Friday, 25 June 2010

Kalinganagar Mutiny = Milk On The Pan

Pour some milk into the pan and switch on the flame. At first, there is stillness and vapour that can be missed. Next, the noise tells you that the milk is rumbling, followed by the cream rising up. By then it is too late – even if you lower the heat, the cream is beyond your control. It falls off the pan and leaves you with a sight and smell that are not pleasing. The rest of the milk simmers down by the time you extinguish the flame, but much milk has been lost. But if you choose to stay blind to the discontent of the boiling molecules of the milk and choose to let the heat roll on, not only will the cream spill, but the rest of the milk – relatively calmer – will spill too, until there isn’t any left in the pan. The pan is left black and with an odour hard to miss – it cannot be used anymore.

Seeing the milk boil on the mud hearth inside that tiny hut – no electricity, no toilet – the corollary of the boiling milk and the mutiny that shook Kalinganagar in 2006 is evident.

No wonder then most of the active members of the Bisthapi Birodhi Jan Manch (BBJM) haven’t visited the nearest town since over a year. This means they haven’t been able to go out shopping for bare necessities (a tribal family needs to purchase only oil, kerosene and salt from the market, for their survival); they haven’t been able to address any domestic emergency like ill health; they haven’t been able to watch any blockbuster movie to drown themselves into another distant world; they haven’t been able to ‘hang out’ with friends who live far away. This is the kind of ‘house arrest’ they are subject to, and daily, one has to calculate the routes around their villages from which one would not be ‘noticed’.

As I shared the angst of the ‘house arrest’ on my third day in Kalinganagar on June 23, I realized that every family had a story to tell about that winter day in 2006 – a story of boiling milk that overflowed and woke up the Orissa government. Stories of death, injury, loss, anger, grit. And hope. Through bits and pieces, I had learnt what had happened – 12 people were killed including three women, three others later succumbed to their injuries, scores of people were injured, several men continue to be arrested on false charges of murder. But I realized that there was an interesting history behind the mutiny.

By 2005, Rabi Jarika was a ‘wanted criminal’, for championing BBJM. In October 2005, he had gone to Bhubaneshwar – about 200 kms south – to attend a conference on grassroots resistance. By the end of the first day at the conference, he had received news that cops from Jajpur had arrived in Bhubaneshwar to arrest him. Just when he had decided to return home, he was picked by the cops.

The people's person: Rabi Jarika rushes to his farm every morning at 8 am

The tribals had heard that Tata would begin its work of leveling the fields from January 2, 2006. They were ready to face the bulldozers, but not the bullets. It was a Monday. Around 9 am, about 1,000 policemen and hundreds of those who had begun to support Tata, arrived near Champakoyla village, which is closer to the main road. Cops began to fire indiscriminately, leaving 12 dead on the spot and several injured. Rabi was released on January 26, 2006, owing to the tribals pressuring the authorities to release him. The authorities had to comply – they had faced flak for the incident and could in no way afford to scar itself anymore.

“You were still in jail when the firing took place. It must have killed you because you were in a relatively safer place while your people were butchered…” I asked Rabi, choosing my words carefully. Instead he laughed and said, “I was proud of my people.”

“Please explain.”

“You see, when I was arrested in October 2005, the people were very angry. They channelised their anger into active resistance – they managed to stop all the leveling work that was going on across villages, they began to patrol the villages, and they were defiant of the wicked ways of the goons. But Tata too had decided that enough was enough. So that’s when they used force to begin the leveling work. Imagine, if in my absence the people had managed to do so much, they can achieve a lot more with the seething anger of having their own people being killed.”

“Didn’t the villagers carry any bows and arrows at that time?”

“They did, but didn’t use it. Sometimes I feel they should have used them; but on second thoughts, it would mean that our people were attacking our own brothers – who had now become goons. Yes, they have defected for the lure and love of money, but we still have our conscience intact.”

The pride in the strength in his people can be seen dripping in Rabi’s smile. Later in the day, I roam around the village. It is easy to ask a young boy for a lift on his bike or cycle to avoid the 3 km walk to a neighbouring village. Unlike in the cities, it is easy to open the heart out to the adivasis. I go to meet Ranjit Bankira, a lanky 20-year-old youth from Chandia village, who lost his mother during the uprising. “When we heard that the police had come, we all rushed out. If we managed to stop the police at Champakoyla, we could prevent them from entering our village. My mother ran ahead, and in the same row, there were seven other people. We all had noticed a rope on the ground at the lake near Champakoyla, but never thought it to be suspicious. When they crossed it, there was a blast. It was a landmine. My mother died instantly, but they took her body away. They returned it few days later, after it was decomposed. But her palms were missing. The cops said that it was for identification. They returned a pair of palms several months later, but evidently, they were not hers,” Ranjit said, with the help of his maternal uncle Babli Jamunda, who could speak better Hindi.

Ranjit Bankira got the job of a peon, 'thanks' to his mother being killed by a landmine

The family received compensation from the state and central governments, while Ranjit got the job of a peon at a school. But there are valid reasons why he is still unhappy. “The school is 17 kms away, and I was lucky to already have a bike. But I have to reach there at 10 am; I get home at 5 pm. I have no time to tend to our fields. If any day they find that I am not good at my job, they will fire me. By then, the farm will be in a bad shape. Does the government calculate all this before offering some job to placate an angry man?” I then realize that it is 11 am, and he said that he had taken the day off as he wanted to tend to his farm. “It is also the day of the haat (weekly market), but it will be tough to go. The goons will disappear from the road only by late afternoon. By then, the market will draw to an end.” I get his point. Most of his friends are jobless and yet immobile, but they look forward to the day of the haat when they can all hang out together. But they cannot. Friends, family, countrymen – everyone here worth one’s trust has become a foe.

I ask Babli about his residence, he tells me it is right across the street (which is just about two feet wide and a red puddle), “next to the tomb of Laxman Jamunda”. Babli tells me that Laxman was his paternal uncle who was a 55-year-old bachelor and stayed with him. I had heard about Laxman’s death too – it was about a fortnight in the month of May this year when there were a strong of news of deaths from Kalinganagar, thanks to some like journalists RR and PDM, and a filmmaker who made small videos of the atrocities through the use of hidden cameras and put them up on Youtube for the world to see. “So tell me what happened on May 12 this year,” I prod Babli.

Laxman Jamunda: Rest-In-Piece

“Our villagers, who no more lived here as they had given their land to Tata and had accepted the rehab package, had come dressed as cops. They claimed that they wanted to take away all the things which they had left behind in their house. Now tell me, which house would still have anything useful, if you return to it after four years? Anyway, so we let them take the things and soon we saw that bulldozers razed down those houses. Sometime later, they began to raze down the houses of those who still lived here – after all, they were protesting the land grab. Some women were in the houses which were being attacked and they began to scream. We ran to see what was happening. The goons – or, those who earlier lived in our village – began to attack with the arrows they carried. We had no time to react but to run and escape. We didn’t know that the cops were also waiting in another corner. They too struck; one bullet hit my uncle Laxman. They took away his body instantly. It has been two months today, and yet we haven’t received his body.”

I pay my respects to the stone tomb, which is draped with a red cloth. Red, for the seething anger. Red, for the blood that been spilt. Red, for the reasons why a people decides to make the bow and arrow a part of their anatomy, wherever they go. I decide to meet Dabar Kalundia – the man wanted by the police for ‘crimes’, but who is being constantly wooed by people in the administration. It is raining and all around me, I see only green. I wonder why, for the love of another green, should drops of red need to discolour this natural green. I hear the rumble of a bike – but there are two women pillion riders already. It is a 3 km walk to Baliagot village.

Dabar is not at home; I meet 20-year-old Surendra Bandara ande explain that I am a journalist and Dabar’s friend. His look of suspicion fades and offers to show me something ‘interesting’. We walk for a while when he tells me why he is sitting at home jobless. “If I apply for a job, they will reject me during the medical test.”

“Why? You look fine to me!”

“I have a bullet wound below my groin.” He explains that on the day of the mutiny, he was shot. He called up his father – who was in the postal service in Cuttack – and within 30 minutes, he sped his bike to Cuttack (a 90-minute drive from Kalinganagar), through another long convoluted route, to avoid the cops. “I managed to somehow reach Cuttack before the cops blocked all exit routes. I was in the hospital for the next six months. My 12th class exams were held in March that same year, but I couldn’t appear for them. Now, there is no point in completing my studies as I will anyway not get any job. I might as well live in the village and work for the movement,” he explained.

His ordeal was not to end after he was released from the hospital. He was arrested in October 2009 on charges of murder, dating back to the bloody Monday on January 2, 2006. He was released this year in March. By now, we have reached the spot that he wanted to show me. It is the 4-lane Common Corridor project, which, the government claims will reduce the distance to Duburi Chack for the people living in the nearby villages. “There can be no shorter route other than through our village. And anyway, they say they want to make it a pukka road so that we can ply our ‘vehicles’ – which is nothing beyond a bike. But the majority walks. And who would want to walk on a road which doesn’t have a single tree under which one could take shelter on a hot day?” True to his words, the land is suddenly barren till a large extent.

“We were sent a letter by IDCO (Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation) which stated that we would have to surrender 5 acres of our land for the project. IDCO is responsible for buying or grabbing the land from people, and giving it off to the highest bidder. We returned the letter, and told them that we were not ready to give our land. March 30 this year was the day to inaugurate the Common Corridor, which we call as ‘daman’ (repression) corridor. We protested but they beat up several of us. Ever since, they have tightened their grip around Kalinganagar, and today’s scenario of a ‘house arrest’ is a result of that incident,” Surendra states it all nonchalantly.

The Common Corridor runs through Surendra's farmland. 'That's where I get my food from. That's the land that has kept generations of our family alive. That's the land for which the government is ready to even kill us.'

We walk back to his house for some water. His house, like the most houses in rural India, are the most ‘eco-friendly’ – everything is taken from the Earth; every element used is ‘biodegradable’. He points out to a heap of hay behind. “That was part of our house. We went and stayed there on days when there would be too many visitors. On April 9 this year, the family who lived behind our house had come along with the cops and a bulldozer, to raze his old house. We were ill-prepared to face the huge contingent of police, and so, instead of facing them, we ran towards the hill. When we returned later in the evening – when we were sure that the cops had left – we saw that along with our neighbour’s house, this part of our house was also brought down.”

Later that night, it rained heavily and begins to thunder. Between the moments of the room being lit by lightning, and the drops of water occasionally dripping from the low roof, I fell asleep. A bad dream woke me up at 3 am – I dreamt that someone was chasing me on the fields with the words that the house will be razed. I saw that I was running through the fields, but I had reached my residence. I look around but cry aloud out of sheer frustration – what will I take along with me? Bank papers? Educational certificates? The laptop? The telephone diary? The meager jewellery bundled into a handkerchief, tucked behind the clothes in the wardrobe? The old tattered love letters? The book which prevented me from drowning myself into depression? The blackened photograph of smiling Gods who seem to promise the fruits of being hopeful? I shuddered till I fell asleep again; I woke up in the morning and it was still raining.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Tribal? No Job? Become SPO

“There has to be a way out!” I had argued with Rabi the previous night. It was getting stifling that there was no way to get to Jajpur Road – just 15 kms away – during the day. Early on Tuesday (June 22) I managed to find the light to guide me out of the tunnel. Rabi’s nephew Sangit offered to take me through another route to the main road on a bike, from where I could take a bus to Jajpur Road. It was 8 am, and true to the corporate style work structure, the cops, goons and other men from Tata were bang on time to level the fields. But instead of walking 3 kms through the fields and past them to reach near Nilachal Ispat Nigam Ltd (NINL), Sangit takes me through more villages through a back route, to emerge on the main road, and then proceed to Duburi Chack, which is the town centre. It is a long route – 5.5 kms. “What if someone from our Chandia village had to go to the town, and did not have a bike?” I asked Sangit. “He would walk.” The road didn’t feel smooth anymore; the red dust in the air was blinding me.

When we emerged on the main road, Sangit discreetly pointed out towards a young boy by the roadside, who seemed to be trying to fix his bicycle. “He stands here till noon everyday. He is an informer for the cops. We shouldn’t take this route again tomorrow.” At first, I feel Sangit was being a chicken. But then again, he would know best – I would return to my safe haven in Mumbai and entertain friends with beer, descriptions of the greener pastures and the dramatic violence of Kalinganagar. But Sangit would have to live here, fight here, survive here or be a martyr here. Nobody is a chicken in Kalinganagar – not the tribals fighting for themselves; not the steel companies and the government which plays God to the tribals.

I notice two young boys, in their 20s, in khaki. Approaching Duburi Chack, I ask him if they were real cops, or people who had left the villages but were made to wear the khaki, or goons from another town camouflaged as men of law. “They are SPOs (special police officers).” I think I almost yelled aloud “WHAT?!” for Sangit almost applied the brakes. “How can SPOs be here? You don’t have militants like in Jammu & Kashmir; you don’t have separatists like in the North East of India; you don’t have Maoists like in Chhattisgarh. What are SPOs doing here?”
No job? Wear the khaki and eliminate your kin.

“The Orissa government says that there are no jobs for the youth. So they are offering them jobs of SPOs. They get paid Rs 4,000. This lucrative scheme was launched early this year and only youths from the Scheduled Tribes (STs) can apply for it. The minimum qualification needed is eighth class pass,” Sangit explained, adding that most youths from other villages outside Kalinganagar who had no idea or inclination about the politics of power and industrialization scampered to bag these jobs. “Evidently, the government is conveying, “You don’t have a job? They become a SPO, kill your own people or get killed.’ This is the government’s way of eliminating the mot backward tribals and grab all the land for industrialization.”

I get onto the bus, and it waits for a good 20 minutes before it can be packed. I manage to get a seat when a conductor pushes a man to ensure that the woman who seems to be from the city has a comfortable ride. The bus begins to move. Two halts later, old men with vegetable bags alight, while an old woman wearing a saree and no blouse, with a heavy cloth bag in her hand, boards the bus. Nobody can see her age. I decide to stand up and give her the seat. The conductor shouts in Oriya from behind, urging someone else to get up instead of me. A young man finally gets up and offers the old lady a seat. The bus moves ahead.

I was thankful to have a window seat, when the conductor shouted out that it was the ‘Nilachal’ bus stop. I look out and can see a string of grey vehicles – gone are the days of the Ambassador; our babus now travel in SUVs. I notice few men in white shirt and trousers, wearing the yellow safety helmet. There were no concrete or metal structures ‘above’ their head. Further ahead into the fields, I saw the reason why my wings were being clipped by the people in the village – huge trucks, bulldozers and tractors have dotted the landscape. I can black mounds and some a mass of white dots. I manage to take some photographs and then I see – those are men wearing the safely helmets, because they can anticipate people’s resistance and ‘offence’ any moment.

Let's watch a game called 'grab and kill'.

The rule of this game is to lie, lie and lie.

People in the bus are wondering what photographs am I taking. But I remember Rabi’s words, akin to that ad for Fritto Lays chips, when the girl would tempt the stranger into eating those wafers, and then step back – “Mom said I shouldn’t talk to strangers!” Here, the strangers I could perhaps befriend could be an informer. Further ahead on the road, we pass by a rail route. I remember what the local journalist RR had told me about this rail track: “This route was laid out after the string of MoUs was signed with the steel companies, post 1992. This route runs from another district called Keunjhar to our east, to Jhakpura, which is the railway station within Kalinganagar. There are iron and chromium mines in Keunjhar and the raw materials for the steel plants are brought to Kalinganagar by this route. It is only now that just one passenger train passes by this route.”

Once in Jajpur Road, life seems normal – children wearing crisp uniforms go to school, men ride on scooters to work, women shop for vegetables, jobless youth in bright shirts letch at young girls, saloons are busy doing business and grooming men. Not for once did I feel that I was so close to Kalinganagar, which can easily be India’s Bermuda Triangle. I finish my work and meet another local journalist PDM. He claims that RR and he are the only two journalists who have dared to enter the Bermuda Triangle when the cops had enforced a strict clampdown on the road. PDM said that there were several occasions when he and RR would ride up there, but their bags would be filled with basic medicines for those ailing in Kalinganagar, who couldn’t come to the medical centres.

We ride back to Kalinganagar. The sky is blue and not a single cloud to give the hope of rains. Around us, I see the steel plants in the distant. Not a single tree is visible. White fumes emanating from tall pillars make temporary clouds on the sky, leaving the nose pungent. “Villagers walking here will suffer sunstroke!” I exclaim. “Not sunstroke; they will suffer from moonstroke!” I am silent for a while and PDM understands that he owes me an explanation. “The sunstroke is evident, thanks to the heat and the naked field with no trees. But people here are being killed at night too by sudden police attacks. People will die here from breathing the poisonous fumes emanating from the factories. All of this will happen silently and not under the daylight when everyone can see everything. It will be a forced night – everyone in Orissa knows about Kalinganagar, yet they choose to pretend to be asleep. It is such a sleep that you cannot wake up a man from.”

Processing of iron ore before it cam be made into steel means the use of chromium hexavalent, to make the steel resistant to corrosion. Every person worth his love for Julia Roberts would have heard of this chemical, when the actor played the role of Erin Brockovich – an environmentalist who fought for the people of Hinkley in California, since their water bodies were contaminated with the chemical, which is highly carcinogenic. In Kalinganagar, the use of this chemical is crucial to the production of steel. And impotent men. “In the next 10 years, this place will be the land of hijras! Forget about the people working in those factories; ‘cancer’ will become an everyday word for these tribals living here,” PDM said in contempt.

"We are the champions...."

Few metres ahead, we see the infamous ‘goons’ of Kalinganagar – burly men on bikes, eyeing the fields where some trucks are unloading sand. The road into Chandia is now clear, and in about 7 minutes, we traverse the rickety 3 kms. Either of the sides is dotted with mounds of sand and packets of water. I return to find Sangit playing on his mobile phone. He is a third year student of History Honours in Bhubaneshwar. He is more than happy to explain the finer nuances of the politics at play here. “You see, when Tata manages to acquire the lands of, say, 50 families of a village, it will report to the government and to the media that it acquired the lands of 100 families. This they do by mentioning every son by a father as a separate family; never mind if the son is still a 10-year-old! Secondly, when it shows such great numbers, it sends out a message that 100 families – which means about 400 people – have been active in the resistance. Now this is seen as a huge number for a middle class, which thinks that the ‘savage’ tribals are posing a threat to development. For them, development means more factories. So, in accordance to silence the 400 bow-and-arrow carrying people, cops are sent in huge numbers. But the reality is that we are not such a huge number.”

I understand what he says, in a different context. The government claims that Maoists are the ‘single most, greatest internal security threat’. The middle class gets furious and types out mails to the news channels and newspapers between their coffee breaks that the Maoists should be eliminated so that development is possible. When the armed forces attack civilians – “We knew there were Maoists in the village!” – the same middle class says innocently, “Somebody has to pay a price for development, no?” Then there are those claims about Maoists having sophisticated guns, lent out with love from China (the middle class wouldn’t want to talk about China’s ‘love’ affair with Tibet). Yet the same middle class wouldn’t admit the truth that the mouse has to be smarter than the cat, to defend itself. The Maoists are better in their ‘strategy’; they capture the guns which lay next to a martyred soldier of the armed forces which was out in the jungle to kill the Maoists. The Maoists are a specter for the middle class – “There are so many of them!” “They are they single most, greatest internal security threat!” Scare the ignorant and the uninitiated, and he will forever live in fear.

It begins to thunder and we take shelter. The huge crowd of goats, cows and fowls gather together in the shed. Amid them is a dog, which runs towards us. He is fearless, unlike the fearful goats and hens towards which one can’t even benignly approach. He sits next to me. Sangit calls out, “Tata! Tata! Come here!” The dog responds and walks towards Sangit, and begins to lick his feet. I went mute and Sangit laughed aloud, telling me that the dog has been named Tata. “Go back Tata, let us live in peace.” Sangit says, but a moment later tells me, “But calling this dig Tata is akin to abusing this harmless dog, no?” I cannot agree with him more.

How Much Would You Sell Your Mother For?

It is 6 am on a Monday (June 21) and she has just finished sweeping the floor. She offers me a cup of strong tea as we sit under the shade of a large tree, we talk about food. Soon, she will have to run to the fields – not to work, but to see the huge bulldozers coming and leveling her land. The previous day was rather a relaxed one for her and other villagers, as being a Sunday, there was no work on the farms by the authorities.

We were talking about food. Every McDonald’s outlet, at least in the Indian cities, has a four-foot tall bin, to throw the waste food. Despite having a refrigerator, almost every urban household throws food into the bin. I tell her this, and she is shocked, but a moment later explains this phenomenon to me. “I know why they do this – because people in the cities do not grow their own food. They just buy it. We farmers tend to every plant that we grow on our fields. It would be an exaggeration if I said that this is the reason why we relish our food. But yes, because we have slogged ourselves while growing the food, we can never throw it. But it seems like people in the cities eat steel and money,” she laughs.

"Aren't we fighting for our God, for our Mother?"

There are no words or arguments to defend what she accused the urban folk of. Before I could conjure up some more words, she touched the ground and added, “This land is my mother. She has given me food, water and clean air. When I die, she will take me back into her womb. Tell me, would you be willing to sell this mother? And if so, then at what price? We have asked this question each time an officer comes in a big car to convince us to give up our land. He has no reply. But we just help with an answer since he goes mute: ‘Let us know the price at which you will sell your mother. We will then think about the price you can quote, but no, we will not sell her.’ The government says that these steel plants are being made for our development. Forget jobs; not even a needle will come to us from these plants! Do they think humans can survive on iron and steel? Perhaps they can! After all aren’t the city folk always hungry for money?” I lower my head upon hearing the stark truth.

I try to change the topic and ask her about the movement. She says that earlier people would be scared upon seeing a policeman. “Ever since the crossfire on January 2, 2006, took place, we have never retreated. We now look at the cops as piece of dirt. God has given us that strength to fight back – after all aren’t we fighting for our God?”


I realize that I too need to find a place from where I could file reports of all that I see, hear, smell, feel. But when I propose this idea to Rabi, he is defiant. “The cops come to level the fields from 8 am to 12 noon. You just cannot go in front of them. The goons are drunk; the cops will catch you and label you a Maoist.” I argue with him that I need to see for myself what is happening, but he explains patiently. “See, you need to walk a minimum of 3 kms to the main road to take a bus to Jajpur Road, where you will find cyber cafes. But you cannot go there – it is unsafe. Some of our young boys have gone there, but they have returned – what do you do when there are 300 cops?” Around 12 noon, I begin to walk towards the main road. I revel in the cool breeze thanks to an early morning shower, while the green grass on either side of the rough patch of road makes me want to lie down and look up at the clouds. But the euphoria comes to a sudden halt when I see three men carrying bows and arrows, sitting under a tree.

“Johar,” I greet them. They eye me suspiciously, but I rush my words to tell them what I do and where I have been staying in their village. I sit next to them to strike up a conversation, simply because their tools fascinate me no end. They don’t tell me their names, but warn me against going ahead. “Madam, it will be best that you don’t go ahead today. There are too many goons who are mostly drunk.” I try to tell him that I want to see exactly what he doesn’t want me to face, but I understand his apprehensions – as an outsider who may get into trouble, it would be unnecessary burden on them to try and rescue me. For the first time, I begin to sense the nauseating feeling of not being able to move about freely in one’s own land. I know that I would get out sooner or later, but the men, women and children have since long been under such a house arrest.

"This is our parampara."

I am on the verge of breaking down, for, despite having traveled this far without any assurance that my words would be read and the voice of the voiceless would be heard, I was not allowed to see for myself what was happening. I sigh aloud and the men smile. I ask one of them about his bow and arrow. He tells me he is on ‘patrol duty’ till the time the cops continue with their leveling work. “I will be here till the time they are gone. I can see them from here.” I cannot see anything. The heart sees what the eyes cannot see. “Every night, every youth from every household is out with his bows and arrows. We make these at home. This is part of our ‘parampara’. We have to stand on guard for our own land because the cops come in the middle of the night along with goons, from other villages too. Besides, our villagers who have accepted the rehab packages by Tata live in their transit camps and are made to wear khaki. So from a distance, it would obviously seem like a huge police force,” he explains.

“But what about the promised jobs?” I ask, and by now, some women – axes in their hands – too return from the direction of the main road. I learn that they were near the site where the land was being leveled, as they wanted to see the way in which their own Mother was being rendered infertile. I ask them again if I could go, but they tell me to stay put. I try not to think about my itchy feet and turn to the thread of conversation. “They did promise jobs to some of the people who went with them. But the job contract is only for six years. We would get the job of a sweeper or watchman. What happens after six years? There is no mention about that! And by then, we would have lost our land and livelihood, emptied our pockets of the compensation amount, and then we would lose our sanity. They think they can buy us off. But we will fight,” he says, lifting his bow and arrow.
Divide, Kill and Rule

I walk back dejected but Rabi, who is back from his own fields and meeting other people in the villages, tells me that he would make me happy in the evening. We go to Champakoyla village which now has just 20 families. Ten families were ‘displaced’ by Tata, one by one. Earlier in the day, the fields of the people in this village were leveled, while three houses were bulldozed. When we reach the picturesque village, the men show no sign of dejection. They are busy playing a game of cards. Rabi waits for them to put a neat closure to the game. I whisper in jest, “They are doing something important. They would not want to be disturbed.” He smiled and replied, “They are extremely upset. They wouldn’t have been playing cards at 5pm – they would have been returning home from their fields.” The heart sees what the eyes cannot see.

Searching for the last straw of grass amid the black sand and slug.

I am introduced to Sonia Tiria, leader of Bisthapi Birodhi Jan Manch (BBJM) in that village. His wife Diyugi (32) was shot in her waist during the January 2, 2006, firing. He remarried a year later so that his two children – now aged 12 and 10 – could be taken care of by a mother. He tells me that post the firing, the 10 families marched along with Tata. One of the families is that of his own brother. “Tata and its money divided our family. It is rather sad to see my own brother Pradhan and his children taking up arms against us,” he says, as he points out to the broken house of his brother. Beyond the rubble lay the grave of his deceased wife.

The villagers offer to show me the bust of Ramchandra Jamunda, who was killed along with Diyugi on that fateful day. In all, two people became martyrs on that winter morning. They want me to see the spot where the firing took place, and we walk about 500 metres. I meet a 40-something lady, who, I ma told, is the midwife of the village. She tells me in Hoo language, which is translated to Hindi by the men, that several women have died during delivery due to complications. “The health centre is 10 kms away. There is no way, other than the bicycle, upon which a woman in her labour can be carried. Nobody in this village has a motorbike. Life here indeed is in accordance to the will of God,” one man translates her words for me.

Sonia shows me a house that stood erect the same morning, but was now in rubble. “What about those cows?” I ask. “These belonged to the owner of the house. Of course Tata doesn’t offer a shed for the animals of those who give up their land and accept their rehab package.”

Your God, My God

We arrives near a tiny lake, next to which is a stone pillar built in the memory of the 15 martyrs. There is a wave of tranquility – the Hoos believe that the souls of the deceased bless the living on their path. They tell me that more than 25 platoons of police had arrived on Jnaury 2, 2006, and they stood near the lake and fired. Bullets from INSAS rifles, as well as rubber bullets, hit people even 3 kms away.

As we walk back after having paid our obeisance to the pillar, I ask the people, “Aren’t you fighting a losing battle?” One of elder men walks rushes ahead to tell me his amalogy. “The five Pandavas fought with 100 Kauravas. But the Pandavas had the Gods with them. But it doesn’t seem like God is on our side, at this moment.” Defying his pessimistic view, another said, “But we have faith in the law. Someday, it will hear us out. We have to die anyway. But we will die fighting for our land. We don’t want to use our bows and arrows either to fight – we use them to hunt animals, not people. We hope we don’t have to use them on people. We reach a patch of land – about 100 sq. metres – which is akin to a forest. One man points out, “You know Madam, this tiny forest provides us with everything we need. But the government says that Maoists inhabit this forest! Even a tiger would find this space tiny! But while the government makes such tall claims, Tata officers often go around this forest!”

“That is some company’s tower and its God. This is the people’s tower and our God.”

It is moonlit night and hence we don’t miss the electricity. Rabi continues the meeting with all the people from the village, while I am introduced to three teenage cousins – Padmini, Janki and Sushmita Jamunda. Each of the three girls lives in a hostel in Jajpur Road and is in their 12th grade, studying Science. Each of them wants to become a doctor. Janki, the extrovert among the three, tells me after some time, “If we become doctors, we would be the first doctors in this village and for the villages adjoining ours,” she says with a certain pride, and I shower my words of encouragement. She then goes on, with inputs from her sisters: “We do have a medical centre in Dhangadi, which is 10 kms away. But ever since the clampdown by Tata’s goons, it has been really difficult to get there for treatment. Some of our villagers have had to state that they come from some different village, whose land is not in the process of being acquired by Tata. That’s how they have managed to save themselves.”

We talk about festivals and food, but they want to know how big is Mumbai. I don’t do a good job of it: “Do go there once and make some money, but do not forget to return to your roots. Because if you continue to live there, your heart will turn into a stone. Your village needs you,” they understand my point. Janki replies, “Yes, we know what you are saying Didi. Look that side – the entire sky has become orange because of the light from the steel plants. That is hardly 2 kms away from here. Yet, we don’t have electricity in this village. We used to have a clear stream, but the water is now polluted because effluents from the steel plants have been released into it.” She takes a deep breath before saying aloud, “Where there is the adivasi, there is the jungle, the water, the clean air. We take only little from the nature, and companies grab even that!”

Rabi and I ride back around 8 pm. The moon above lights up the rickety road for us. At one point, we see about thirty people under a huge tree. “They are people from Bamiagonth village. They have been sleeping outside ever since May 28 this year, to stay on alert if we are attacked. Only the very old stay indoors. But toddlers and their mothers too stay awake through the night in shifts. This is the way we patrol and protect ourselves,” Rabi says with pride.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Bermuda Triangle In India

The Wikipedia states that Kalinga was an early kingdom in central-eastern India, which was a rich and fertile land, and was the scene of the bloody Kalinga War fought by the Maurya Emperor Ashoka the Great of Magadha circa 265 BCE. Several centuries, in a northern part of Orissa in the district of Jajpur, the original description of Kalinga stands true. Here is a vast land demarcated as Kalinganagar, which is fertile enough, and now, is equally blood-stained. There is a certain Fascist regime here, and through discreet means, the red earth here is further rendered a darker shade.

Getting to Kalinganagar is no easy feat. When I decided to go to Kalinganagar - the reasons which I will enumerate later - I was forewarned that it is not the place to go. 'Another Dantewada', I could hear my own voice. Yet, I knew I had to go there. There were random news of people being killed, roads being blocked and farmers laying down their lives for the love of land. There was news that development was being offered to the tribals living there, yet they were not ready to accept it. There was news that they were being offered 'white-collared' jobs and yet they were not ready for them. Every bit of news was scattered, and perhaps that's the reason why it got me intrigued.

Thanks to a local journalist RR who has managed to stay untouched by the authorities, I found myself as his pillion rider into Kalinganagar, from Jajpur Road. “You cannot go there alone right now. Since May 28, 2010, 25 platoons of police accompanied the goons who came with tractors and bulldozers to level people’s farmlands. These farmlands belong to those people who have been resisting the forceful acquisition of land by Tata to set up its plant there,” I am told on my way, as hot winds slap my face and not a tree is to be seen. Thick grey fumes are flushed into the blue sky, making the green hills in the distant a mirage. Tata had acquired 3,500 acres of land, but thanks to the deal of another steel company gone wrong, another 1,500 acres of land are now in the hands of Tata.

A New Bermuda ‘Square’

It hasn’t been an easy ride for RR either – there are just about two journalists who want to talk about the tribals, and not merely talk of development, as etched out by the government. The majority of the media would go into the villages, talk to the people and hear them ‘rant’ about their loss of land and livelihood, but would back to their plush air-conditioned offices and write about the ‘savagery’ of the tribals, and the philanthropy of companies like Tata which wants to ‘develop’ them. RR thus didn’t have to explain why going with him was essential – the wrath of the villagers was palpable. I didn’t have to explain to him why I decided to step in there – the ‘truth’ as told by the mainstream media and its journalists on a comfortable payroll was palpable.

The steel plants in the distant are a contrast to the foliage amid which the adivasis thrive

Most of rural India is similar in its landscape. The huge canopy of trees, clean air, green and blue houses with thatched roofs, women bathing in groups near a hand-pump, children with skinny limbs but huge bellies playing the game of chasing a bicycle tyre, men sitting under a tree and engaged in animated conversations or listening to the transistor, cows mooing, dogs befriending the cats, cocks and hens scampering through the tiny lanes – this is rural India. The similarity goes beyond this in Central India – here the people are trying hard to protect their lands from the corporate zealots who romance with the state governments, and the khaki-wearing job is all about terrorizing the villagers to surrender their lives and lands for the ‘development’ of the nation. Only, the definition and realm of ‘development’ is undefined, and its real meaning is conspicuously chosen to be unaddressed. At the same time, during each of my sojourns, I am witness to a beautiful sight of childhood innocence – any vehicle which has a motor is chased down the road with squealing delight by the sudden appearance of several children. However, as our bike made way through the villages in Kalinganagar, this was replaced by something else which initiated my understanding of the politics in place here – three children, upon seeing our bike, ran into their courtyards and hid themselves behind a tree. A fourth one, who wasn’t quick enough to run past, tried to squeeze herself amid the latticework of the bamboo boundary. Her eyes were filled with unfathomable terror. Later I learnt that the entire village would sleep in the open fields even in the winter to ward off the goons and cops who would attack them in the dark hour of the night.

I am taken around the villages before I settle in Chandia village of Dhangadi block, at the residence of Rabi Jarika – a short man in his thirties with a calm demeanour, yet a voice strong enough to stir even an octogenarian to proclaim that it is worth fighting against the might of the corporates. Rabi had completed his Masters in Sociology, but the doom spelled down upon his village brought him back to unite the people. He is instrumental is giving a voice to the resistance, in the name of Bisthapan Birodhi Jan Manch (BBJM), which primarily is fighting against the land acquisition by the self-proclaimed lord of Kalinganagar, Tata. Despite his busy schedule in getting people to stay motivated to fight this battle, while their land was being leveled with sand and metal scraps, he begins to narrate the history and other nuances of Kalinganagar.

Games corporates and governments play

I begin by asking Rabi to draw me a rough map of Kalinganagar for my convenience. But he laughs:

“I cannot draw a map because the area is forever a changing space. In 1992, the Biju Patnaik government sanctioned Sukhinda and Dhangadi blocks of Jajpur, as an industrial complex. As of today, Sukhinda comprises 24 Panchayats, while the number is 21 in Dhangadi. Yet, the area seems to be expanding. Every month, there is a new signboard in the far corners, which says, 'Welcome to Kalinganagar'. This means that more and more villages will fall under this complex; more land has been marked to be grabbed, and more people will be robbed of their livelihood. There are 11 steel plants in all, and three more including Tata, will be coming up soon.

Just about 15 per cent of the people residing in Kalinganagar have accepted to part with their land. And this has been possible through a variety of ways – some of them were coerced; some were lured into consuming expensive foreign liquor, while some others were promised jobs. It has been the lure of instant cash. However, those who have parted ways with the village are sadly our enemies today. Tata has successfully employed the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British. The government is an ally to the corporates in throwing us out from here, and they don’t want the resistance to spread. That’s also why they are preventing the intellectuals in the cities from coming here.

The other pressure tactic used is restricting people from moving about freely. This is done to break their morale. For instance, if you want to go out for Kalinganagar from here, the nearest main road is 3kms away. From our house, that would be where the state’s government’s own Nilachal steel plant is set up. But right now as we talk, you just cannot go there. There are cops and goons employed by Tata. These goons are of two types – they are the ones who gave their land to Tata, accepted their ‘rehabilitation; package but are living in the shoddy transit camps. They are now given Rs 500 each day to terrorise their own erstwhile neighbours and making them bow down to Tata. The other set of goons are villagers from outside Kalinganagar. It need not be elaborated that these men are drunk and misbehave with anyone. And the cops would pick you if you manage to come under their scanner on the road – you will be charged on flimsy grounds, right from waging war against the state, to murder. (Rabi’s elder brother was similarly arrested in February 2010.)

One of the reasons why the government is able to terrorise the people is because they are uneducated. But most importantly, it is also because they have no land pattas. This land was ruled by Sukhinda Raja and he had handed out land pattas in 1922, and these were called ‘Raja pattas’. However, the process was no complete, and it was understood that post-Independence, those who hadn’t received the pattas would get it. But that never happened, and this is why the government claims that our land is their land. Now, the official numbers state that Kalinganagar area constitutes 45 per cent tribals. But then this is also reserved area; so going by the latter ‘fact’, the number of tribals here should be at least 60 per cent.

Strangely, majority of Kalinganagar are very fertile, as against the rest of Orissa which is quite arid. And some tribals here can be defined as ‘developed’. So they are very much content with what they have – which is an average of five acres of land by every family. Tata initially offered Rs 25,000 per acre but later went on adding more, such that today their offer stands at Rs 60,000 per acre. However, according to our own calculations which is done is accordance to a measure called ‘goonth’, one goonth is valued at a minimum of Rs 1.5 lakh. And guess what does that mean to be the price of every acre? Twenty-five goonths make one acre! Now do your math!

Since May 28 this year, the farmlands in the villages of Ambogadia, Bellahori, Kanklajhor, Champakoyla, Bamiagotha, Gobarghati, Kolamatia, Bandhargadia, Gadhpur, Baidugudi, Orasahi, Kharigatia, Baligot, Chandia, and parts of Dhurpathar and Bargadia have been leveled. Initially, people went running to protest, but the fear of bullets cannot be negated. Other than rubber bullets, they are also using steel bullets, which we called ‘charra’. These are meant to be just a tool to terrorise, but their use can prove fatal too. They come with bulldozers, level the land, pile up black sand, and scatter generous amounts of metal scrap. And we have nobody to go to, to seek redressal. There couldn’t have been a better Fascist regime than what we are subject to. The government watches on and enjoys this cock fight as our own brothers are bribed to fight against us.”

The brown land in the foreground in that which was leveled on June 20. In the background the field is still green - it is yet to be leveled. When the goons and cops come in for their work, they leave behind empty plastic packets of water.

I soak in all the information from this man of the Hoo tribe, which regards trees, land, water, air as their God. It is a unique struggle to safeguard their God, but often, they seem to feel deprived of the blessings of The One. “Why are we adivasis seen as the enemy? Don’t we breathe the same air? The government makes no qualms about initiating dialogues with the warring Pakistan or China, yet, when it comes to its own people, it doesn’t think twice before running us down,” Rabi adds with a harried smile. I try to change the topic and ask him about three buildings near his house, which resemble schools, thanks to the painted pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “Even nature doesn’t support us! It was a good school as teachers were visiting regularly but one fine day a strong gust of wind blew off its roof. Now even animals don’t use it as shed.” We laugh.

The tables now turn and Rabi asks me why I was there alone, and whether I represented any mainstream media organization. He was hoping for a positive reply, assuming that my words would help take their voice out into India Shining. My negative reply explains the functioning of the fourth estate of a democracy, which loves its ad revenue more than the ‘truth’.

Tears and hope

After a lunch of coarse rice and dal, we go around the village. I am accompanied by Dabar Kalundia, a man ‘most-wanted’ according to the local media, but someone who is contacted by the development officers to get him to convince his village folk to sell their land. We walk past a patch of land which is the sight for two houses – one intact, with an old lady working in the courtyard; the other in rubble. I ask Dabar why the stark dichotomy? “The one whose house is intact doesn’t want to move away from here. The one whose house is in rubble had accepted the rehab package by Tata four years ago. It is only recently that the cops came with the owners of the house – who posed themselves as goons to terrorise us – and bulldozed the house right before their eyes. They are doing this with almost all houses of those who had joined the other side,” he explained.

We then enter the house of late Aati Jamunda, who lost his life in a firing that took place on January 2, 2006. That day, around 10 am, the police began firing from several kilometers away, and 12 people lost their lives instantly. Three others later succumbed to their injuries. I meet Aati’s father Upin, and mother Haro. It is early evening and Haro is sifting the rice, while Aati’s daughter sits by her. Aati was 35 and didn’t have a job – he worked all day on the field. In 2005, he lost his younger brother, who was a teacher, to brain malaria. “He was ill for three days. Before we could figure out about which health clinic we should go to – since the nearest one is 10 kms away and there are no facilities at all, he died. A year later, we lost Aati,” said Upin, after a contemptuous look towards me. Dabar later explained that they spoke in Hoo in my presence – “So many journalists have come and gone. They ask the same questions, but they go back and write that my son was a goon, who would have been reformed by Tata’s developmental plans. I lost my son, but I am still angry.”

Upin and Haro Jamunda

I request the senior Jamunda if I could take a look at a photograph of Aati. He searches all around in their tiny hut but couldn’t find it. Meanwhile, I try to strike a conversation with Aati’s petite mother in Hindi, and Dabar does the job of the translator. “In a bid to protect my land and parampara (culture), I have lost my son. I don’t have the skills or energy to work in a factory, but I can still work on my field, because I would do it with love. I still have the power within myself to fight one. I am ready to give my life, as well as take life,” said the 55-year-old woman.

Slowly, Upin narrated the chain of events on that fateful day. “Aati was on the field when he heard that the cops had come in. He rushed out to see what had happened. We next learnt that he was shot on his chest. They took his body away instantly.” Dabar added, “We wrote a letter to the CM demanding that the five bodies which were taken away be returned. Three days later, we were handed Aati’s decomposed body but his palms were missing. We don’t even know if any post mortem was done. When we asked why the hands were chopped, the authorities said that it was for identification. We buried his body according to the traditional rites. They returned ‘his’ hands six months later, but how would we know if those were his hands?”

With a heavy heart and a head bowed, we walked ahead. We were stopped by a middle-aged lady who called out to Dabar. Observing her colourful house, I said to Dabar, “They must be rich.” He laughed and whispered, “Wait until you hear their story.”

We enter their large courtyard and about 10 children surround me, upon seeing me wielding the camera. They were children who were unsure of their future, yet were oblivious to the gloom that enveloped the household. I learnt that the lady who beckoned was the mother of Jogendra Jamunda, who was arrested on August 27, 2009. He was an active leader of BBJM in the village. Jogendra’s young wife Pini comes to greet us, with a toddler in her arm, who was born just three months ago. Her two children look on as we talk. “He had gone to play football in another village. Later all the men who were playing returned, except for my husband and two others. We learnt that they had been arrested. The other two men were let out on bail the next day, but my husband has not been so fortunate,” Pini says in broken Hindi.

Pini Jamunda, along with her three children, show me the photograph of Jogendra

Her mother-in-law added, “Much before he was arrested, he was once taking me to the haat (weekly market) in Duburi on his bike. We were just 100 metres away from the Kalinganagar police station when he was shot on his back by goons. It was a crowded area, and so we managed to take care of him, but he still has the bullet lodged in his back.” I ask them about the charges on which he is under arrest. “Oh there are so many!” his mother says, adding, “Everything from dacoity, murder, waging war against the state to being a Maoist – my son seems to have done everything!” A dry laughter follows. She holds my hand as we leave and says, “There is nothing much to say, you know. We just keep on hoping that we will win and save our land. And that Jogendra will be released. We can only hope that God will hear us.”