

‘Vote nahi dehna chahiye! (You shouldn’t vote)

‘Arre!’

Speaking to the mini-meeting of the women from Wasseypur, all from BPL families, they had no idea about who their incumbent candidate was, or who was going to win, or anything about this ‘Modi wave’. They did not know that Lok Sabha Minister Pushpati Nath Singh from the BJP, won the previous elections with 58,047 votes defeating second place Chandrashekhar ‘Dadai’ Dubey of the Congress (who is now running on a TMC ticket), nor did they know that their Congress candidate is Alok Dubey. Nor did they know who was AK Rai, a charismatic Marxist trade unionist, three time MLA, and three time MP from Dhanbad, who is responsible for the organized coal miners in Dhanbad to earn around Rs.40,000 to Rs,60,000 a month, who’re the only miners in the country who talk about the stock market while having their chai breaks. AK Rai, is today in the twilight of his life, who still managed 85,457 votes in 2009 without campaigning for a single day, with the rumour that his election campaign budget was Rs.25,000.

He was recently in the news (or minimal news), after dacoits had robbed his landlord’s home at Noondih village, in January, taking Rs.2,600 and his prized HMT watch, literally making him bankrupt. He responded that they were probably ‘more needy’ than he was, and it is a known fact that he had refused the Minister’s pension, advocating that none should ever receive one.

This year though, Israr Khan, a trade unionist in the Footpath Rozirote Parjan Sangh, himself from Wasseypur, is confident that the new generation of the Marxist Coordination Committee, with teacher/organizer/farmer Anand Mahato, as their candidate, along with support from the Nitesh Kumar’s JD-U, is going to challenge the big powerhouses who’ve written off the Marxist Coordination Committee. Anand Mahato, 68 years old, has all those criminal cases to his name, that a leader of people’s movements against displacement has, from sedition to obstructing public servants to rioting; most relating to the shutting down of the Sindri Colliery where 10,000 workers were kicked out of their jobs in the year 1995-1996. He was the sitting MLA from Sindri during the confrontation with the CCL, and was even imprisoned for ‘andolan’ activities.

Israr Khan, or ‘Mister Khan’ as he is known, used to be a Congress worker until the party was responsible for the demolition of countless shops on the streets of Dhanbad in 2004. He joined the Marxists eight years ago and is obviously one of the reasons there are countless red flags in Wasseypur, competing with Saffron, the Tiranga and the Yellow-Green of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha. ‘Joh log thode samajdaar hote hai, woh Marxvadi soch mein aa jaate hai (Those people who are a little intelligent end up believing in Marxist ideas)’, he responds to the question of acceptability of Marxism amongst the Muslims of Dhanbad, who’re visibly more affected by the Mafia than by the Marxvadis.

In their election offices in Wasseypur, almost all the people who’ve moved towards the MCC, are disgruntled ex-Congress workers or ex-JVM workers, or unorganized workers, who’re visibly angry with both the Congress and the BJP, and the lack of development in the area.

Israr Khan has himself been making efforts to build a base amongst the Muslims of Wasseypur, to add to the MCC base of coal miners, displaced populations, safai karmacharis and adivasis across Dhanbad and Bokaro district. Their mandate has displacement first, and then corruption, communalism and inflation, and with countless coal mines in the district, and lands that are meant to be returned to the adivasis, there is a strong belief amongst them that the party will do well in the coming elections. On the 14th of April, over 5,000 people had congregated in a MCC public meeting for a shahadat divas for Gurudas Chatterjee, an MCC MLA who was murdered by the coal mafia in 1998, (the meeting was of course reported by no local media except Hindi-daily Prabhat Khabar).

In Wasseypur, the Muslim votes are divided. While all parties are confident they will get the Muslim vote, the residents mostly grumble about their roads where cars driving through stumble like drunks, or could stare down chasms like suicidal stock brokers. The famed mafia on the other hand, are just neighbours people don’t really want to talk about. ‘Faheem boss’ from Gangs of Wasseypur fame, has been a part of the Congress-led INTUC is currently in prison along with his next-in-line son, Iqbal.

I toured the party offices in a warm afternoon in Wasseypur, where each TMC office, from where labour minister Chandrashekhar ‘Dadai’ Dubey is running, has a carrom board which is perpetually entertaining the youth of Wasseypur. The three I had gone to in Wasseypur were all but empty with the exception of young boys playing carrom. (There is a huge population of Bengalis in Dhanbad-Bokaro and some feel that the TMC is going to take their vote.)

In the Congress office, everyone claims they’ve always been with the party and their response to the media’s coverage on scams after scam committed to Congress governments, on ‘ghotala (scams)’, was that ‘ye sab gumrah kar rahe hai (They’re all misleading us). They seemed to have more trust on the Congress’s efforts to reduce ‘mehngai (price rise) and that their other main issue was articulated repeatedly as ‘sukoon (peace), indicating their reservations about Modi coming to power.

‘Gujarat mein dekhe hai, ki kya vikas kiya? (Have you seen what progress there is in Gujarat?),’ said Tahir Hussain, a private teacher, ‘Ja ke aap dekhiye waha ke kisan ko kya hua. Aap shehere mein thoda vikas kar diye toh bahut vikas kar diya? (Go and see what was happened to the farmers there. You do some development in the cities, and that is a lot of progress?)’

‘Media hi sabh chalarahe hai, Tv kholiye subha, Modi, shyam ko kholiye, Modi. Aare aage koi hai! (They’re running the media, turn on the TV in the morning and Modi, turn it on in the evening, Modi. Is there anyone else?) Exhorted another Congress supporter.

At the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha office, the supporters felt that the vote is being wasted on the Congress because their candidate who had previously won seats in Dhanbad, had shifted to the TMC, and Kalam Khan, a contractor and supporter would add, ‘JVM mein aadha adhikar hai, aur hum 90% jeetenge. Kaaran hai, ki hum log wahi par vote denge, ja bajpa ko takkar denge. (JVM has half the power, and I’m 90% sure we’ll win. Because, we’ll vote for whoever can stand up to the BJP) ’

‘Babulal Marandi, JVM ke leader, woh be RSS mein the na? (Babulal Marandi, the JVL leader, was also in the RSS, right?)’ I asked

‘Teh na! Teh! (He was, no! He was.) He replied.

He would continue to add what is spoken across Wasseypur. That no one knows who is Alok Dubey of the Congress, and the Congress should have just fielded Daday Dubey, who the voters of Wasseypur know, and have voted for in the past. That he had taken the TMC seat, ensures that the vote would split for both parties and would have no chance of defeating BJP, thus everyone should come to JVM, said Mr.Kalam Khan.

A sentiment found in Congress supporters too.

‘Congress ko ma chudake, nikal jayega BJP. (Fuck the Congress’ mother and BJP will get ahead)’ Said Mohammed Manjoor, a shop keeper, ‘Bahut Dada Dubey ko vote dere hai, bahut log Congress ko dere hai, saale sab BJP ko jita denge! Muslaman bhi salle vote BJP ko vote dere hai! (Lots of people are voting for Dada Dubey, and lots are voting for Congress, the bastards will make BJP win! Muslims are also voting for the BJP!’

Across the day, it was becoming more and more evident, that every individual felt a need for Wasseypur to vote together, but there was a ‘batwara (division)’ of votes, and an anxiety in many people, unsure of which party has the strentgh to defeat the BJP, a sentiment found amongst the majority. But without any unity, without any political party working to organize the people of Wasseypur on their own terms, there would be no collective mass, and what is a voting base, is merely a supermarket for votes.

‘Muslims look at how the elections are going, which party is strong, and then vote en masse towards that party,’ say many observers of Wasseypur, but at an independent meeting held on the 21st of April in Wasseypur, the only consensus was that there is no consensus.

Election Result

The election results on the 16th of May, 2014, showed BJP’s V.N. Singh winning with 543,491 votes, followed by Congress’s Ajay Dubey with 250,537 votes and Anand Mahato from the MCC with 110,185 votes. JVM’s Samaresh Singh got 90,926 votes, with Chandrashekhar Dubey of TMC with 29,937 votes.

118,826 votes were then divided between All Jharkhand Students Union, Aam Aadmi Party, Jharkhand Party, Jharkhand Disom Party, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, etc and the many independent candidates.

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C For Cynicism

May 4, 2014

(80 of 138)The polling booth at Mayapur, Palamau District of Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

Constants seldom make election campaigns, and election results seldom challenge them. C for Corruption but then it is C for Caste, Counterinsurgency and Contrator-raj, that are constants in Palamau district of Jharkhand, and then there is C for cynicism: the language, religion, and soul of every voter, whether he believes in Modi or not, in Laloo or not, who knows things will seldom change in the village, no matter who will win the election, where this time an incumbent ex-Maoist is finding his challenge in an ex-cop and an ex-minister.

In Palamau district at Daltonganj, on the 8th of April, a Ram Navmi jhooloos would play a nationalist song calling for Hindu-Muslim-Christian unity, and the chorus would blare in a guttural voice, ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ repeatedly, with the next chorus including ‘Pakistan Murdabad’. The city was planted with red flags, Hanuman jhandas, and in the evening the administration shut off the power across the block to ensure no accidents could take place, such as the one on the 13th of April, 2000, when a flag procession broke off a 11,000 volt cable that would kill over 30 people at Kasab Mohalla at Daltonganj. Ram Navmi flags were even placed on the Ambedkar statue at Barwadih block, a statue built by supporters of the Rashtriya Janta Dal who didn’t find the sense of misplacement in the act. Over two decades ago, in the village of Balatola with a significant population of Brahmins and Rajputs, the caste system was described through cricket: ‘All the upper caste boys would just bat, and all the lower caste boys would only field and bowl.’

Palamau and Garhwa (Constituency Number 13) is meant for the Reserved Category. The sitting Minister of Parliament Kameshwar Baitha was once a part of the Naxalite insurgency, who won the 2009 seat on a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha ticket while serving a jail term. In the previous election he lost to Ghuran Ram of the RJD by a mere 22,327 votes. It is common knowledge that he joined the CPI Maoist (Party Unity) after the Arwal massacre of Jehanabad on the 19th of April, 1986, where 21 members of the leftist Mazdoor Kisan Sangarsh Samiti were killed by the police. But even by asking 267 questions in parliament, his popularity in the region had waned dramatically in the past five years. He was eventually ditched by the JMM and is currently standing with a Trinamool Congress ticket, after failing in his attempts to win the favours of the BJP, who would eventually field ex-Director General of Police, Vishnu Dayal Ram, a 1973 batch IPS officer, who was the Superintendent of Police during the infamous Bhagalpur blinding incident of 1979-1980, where 31 undertrials had acid poured into their eye sockets by the police.

Yet touring the districts of Palamau and Garhwa it is almost unanimously agreed that the battle is between the RJD’s Manoj Bhuyan and BJP’s V.D. Ram for whom the recent Ramnami celebrations on the 8th of April, and the Modi factor is helping to push votes towards him, especially amongst the landed, dominant and forward castes.

Manoj Bhuyan, has a mixed consolidation of Yadav, Bhuyan and Muslim votes.

When Palamau and Garhwa went to the polls on the 10th of April, 2014 in the first phase of elections in Jharkhand, 1,417,375 voters were meant to practice their franchise but a mere 59.3% showed up for polling. The M factor, wasn’t as much as the Maoist boycott as the Mahua factor, that during the last few days of the fruits falling onto the rich earth, adivasi villagers whose sole source of income for months would be Mahua, would only want to vote after they collected their quota of Mahua for the day, but polling ended at 4 in the evening, leaving many out of the process.

At empty polling booths, disgruntled security personnel were annoyed at how villagers would rather pick up mahua than vote, obviously missing out how the world’s largest democracy could be a farce.

‘Ka maloom kisko vote diya (Who knows who I gave my vote to?)’ Said an old man who came alone and walked away with sheer disinterest in the polling booth at Uldanda Panchayat at Palamau district. A young man, ‘a good samaritan’, held his hand to make him vote, and he wasn’t the only one to whom the act of voting is a mere habit, a connection to this invisible ‘sarkar’, and nothing else. Another man with his grandson under a Mahua tree in Chainpur block, would rather ask journalists who he should vote for, and who we think will save the nation. Suryabed Devi from the village of Dorami would find her name would not be on the list, and would visit the polling booth thrice in the day to try and vote for ‘sarkar ke niyaam’ (government schemes). When she was asked by an observer from Delhi if she knew the ‘Jhadoo wala party’, she responded that she knew what a ‘Jhadoo (broom)’ was.

Over 25 kilometres away, a BJP polling agent, sat around a coterie of 20-30 villagers near the empty Mayapur polling station in Chainpur block of Palamau, distributing election papers with their serial numbers, to make it easier for voters to find their names on the roster. On the first question about the ‘samasya (problems)’ of the village, ten people would all start to speak as once, talking about pani (water), bijli (electricity), ration and job card while the polling agent kept quiet. They were a divided bunch with no one clearly espousing support for any party, with some voices invoking the ‘Lantern’ and others ‘Phool’ (lotus), while there was unanimous mistrust towards their incumbent minister Kameshwar Baitha.

‘Aap abhi bharosa kaise rakhege? (How can you trust them now?)I had asked the group.

‘Toh kay karenge! (What do we do?), they said in a chorus. One man exhorts, ‘Vishwas peh jaahte hai mandir ko, mil jata hai tho mil jata hai! (We go to the temple in faith, if we get what we wish for, then we get it.)’

At some point during the cacophony of discussion, and hyperbolic cycnicism, the polling agent, finally called for order to speak, ‘Hamare Narendra Modi ke laksh mein saare vote jara he.(All our votes are going towards Narendra Modi).’He said, the man approaching fifty who spoke with absolute conviction and sombreness, ‘Woh pradhan mantri baneye, aur desh ka udhar karenge. (He’ll become the prime minister and make the country progress)

‘Gaon ke samasye mein badal aayega? (Will the village’s problems get fixed?)’ I asked.

Silence.

Then a cacophony again. Mostly saying no.

‘Koi bhi jeeta aase koi bhi umeed nahi hai. (Whoever wins, we don’t have any hopes like that). Said a younger man, ‘Aapna khandaan hi banate ha (They only help their own families). Garibo kya kar raha hai, kha raha hai, kapda penh raha hai, chhao mein bheta hai, usse koi matlab nahi hai (What the poor are doing, what they’re eating, what clothes they’re wearing, whether they have shade to sit in, none of that matters). Woh jieetne ke baadh woh bus aapna sochtha hai (Once they win, they just think of themselves).’

Another man spoke at the very instance, ‘Koi jeetega, garib ka dekhneka koi nahi hai , agar 100 ghar hai, yaha 50 ghar mein kuch nahi hai, koi card nahi, koi job card nahi. Aur kuch nahi hoga unka! (Whoever wins, nobody is going to look after the poor, if there are 100 houses here, there is nothing in 50 houses, no card, no job card. Nothing will happen for them). ’

The polling agent kept quiet. He didn’t wish to speak anymore.

Speaking to villagers after villagers, there was an obvious sense of abandonment, of the village, of the self, of the community amongst a majority of people who went to the polls. Yet there were some places where the issues were not issues, and the struggles were entirely their own.

Counterinsurgency

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Memorial for the dead at Barhania village  in Latehar District of Jharkhand.

Around 55 kilometers from Palamau, it was in Barhania village in Murvai Panchayat in Latehar district that on the 15th of April, 2009, a day before polling for the Lok Sabha elections that an IED blast on a polling party, would claim the lives of two CRPF personel and one civilian driver Vijay Kumar Prasad. And in an act (that is always disputed by the police), that can only be described as a revenge killing, the angry CRPF survivors marched to the nearest village and arbitrarily killed five people – Supay Bodra (18), Sanjay Bodra (20), Masi Soma Bodra (14), Pitai Munda (32) and Supay Bodra (55), and claimed they killed five Naxalites. The incident on the peak of the elections, led to a frenzy of accusations, anger, and promises, and the fact that the village, has contributed 17 people to the Army or the Border Security Forces or the Jharkhand state police or the CISF, and is then branded a ‘Naxalite village’, did not escape public scrutiny.

Army Jawaan Joel Budra, whose own family members were killed on that day, would eventually leave the Bihar Regiment a few years after the killings, and still remembers the day his own colleagues who saw the news bulletins, started to insinuate that he comes from a village of ‘ugravadis (extremists)’ .

‘Abhi bhi yaad aata hai unka (I still remember them).’ He says about his family members, he himself is almost half his size today, and spends his time working in the fields when there is work.

‘Police se gussa to aata hai, hum bhi police to the, aur mera bhai Martin bhi policewalla hai, lekin usko bhi gussa hai (We do get angry at the police, I was also in the police and my brother Martin is also a policeman, and he gets angry too).’

The site of the attack today is dotted with two memorials, one for the driver killed in the attack set up by the transport association, a statue of stone whose ankles are beaten down and another by the villagers of Barhania with the names of the villagers and details of the incident that clearly indicts the CRPF. Over the past few years the CRPF patrols have constantly erased ‘CRPF’ from the plaque, and the adivasis keep writing it again.

Jawaan Mangram Munda, who is part of the CISF categorically states, that the villagers were innocent and that the massacre wouldn’t have taken place if he was there in the village the day of the attack. He was himself at Chatra at election duty, and is visibly angry with the CRPF who acted rashly but has an entirely different relationship to the state than others in his village, and is openly espousing his support for the AAP in Latehar on the issue of corruption, even though there is no visible sight of the party across the region.

On the day of the killing, every political party from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, to the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the CPI(ML)-Liberation, and Communist Party of India, to human rights organizations and the national media would visit the village, whose lack of irrigation facilities had affected migrancy and livelihood as much as the massacre. In 2009, the families of the victims would never go to the polls, and five years later, their voices stand divided, with some still refusing to vote, and some believing they would vote for the Congress’s Dhiraj Prasad Sahu, who had given each of the families Rs.20,000 as compensation, and has promised to re-open collieries, re-open the Chirimiri railway line and to complete the Mandal Dam which will drown countless trees and submerge villages, to the chagrin of other adivasi groups. Their incumbent candidate, Inder Singh Namdhari, who ran as an independent, only visited the village once, and had called for a review into the incident, when the villagers was already cleared by then.

‘I didn’t vote last time,’ Said Gauri Budhra from Barhania, ‘And this time I have to spend my time picking Mahua, and I will probably be too tired to walk 2 kilometres in the sun to vote.’

‘What if there was a complete gaurantee that the water problems in the village would be solved if you voted?’ I asked.

She laughed.

‘I would still not go. Who trusts these people!’

Soni Mundoo, about 50 years of age, sister of Pitai Munda who was killed in the attack felt the same. ‘Why vote after they killed our people?’ While her family voted for the panchayat elections, further questioning led her to say, ‘And I am alone, why should I go? There is so much work.’

Contractor-Raj

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Migrant workers returning from Bangalore an evening before polling day.

During the Mahua season, the Munda, Oraon and Chero adivasis of Palamau-Chatra-Garhwa and Latehar collect as much Mahua as they can for their home, and sell what they can in the market. The markets are run by ‘Mahajans’ with whom there is no bargaining over price. It starts at Rs.30 per kilo, and over the next few weeks as more and more trees grow mahua fruits, the price goes down to Rs.25, to Rs.20. Then, in a few months, the Mahajans will sell the Mahua back to the adivasis at Rs.40 or Rs.50 a kilogram when there is none left in the forest. A system in place for there is no organized effort by the government to build godowns, or to protect adivasi interests.

In every village moving towards the interior, incomplete roads, incomplete government buildings dot the landscape. In every conversation, there was always someone or the other from Daltonganj or Ranchi, from anywhere but here, who built half of a road, or half of a building, or nothing at all. It was in Latehar, where on the 2nd of March, 2011, where the CPI Maoists, in collusion with a contractor had murdered Niyamat Ansari, an activist fighting for proper implementation of MNREGA, who built a pond through a government scheme in the panchayat, who repeatedly invoked the RTI act and the Forest Rights act. The local Maoist commander Sudarshan would accuse him of stealing land, stealing from the poor, ‘child sacrifice’ but would eventually be forced to ‘apologize’ by his leadership.

Another incident where the role of the contractors is pushed to an afterthought took place in Garhwa, when an IED blast on the 21st of January, 2012 had claimed the lives of 13 police personnel, who were accompanying the local Block Development Officer Vasudev Prasad to a protest site at Bargad, where villagers were protesting against how their health center, meant for the village Ghotoni was being built at Bargad by the contractors in collusion with the dominant castes. At the same time, the CPI Maoists had abducted Zilla Parishad member Shushma Mehta of the CPI-ML, her bodygaurds and party member Akhtar Ansari who were also on their way to the protest site, while the police lathi-charged the protestors at Bargad, refused to acknowledge that Sushma Mehta’s team was abducted and would go on to accuse that the attack on their polling party was planned by the CPI-ML. The team would eventually be released by the Maoists and Sushma Mehta herself is now vying for the Palamu-Garhwa Lok Sabha seat.

And the contractors never built the health center meant for Ghotoni.

The BJP campaign itself found its feet in Shyam Narayan Dubey, a contractor who also runs the teachers union through the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Manoj Singh, District President of BJP also a bus contractor with murder cases to his name, Parsuram Ojha, a contractor and social worker, Kiran Singh, another bus contractor, and from Ranchi, Harihar Singh and his brother Pancham Singh, who are into construction. For the RJD there is Girnath Singh who is a ‘zamindar’, Someshwar Sahu who is a bus contractor and Congress worker who is supporting the RJD this time around, and the family of political strongman Bishma Narain Singh, a once governor, minister and MLA, and many more. Ghuran Ram, a candidate from the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, is himself a contractor. This is an endless survey meant to be, on how each contractor and zamindar in every region moves towards some political party or the other, or both, to try and make use of the Minister’s fund.

Today, with the onset of neo-liberalism and the breakdown of unions, contractors in the region have now also found dealing in human beings a profitable business.

The evening before the polls, nine migrant workers from the village of Regeniya in Barwadih block had paid Rs.3000 to a tempo driver to drop them from Ranchi to Daltonganj, as there were no bus services available as they were all taken for election duty. They had just returned from Bangalore, and one of them believed that if you don’t vote, they cut your name out of the voting list. They were ambivalent about their reasons for returning, until the next day they called up to say that they had run away from Bangalore after two of them were almost killed in a construction accident. It was a local contractor from their village Rehnai Singh who had sent them with some money to work, at the JMC projects in Bangalore, where a contractor Munna Khan put them to work along with construction supervisor Rehnai Singh’s son, who had locked them up, abused them, and refused to hear their concerns of safety after the accident.

They escaped clandestinely but were caught on the road by the contractors who threatened them with dire consequences. ‘Hum bezati ka kaam nahi karenge (We won’t do work that dishonours us)’Repeated Prakhar Singh, a Cheroo adivasi, around 21 years of age.

On the day of polling, when one of the migrants said they had voted for the BJP, a group of villagers and activists started to chastise him, asking how they were treated by the locals in Bangalore in where they had gone to work: ‘Aap ne unka hi sarkar ko vote diya, (You’ve voted for the same government)Said Kanhai Singh, an adivasi leader and CPI-ML cadre, ‘Aap Bhajpa ko vote diye hai kyuki aap Hindu hai? (Did you vote for the BJP just because you’re Hindu?)’ He would ask them. ‘Ha, toh Kangi kaun cheeze hai? (Yes, so what is a Kangi?)’ said a worker, to jitters. It seemed nobody forgot that Babulal Marandi of the ‘Kangi’ was once a part of the RSS, but as the conversation grew more and more redundant, one worker expressed that he is ‘un-padh (uneducated)’ and doesn’t know these things.

In the evening, the contractor who ‘sent’ them to Bangalore to work, came to collect his dues. The visibly frightened workers had no choice but to accept that they have to return the debt they owed Rehnai Singh, but refused to file a case for what is legally bonded labour.

Caste

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Ram Navmi Flags on the statue of Dr. Ambedkar in Latehar district of Jharkhand.

Kachanpur village in Chhattarpur block in Palamau district is a village split between Dalits and Jadhavs, has access to a pond, an MNREGA office, with the ‘N’ rubbed out, and villagers who see the sense of humour in ‘marega ka kaam (the work of those who will die). Of 1,100 voters, only 30% would practice their franchise, since most of the village youth are also migrant workers in other cities, who did not return to vote. The villagers also recall with laughter at how the BJP was giving out Rs.4000 to the voters, and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha was first giving out Rs.500 and then was forced to give Rs.4000 due to competition, but eventually their party workers reached a compromise and realized they should both just give Rs.2000. The villagers unanimously voted for the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Rampati Ranjan, but those that belonged to the Paswan caste, had their votes split for the BJP due to Ram Vilas Paswan’s move towards them.

41 year old Raghu Ravidas is a teacher in a local school who has belonged to BAMCEF (All India Backward (S.C., S.T., O.B.C.) And Minorities Communities Employees Federation) for decades now, recalling how it was Baleshwar Bharti, now from the BSP who had worked with them for decades. Today, his school building ran out of funds, since a portion was paid to the contractors, another fee had to be paid to the CPI Maoists and when the anti-Maoist Tritiya Prastuti Committee would arrive to ask for their own ‘cut’ there were no funds left, and the work for the school was forced to shut down.

Raghu Ravidas, remembers the conflicts in his village over caste, and how his people were humiliated at a Jadhav wedding by being asked to clean their own plates. A matter that was settled when they threatened wholesale boycott and when the then Maoist Communist Centre had a meeting with the Jadhavs. He even cites the humiliation of a government teacher Alok Deo Ram, a Dalit who was forced out of the school at Nodiya Bazaar after the other teachers who belonged to forward castes couldn’t deal with their own resentment. ‘Chapal ka mala pina diya tha unko, (They made him wear a garland of slippers)’ Said Raghu Ravidas, who along with BAMCEF were on the forefront of the protest, with hunger strikes, marches and protests outside government offices. This followed another incident in nearby Tilliyadi in 2003, where the members of a Teli Caste refused to send their children to a school for the cook belonged to a lower caste. While the BDO had ensured a case was filed, the woman in question left her position due to further harassment.

‘At that time, Ghuran Ram, from the RJD, and a man from our own caste,’ Said Raghu Ravidas, ‘said that the other teachers who humiliated Alok shouldn’t be arrested.’ None of those who were part of the government machinery, who won the seats that come under a reserved category, had come to the protest and the struggle that was held by the BAMCEF. Further irritation was reserved for MLA Sudha Choudhary of the JDU, who herself from the Pasi caste had a ‘mixed marriage’, whose response to protests was also lukewarm.

When I had asked Raghu if the constituency being in the reserved category had done anything to annihilate ‘jaat-vaad (casteism), his response was an astounding no, since no party in power was a part of any of the grassroots work that was being done. It became obvious that caste plays a role in where the votes can go, but in a constituency that comes under a reserved category, the annihilation of caste is not a candidate’s primary concern.

Rajkumar Pichuliya, a man who has been to BSP rallies in Lucknow, but missed out on Mayawati in Ranchi (due to the Maoist strike) would pick up a piece of cow dung and say, ‘Jab tak log ise bhagwaan maan te hai, jab tak yeh desh meh koi development nahi hoga. (Till people think this is God, there will be no development in this country)’

It was more than evident that the BSP had given them a sense of self-respect that no party had done, an identity, and a voice, and it was clearly elucidated with how a tone of 30-40 women sitting in a mini-panchayat would change, as they talk with rigour, laughter and pride when there is any conversation about Behenji.

The opposite sense was with the Ansari Muslims of Chegona in Palamu Constituency, who had unanimously voted for the RJD since 2002 after the Loto massacre in their Panchayat where 12 people were killed, some say the perpetrators were the RSS, while others say the MCC, and some say by the Maoist-faction People’s Liberation Front of India. Both Rabri Devi and Laloo Prasad Yadav had visited the Panchayat (of Chegone, Loto, Arar and Khodi) on the day of the attack itself, and the memory and gratitude of a people who’ve never been organized, has turned votes to an afterthought.

They come under the Khodi Panchayat which is predominately Yadav, who were happy to tell the Ansari villagers of Chegona, ‘Hamare dono haath mein ladoo hai, RJD bhi Yadav ka party hai, aur BJP bhi Hindu ka party hai. (We have sweets [ladoos] in both hands, RJD is the party of the Yadavs, and the BJP the party for Hindus)’.Their own ‘Mukhiya’ would be a BJP party worker and a contrator, Ranjit Kumar Jaiswal. ‘Usne kya vikas kiya? (What progress did he bring us?)’ Asked a middle aged man in the mini-panchayat, ‘Usne hamara saab chawal bhej diya! Bahut vikas kiya! (He sold all our rice. So much progress!)’he said to laughing old women and young boys.

While they say there is no fear of Modi coming to power, to them and their village, there is a fear for over 40% of their young sons and brothers work as migrant workers in cities across the country.

The RJD to them, had not done anything to them, but they voted for them.

C for conclusion

There are political parties you vote for, and/or political beings you become.

Election Result

On the 16th of May, 2014, the results showed that at Palamau Lok Sabha Constituency, the BJP’s V.D. Ram won with 476,513 votes, followed by Manoj Bhuyan of RJD, with 212,571 votes, to JVM’s Ghuran Ram with 156,832 votes and Kamleshwar Baitha on a TMC ticket with 37,043 votes. BSP’s Rampati Ranjan had got 20,481 votes.

At the Chatra Lok Sabha Constituency, under which there is Latehar district, the BJP’s S.N. Singh won with 295,862 votes, followed by Dhiraj Prasad Sahu with 117,836 votes, followed by Nilam Devi of JVM with 104,176 votes.

Then there was  AJSU Party with 35,674, Samajwadi Party with 29,754, Communist Party of India with 21,261, Aam Aadmi Party with 17,980, Bahujan Samaj Party 14,929, Rashtriya Deshaj Party with 10,771,  Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)  with 8341, and All India Trinamool Congress with 7841.

Photography Post-Script

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The line at Mayapur polling station in Chainpur block of Palamau District at Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

(115 of 138)Security at the polling station at Checha Panchayat at Latehar District on polling day on the 10th of April, 2014

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Polling station at Gore Panchayat, closer to the town of Daltonganj at Palamau District on the 10th of April, 2014.

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Memorial for Vijay Kumar Prasad,  the driver killed along with two CRPF personnel in an IED blast on the 15th of April, 2009.

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Inside the polling booth at Uldanda Panchayat at Palamau district of Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

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The MNREGA office at Kachanpur village at Palamau district of Jharkhand.

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Abandoned government offices for the Mandal dam at Latehar district of Jharkhand.

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Scene from outside the polling center at Daltonganj, Palamau, at the end of polling.

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At the polling station at Dorami Panchayat at Latehar district on the 10th of April, 2014

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How They Shut Down A City

August 5, 2012

A reprieve: villagers from Nagari in Jharkand have started to cultivate during a delayed monsoon, taking time off protests against land acquisition.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 5th of  August, 2012

The failure of the courts and the state to take cognizance of constitutional rights leads Anti-displacement movement in Jharkhand to shut down the capitol Ranchi on the 25th of July

Nagari village near Ranchi is facing the wolves of urbanization at the door. A town of congested roads and apartment buildings ends, and the lush green fields of Nagari begin.

‘In 2000 rupees a person can survive in Nagari,’ Says Arpana Bara, one of the young leaders in the village of Nagari of Oroan and Munda adivasis and muslims, who had contacted almost everyone in the human rights movement and the adivasi activists in Jharkhand about their village months ago, and who today is facing police cases herself.

The youth of Nagari village today sit down to attend meetings with the villagers, and make themselves heard and their contribution to the movement is seldom understood.

‘For months, Dayamani Barla and a group of women sat on a dharna, and the walls kept getting built, we kept losing land and they kept losing cases in the courts.’ Said a young man at Nagari, ‘And we were getting tired of it, and that’s when we decided to break down the wall.’

‘Let them put cases on us, we knew we had to break down the wall.’ Said another young woman.

Four months ago, the movement included a group of women who sat on a dharna under the auspices of activist Dayamani Barla. Two women would die of heatstroke. There was zero press coverage. And they lost their case in the High Court and with their review petition. Agricultural land, that too, on the Fifth Schedule, and in Jharkhand as per the Chotta Nagpur Tenancy Act, should not be acquired for non-agricultural purposes yet the courts took no cognizance of it’s own constitutional law, to side with the building of the National University for Study and Research in Law, IIM and IIIT on Nagari village.

15,000 people would march to the governor’s home to demand intervention by law and there was, again, little to no media coverage.

And finally, as the Supreme Court dismissed the villager’s petition, the boundary wall that was being built for the law university was partially broken down by the villagers on the 4th of July, 2012. The police retaliated. A section of the media would run frontpage articles on the police action with photographs of women protestors being beaten by policemen, and later of villagers blocking of the Ranchi-Patratu highway for the release of arrested villagers. The local media would then begin to give coverage to regular protests that followed the confrontation (while some newspapers continued to demonize the protest movement).

The movement had taken on a life of its own after the breaking down of the wall, and on the 25th of July, the city of Ranchi was shut down by the protests against land acquisition taking place not just in Nagari, and its 35 villages, but by organizations fighting displacement across Jharkhand.

And while a section of activists from different organizations resorted to arson, the police resorted to beating protestors and human rights activists.

A large number of factors were involved in taking a movement that was isolated by silence, by the media and the state, into the forefront of politics in Jharkhand today. Shibu Soren’s visit and his statement against displacement, the involvement of middle class adivasi activists, the Adivasi and Mulvasi student unions, the creation of the Jharkhand Alliance of Democratic Movements which consists of numerous people’s movements and human rights groups, the All India Progressive Women’s Association, the Adivasi Jan Parishad, the fact that a large number of people losing land in the villages are party workers across the political spectrum in Jharkhand, and the creation of a core committee of Nagari and 35 other villages facing displacement that works as a driving force. But it is commonly known in Nagari, that it all really changed when the youth decided to break down the wall, against the wishes of many ‘outsider’ activists and those who took faith in the courts and non-violence.

The police frantically lathi-charged villagers and in a state with a long history of police firings against protest, there was an anomaly: the police did not fire. They broke the arm of a woman who was the sole breadwinner of a family and they put cases on a large number of villagers, but there was no firing. The memory of the Islamnagar firings of Ranchi last year that claimed two lives, and the Dhanbad firings that claimed four lives were fresh in the memory of the villagers. Many activists and political workers were even veterans of the Jharkhand Movement and to them, there was the Gua firing in West Singhbhum on the 8th of September, 1983, when the police even resorted to firing into the hospital, killing 12 people.

In Nagari, Jitu, a young man on crutches would quietly mention, ‘The Superintendent of Police was also an adivasi.’

‘The only good thing the non-violent protest and losing cases in the court taught us, is that it convinced us that it doesn’t work.’ Said an activist who wishes to by anonymous.

Recently, a special leave petition filed in the Supreme Court by representatives of Nagari was dismissed citing that the land was already acquired in 1957-58 for the nearby Birsa Agricultural University for what would now be termed a pittance. Land that would cost Rs.1.5 lakhs an acre, were taken for Rs.7 a decimel, where each decimel is around 436 sq feet of land.

Across India today there are a large number of pockets from district to district, all facing displacement for industrial projects and non-agricultural purposes yet, to the fear of state policy, Nagari is the one movement whose struggle spilled onto the streets of the capitol of Jharkhand. Nandigram is invoked in Nagari today, with a growing fear of state response.

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The Life Of A Witness

June 17, 2012

Photo credit: Tehelka photo

In memoriam: Tehelka photographer Tarun Sehrawat (1989 – 2012)

This piece appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 17th of June 2012. Another piece appears in Tehelka on the 30th of June.

I first met Tarun Sehrawat and the intrepid Tusha Mittal in January of 2010, when we both found ourselves with the duties of trying to investigate why the state of Chhattisgarh had kidnapped Sodi Sambo, a supreme court petitioner, and a woman who was shot in her leg during the combing operation of Gompad that took nine lives. She was there in Jagdalpur hospital, while we were outside the ward trying to get access to her, and Tusha Mittal would harangue every stubborn official with such gusto, that you were certain that war reporting was best left to women. Tarun and myself sat quietly, smiling at each other, joking and taking photographs of one another while Tusha did her job. He was an absolute delight to work with, or in this case, observe work. He had no malice and insecurity that most photographers had for their own. And his innocence was something that you were absolutely glad you could find in a place like Dantewada.

The next time we met, we found ourselves on the way to the village of Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli which was burnt down by the security forces in March of 2011. Tusha and I were this time, at each other’s necks like a bunch of Laurel and Hardy’s on steroids, regarding the best way to deal with the logistics of going into ‘the jungle’. Tarun, as usual would smile to placate our anger against ourselves. We all did do our jobs eventually, and Tarun’s images were an absolute justification of our profession.

Tarun was a witness to our state’s grand security operations in Central India. He has photographs of burnt homes, of widows whose husbands were killed by the security forces, of women raped by security forces, of fragile old men with country rifles who the state refers to the greatest internal security threat, and of Abhuj Marh, his final assignment, where few have ventured. But one of his most heartbreaking images would remain a photograph of a family in Dantewada sifting through their burned rice trying to separate the ash from what they could eat. That’s what he witnessed. That’s what only a few handful of people from the outside world have ventured in to see, some of the bravest and some of the most brilliant journalists and photographers I have had the honour to work with.

Yet it’s death from Dantewada that follows you around, as with each story of encounters, and killings. Just a few months ago, the controversial superintendent of police Rahul Sharma would take his revolver and shoot himself. Assistant Superintendent of Police Rajesh Pawar who I confronted about a fake encounter would be gunned down by the Maoists some years later. And now a tortured adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi would wish to die in jail, as there’s no way he feels he can get justice in this country. Each name jotted down in my collection of notebooks, of those killed, of sons named along with their fathers –Madvi Kesa s/o Bhima, Madkam Deva s/o Bhima, Madkam Admaiah s/o Maasa, and countless others. They add to a list that I don’t know sometimes whether they will have any meaning, when all that tends to happen, is that the war goes on. It’s the ghost of the conscience of the country that’s dead as each time the warmongers ask for helicopters to drop hell from above onto one of the darkest corners of the country.

A cellphone becomes the purveyor of madness and death. ‘There’s been an attack in your favourite village’ an activist once called and told me, and I went into a daze, and hated him – how many favourite villages did I have? Then came the final message about Tarun, ‘Pronounced brain dead.’ And this just a few days after friends would tell me that he was making a full recovery.

We all think we’re invincible. We venture into roads that could be mined with IEDs, as did one explode a day after two of us passed, killing three security personnel. We venture into the haven of the malarial monster, the killer of people that doesn’t discriminate like we do. In Basaguda, I remember the sight of a CRPF jawaan holding the hand and walking with another jawaan, whose body was sapped of energy, whose eyes lost of life, who would say the dreaded word: malaria. It was an absolutely tragic sight of watching these two towering men, pathetically walking down, broken down. A year later in Chintalnaar, a few days after 76 jawaans were killed in an ambush, the jawaans of Chintalnaar would exert, ‘You don’t even have to ask about the mosquitoes. Around 80% of us suffer from malaria at some point or the other’.Mosquitoes have killed one of the Maoist’s most iconic leaders- Anuradha Ghandy. And for the ordinary adivasis, their stories are left to statistics, sometimes to a world beyond statistics.

In Jharkhand, at the Roro mines of Chaibasa, an old adivasi miner left to die of asbestos exposure by the Birlas would talk to me, while three young children, slept behind him. All three had high fever. All three had malaria. In fact, a few months into the job, and it became standard operating procedure to not just document the atrocities committed on a whole people, but to finally ask about illnesses in the village. At one visit to an IDP settlement at Warangal last year, our investigation team very quickly became a medical team, and we had to take on the responsibility of taking people to the nearest clinic.

Some quarters mention how Tehelka should’ve guided Tarun with some precautionary measures but unfortunately those are never enough and some circumstances can’t be helped. Tarun had no option to drink pond water, in a place where water, even after boiling would turn yellow. A few years ago, my adivasi guides and a few other journalists and myself faced a similar problem. And we had to walk over 15 kilometres of hillocks in a summer that can blaze to around 48 degrees, and our water supply ran out. We had to drink from a miasmic river. And we all did and we were lucky.

The more water you carry, the more you’d tire, and the more you’d drink. And you can’t ration what is never enough.

I used to even take anti-malaria pills every week in my first forays into Central India, and ended up in the middle of nowhere with high fever, and find myself in the middle of a busy bus station, alone and wrapped in a shawl, shivering like my bones would be shattering, with my mind drifting away, waiting for a family friend to come and save my life. And I was lucky. Malaria was bombed out of my system. To most people in Central India, there’s little rescue. Where Tarun had gone, no doctors venture. In fact, in some of the areas in Dantewada and Bijapur where Doctors Without Borders did go to work, they were accused by the state of Chhattisgarh of ‘helping the Naxalites’.

The angel of death of Bastar made of iron ore, covered in flags and illusions of greatness, is touching and destroying everything that is beautiful. Tarun had a long way to go. Twenty three, the age of most SPOs and Maoists, is not the age to die.

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A Constitution’s Dead Army

April 9, 2012

Thirty years ago, a retired armyman’s body was being dragged by a police jeep as his adivasi brethren, armed with bows and arrows, helplessly tried to stop the convoy but were fired upon and chased away.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 9th of April, 2012.

Gangaram Kalundia was bayonneted in the police van, and then dragged across the village, for speaking for the rights of his people, and there was never any prosecutions against the police for his murder.

Gangaram was an adivasi of the Ho tribe, who joined the army when he was 19 years old, fought in the war of 1965 and the war of 71 as part of the Bihar Regiment, and had risen to the rank of Junior officer.

He voluntarily retired and returned home to find that his village Illigara in Chaibasa of West Singhbhum of Jharkhand (then Bihar), along with some 110 other villages would be submerged due to the Kuju dam project, that was funded by the World Bank.

He would organize his people to fight for their fundamental rights against displacement and the project exactly thirty years ago, to only be brutally murdered by the police early in the morning on the 4th of April, 1982.

‘This is where we placed stones to stop the convoy that had Gangaram,’ Said Tobro, then 14 years old, now pointing to a small woodland by the roadside, ‘and this is where we were, with bows and arrows, but the police fired upon us and chased us away.’

While Gangaram Kalundia was killed in 1982, a long agitation had still sustained itself, that had often driven people like Tobro underground, aware that the police were rounding people up. Surendra Biduili, 52, was a part of the agitation against the dam, and the eventual victory in 1991 when, ‘the World Bank withdrew the money.’

‘Their reports said that the dam would only submerge lands that had paddy,’ he continued, ‘but it was a lie, we were cultivating vegetables as well.’

It was much later when Gangaram had become a symbol for oppurtunistic politics, and his shaheed divas, would be attended by every other political party, or as Surendra would say, ‘First everyone used to be afraid to mention Gangaram’s name, now all the parties of contractors and dalaals come for his shaheed divas.’

In The Thousands

Gangaram Kalundia was not the only adivasi leader killed for representing the rights of people. Just a few kilometres away from Chaibasa, across the Sal tree forest, is the village of Bandgaon, where Lalsingh Munda was killed in broad daylight in the market on the 1st of November 1983. His concerns were that sacred grounds were being used by non-tribals and contractors as a waste dump.

‘You travel by bus to Chaibasa, well, back then, people used to get off the bus to piss into the sacred grounds.’ Said Phillip Kujur, a member of JMACC (Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee).

Phillip Kujur was also associated with Lalit Mehta who was brutally murdered in Palamau in May 2008, Niyamat Ansari who was killed by the Maoists in Latehar District on the 2nd of March, 2011, and on the 29th of December, 2011, Pradip Prasad was killed by PLFI extremists in the village of Mukka, Latehar.

Sister Valsa who fought for the adivasis in Pachuwara in Pakur District of Jharkhand was murdered on the 15th of November, 2011.

The roads in adivasi villages are punctuated with memorials for fallen leaders and activists.

The office for NGO Birsa in Chaibasa has a memorial stone with other names: Vahaspati Mahto killed in 1977 in Purulia, Shaktinath Mahto killed in 1977 at Dhanbad , Ajit Mahto killed in 1982 at Tiraldih, Beedar Nag killed in 1983 at Gua, Ashwini Kumar Savaya killed in 1984 in Chaibasa, Anthony Murmu killed in 1985 at Banjhi, Nirmal Mahto killed in 1986 at Jamshedpur, Devendra Mahji killed in 1994 in Goilkera. The memorial ends with the sentence, ‘anaam shaheed….hazaaron mein.’ (Unknown Martyrs, in the thousands)

‘When I was young,’ Said Phillip, ‘I was travelling with two veteran activists, who kept pointing to village after village saying, ‘here’s where another cadre of ours was killed’, and there I was, another man they trained to fight for people’s rights. Finally, I turned to them and asked, ‘you taught all these people how to fight, but did you teach them how to stay alive?’

In recent times, K Singanna, one of the first organizers of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh in Narayanpatna Block of Koraput District of Odisha was shot thrice in his back in a police firing incident on the 20th of November, 2009. Since then, another leader Nachika Linga has been living underground in fear of arrest, or death, as posters calling for him to be caught ‘dead or alive’ were posted all over Narayanpatna after the firing. Both individuals were responsible for organizing the Kondh adivasis to claim their rights as per the Fifth Schedule, to free themselves as bonded labourers on their own land.

In Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, Muria and Koya adivasis committed to taking the cause of their people via rallies, writ petitions, and organizing them to fight peacefully for their rights, have almost all been arrested as alleged Maoists. Manish Kunjam, an ex-MLA, has faced repeated death threats and his own cadre, responsible for working in the villages, have been in and out of jail.

On International Labour Day, the 1st of May, 2008, in Kalinganagar Industrial Park of Jajpur, Odisha, one of the leaders of the Anti-displacement group, Dabar Kalundia was attacked outside the gates of the Rohit Ferrotech Steel Plant and escaped, but Omin Banara (51) was killed.

In Memory of Gangaram

‘They all talk about Gangaram, but they don’t care about his wife.’

Birangkui Kalundia, widow of Gangaram, lost her only daughter when she was giving birth to her grandchild. She was widowed by the state, and her daughter would be another statistic to those 80,000 women who die every year due to childbirth.

Her brother-in-law, would also cut ties with her, often dividing the produce of Gangaram’s 15 acres for himself, leaving her out with nothing, and after his death, she moved out of the village his husband fought for, to move in with her new caretakters, her nephew and his wife, where she lives with a quiet pride to this day.

She still holds onto the medals won by her husband, the citation for his President’s Medal,  speaking in soft tones unforgivingly about the men who killed her husband, coming to terms with injustice in this life, to a hope for justice in the next.

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Murder At Pachuwara

January 23, 2012

The murder of activist-nun Sister Valsa John has a lot to say about India’s mining policy

Karu Tudu of Kolajuda village stands over his destroyed paddy field, covered in coal dust. Over 500 trucks carrying 2300 kilograms of coal each, travel pass his fields each day and are forced to dump some of the coal on the roadside by local villagers, who sell it on the black market.

This article appears in two parts in the Sunday Guardian on the 15th of January here and the 22nd of January 2012, here.

Everyday over 500 trucks travel the 35km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur in Jharkhand, carrying over 2300 kilograms of coal each. And everyday, hundreds of local adivasis and landless farmers stop the trucks, and unload a little coal onto the road for themselves to sell in the black market.

In the process, the paddy fields on the periphery of the roads are entirely covered in coal dust.

The police sometimes accompany the trucks carrying the coal and attempt to stop the locals from taking coal, and have often chased them away, beaten them, or arrested them. Yet the practice continues.

‘We make around 150 rupees a day, if a whole family sits to collect coal to sell it.’ Said one of the ‘scavengers’ on the roadside.

‘Why do you do it?’

Two brothers Badan and Darbo Soren who live in the village of Kulkipada have no choice. The coal dust has destroyed their produce, and it renders their crop unsellable.

‘We eat the black rice ourselves. No one will buy it.’ Said Badan, ‘Earlier we used to make some Rs.15,000 or Rs.20,000 per year.’

‘And there is no more mahua seeds, no more mango in the trees.’ Continued his brother.

The rains have failed in the last three years in a district where the rivers run with streaks of black coal. Families make a living out of the coal that travels their road every day, turning the entire stretch of the 35 kilometers into a black field, where children as young as six can be seen working to help their families.

The coal mining company Panem Coal Mines Limited, had also tried to acquire lands to build a railway line from Pachuwara to Pakur, but they faced stiff resistance from farmers like Badan Soren and his brother, who’d lose their farm land to the track.

Instead the dumper trucks travel everyday across a dusty road where both people have lost their lives to hit-and-run accidents, and in anger, the locals burn down the trucks, and an informal industry is born.

How The Free Market Murdered A Nun

Of the thousands of villagers who stop the dumper-trucks and collect coal on the 35 km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur, many are children under the age of ten.

The story of Pachuwara can be told by telling the story of the murder of Sister Valsa, a nun and an activist who fought for the rights of Santhal Adivasis, who would be a part of a compromise that would spell her own demise, when she was brutally axed to death in her adopted home in the village of Pachwara in Pakur district on the 15th of November, 2011.

Within hours of her killing, the mainstream media was quick to report that she was murdered by the Maoists. The Maoists denied it, even as an initial note, claimed to be written by them, condemned the nun and the activist to be working for the coal mining company Panem, and not in the interests of the people.

A few days later the police would arrest seven individuals who were associated to Sister Valsa. Almost all of them were local villagers/contractors who’d get work from Panem. One of the accused, Pycil Hembrom was the son of the president of the Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan that fought against the company and had a long history of working with Sister Valsa. And after the end of the agitation against the company and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the 30th of November 2006, he worked with them as an independent contractor.

Sister Valsa was living as a guest in the house of Pycil Hembrom and had only moved out eight days before her murder. A confrontation had taken place over the money that came from the mining company and Sister Valsa moved into the home of Sonaram Hembrom, who confirmed that Sister Valsa had confronted Pycil and others for embezzling money.

‘The MOU made a lot of promises, but the work only happened on their accord.’ Sonaram Hembrom said, who was present when over forty people had surrounded his house in the dead of night to look for Sister Valsa who was hiding in her room, and would eventually find her and axe her twice near her head and her neck.

‘They saw all that money and they got greedy.’ Said Sonaram’s neighbours, about Pycil and the other accused from Aalubera village adjacent to Pachwara.

‘Sometimes, the money we were supposed to get for one tree used to be Rs.50,000, but Sister would find out that we only got Rs.5,000. When we confronted them about this, they said it was a computer error.’ Continued Sonaram Hembrom. All the documents and registers that detailed all the financial dealings of the Project-Affected-Persons and the PANEM Coal Mining Company that Sister Valsa had kept, were appropriated by the police as evidence and are currently unavailable.

The History of An MOU

D. Marandi, once a farmer, now a miner at Panem Coal Mines Ltd at the rehabilitated site of Naya Kathaldih.

On the 19th of April, 1985, very close to Pachuwara, at Banjhi, and close to the collective memory of the elders of Pachuwara, the police had shot and bayoneted over 15 people including an ex MP Anthony Murmu as they were demanding their rights. Every year they gather in the thousands on the day of the incident to pay homage to their martyrs.

Years later, their rights were again usurped by the Panem Coal Mines Limited, who were given land by the administration, who used an infamous colonial era law, the Land Acquisition Act to acquire all the lands of Pachuwara and the nearby villages for coal mining. This has remained a story repeated across central India’s mining belt that gives birth to numerous protest movements and a direct confrontation with the state’s mining policy that has acquired lands by flouting laws, and violating tribal rights.

Almost all the mineral deposits in Central India are on Fifth Schedule land, which is protected by the constitution and has given local tribes authority over local resources. Yet the arbitrariness of the Land Acquisition Act allows the government to simply hand over lands to private companies, and the locals have always resisted, leading to brutal confrontations with the police and the administration.

But of the 104 MOUs in Jharkhand, Pachuwara is one of two where work has started, as there was a settlement between the villagers and the company, a settlement that many still feel has to be completely understood.

‘Our land cannot be sold, you people with a brave history can and must drive out this company!’ said Binej Hembrom, the parganaith (village headman) to the people of Pachuwara in a meeting long before the agreement, but would eventually be one of the signatories to the MOU along with the company director Bishwanath Dutta.

Today Binej Hembrom is a senile old man, half-deaf, seemingly unaware that his son is in jail for murdering a woman who they once fought the company with, and some say, had won.

‘People in Ranchi, in the social movement’s think we sold out.’ Said Father Tom Karvallo, who along with Sister Valsa John was close to the movement at the time of the signing of the MOU.

‘But there was a lot of repression.’

‘Our people were being divided by the company. There were police cases on Valsa and others like Joseph who’d eventually be killed in an accident. And when we lost in the High Court, we had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge the illegality of the land acquisition as this was a Fifth Schedule area. But the Courts are a gamble, it can really depend on the judge, or the climate of the time. And we were afraid, that if we lost, we’d set a dangerous precedent as there were so many other adivasi movements fighting for their land. And they would’ve all suffered if the Supreme Court had ordered in favour of the company.’

‘So we signed the MOU. And it was a good relief package, that we only got after such a strong struggle.’

The agreement was reached in Delhi on the 30th of November, 2006, after ‘persuasion’ by a section of outsider activists, and one, including Shajimon Joseph, then Resident Editor of The Hindustan Times, who’d eventually be a signatory of the MOU as a witness, who confirms there was police repression in the form of cases on Sister Valsa and other adivasi leaders, but also mentions there was no dissatisfaction during the signing of the MOU.

The Memorandum of Understanding itself was unprecedented. Apart from offering schools, healthcare, employment, rehabilitation sites, there would be a yearly stipend for each acre the company appropriates, and that the work for the construction of rehabilitated sites would be given as per the MOU, to local contractors and Project-Affected-Persons.

The money that came from Panem company for such work, would go to Sister Valsa, who directed the young contractors like Pysil to work in the area.

Five years after the Memorandum of Understanding, the promised hospital is still under construction.

The village of Kathaldih was uprooted, and the company has resettled them in a newer colony called Naya Kathaldih, where farming as all but stopped and most of the young men work as miners in the coal mine, waiting for the company to finish mining their lands, and then return it to them, so they can commence farming again.

Living In Fear

A truck that was allegedly burnt down by the Maoists. Yet there have been many other times, when local villagers burnt down trucks in anger after numerous hit-and run incidents.

Rajan Marandi and Pradhan Murmu were two other contractors arrested for the murder of Sister Valsa who lived in the adjacent village of Aalubera that is soon to lose their land to the company.

Rajan has five cars for himself, while Pradhan has around seven cars and all their cars remain parked in the village in front of their houses. The village is a village in fear, as the police has been searching for others who may have been present when Sister Valsa was attacked. Two boys who refused to give their names say the police has been searching for them, and they are innocent.

They quickly disappear when they’re asked about the relief package.

There are no village elders, and there is no one who is willing to talk about the impending displacement and rehabilitation.

One young woman whose family lost her land years ago to the petrol pump that fills over 500 trucks claims their family doesn’t get the monthly stipend, but refuses to go on record, in fear of antagonizing the powers-to-be.

‘They’re all filling their own pockets,’ she said.

‘Isn’t there anyone who takes up these issues?’

‘There’s no one.’

‘Who speaks up against the company?’

‘No one.’

‘Over here,’ said another young boy Chappu Deheri in Pachwara who was asked the same question, ‘Only Sister Valsa and her samiti used to.’

Aalubera is also the home of Advin Murmu, a 20 year old boy who was arrested for the alleged rape of a young girl who lived in the house of Sonaram Hembrom along with Sister Valsa.

According to her father, Advin Murmu and three other boys had kidnapped the girl on the evening of the 7th of November, and while the three boys had disappeared, Advin kept the girl all night in an empty home at Aalubera.

The girl was only let out in the morning and she had gone to her aunt’s house. The family along with Sister Valsa would take the case to the police on the 9th of November, six days before her murder.

The Superintendent of Police, Mayur Patel claims that there was no rape, and that the girl and the boy knew each other, and the girl’s family is merely protesting the fact that the boy is a Christian and the girl’s family is Sarna.

The family however claims, that Pycil Hembrom and the contractors wanted them to drop the rape case, threatening that they’d lose all their lands and their home if they persist to fight them. The family especially indicted the local sub-inspector of police, Daroga, as someone who wanted to give the family Rs.50,000 to forget the so-called imaginary case.

The Inspector has since been suspended for dereliction of duty after the murder of Sister Valsa.

Advin Murmu has since been arrested and according to the Superintendent of Police, for both incidents. Advin Murmu’s brother, also a contractor, claims his brother is innocent while his bail application was rejected by the Courts.

Photography Post-Script

‘The blackened, unsellable rice of Badan Soren of the village of Kulkipada.

Badan Soren and his house, next to the 35km road where 500 trucks travel everyday carrying 2300 kilograms of coal.