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.