Thursday, 31 December 2009

Bloody COCK fight

In Spain, which has had a history of genocide and civil war, bull fights are common means of entertainment for the masses. Villagers pay hefty sums from their tattering wallets to view this voyeuristic form of entertainment. They bet aloud for the bull to win; in their drunken stupor they know not when they have been ripped of their few coins. They get to the tavern, swaying and signing aloud, either for the cash prize they have won or for all that they have been drained of. Winners and losers alike sway together, singing songs of yore, of love and betrayal and wars and martyrs. They sing of the dead – the people buried under meager shrouds, and the bulls that bleed gallons of liquid rust and finally cease to huff. They sing with hope to win the bet for the next bull fight, and then falter onto a wooden bench, and wake up in the morning shivering.

In our own country, we have our own share of voyeuristic forms of entertainment. No, I am not referring to a television show where people harbouring dreams to make it big in the filmdom live together with similar aspirants, and then made to connive against each other by the show producers. No, I am not even talking about the way tabloids and news channels describe every detail about how an American student gets gang-raped in her drunken stupor by her Indian friends. I’m talking about the voyeuristic games similar to bullfighting, but the entertainers in question are not four-legged – aren’t, after all, cows and its family members worshipped, and then sacrificed too, as part of that veneration? In fact, the entire central region of the country is called the ‘cow belt’ – an apt pseudonym for the reliance on this animal for purposes of subsistence through various ways.

The stage is set and the cock is armoured with sharp blades

So instead of four-legged beasts of entertainment, we have a bird which dutifully wakes us up every morning. The hen and the cock, besides their morning duties as unofficial alarm clocks, give us eggs that provide protein, and of course, keep a farmer’s home cheerful. And the cock satiates the huge ego of the farmer, by being the collateral martyr in cock fights. No wonder the slang for the phallus justifies the name of the ego-boosting game – the ‘cock fight’.

If Fridays and Saturdays give the urban male the delicious chance to go a la mode and win some femme attention at a mall’s posh night club, Wednesdays are those ego-boosting days in Dantewada, a southern district of Chhattisgarh. It was a Wednesday on December 30 when people from nearby villages around Dantewada flocked to the town centre, dressed in their fineries and with wide smiles on their faces. It is a day of the local market where each family gets to display its stock of vegetables and wares. And then there are those lanky old men who don’t give a damn about dressing well for their Wednesdays. They come to the market with a resolution to win some money and thus go home a little more drunk with some extra gulps of the local ambrosia, mahua. No, they don’t carry a golden goose that could make them rich and happy. We are talking about a war zone where the state’s defence forces steal even the last cock and hen from an emaciated farmer, to cook some spicy chicken curry in the forest. So, shift the bulls; shift the golden goose; enter, the red-headed cock which is pitted to fight against another. The farmer knows that Wednesdays are dangerous too – his warrior may become an unsung martyr and his ego will remain prostrate and flaccid for quite some time, yet the farmer is hungry for something more. He is as hungry as the Armani-clad head honchos of MNCs. It is all about the cock – the phallus or the ego-nurturer.

So the farmer gets his cock into the battle field. It is behind the main market area, where everything, perhaps human flesh too, is traded. Adjoining the maidan is a line of mahua sellers’ makeshift stalls. And no, women are not coy here when it comes to getting their share of mahua, unlike the urban femme who will contemplate several times before stepping into a wine shop to get herself some Smirnoff. The womenfolk in rural India don’t give a damn about the most insecurity-inducing characteristic – the image. They don’t care about who is watching and how they look when they laugh out aloud or grumble; they need the mahua, they just ask for it as blatantly as the men. Perhaps that’s the reason why the aura around the mahua stalls near the cock fight maidan is equally interesting to absorb.

Thrust into the battle, the cocks are made to anger each other

But we enter the battlefield, where the warriors have no gear to save themselves. Sharp blades are tied to their yellow feet by their owners, who are hysterically excited to enter their cocks into the ring. A huge crowd, meanwhile, surrounds the maidan on all sides. An audience of not less than 1,000 has to therefore be well fenced, lest they enter the battle ring. One man guards the wooden gate into ring; the gate and its beams have thick red patches. And inside the ring are the masters seated in a circle with their cocks firmly in hand. Suddenly, you realise there is no compassion or love in the eyes of the master, who had been lovingly feeding and fattening his cock all this while. The farmer’s eyes burn with hunger.

The betting has begun; currency notes of denominations of Rs 10 and Rs 20 are only visible. Some men climb on trees to watch the match; others climb onto a row of toilets whose tin roof is on the verge of a loud smash. Yet, this seems like an Indo-Pak cricket match played in Dhaka, where you don’t know whom the audience is cheering for. But it is time for action, and two men will rise up to pit their warriors against each other – the men face each other, hold their cocks high up in the air, and then thrust them towards each other. Some birds look angry; others seem to be plain cowards. However, the moment two heads knock each other hard, they are dropped onto the red Earth. And the fight begins. So does the loud betting, with the enthusiasts yelling out their favour for the “red one”, “white one”, “black one”. About two-three matches take place at one time and everyone’s eyes are glued to the fighting pairs.

The show goes on; the cocks bleed on

The cocks, meanwhile, have to fight it out well. If it appears that they aren’t aggressive enough, the banter from the crowd dies down and moments later, the masters swoop down to pick their warriors. They don’t waste time in contemplating if the pair can be compatible enough for a good bloody fight. Time is money, and it surely cannot be wasted.

And more such cocks are pitted to fight until a winning match is visible. A winning match is also a bloody one, and the loser lies on the ground like an obscure patch of ruffled feathers and dripping blood. A match is won and the master swoops down again to pick his injured cock. The cock is breathing heavily, bleeding heavily. It is instantly forgotten by the audience that was cheering for it. Of course, nobody wants to think of the bet money lost on an injured cock. So the audience shifts attention to another cock, hoping for a new win.

Cock chops

Meanwhile, the injured cock’s blades are hurriedly undone, while his master tries hard not to lay his fingers on the fresh oozing blood from his martyr. Since the birds jump short heights as their legs are tied but are driven by an angry pursuit for reasons they themselves cannot fathom, they end up injuring the other cock in any part of the body. But the master is no more concerned about his cock’s deteriorating state – it unties it, carries it towards the periphery of the ring near the gate, and often leaves it to bleed to death. It is instantly forgotten.

Dead, abandoned and left to perish

Tribals across the world, and I can vouch for the ones trying to stay alive in Chhattisgarh, are like those abandoned and forgotten cocks. Birds that can live and sustain on their own are first domesticated – much like the tribals who are told that they need a government, under the pretext that their lands need to be protected, while in reality a system of government is established to maintain power play here. The birds are then well-fed, giving them an illusion that their master truly cares for them – the government announces various schemes for the benefit of the already-content tribals, which confuses them but they choose to be indifferent. The birds are then pitted to fight against each other, just so that the master can make some fast cash – the tribals are pitted against each other, with the formation of groups like Salwa Judum, which rape, mutilate, behead their own brethren. The bird’s master lusts over the cash that he will take home if his cock puts up a bloody good fight – the government lusts over the fat commissions it will get under the table from MNCs that eye the tribals’ lands, and thus their survival. After the match is over when the blades have slashed enough, the dead loser is abandoned – the tribals resist forcefully, yet their bows and arrows are no match to the guns in the hands of the Salwa Judum, a vigilante militia meant to crush the Maoist rebellion, which was born four decades ago as a resistant movement. The bird’s master goes home with the stash of cash and enjoys his night with some more mahua – a government fat with people’s taxes and millions earned in bribes forgets its people and erects statues of those who have thrown the gardens open for New Year parties.

Absolute apathy

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Does time really heal wounds?

It is not easy to see a pale Himanshu Kumar, for whom, even smiling on the fourth day of fast – December 29 – seems to be an effort. I avoid making new conversations with him – because I know we would not cease to talk; perhaps also because I shudder when I preempt the result of his silent ways. Are we really aiming for a definite result here? Are we here to win and lose? Are we here only to separate the black from the white? How long will this game of snakes and ladders go on? For how long will our side of the snakes continue to be pythons, and the ladders stunted ones? It is only a matter of time.

It is also only a matter of time that will heal the wounds and dissipate the anxiety of Rita Kunjam, Ramo Kunjam and Saroj Kunjam. They are, in that particular order, the wives of Kopa Kunjam, who was one of the pillars of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA). He was picked up the cops on December 10 this year, on false charges of murder. Javed Iqbal, a reporter with New Indian Express, who arrived in Dantewada in the morning, had been working in Bastar region through 2009, and had known Kopa quite well. Along with Iqbal, we went to meet Kopa’s family in their residence in Alnar village near Farspal village, which is also where Mahendra Karma, whose brainchild was Salwa Judum, lives. No wonder that as we approached the village, the road on each side was decorated with brick fences for small saplings. Now, the saplings may have grown to about a foot, and most likely, they too were dead in this district of death. But the fences were elaborate – about four feet tall and three feet in circumference, they had been painted white. Luxury for the saplings, axe for the trees.

Further beyond were houses which were green or blue in colour, typical of the rural landscape of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. And each of them had that enviable dusty dish of a cable connection by Dish TV. Like SRK, Mahendra Karma wished for it, and got his people the dishes.

Finally we reached the road leading to Kopa’s house. It was a five-minute walk amid the fields from the main road, and the location of his large blue house seemed a perfect site for a mad writer, who would want to escape from an even madder society. Only, within the walls of that house reigns anxiousness and a feeling of helplessness. Kopa’s three wives, who live happily as a huge family, have met their husband only twice since he has been arrested. But they are unsure when he would be released.

Kopa Kunjam's idyllic house in Alnar village in Dantewada

“Our husband never told us what he had been doing. We knew that he was quite a popular figure among villagers, but he was not one to bring his worries home. On August 3rd this year, about 100 policemen came to our house, took Kopa to the Shankani river, and beat him up there. They asked him to cross the river. Had he done so, we realized, they would have shot him dead and called him a naxal. He survived that day only to be arrested later. When will he get released? What is the point of such work which will tear you from your family?” questions a visibly nervous Rita, while she treats us to some tasty red-ant chutney.

Each of the wives has borne Kopa a school-going child, and the youngest wife, Saroj, is carrying her second child. She is visibly malnutritioned – in the fourth month of her pregnancy, such Kafkaesque separation from her husband is not doing the coy and petite woman any good.

“When we reached the Dantewada jail last time – all three of us and our three children, along with Kopa’s brother – we could not speak anything. Firstly, we had to bribe one of the female police officers with Rs 100 to let us meet him. We met him only for 10 minutes; none of us could speak. We were all crying. Kopa did not make any eye contact with us either. He hung his head down. Kopa has stopped smiling,” said a vocal Ramo, while trying hard to hold back the tears welling up in her big brown eyes.

(Left to right): Saroj Kunjam, Ramo Kunjam and Rita Kunjam

We bade the family of that brave man our goodbyes and told them that appeals to the government was pouring in from across the world for Kopa’s release. They would be meeting Kopa in jail in a few days, and while we want to meet Kopa too, we know it would be best not to tag along. There is someone else who needs to get back the smile on Kopa’s face – Himanshuji, a man who is not taking any food since the last four days to convey a message that enough blood had been shed and families bludgeoned in this Fascist state.

Fascism escalated to new heights in the current location of VCA too. The seven police personnel, who had been assigned with the duty to protect Himanshuji, wore new garbs of being eavesdroppers. Until the time when the security cover was lifted for a brief 30 minutes and restored again, on December 28, the men were sitting together near some tents put up by VCA, about 30 feet away from the tree where Himanshuji is seated. But now, they are right behind him, facing the land surrounding Himanshuji’s house. Of course, with all of us quite vociferous, it was obvious that our words were music to their ears, as they sat the entire day in their plastic chairs, a gun in their hands. Himanshuji fears that the direction of the wind will soon change for the worse. I shudder at the thought of yet another cyclone in this arid state, where the air is already permeated with the stale odour of blood.

Later in the evening, we took Gompa village resident Sodi Sambo to the Dantewada Civil hospital. One suggestion to the city folk who do not have a fat medical insurance to be able to undergo any treatment in large hospitals like the Apollo or Jaslok – go to any civil hospital in a sleepy town like Dantewada. The floor is spic and span, the walls are not decorated with red spittoon, there is no nauseating odour of Chitranela phenyl in the corridors, and the ward boys are not languidly chewing paan and ogling at each patient’s relative walking in. The hospital gave me yet another reason why I should not enter the whirlpool of insurance policies. As I learnt in Dantewada, through its beauty and horror stories, a 20th century invention like insurance is not a need.

Sodi Sambo waits patiently for her leg to be tended to

Sodi was shot on her right leg on October 1 this year by some Salwa Judum SPOs. She has since been living in VCA, under the love and care of the other tribal women who keep VCA inmates happy with their culinary skills. Sodi had to be taken to the hospital to get her wound cleaned and bandage changed. A young man, with no doctor’s robe or green mask, attended to her slim leg. He removed the earlier bandage and cleaned the wound with sterilizer with great confidence, but without any gloves on his hands. When I asked him if he would be wearing a pair, he replied nothing and continued to work at the same pace. Eventually, when the bandage dipped in Betadine solution and fastened around the steel rods fitted into Sodi’s leg had to be replaced, he wore gloves and finished the job carefully. All this while, as the dressing procedure was on, Sodi did not utter a word. Since I had not yet picked up any significant words in Koya Mata language, I asked one of the VCA volunteers with us to ask Sodi if the procedure was hurting her. Sodi nodded her head to affirm pain. But she did not twitch even once. Does time really heal wounds or merely plays with them?

Sans gloves, Sodi Sambo gets her wound sterilised

We brought Sodi back and the sun was almost down the horizon. Before retiring early for the day, Himanshuji was joined by professors Nandini Sundar and Ujjwal Singh of Delhi University. Sundar has been working on issues in Chhattisgarh for close to two decades but her fresh youthful look defies the cornucopia of knowledge and experience that she carries along nonchalantly. She told us that they had arrived from Jagdalpur and had lodged themselves in Madhuban Hotel, very close to VCA. “But we were told by the hotel manager that the next day was the death anniversary of some relative of the hotel owner and the rooms required cleaning. They asked us to check out the same night. Of course, such warm housekeeping was meant only for us,” Sundar said with a wry smile.

However, by around 10 pm, Sundar got a call from the hotel, stating that she could spend the night there. Weird is the business sense in Chhattisgarh. Weird is each day here. “Events”, as journalists would like to call them, can make you cry and laugh at the same time here. You will cry because it tugs your heart and will leave you sleepless; you will laugh because even Charlie Chaplin didn’t fathom such inanity and insanity of The Great Dictator, such as is in Bastar.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Gory Stories from the War Zone

Just like any other new place which gives an avid restless mind and wandering eyes new revelations, so has it been with Dantewada. Just sitting under the canopy of a huge tree and listening to a resilient man spinning the charkha is enough to shudder as well as feel optimistic. Perhaps that’s what nature is all about – a continuous process of creation and destruction.

With Himanshuji continuing his fast for the second consecutive day on December 27, his resilience continued to shine, and we knew that the best that we could do was hear tales of strife, persistence, injustice, ignorance, nepotism, and the real meaning of Independence. His words are full of strength and seem to be oblivious to the fact that it had been more than 48 hours since he had any solid in his body. Just water, the potent clear liquid over which states fight and kill people, has been keeping his mind, hands and heart well in place and in tandem.

Rajiv Vora of Hind Swarajpeeth – a trust that is trying to advocate, promote and apply Gandhian vision and methods of nonviolence, Satyagraha, peace with justice and human dignity – arrived on Sunday morning. The Gandhian peppered his experiences and learnings on Gandhian thoughts in chase Hindi, which augmented the tenor of the many discussions that ensued. A classical music aficionado, Rajivbhai gave a new boost to Himanshuji and his father, both of whom would be languidly spinning the charkha, while talking about the days gone by, and the disciplined lives of those whom we today call “leaders".

Two Gandhians: Himanshu Kumar and Rajiv Vora

Rehabilitation of Nendra

Sometime during the course of the day, we were introduced to a volunteer with Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), who, hitherto, had been singing Bollywood songs in the backyard. This lanky tribal youth has been associated with VCA since over a year, when it was decided to rehabilitate the people of Nendra last year. During one of my conversations with Himanshuji, he had told me that Nendra was one village which was a red ocean – one that was torn apart with various atrocities, and the scars of annihilation were still moist with the tears that continue to shed. Yet, much of the wounds have been healed, with the persistent efforts by VCA and its workers. Today, Nendra is standing on its own, and like most graves, little flowers of hope have begun to bloom. Here is an account of my conversation with the volunteer, whose name I choose not to reveal.

“Nendra is about 150 kms south of Dantewada. When Salwa Judum forces tried to force the people from there into the camps, some of them hid in the forests while quite a good section of them fled into Andhra Pradesh, which is just 40 kms away. As internally displaced people (IDP), it was obvious that they were leading lives of despair. It was imperative that they return to their own land and rebuild their lives. We went to the bordering villages in Andhra Pradesh to survey the situation many times, and we realised that the people were threatened with what they had seen and what the ostracism they were facing as IDPs.

We had several meetings with them, egging them to be courageous and stand up against the Salwa Judum. Finally they acquiesced to get back to Nendra, and we assured to help them in rebuilding their broken homes, dreams, lives.

There were no roads built from Nendra to the bordering villages of Andhra Pradesh. It was July 2008 and the rain gods had begun to prove their existence. We had to set ourselves in those villages first, to be able to get those people back. Our car got stuck in the wet red slush and all the goods we were carrying had to be protected from getting wet. We could not move any further. We ate whatever food we had with us, and there were no hand pumps around, we were left thirsty. We were on bikes at such an area where the cops wouldn't dare venture even during the day! The long night elapsed but the next morning we had to proceed into the interiors of the villages, which actually meant traversing through the wild jungle. We found an angadwadi, cleaned it and set it up as our base. Few days later, we brought back the people of Nendra from Andhra Pradesh to their own village, and thus began the work of constructing the deconstructed among six villages.

Those who did not flee to Andhra Pradesh were hiding in the thick jungle, but had still one or two cows left with them. We brought them back to what seemed to be civilisation. We would go out with them to their farms and help them. Whenever the police would come in, we had to talk to them calmly. So we were on constant vigil in the borders of those agricultural lands. When the people would get back home in the evening, we would go among them and talk to them about moving on in life, by leaving the past behind. We would distribute medicines, clothes as well as yarn to be woven into clothes.

We faced many hurdles initially. There were no markets; we had to walk miles as there was no transport whatsoever since the roads were pathetic. If any of our vehicles broke down we had to bring them to Errabor. At night if anyone fell ill, we would have to administer them with whatever medicines we had, and then wait till morning before we could take them to a hospital. There were no dispensaries there. All the schools which had been built were blown off. Even hand pumps had been removed so the villagers only had a pond to rely on for their water needs.

We continued with our work of providing materials and hope, but we had to face flak too. Once, we were beaten up by the SPOs in Errabor, which is about 8 kms away. The SPOs would tell us, “When none of our men would be able to get back alive from those villages, how on Earth would are you able to walk freely among those villagers? You all definitely must be supporters of the Naxals!” and a hard blow would fall on our backs. But we stood back erect.

Whatever little the people had earned while in Andhra Pradesh was being utilised to make Nendra their home again. We also helped in the implementation of all the governmental schemes that were supposed to be functioning, but were defunct Рthese included the anganwadis and cr̬ches, where we would distribute chocolates among the 35-odd children and then teach them.

A lesser Krishna?

Once, some people, resembling Naxalites, came to enquire about our work. We said that we were doing the work only with the acceptance of the villagers; we weren’t forcing anything upon them. We were providing the villagers only with what they wanted, and that if they did not feel our need, we would leave and extend our help to other villages instead. They understood our intention and left us alone. Slowly, the conditions of the people began to improve. The children were studying; they began to come to school wearing clean clothes and neatly dressed.

But sometimes, forces would still come, ask the villagers some inane questions, and then take them away to the police thana, while beating them all the way. I would follow them to the police thana and plead with the police to let them free. We did this about three-four times. One day, sometime in August this year, one of my two colleagues, Sukhnath, had gone to the market. He heard there that earlier in the day, about five men had already been picked up. So Sukhnath went to the police and pleaded with them to release the men as they were innocent. Then the police told Sukhnath, “Perhaps you too are a Naxal supporter, and hence your commander will have to come here to release you.” Under that pretext, even Sukhnath landed behind bars. The next day, we were frantically searching for him. We went to Konta police thana and another camp too, but they all feigned innocence and said, “We haven’t picked up anyone.” But we later realised that Sukhnath had indeed been arrested.

We then notified about the same to Himanshuji who tried his best to get him free, but Sukhnath is still languishing in the jail today.”

Municipal election results in Dantewada

The scourge of war was evident; the participants in this ghastly war were many. Yet, strange are the ways of the wisdom of crowds, strange are the ways of our democratic set-up. Salwa Judum to me sounds more like “sarkar ka zulm”, and yet, its proponents emerged winners in the recent Municipal elections here. While walking through Dantewada town on Sunday morning, to purchase some lemons for Himanshuji, we saw a huge procession, proclaiming the win of Deepak Karma in the municipal elections. Deepak is the son of Mahendra Karma, a Congress party worker and leader of the Opposition, under whose aegis Salwa Judum gained ground in Chhattisgarh, in 2004. Congress of BJP, suddenly, both the political parties are suddenly united in their strife to bring home MNCs and shoo and shoot away the bow-and-arrow carrying original inhabitants of the state.

The procession was a large one: an entourage of bikers carrying a huge tricolour paraded through the streets first, followed by a truck of supporters who could not contain their happiness upon Karma’s win and used their vocal chords to the best of their abilities. Then, on road, symbolising the people’s true leader, Karma walked through the street – hands folded into a Namaste, large orange garlands around his neck akin to the ones seen at commercialised temples, and grinning like a tantrum-throwing child who is given the first prize in some competition to silence his wails. Of course, Karma was in simple clothes – he didn’t need any kind of protective gear when he had managed to get about a 100 men and women surrounding him as he took his strides. As that large procession walked past, there was more to keep our mouths open in awe – about 50 Salwa Judum special police officers (SPOs), men and women, walked down the road, as though they owned it. They were recognisable by the fatigues that they wore, which perhaps gave a sense of pride – a sense of power over their own people.

When we narrated what we saw to Himanshuji, he only flashed his 1,000-watt smile. Was it the hunger-induced tiredness that resulted in silence? Was the solitary smile a the surrender to the nature of the Indian democratic system where parties unite to fatten their Swiss bank accounts through the cream fed by MNCs, and wean its masses of everything, including life? The silence was too loud. His smile was chilling.

'Chhattisgarhiya Sable Badhiya' - the only independent individuals here are the SPOs

‘I was raped because my husband was a Naxalite’

Later in the evening, during the course of some conversation, the weather was beginning to get eerily cold with new revelations and gory stories. Himanshuji told us about a woman called Ledha, whose story curdled my intestine, yet left me feeling optimistic, by the end of it.

Two years ago, Surguja resident Ledha Bai was “allegedly” raped by Balrampur Superintendent of Police, Sitaram Kalluri. Her fault? Being the wife of a Naxalite who had almost surrendered. She was “allegedly” abducted by the IPS officer and raped repeatedly. When she tried to file a case in the Bilaspur High Court with the help of an advocate and human rights activist, a case of abduction was instead “allegedly” filed against the advocate by Kalluri. Later, her family was “allegedly” abducted; she was threatened to change her lawyer. She was given a public prosecutor, and a day later, she told the Court that she wanted to take back the case against Kalluri. When the Court asked her for reasons, she broke down saying, “Don’t ask me anything.”

Today, Kalluri is IG of Anti-Naxals wing of the Chhattisgarh police of Dantewada range, while Ledha Bai is trying to bring justice to women in the capacity of a social worker, in Surguja.

Misleading emails

The sun had set, and all we could do was hope for a new day. But an interesting email was waiting for me in my inbox. It was from a gentleman by the name of Rajesh Singh Sisodia, from an NGO called Nange Paon Satyagrah. When I read his mail, for the first time, I realised that my articles were indeed being read widely. Wow! I exclaimed in happy disbelief. Sisodia was writing to me about Maoism, Naxalism, Salwa Judum, and has more or less congratulated Salwa Judum, while denouncing people like Himanshuji. Below are excerpts from the mail:

“Some NGO’s and other people have accused the police of making use of Salwa Judum as a counter-insurgency strategy by turning it in a state-funded militia. However, this allegation is definitely wrong and creates misperceptions, which need to be clarified. Vishwa Ranjan states: ‘Salwa Judum is a spontaneous movement and the police do not contribute financially or physically to Salwa Judum. The only thing the police do is respecting this movement as it respects all peaceful and democratic people movements’.

Mahendra Karma responds: ‘The people will have to fight against the tyranny of the Naxalites, because there is no other way left. Therefore we started the Salwa Judum and this movement is organized by and for the people and does not get any support of the police. It is the duty of the police to combat Naxalism. However, the police lack a fighting spirit and do not do enough to combat terrorism. Besides this, the police are bounded by stringent laws and therefore actions taken by them are very slow and have little impact.’

It is surprising that NGO’s such as Banwasi Shetna ashram are using false propaganda to create misperceptions among the people. Banwasi Shetna ashram state that Salwa Judum is related to Special Police Officers and the relief efforts of the government. As India is proud of being a democratic country it is of vital importance to maintain the debate among civilians, politicians and NGO’s alive. However, one should always be honest and speak the truth. Therefore, this article would take the opportunity to clarify that the police forces work independently from any organization such as the Salwa Judum.

This leads us to the conclusion that every stakeholder has a role to play in society, whether it be the Naxalites (a wrong role, but still a role), the police, the Salwa Judum, the media or the NGO’s. However, everyone should focus on their respective field of work and should do everything in their ability to contribute to the solution of the conflict between the Naxalites and the police. One should not degrade themselves to the spread of false allegations, childish lies and the creation of misconceptions among the common people…”

To all those skeptics, pessimists and cynics like Sisodia, who harbour many doubts about what Himanshuji says, and most importantly, what you are reading about in my mails: do not believe my words. Convince yourself first by what you see with your own eyes, what you hear with your own ears, and what you feel in your own heart. Book your ticket to Dantewada (mail me and I will give you directions, provided I know for sure that you are coming here) and spend few days here. You will be convinced about what you should believe. This is not about any ideology; this is only about what you see and feel when you come here. No RSVP. Just come.

Beauty and the beast: All conflict areas like Jammu & Kashmir and the North East, and now Chhattisgarh ring that Louis Armstrong song in the ears, "It's a wonderful world"

‘Am I protected?’

On Monday, December 28, Himanshuji entered the third day of his fast and was joined by Tanushree Gangopadhyay, a freelance journalist based alternatively between Bengaluru and Baroda. Himanshuji was beginning to look pale and exhausted, and his hands were moving slowly. He was reading a big fat book and I chose not to disturb him much. But he received phone calls all day long – well-wishers expressing solidarity and trying to gauge the situation with, “Is it safe for us of we get there?” Himanshuji replied to each of those calls with his idiosyncratic benevolence. But my reply would be, just come. If your heart tells you that you need to be here by his side then listen to none other.

Around 10 am, the seven police personnel who had been guarding Himanshuji came up to him to say that they had received an order to back out from his protection. It was indeed a good sign, and just like any other day, they were offered the breakfast-time tea. However, about half hour later, the chief who had left earlier, returned to state that there was a miscommunication and that the protection over Himanshuji’s shadow would continue. Himanshuji indeed is a much-loved man.

The day was quite uneventful, except that VCA’s volunteers – about 12 of them who had been working in various villages – gathered for a monthly meeting. I had the chance to interact with them, to understand how they individually got associated with VCA. Some of them had been working within the Salwa Judum camps, bringing about a sense of hygiene amid the dirty environs. They were of the opinion that the camps were indeed full of small tents where 15-member families had to squeeze in together. “The people are thankful to be alive, but they have been stripped of their dignity. In crammed tents, the situation is nothing short of living in a stable.”

The fourth estate

The volunteers asked me whether I came here after I had read news about atrocities in Dantewada in Mumbai. It was now my chance to flash that smile of surrender, as I explained how advertisements by companies that are the indirect perpetrators of the violence here, were sacred in the boardroom of media houses. So of course, it is easy to ignore the news stories of many rapes and murders and mutilations in a tiny village amid teak trees in Dantewada, in order to get those few extra lakhs of advertisements, which will fuel the New Year and Holi and anniversary parties of the media companies.

Now the volunteers smiled. They said, “There is such disparity in the news reports in the local media about what is happening here. No two reports of any incident are the same. How is the common man here, who goes to work on his scooter and gets back home in time for evening tea and biscuit, supposed to make a judgment?”

The sun set and questions as potent as these lingered on. But Vora of Swarajpeeth had to leave abruptly to address a crisis back home. Tomorrow is another day, that’s what we all harbour in our mind when we try to sleep comfortably inside two blankets. Sleep eludes us all. And we know the reason, but have been searching for the cure.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Crushed walls, unflinching spirit

When I visited the site where Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) earlier stood, amid a virgin forest, the dirt patch to the site was compensated by the scenic beauty on either sides of the road. As I walked past all that was lying scattered, I could sense what Himanshuji must have felt in his large heart when his work born out of intense love for life was razed down in a matter of few hours. Here are a few words which I hope would reflect what goes on in his mind when he sits under a large tree, smiling, sipping water, and explaining to people on the phone the meaning of satyagrah.

Vanvasi Chetna Ashram
Built over 17 years
Razed down in 3 hours

Nothing spared to a quivering breath of life
Even a telephone tower was forced to bend and break
So that no Idea could change your life

Scrap worth Rs 1 lakh was sold after VCA was demolished

Nothing has changed
Neither have the government’s problems
Nor has my motivation to solve tribals’ problem

Hand pumps
All faced an insecure government’s fury

A whole section of the red Earth is now decorated with cylindrical commodes, broken after a community toilet was razed

While gram sabha welcomed me
An aggressive police force surrounded me
All I could do was let go
As I cannot be pinned to a wall
A rogue state’s boots cannot crush my morale

Once adorning my wall was Vinoba Bhave’s photograph
The police tore it too, as it aced hungrily to get me my epitaph

Rooms now resemble a grave; but only bricks have been crushed -- no human spirit

The sky is still bright blue
And the evening sun renders it many hues
The clouds scatter themselves in billows
Much like the cloud of debris below

Mid-day meals
Equal wages
17 years I strived
Another 17 and more I will still strive
To return dignity to life

With this dispensary now in a rubble, villagers have to hire a cab, to get to the nearest hospital which is 14 kms away, and then get fleeced of their meagre money bag by the apathetic doctors

As I sip only water today
And like millions of deprived brothers here
I keep nutrition at bay

I cannot be silenced
My independence cannot fenced

"This child is hungry for food; I am hungry to get justice for him."

My fear, if any, is a product of my own assumptions
My assumptions are none other than the immortality of my motivation

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Dantewada contines to cry - Day 2 from the War Zone

Dantewada resembles a terrific juggler to me; one who is able to toss several jugs up in the air, while making sure that none falls off his control. The juggler is always tensed; he has to give his best shot because everyone’s eyes are on him. He cannot afford to go wrong with any single jug; the one going up in the air next would ruin his game plan to keep his gaping audience enthralled and entertained and coming back to him again and again, and making him rich.

Some similes: If the government is Dantewada, then the jugs are the tribals, the Salwa Judum, the Naxalites, the rich minerals beneath the land and Himanshu Kumar. The government is eager to put up a great show, for its reward is the coveted seat during elections. One mistake in miscalculation of the ‘jug up in the air’, and the government will be hiding for cover. The government appeases the billion-dollar rich corporate who are ever so hungry. And we were taught that only malnutritioned kids could best explain hunger.

Himanshuji commenced on his indefinite fast from this morning. He wasn’t visible around the house till quite late into the morning, and good sense prevailed upon me to realize that be it fast or upwaas, he will always continue to feed people with his conversations peppered with laughter, over the phone. Some bedspreads were laid out under the canopy of a huge tree, and thus began Himanshuji’s day, with the charkha and the phone keeping his hands engaged. We too decided to observe the upwaas with him and although we had plans to visit a certain village, various possibilities that could come in our way prevented us from taking any trip. We surely couldn’t afford to get nabbed by the cops on flimsy charges, for "carrying IEDs to the Naxalites to distributing Red pamphlets… you can be put behind bars for any reason" were Himanshuji’s words of caution. So we stayed back observing the ‘Tribal Gandhi’ as he was surrounded by his well-wishers, who trickled in through the day.

The Tribal Gandhi

Sometime around 3 pm, a police jeep came in and cops in civil clothes approached Himanshuji. He spoke to them with utmost respect and concern – didn’t someone speak about love thy neighbor? After all, aren’t these lowly constables just a conduit of a larger system, but are still as much you and me? They handed him a fat envelope that contained several letters in Hindi – learnt later that after a writ petition had been filed in the Supreme Court (by Himanshuji on behalf of aggrieved tribals) about the attack on some villages, the cops had embarked on their investigation. However, as the letter from the Additional Superintendent of Police of Dantewada district mentioned, the police parties sent to investigate the matter could not meet a single villager and hence it was imperative that Himanshuji himself bring those complainants to the police station, and he himself too go along with them so that he could aid in the investigations.

Himanshuji lovingly smiled at the constable who gave him the letter and said, "When two people are fighting, how can a third person intervene to give testimony of one of the warring parties? Isn’t it the job of the cops to investigate?" He acknowledged the receipt of the letters, and what seemed to me the true mark of a someone who has enough love in his heart to satiate the entire hungry world, he bid the cops goodbye, saying, "Thank you for your time, and sorry for any inconvenience caused." The cops really had nothing to reply back, other than to hang their heads as they approached their jeep, which was driven away from our sight in a great rush, leaving a cloud of red soil rising to the air. About an hour later, the Thana In-charge (TI, who is equivalent to an Inspector at a police station in a large city) visited Himanshuji, stating that he was passing by the way and decided to drop by to say a hello. He then asked Himanshuji, "What exactly is satyagrah? I ask because, as far as I know, you have not been permitted by the Collector and the SP to conduct either a padyatra or satyagrah or jansunwai. So what you are doing right now – is this satyagrah?"

The TI did not know what trap he landed himself into. Himanshuji told him that satyagrah meant that there was satya (truth) in his actions, and he expected the other person to agrah (accept) that truth. Soon followed a detailed explanation of satyagrah, with myriad examples. The TI was utterly confused by then. He noticed that Satyen was scribbling something in his notebook and asked Himanshuji about him, who replied that Satyen was a journalist from Mumbai. Satyen later told me that the look of surprise was evident on the TI’s face, which conveyed, "What were my men doing that they could not stop a journalist from entering Dantewada?"

Himanshuji continued his explanation of satyagrah, while the TI got ensnarled further into it by Himashuji’s Gandhian father, who continued to add on to his son’s words. Finally, the harried TI decided that he had had enough and that it was time for him to take leave. Perhaps he needed to go home earlier and ponder about each of his actions, whether they merited to be termed ‘satyagrah’.

Before the sun could set for the day, we decided to go and take a look at the erstwhile site of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) where it stood before the cops demolished it in three hours, in May 2009. About 14 kms away from where Himanshuji currently resided, the dirt patch approach to the Ashram compensated for the scenic beauty on either sides of the road. I was prepared to see what my eyes soon fell upon – recent ruins comprising broken walls, grafitti on what used to be a dispensary, broken commodes and hand pumps, an erect telephone tower brought down to the ground…. As I walked past all that was lying scattered, I could sense what Himanshuji must have felt in his large heart when his work born out of intense love for life was razed down in a matter of few hours. Yet, it also becomes a symbol of his resilience. A Tehelka journalist once told him, "Even after your ashram was demolished; you did not turn to look back at it in despair. What can then break you?"

Once upon a time in Dantewada....

We met one villager there whose name I now fail to recollect, who stays behind the erstwhile Ashram. He said that although he was away when the Ashram was being demolished, he felt the pains now all the more when some villager would fall ill and would have to be taken to Dantewada town for treatment by an expensive hired cab, and then get treated by the doctors at exorbitant rates. There was nothing more to talk about. The sight around said it all. We were also told that the after the demolition, scarp worth Rs 1 lakh was sold, while not much could be salvaged as immediately after the demolition which took place on a Sunday, the rain Gods decided to play a game too the next day. So, much was lost.

A telephone tower now is a maze of aluminium

When we returned back home, Himanshuji said, "Nothing has changed. The government thought that razing down VCA would silence me, but I’m too stubborn. Nothing has changed – neither has the government’s problems, neither has my resolute stand."

I knew that although the sun had set, the sun would rise up again. And Himanshuji was the new sun who was spreading his rays of light to his butchered, tortured, abused brethren. Finally the crickets and a loud owl began to play their music, while in the backyard the tribals girls working with VCA began a song-and-dance routine. I could not stop myself from joining them, just as Himanshuji cannot stop smiling despite the adversities that befall him. The smile is to reassure that tomorrow, the sun will rise again.

Dantewada cries! - Day 1 in the War Zone

When a daughter of the nation has her dignity stripped by the country’s vigilante militia, which doors are left to be knocked upon, to get justice? The country currently is debating over a case of “justice delayed is equivalent to justice denied”, thanks to the numerous TV channels. But four women in Chhattisgarh have not only been stripped of their dignity, but have been ordered to keep mum in order to have their heads firmly on their shoulders.

Four girls, who were raped two years ago, were recently beaten up by the same SPOs (special police officers) who had raped them. The SPOs had forced the girls to put their thumb impressions on blank papers, and left the village wondering, “Why do these men wear the khaki and deride the respect associated with it?”

Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) had spread the word about this forcible signing of papers, through SMS, to the higher rungs in the democratic set-up of the country, as well as to those who would have a sensitive yet strong heart, enough to give them a restless sleep as they would ponder over the heinous atrocities.

It was later learnt that immediately after the day the SMS was sent, the girls were picked up again by the SPOs, were kept in captivity at Dornapal police thana for five days, and were let off yesterday – December 24. Satyen K. Bordoloi and I, who reached Dantewada this morning (December 25), went along with Himanshuji to meet the girls, bring them with us and give them the moral strength that they needed abundantly to fortify themselves for the long judicial battle ahead. We drove to their village Samsetti in Sukma block of the same district, which is about 100 kms south of Dantewada. I was personally sure that we would bring home the girls and understand what it was like to be abused and bruised over and over again, so that I could best transcribe their feelings into words, for others to read and feel their pain. Alas….!

Himanshuji couldn’t accompany us till the village since we had an entourage of seven constables following us (this has been the way Himanshuji has been traveling since December 14, when the state declared that his life was in danger and hence he deserved 24x7 protection). Himanshuji did not want his “protectors” to see the residences of these victims, and hence he got off the car about 2 kms before we could reach Samsetti, and said that he would relax under the shade of a large tree. He sometimes feigns about relaxing, because we know it too well that the ambience is far from that state of mind.

As we approached Samsetti, we were shocked to see young men in fatigues, carrying guns, walking past our car, and of course, looking back at us. They were definitely the SPOs of Salwa Judum – only SPOs wear uniforms; state police personnel do not. Easily, there were more than 100 of them. As the last one walked past us, we too reached a junction and alighted from the car. We knew that getting the girls wouldn’t be easy. Just at that moment, some young men from the village, who managed to camouflage their fear, told us that the SPOs had picked up five men from the nearby villages that morning – Madkam Kesa and Madkam Beeda from Paria village; Vanjam Sula, Vanjam Hunga and Vanjam Suka from Bagriguda village. They were sitting idle at home when the SPOs came to them and said that they needed to be spoken to. It was evident that they were taken away for no small talk, and other villagers who had been similarly called for a conversation by SPOs, were still languishing in the jail, since a year!

We continued our wait for the women, until we came across a young man. His wife was one of the women who were raped and we told him that we needed to take her to the Sessions Court so that she could talk herself about the heinous crimes that she as repeatedly subjected to. He was reluctant; he said that it was essential that the village as a commune should decide what the girls should do. Himanshuji requested him to get his wife, and so we set out to search for her, while all along he alleged that she was busy at the site where a pond was being dug as part of NREGA. We walked to that site, but were told that she had left for her home. We were sure that she was only being shielded; no person with NREGA work could actually be allowed to leave work midway. We walked to the village again to get the other girls, but we were told that the girls were away at work. By now we knew that the girls were only being shielded from us. The fact that Himanshuji was not with us also worked against us in trying to persuade the villagers to take the girls along with us.

We finally managed to reach the residence of one of the victims, Rupa (name changed). A religious festivity was underway in the compound and all the men and women and children were gathered. After much persuasion, Rupa came out from the mud and bamboo house and sat next to us. A volunteer with VCA tried to learn what had happened after her thumb impression was taken. Rupa began to speak slowly; the terror inflicted upon her several times had done that to the smiling girl. She said, “The cops came to our house at 4am and asked me to go with them. I told them that I needed to change my saree, but they rebuked me stating that I was acting pricey. I was forced to go with them; they took us to the Dornapal police thana where they beat all four of us girls. We were threatened that if we continued to fight the case, we would be beheaded. I was the only one who said that I did not care if they did so. But my little anger and show of strength did no good. They kept us there for five days and finally brought us back to the village only yesterday.” When the VCA volunteer asked her to come along with us, she refused, stating that it was the festivity that had kept her occupied. Clearly, the cops’ five-day “treatment” had proven to be successful – the girl was scared to do anything that could be done to fight for her own case.

Rupa knows not what to do; knows not where to scream; knows not whether she should fight at all

Much persuasion with the men around yielded no results. We told them that few of us would stay back till Rupa could go, along with another villager, to at least meet Himanshuji, so that he could have a chat with her. But no amount of cajoling helped. Rupa was also pressurised by the villagers as the SPOs had also threatened the entire village many a times before. Finally, we went back to Himanshuji and reported our failure to him. He decided that his words could perhaps be useful. We went back to Samsetti, and not surprisingly, Rupa was nowhere to be seen. By the time, a village senior had begun to beat the drums for the festivities to begin, but Himanshuji silenced them with his strong words in Gondi. What transcribed to me were strong motivational words, egging the villagers to stand up for themselves, lest more forces sent in would only end up in more rapes and beheading of the men. He had managed to get a few young boys to go and get the four women from wherever they were, but the village seniors, who seemed to have resigned to their fate and hence found Himanshuji’s half-hour talk too distant to their lives, decided to get back to their festivity. The women marched to the small mandap that was erected while the drums began to beat again.

Himanshuji did not stop with the louder reverberations of the drums. He continued to egg the young men to go and get the women from wherever they were hiding, but they were scared to do so. Evidently, they knew that their head would be the next to be sliced off, and hence they chose to remain indifferent.

Himanshuji gave them his contact number, and one vocal senior villager said that a meeting would be called for later in the evening along with the sarpanch (who is incidentally also a Salwa Judum member, so of course no positive help would be forthcoming) and only then would a decision be taken.

We returned to Dantewada late in the evening, dejected. As Himanshuji rightly said, “Everyone wants a Bhagat Singh, but only in their neighbour’s house.” The Central government wants to battle Naxalism in full form, and this they do so by raping young girls. Meanwhile, the country yet again celebrated the birth of the man who came to the world to salvage you and me and everyone, from our sins.