Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Revolutionary, Dreamer, Unsung Hero: Dabar Kalundia

On January 30, the valiant struggle of the residents of Kalinganagar, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, lost its hero Dabar Kalundia. A Ho Munda adivasi (indigenous tribe), a farmer, a visionary, a revolutionary – 43-year-old Kalundia had been in the forefront to stop steel companies from taking over vast areas of land that indigenous peoples like himself have long been sustaining themselves with. Widely revered by his peers and equally loathed by the administration, Kalundia's integrity was unshakeable; his arguments were radical, his speeches were rousing, and his ability to celebrate resistance in the face of suppression unbelievable. On at leat three occasions he cheated death from attempts at assassination – his death would have meant easy access into the villages for the administration. Yet, it was a failing kidney – something so curable – that brought his breath to an end.

Few days before his sudden death, Kalundia had been admitted to the civil hospital in Cuttack (the nearest big town 100kms away), but he learnt that he would not survive. So he insisted on returning home so that he could breath his last at home. All these details emerged much later, after slowly digesting the shock of his death.

If one were to visit Kalinganagar today, large steel plants would be the first thing that would be noticed, followed by houses with thatched roofs of red tiles spread sporadically. For many people who have long been associated with the people's movement in Kalinganagar to prevent the onslaught of steel plants, the movement was a failure.

Kalundia's life goes unheard of in the limited scope of the understanding of victory and loss in a people's movement. And hence perhaps, there was not a plethora of obituaries written about him – he died just about the time when columns and air time was filled (rightly so) with the life and work of Pete Seeger as he passed on too. Only one memorial meet took place on January 10 in the state capital of Bhubaneshwar, 200kms south of Kalinganagar. But to understand why Kalundia should not be forgotten, and why his revolutionary vision cannot be called a loss, one ought to understand Kalinganagar.

Kalinganagar is the name given to the industrial industrial complex that was set up in the early 90s, and encompasses 11 steel plants. According to the indigenous Ho Munda community residing in those lands spread across several villages, the extent of the industrial complex has not been determined: every now and then, farther and deeper into the villages, there would be signs that indicate that the industrial complex was expanding. When I visited the place in June 2010, some of the 11 steel plants had already been constructed; some others were yet to acquire land from the people. One of those companies was Tata Steel, a subsidiary of Indian conglomerate Tata Group (Tata Motors, from the same conglomerate, had acquired Jaguar Land Rover from Ford Motor Company in 2008).

Surya Shankar Dash, a filmmaker, had been documenting the struggle in Kalinganagar since 2006. That's also when he first met Kalundia, and realised how the people's articulation, on why Tata could not take over their land, was far beyond the Leftist rhetoric. Dash feels that the movement in Kalinganagar evolved entirely through the strength of the people; it did not have the support of any NGO or mainstream political party. Neither was any outsider sympathetic to their struggle made a leader to guide them. “All decisions were collectively made by the community that stood to be affected by the projects, and this is something I have not seen in other movements,” says Dash.

When I met Kalundia in June 2010, he had invited me to a simple yet delicious lunch, that he had prepared by himself. During our conversation, he had said something, which helped me understand why the adivasis understood buzzwords like 'development' and 'sustenance' better that revered scholars. “We adivasis buy only two things for our kitchen from the market – cooking oil and salt. Everything else is found here. If I want to eat spinach one day, I will take some from my neighbour's farm. If he wants to cook tomatoes one day, he will take some from my farm. This is how we have always been living – in harmony with each other,” Kalundia had said, as I licked off my fingers to finish the meal.

 The only photograph of Dabur Kalundia in my archives, from my travel to Kalinganagar, in June 2010. © Priyanka Borpujari

However, it was this sense of independence, a keystone among indigenous communities, that brought Kalundia his untimely death. “Adivasis are the kind of people who would rarely complain. They ask very little of you. Everyone knew Dabar was a bit unwell with his kidney, but he behaved as though all was well. He had always put his personal issues aside,” remembers Dash.

Yet, there is no denying that Kalundia was a man listening to his own tune, when it came to responding to situations of repression. “He converted occasions of repression into celebrations of resistance,” says Dash. Once, the District Collector (the highest officer in a district) visited the village. Unlike in other villages where the reverence towards the Collector is shown by putting out a chair and table for him, Kalundia ensured that everyone sat on the mat on the floor, including the Collector. He recorded the proceedings of the meeting with his camera. Instead of trying to explain why they companies had no right in acquiring people's land, he directed every word towards the Collector, conveying that the latter was responsible to listen to peoples' issues. “It took a lot of courage to challenge the Collector and tell him that he wasn't doing his job well,” says Dash.

Kalundia was the leader with no declaration or frills. He was attacked at least thrice, and he escaped each time. He knew that it was important to respond to the repression in every possible way, and was hence open to new ideas. When Dash once suggested that he ought to be documenting all that was happening in Kalinganagar, he needed no explanation. “One day, he called me and said that he had saved up Rs 15,000 ($ 250), and asked me to get him a video camera. When I got one, he began to shoot and made more effective use of the camera than I would have,” says Dash.

Knowing about Kalundia's camera play comes a full circle for me: in 2010, I had seen some videos about the repression in Kalinganagar which motivated me to go there and report about the struggle. I had known that Dash had edited the videos and had uploaded them on Youtube. But it is only now, at his death, that I learn that Kalundia, inadvertently, invited me to Kalinganagar. However, according to Dash, Kalundia was soon bored with his new “toy” and had begun to train other men to use the camera. He knew that as a leader, he had to delegate work in the spectrum of a resistance.

But true to the democratic nature of the movement, Kalundia also faced the ire of his own people. He had sometimes undertaken contract work for the companies, and that angered the people around him. But he would explained his rationale behind taking up those works, stating that it was easy for the companies to bring people from outside to do the work, thus making way for those outsiders to dominate the natives. “Just because I am doing contract work does not mean that I would stop fighting the acquisition of our lands. It is my right to fight for my land, and it is also my right to work in a dignified way. I am not working as a petty labourer,” he would assert.

But increasingly, with more and land being taken over by Tata, Kalundia became an angrier but silent man. During the Martyrs' Day meeting on January 2 this year, he rebuked anyone who wished him 'Happy New Year'. Martyr's Day is observed on January 2 by the people of Kalinganagar since 2006, to remember the 14 men and women who had died that day, when they were attacked by the police that had charged at them, to forcibly drive them off of the land. Nobody had known that the land had been mined.

This year, on Martyrs' Day, Kalundia delivered a speech, in the state official language of Oriya. Here are excerpts from his profound – and last – speech:

“On Second January 2014, as everyone in our country and the world are wishing each other a Happy New Year, I would like to tell Naveen Patnaik [Chief Minister of Odisha state] that he has sold our flesh to the people of the world, he has sold the flesh of the people of Kalinganagar, he has sold the flesh of the tribal population.... The ministers, the police, the officials… they have consumed the blood of the people, and they have celebrated Holi [Indian festival of colours] with their blood. I will not forget this day, as long as I am alive. I will say this as long as I live… to this democratic nation, this democratic state, and the democratic political system…

In the name of democracy, they have brought all these companies here, who are preying on us for money… and are having a new year feast.... The ruling government in this country, in Odisha, and in the other states, has only one agenda – to exploit the common man....

In this world, there is not a single politician or government that has not taken money from big companies… nobody has the guts to speak out against the big companies… but I do… and I will speak against them...

Today, everyone is running after money, no matter what his income is… everyone wants more and more… but you cannot eat money… you can only eat rice, dal, roti, which come from the land… it does not come from factories… If anyone can prove to me that rice, dal, roti comes from a factory, I will kiss his feet. ...”

When Tata Steel was finally able to start constructing its plant on some of the arable land owned by the people, activists deemed the movement as a “lost” one. But what is a valid definition of a successful movement? For some, success means the mobilisation of people and a real democratic process, rather than one piece of paper into the ballot. For others, success is perceived as preventing any construction by the authorities. In the case of Kalinganagar, therefore, the fact that the 11 steel companies set up their plants on the lands of the indigenous communities is a “failure”. So, did Dabar die a vain revolutionary?

Only in his death can the richness of Kalundia's life and his revolution be understood – he was the catalyst that brought together several villages to put up a brave front before the combined magnanimity of the State and steel companies.

According to Dash, the struggle in Kalinganagar, and Kalundia's leadership, were not in vain. Tata Steel did set up its plant on significant parts of arable lands, but it could not displace people from their homes. They were not able to displace the residents of Baligotha, Chandia and other villages. “We activists seem to celebrate a half-baked victory only when a politician might openly support a movement,” says Dash.

A fortnight after his death, at least 50 people attended his memorial service in Bhubaneshwar. They were mostly activists and academics in solidarity with the Kalinganagar movement. Each spoke about Kalundia's unflinching integrity. Everyone remembered his lucid articulation; his distinct and unique style to reverse perspectives during arguments. They all knew how he would calmly listen to activists yet deliver a better speech himself.

“Can we pack our bags and move on, when some people take the petty compensation and the steel plants are built, while others resist every attempt at repression? People like us extend solidarity to peoples' movements, but we seem too distant to provide basic medical aid, especially when places like Kalinganagar are not at all inaccessible,” says Dash, in equal parts angry and sad about the avoidable death of one hero, unfazed by anyone, Dabar Kalundia.

(I visited Kalinganagar in June 2010 and reported about the movement in a six-part series called 'Kalinganagar Diary'. I had vowed to return soon, but it's been almost four years since.)