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.