Gandhian dissent in the land of Gandhi: Barbed perimeters in the current conjuncture

January 11, 2010

This set of articles charts out recent Gandhian modes of dissent centered mainly around the activities of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, in the backdrop of Operation Green Hunt, in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. A planned padyatra was scuttled by the administration, a Jan Sunwai, already operating under conditions of intense repression, has failed to materialise. At the current juncture, January 11 2010, Himanshu Kumar has exited Dantewada under imminent threat of arrest under false charges; activists and journalists who had been present at the VCA premises have been hit with a dacoity case; a senior VCA activist has been imprisoned on charges of murder. These developments bring into sharp focus the barbed perimeters of activism, in a region of India where the contradiction between the State and the masses is so acute. – Ed.

In the Land of Gandhi – Preeti Chauhan. Jan 3 2010
Chhattisgarh cops slap dacoity case against visiting activists – Jan 6 2010
Life Behind The Iron Curtain – Tusha Mittal, Tehelka. Jan 11 2010

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In the Land of Gandhi

By Preeti Chauhan. January 3 2010.

Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian working amongst the adivasis of Dantewada is sitting on an indefinite fast since December 26, 2009. He had planned a padyatra beginning December 14th 2009, followed by a saytagraha, finally culminating in a jan sunvai (Public Hearing) on January 7 2010.

He was denied permission to do the padyatra and hold satyagraha in Dantewada – the SP Dantewada felt the place to be too sensitive for such calls. A group of women from across the country traveling to participate in the proposed padtyatra and satyagraha were stopped in Raipur, humiliated and finally not allowed to reach Dantewada.

Himanshu Kumar’s Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) had been working in the area on issues of health, education, sanitation, and water conservation since 1992. In May 2009, VCA premises were demolished. In November, VCA activists were instructed not to visit the villages in Dantewada. On 10th December 2009, almost as if to mock the International Human Rights Day, one of VCA’s main activists Kopa Kunjam was picked up along with a lawyer Alban Toppo. Alban was let off after some beating but Kopa was slammed with murder charges and languishes in jail.

Another of VCA’s activist Sukhnath has also been falsely implicated and booked under Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act.

VCA has also been asked to vacate the rented accommodation from which it was functioning as the landlord is under pressure from the administration. VCA’s work has thus been literally brought to halt by the administration.

On January 3 2010, a tribal girl called Sodi Sambo, who has a bullet injury in her leg and was coming to Delhi for treatment, was detained at Kanker police station. Her medical condition is precarious and she needs proper medical care as she has steel rods placed in her leg which requires antiseptic treatment everyday. She was shot at by the security forces (SPOs, police and other security forces) on 1st October 2009 in her village Gompad when the security forces allegedly went there for combing operations during Operation Greenhunt. VCA has helped her get treatment in Delhi, and she had been at the VCA premises since her return.

It is not too difficult to see why VCA has been targeted. It has been at the forefront in raising and documenting the atrocities on adivasis by Salva Judum, CRPF, and the police on the pretext of fighting Naxals in Dantewada. VCA has consistently exposed the lies of the government, for example the Singaram ‘encounter’ in which 19 tribals were killed on 8th January 2009.

One of the women killed in that encounter was declared a Naxal commander by the police. VCA filed an RTI and the same woman was there in the voter list of Singaram village which was revised just three days before the so called ‘encounter’. VCA raised the simple question: if she was a Naxal comamnder she must have been declared an absconder and hence should not have been listed in the voter’s list. A petition was filed in Bilaspur High Court along with the family members of the victims.

Four of the adivasi girls from Samsetti village, Sukma block of Dantewada who were raped by the Special Police Officers (SPO) two years ago were again picked up by the same SPOs when their cases were to come up for hearing in the Courts. They were beaten, illegally kept at the police station for five days, their thumb imprints taken on a blank sheet to say that Himanshu Kumar had pressurized them to level false charges of rape.

The girls and their village were threatened with dire consequences if they dared to pursue the case. As a result the women refuse to come out. One is reminded of a case which has received much more focus lately – the molestation of Ruchika Girhotra. It took 19 long years for Ruchika’s case to reach a shameful conclusion of six months of imprisonment – a systematic denial of justice, orchestrated by DGP Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore of Haryana. One can easily imagine to what extent the rule of the law is being followed in a remote village of Dantewada, when despite sustained attempts and media outcry, justice continues to elude Ruchika’s family.

The Home Minster P. Chidambaram had agreed to come for the proposed Jan Sunvai on 7th January 2010. The level of repression evident in the region made it highly unlikely that people would be able to come out with their genuine grievances (as it happens, the Jan Sunvai never materialised).

The media maintained stoic silence on Himanshu Kumar’s fast as it entered its eleventh day – the issues he raised were of no import.

The Home Minister needs to break the deafening silence and answer these questions- Are the tribal people of Dantewada not citizens of this country? Are they not supposed to have a say in the development of this country? Why are they expected to keep quiet as their resources, livelihoods and lives are snatched away for benefit of a few?

The way the armed SPO’s and Salva Judum have come to work with complete impunity in the area, despite regular complaints and documentation, is a really bad omen for our country. A democracy cannot allow such bypassing of procedures laid down by law, stifling of space for dissent to such an extent as one witnesses in Dantewada today.

In the land of Gandhi, even the tools used by the Father of the Nation in the struggle of independence from British rule, such as the padyatra and the satyagraha, are not permitted to highlight the injustices by our own government against our own people. There cannot be a bigger irony and shame than this.

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Chhattisgarh cops slap dacoity case against visiting activists

Jan 6 2010

A case of dacoity has been registered against a group of journalists and activists from Mumbai and Hyderabad for allegedly clashing with local media personnel in Chhattisgarh’s Maoist stronghold of Dantewada, police said Wednesday.

“We have registered a case under section 395 of the IPC against six persons, two unnamed and four named, including two women, on charges
of dacoity and voluntarily causing hurt on a complaint lodged by Dantewada-based journalists,” Amresh Mishra, Dantewada district superintendent of police, told IANS over phone.

Priyanka Borpujari, Satyen Bordolai and Nishtha from Mumbai and Suresh from Hyderabad have been named in the FIR (first information report) lodged by a group of local journalists. They alleged that the activists and journalists from outside had attacked them and snatched their mobiles and cameras in Dantewada town, about 380 km from here.

The group, including some documentary filmmakers, were in Dantewada to participate in the ongoing agitation by NGO Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) against alleged atrocities on local tribals by security forces.

Giving their version of what happened, Mumbai-based freelance journalist Priyanka said that their cameras had been snatched and they had been kept under detention at the VCA complex for seven hours Tuesday. They were now returning home from Chhattisgarh.

“We too have lodged a counter FIR against local mediamen for snatching two cameras and also against police inaction,” Priyanka told IANS.

Amresh Mishra, however, denied keeping anyone under detention at VCA or registering a counter FIR.

“We have received a complaint by VCA guests against the local journalists but it is not registered. We are just inquiring into the complaint; as far as detention is concerned, it is totally a false allegation. We have deployed eight security men at VCA complex in Dantewada as police protection to VCA chief Himanshu and these cops were on duty on Tuesday too,” he said.

According to local journalist Sunil Singh, the trouble began when the Mumbai-based activists-journalists accused them of “adopting a pro-government and pro-police stand and used some vulgar words”.

“VCA guests called the local newsmen ‘paid journalists’ who file reports after accepting money from police authorities and government. When the local journalists countered the charge, they (VCA guests) attacked us and snatched the camera,” he alleged.

“The media in the conflict zone of Bastar has been impartial in its reporting,” said Bastar Journalists’ Association President S. Karimuddin.

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Life Behind The Iron Curtain

By Tusha Mittal, Tehelka. Jan 11 2010

HIMANSHU KUMAR is shaving his moustache to become more unrecognisable. Instead of the usual white kurta, he’s wearing a red shirt and jeans. The lights in his two-room rented house have been turned off. If you chanced upon him on a winter night in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, speaking in hushed whispers about jumping off the back wall and disappearing into the darkness, you might have mistaken this Gandhian activist for a fugitive.

For the last 18 years, Himanshu has been trudging through the jungles of rural Chhattisgarh, empowering tribals, teaching them how to vote and bringing them access to food and healthcare through his Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA). When his wife first joined him, he told her to replace her make-up kit with medicines. Despite living in this Maoist-dominated conflict zone for nearly two decades, despite its many intimidations, Kumar has never felt the urge to flee. Until now that is – when the might of the State is upon him.

Trouble first began to escalate in 2005 when the infamous Salwa Judum was launched. The VCA filed at least 600 complaints against human rights violations by the State and fake encounters by the police. Himanshu Kumar was transformed in the State’s eyes from trusted aide to adversary. In May 2009, his ashram was brutally demolished by the police. Now suddenly, the Gandhian activist has lost his liberty. He lives in a free country, but does not have the freedom to walk out through the front door of his own house.

“Should I get arrested and become a martyr or should I leave before they catch me?” Himanshu Kumar wonders out loud on the morning of January 4. He knows what happened to Binayak Sen. He knows he could be next. “I’m worried the police will implicate me in a false case. They could arrest me anytime now,” he says.

This is not misplaced paranoia. Himanshu’s makeshift ashram is under constant police surveillance. On January 3, his car was stopped by the police as it sped from Dantewada to Raipur carrying Sodi Shambo, 28, a tribal woman with a fractured leg held together by a metal rod. Shambo’s husband was tilling the fields on the morning of October 1, 2009, when Salwa Judum SPOs barged into Goompad village. One bullet from their guns split open her leg. Her children leapt towards her, covering her body. That could be why she is still alive. Nine others were killed during combing operations. Most were those who could not run away — Madvi Yankaiya, 50; Madvi Bajaar 50 and his wife Madvi Subhi, 45; their daughters Madvi Kanama, 20 and eight-year-old Madvi Mooti; and a newly married couple Soyam Subaiya, 20 and Soyam Subhi, 18. Another 2-year-old boy was found with his fingers missing. The Dantewada SP announced that nine Naxalites had been killed in an encounter in Goompad village. This is the tale the outside world would have believed, had Himanshu not met Shambo during a regular public hearing in the forest. She told him about the massacre she had witnessed; he ensured she filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court. The court accepted her petition and directed the state to file a response.

Had Shambo reached Delhi, where she was headed for medical treatment, she could have become a major embarrassment for the Chhattisgarh government. This is why Himanshu and Shambo were suddenly surrounded by police on the highway and detained at Kanker police station. There was an order from the Dantewada SP that Shambo be produced in the police station to record her statement on the Goompad killings. Shambo had been living openly in Himanshu’s ashram in Dantewada for the last two months but the police had not approached her for a statement. “We did not know where she was. We were trying to find her,” says SP Amaresh Mishra ingenuously. “I found out through an Internet forum that Himanshu was taking her to Raipur. I also got a letter from Shambo’s masi two days ago accusing Himanshu of vanishing Shambo all this while.” This was a patently concocted assertion given that Himanshu had presented Shambo to the media at a big press conference in Delhi in October. Clearly, a false case of abduction against Kumar was in the works. According to Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate who has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on the Shambo case, it’s actually the other way around. “This amounts to illegal abduction by the police. Shambo is not an accused. She cannot be forced to go anywhere,” said he.

On January 4, Shambo was sent to Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur for further treatment under police “security.” Sudhir Thakhur, the doctor responsible, admitted the hospital did not have the required medical facility to perform Shambo’s surgery. TEHELKAwas not allowed to speak to Shambo at the hospital, despite a guarantee from the Dantewada SP that she was not being kept in confinement. Even after the director of the hospital gave permission, police personnel guarding Shambo’s bed refused to let us near her. When we tried to talk to the ward nurse, the police ensured they overheard the conversation.

As Himanshu shaves off his moustache in the darkness, it is almost as if he is at a tipping point. Caught in a pool of quicksand, he must leap out immediately or sink. “My faith is not shaken. I’m just feeling trapped inside a web. To break this perhaps it is necessary for me to go fight from a new place. I am not running away. I just need to change my location.”

THE BATTLE between the State and Maoists is well known. But in Chhattisgarh, another battle has been fast gathering steam — between the State and civil society, between a policed existence and the idea of democracy, between a coerced media and free speech. Himanshu Kumar is now at the centre of that battle. Over the years, he had become one of the few bridges that link the rest of India to the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh. Given the national media’s neglect, and the absence of a robust local press, he was perhaps the only disseminator of an alternate reality. Without him and a few other activists working in the area, there would be only one version — that of the State. This is what the Chhattisgarh government is now trying to create. Every few days there is news of an encounter — six killed in Jagargunda, another six killed in Gumyipal. No one knows if these are Naxals or ordinary tribals. The State doesn’t seem to want anyone to find out.

At a recent press conference in Raipur, Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan told journalists on record that there could be police action against them if they wrote in favour of Naxalites. Two weeks ago in Dantewada, DIG SR Kalluri called journalists into his office for one-on-one sessions. “He told us not to write in favour of the Naxals (euphemism for not writing anything against the State) and said the police have their eyes on us,” says NRK Pillai, vice-president of the Chhattisgarh Working Journalists Union. “The atmosphere isn’t conducive. There’s no one really to back us. Press owners will not stand by us. There’s always the fear of what will happen to our families.”

In the last two months, as Operation Green Hunt has got underway, the Chhattisgarh government has upped the ante in its efforts to squash any space for dissent and democratic protest. Stories from the jungles are not being allowed out; neutral outsiders are not being allowed in.

On December 29, 2009, Delhi University professor of sociology Nandini Sundar and political science professor Ujjwal Kumar Singh arrived in Bastar to undertake an independent survey of the situation. They found all the hotel rooms in the small towns of Dantewada and Sukma mysteriously full, out of bounds for them. The professors had to spend the night in a jeep, before they got accommodation at a boys’ hostel. There too, seven armed SPOs barged into Sundar’s room, then spent the night patrolling the grounds outside. The next day two jeeps of armed SPOs followed the professors around until they left Chhattisgarh, ensuring they could make no neutral enquiries from villagers about what was happening on the ground.

TEHELKA was meted the same treatment. On January 4, we were denied the right to stay at Madhuban Lodge, the only hotel in Dantewada. The receptionist opened rooms for us at first, but suddenly changed his mind when he got a call from his manager. The manager said the hotel had orders from the police not to give rooms to journalists without a “proper enquiry.” Dantewada ASP Rajendra Jaiswal denied that any such order exists but refused to call the hotel to clarify this. “Why should I help a stranger?” he told TEHELKA. Later, the hotel owner said all the rooms were needed for a family function.

On January 6, a band of activists, including Medha Patkar and Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey, were assaulted with stones and eggs as they marched to the SP’s office in Dantewada for some answers. The police looked on.

Though there is little clarity on whether the offensive against the Naxals – Operation Green Hunt – has officially begun, another kind of assault certainly has. So far, Himanshu Kumar has certainly borne the brunt of it.

On December 14, 2009, a mob several hundred-strong surrounded Himanshu’s ashram, shouting slogans like “Himanshu Bhagao, Bastar Bachao”. They were protesting a padyatra he was about to undertake to engage with the tribals. Such an expedition would boost the morale of the Maoists and dampen that of the security forces, they alleged. According to Himanshu, the mob consisted of SPOs and tribals lifted from Salwa Judum camps to stage a demonstration. The padyatra was to be followed by a satyagraha to protest police excesses and a jan sunvai (public hearing) to take stock of ground realities post the declaration of Operation Green Hunt. In what was being perceived as a sign of positive intent, Home Minister P Chidam baram had agreed to attend the public hearing. Human rights groups from across the country were scheduled to participate. But that came crashing down when the State decided it would not allow anyone to explore its territory.

HIMANSHU RECEIVED a notice from Reena Kangale, the Dantewada collector, prohibiting him from initiating any public assembly. “Section 144 was imposed because of municipal elections,” says Kangale. “I denied permission for a padyatra and issued a prohibitory order stating the police can take action if any public meetings happen without my consent.” On December 13, an all-women fact-finding team was stopped at several points enroute to Dantewada and not allowed access inside. The Chhattisgarh Governor advised Chidambaram not to attend the jan sunvayi for safety reasons. The Home Minister stayed put.

The mob attack from “tribals” was also used as a pretext to send a jeep of armed SPOs as security for Himanshu. “There is a threat to his life. The tribals are unhappy with him. We are giving him police protection,” Dantewada SP Amaresh Mishra told TEHELKA. That Himanshu himself has written to the SP stating he does not want this protection is irrelevant.

The police “protection” has successfully hampered Himanshu’s work. He is unable to visit villages on fact-finding missions. Any complaints from tribals against the State bring instant reprisals. There have been other intimidations. Under pressure, Himanshu’s current landlord, an employee of the local district council, asked him to vacate the house in a few weeks.

To disable Himanshu further, his key aide Kopa Kunjam was arrested on December 10 on charges of murdering a former sarpanch, Punem Honga. Honga was abducted by Maoists along with another sarpanch who had been traveling with Kopa on his bike on July 2, 2009. According to VCA, the night before he was arrested, Kopa was offered Rs 25,000 to quit working with Himanshu and warned of dire consequences if he continues. Kopa refused the money. Sukhdev, another backbone of the VCA, was threatened with a similar fate after Kopa’s arrest. He quit. Lingu, another aide who also quit, confirmed to TEHELKA that he was with Kopa at the Dantewada police station the day before Kopa’s arrest, and was present when the police tried to convince Kopa to take up “other more meaningful work”.

The Maoists are not willing to talk, and the State is clearly not allowing any other dialogue. Himanshu’s struggle becomes more poignant in the backdrop of the violence being unleashed all around it. The Maoists continue to fell trees, block trains, abduct and kill. The Salwa Judum continues to rape women, burn houses, loot and kill. Amid all the chaos, as the year ended, one man sat in a white kurta, under a sprawling tree, spooling a loom of thread. He had not been allowed a padyatra or a satyagraha or a jan sunvai, so he was fasting to protest State atrocities. But events over the last two days have forced the man in the white kurta to shave his moustache and turn into a man in red shirt and jeans — a reminder of an original freedom struggle, being scuttled all over again.