An account of the trip to rehabilitated villages near Dantewada – Part 2: The visit to Lingagiri

December 15, 2009

This page is a continuation of Part 1 of the travelogue.

By Siddhartha Mitra, Sanhati.

Lingagiri: experiences at the first village

I must have dosed off for a few hours. When I woke up, it was just getting light. I quickly showered and got ready, and came down to find Kopa waiting for me on the outside. We took off on his bike right away.

The roads had turned to slush. It was packed mud and stones. The bumpy ride soon banished all thoughts of IED’s from my head, as I was more eager not to take a fall as Kopa sped madly, weaving through the slush and the potted holes. There was a tarred road in some parts, which were great relief.

We briefly stopped at Bairamgarh for refreshments, and then in Bijapur to fill up petrol. Bijapur was the last city, from which we would have to take the road that went deep through the forest. Interestingly, petrol was under heavy rationing in Bijapur, and you could fill only two litres at a time. In fact, as I found out afterwards, all food has to come from outside as well, so if violence occurred, people in remote areas in the forest would be cut off from food and fuel.

In the last bit of road to Lingagiri, there were six military check-points. I had an interesting conversation with a military officer after the third checkpost, which I have already written about.

After the sixth checkpost, we reached the first village. There were several villages in the area a few kilometers from each other. The headman and the villagers of this village soon assembled after I came. Like I had seen in Munder, the women, children and men clustered in their own groups.

It was a repeat of yesterday’s story. The headman, who could speak Hindi, told it to me.

“Naxal log pahle se aat tha. Woh log unka naach karta tha, military kuch nehin bolte the”, he commented. (The Naxals had been coming here for a long time. They would do their dance, and the military would not do anything about it.)

The road that went through the village ran through the last military check-post that we had to cross when approaching the village. There was a river in between the check-post and the village, and the sentry positioned on a tower in the check-post could easily survey the road for a long distance.

So why, after the Naxals had been coming for a long time, and doing their trademark dance in full view of the watching sentry, had not the military taken any action? And why the sudden change of heart a few years ago?

At least here, the people had been given a choice, unlike in Munder.

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Talking with the headman (in the white singlet), the first village in Lingagiri

“Judum pahle humko aake bola unka camp jaane ke liye, yeh gaon chorne ko bola. Hum gaye nahin,” the headman said.

“Lekin achanak Naxal ke saath hai bolke jab gaon ke log mare gaye to humko kuch samajhne nehin aaya. Ekdin Judum se kafi log aaya, unlogo ke saath CRPF aur police the, aur kuch laashein us raste mein gir gaye. Hum unko dapna kar diya. Us din hi hum sub kuch leke bhaag gaye.” (So we were quite taken aback when the people were branded as NAxalite supporters and then killed. One sudden day, many people from the Judum had come, with the military and the police, and then there were bodies lying in the road. We cremated them, got our things together and fled the same day.)

The Judum had subsequently burnt most homes in the village. Thatched roofs burn well, specially after a dry summer.

“To aap log kahan gaye?” I asked. (So where did you go)

“Hum AP chale gaye. Udhar humara kuch rishtedaar the.”, he replied. (We went to AP (Andhra Pradesh, the bordering state). Some of us had relatives there.)

“Kya kaam karte the udhar?” (What work did you do there?)

“Hum zameen khodte the, coolie ka kaam karte the. Mahine me tinso se pachso rupaiyah kamate the. Usse kiraya aur khana bhi kharidna hota tha, to kuch bachta nahin tha. To hum soche, mar bhi jaun, gaon wapis aaungaa. (We dug ditches, worked as coolies, and earned around 300-500 Rs a month. We also had to pay rent out of that, and there was little left for food. So we decided to come back, come what may. Even if we have to die.)

“Aur VCA ka bare mein kaise pata chala?” I asked. (And how did you hear about the VCA?)

“Hum unko likhe the, kya hum wapas ana chahta hain. To who bola kya humko sahayata karega. To hum wapis a giya.” “(We wrote to them telling that we would like to return.They said they would help us. So we came back.)

“To abhi gaon mein rahne ke liye koi taklif to nahin ho raha hain?” I queried. (So you are not having any problem in staying in the village now?)

“Haan, abhi to aa giya. Lekin humara saare gain to chala giya, aur is saal barish bhi nahin hua to kuch kar nahin paaye. (Yes, we have come back. But we have lost all our livestock, and as the rains failed this year.) The Salwa Judum had many tribals, and after they emptied the village, they would often slaughter and eat the livestock up, including the cows.

These people were entirely dependent on rations supplied by the rehabilitation groups. And even with such hardship, they provided us with some food. Some puffed rice and coconuts. I was hesitant in taking food from people who themselves had little to eat. But that is Indian hospitality; in the villages people still give you food even if they are themselves starving.

I also saw an orphan here too. Her father had been killed in the violence. Like the orphan in Munder, she had little idea why she was now the center of attraction.

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Girl whose father had been killed, Lingagiri

Lingagiri: experiences at the main village

It was getting late, and we decided to head to the main village in Lingagiri, a couple ok kilometers from where we were. The path through the fields had ceased to exist, and at times I had to get off and wade through the water while Kopa waited on the other side on his bike.

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The water filled road to Lingagiri, and Kopa waiting for me beyond the watery patch

The people in this village were very happy to see us. Evidently, the VCA had done a lot of work in the rehabilitation process here. There was a big hut in the center of the village, where the rations and other supplied from the VCA were kept.

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VCA hut in Lingagiri

Soon, the villagers assembled. This was considered an impromptu VCA meeting. The VCA along with ASDS, the other group which was helping in the rehabilitation process, had initiated many health programs in the village. The farmers had recently also been given training farmers on new sowing methods.

This village had witnessed even more horrendous atrocities. Like in the other Lingagiri village, they had been initially asked to go the camps. When they refused, the Judum would come at times and beat people up randomly, sometimes when they were working out in the field. An elderly woman described in detail how she was hit with a stick repeatedly on her shoulders and her back. She possibly had some marks, but felt shy about showing them in public, so I did not insist.

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Elderly woman (just to the right of centre, in the ligth coloured sari) describing how she was hit with sticks by the Salwa Judum

And then one day the Judum came in full force. Several hundred of armed Salwa Judum members, as usual backed by the military and the police came and assaulted four villagers as they were returning to the village after their days work. They had hacked to death three men; there was a woman who had been raped and then stabbed to death.

I had seen the picture of the dead in Himanshu Kumar’s residence yesterday. He showed me the pictures of the bodies, and the legal proceeding that he had initiated, or had tried to initiate.

The bodies of the three men were in various stages of rot. The body of the woman had started to decompose, but her features were still distinguishable. Her intestines had poured out of a wound in her abdomen.

No case could be filed. The dead were Naxalites, the police had claimed. Killed in an encounter. And in any case, where is the evidence? In most such cases, the witnesses, if any often live now in Salwa Judum camps. I saw the evidence they had given. All of those acounts looked the same. Yes, this was the work of Naxalites, and Salwa Judum had tried to save us and the dead were Naxalites and guilty. Each statement was a photocopy of the other, only the name of the witness, the people killed, and the location was different. And if the witnesses were villagers who were willing to talk, their accounts could hardly be trusted, as they were all Naxals or Naxal sympathizers.

If you try to open your mouth against the Judum when living in their camps, it will be the last thing that you do.

One wonders what the final moments of the dead woman had been like. If it had indeed been a police encounter and she had been a Naxalite, she must have had a dramatic death after being fatally shot. In one final act of defiance, she had ripped off her clothes, and had dug out her entrails from the hole through which the supposed bullet had passed through in the right side of her abdomen. Presumably she had thrown away her rifle before that, as none was lying near the body.

That is if we believe the official account of the encounter.

Unless we believe that she had been raped and then stabbed to death, which is a much simpler explanation.

But that did not happen.

As Harold Pinter said, “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest”.

After talking with the villagers for some time, I got up and walked around. Kopa was talking to the villagers about the plans with the Mitanin program, the woman’s health care program for initiated by the brave doctor Binayak Sen. Dr. Sen, a globally acclaimed pediatrician and who had tirelessly strived to improve the health-care of the villagers and tribals in the region, had just been released on bail after serving two years in prison. His crime? He had exposed the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum to visiting human rights groups, something which played an important role in the Supreme Court’s decision in declaring the Judum illegal.

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Kopa talking about the development programs to the villagers in Lingagiri

Adavi Ramadu

And then I saw her. She was squatting with her two children, a little way from the main group. She smiled when she saw me.

“Aap kaise hain?” I strolled over and asked. (So how are you?)

“Main achcha hoon,” she cheerfully replied. (I am fine.)

“Sundar bachche aapki,” I commented. (You have pretty children.)

“Hahn. Yeh hain Adavi Ramadu” (Yes. The boy – he is Adavi Ramadu.)

Adavi Ramadu! For a moment, I searched my memory; then it all came back to me. The tale of the woman fleeing from Lingagiri, who had to give birth to the child in the forest. This was one of the most distressing tale of hardship and woe of the people in the region which had become public.

There had not been even a cloth to keep the child on when it was born.

I wonder how it must have been like. The terror, the pain the exhaustion. The lengthening shadows in the deep dark jungle. I do not know if her husband was there or was in another group that was running away from the terror. If she would have been at least let him know what had happened.

The face of Deepika Padukone, India’s latest poster-girl, smiles at us from many billboards India today. She smiles as she looks at a message in her cell phone. A pleasant gift, perhaps? A little something from Tiffany’s? Perhaps a surprise trip to the Greek Isles? Just in time for the anniversary!

So thoughtful!

Did Appu’s mother have a cell phone from which she could have send a SMS to her husband, after the baby was born?

“Honey, I hope you are alive. I just had a boy. There was a lot of blood but I think he will live. I am tired, but ok. Love.”

Cute, na?

I forgot, she cannot write. I know this because I saw her putting her thumbprint on the signature column in the register that was recording attendance for the VCA meeting.

And in case you are wondering, cell-phones hardly work in Dantewada, and this village in Lingagiri is a long, long away from there. And then, in the middle of the surrounding forest in which the baby was born, it was very unlikely that any cell phone would have worked.

So no, she would have been able to send any SMS, even if she had had a phone.

But look at it, our infant mortality rate just dipped, the child is still alive! We have a proud new citizen if India! Hooray! Maybe, now we can now host the CommonWealth games, yes? Olympics, anyone?

“Lekin dekhne main to thik hi lag raha hain”, I tried to say something positive.( At least he seems OK.)

“Hahn”, she demurred. (Yes.) But she looked away when said that, as if she did not really believe in it. And the child did not seem OK with me. I am not a doctor, but it seemed to me that the child had not developed properly. Her younger child looked happy, healthy and smiling, but the elder boy, Adavi Ramadu, looked into nowhere with a dull vacuous look.

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Adavi Ramadu, the child of the forest, is the elder boy in a red shirt on the right.

Perhaps some timely care might have resulted in normal development? And who is responsible for this lifelong deformity, if there is one? You? Me? The government? The Judum? The Naxalites? The mining companies?

No. The child is a casualty of the development process. The inevitable conflict between civilization and the people who are resisting progress. It is a broad social problem, not an individual one. Unfortunately, it is also linked inextricably to the 50,000 strong Naxalite movement, the enemies of the state who fight the government when it tries to build roads and schools and hospitals – and new factories. The boy was a chance bystander who has become a victim. He is just one of many. One day, when the problems are gone, when every village has been cleansed of Naxalites and the mining companies are fully functional, such casualties will no longer occur.

At least, he has a striking name! The signature of the incredibly horrific violence that was imprinted on him in his moment of birth.

It was time to leave. Despite the travails they had been through, I could sense the positive enthusiasm that was present in the people here. They wanted to look forward. Most of all, they had full faith is us. As a body, they stood around Kopa’s motorcycle, talking happily.

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The villagers crowding around Kopa just before we left

I could not resist standing up and giving a little speech. “Do not worry, we will be there for you. Things will be all right. If there is any problem, tell us, and we will come to your help right away.”

Fat chance. The Judum had threatened again a few weeks ago. A complaint had been made, and matters had rested there. They also had confiscated the rations a few months ago, in revenge of a fellow member kidnapped by the Maoists. Fearing for their lives, Himanshuji and Kopa Kunjam had fled into Andhra by another road.

If anything happened here again, help would take a long time coming. If tomorrow the Judum came and torched the village again, nobody would come to the rescue till long afterwards. And if the state did not co-operate, any rehabilitation process would be useless or ineffectual at best.

But hope dies last.

Gantala baby, Appu’s mother had said “we hope there would not be any attack again,” when talking about her traumatic experience in the forest.

Emily Dickinson had said, “Hope is that thing that perches in the soul”.

I cannot offer you anything concrete, but I can offer you hope.

And even if anything did happen this time, the villagers were not going to run away. They had set their minds that they would rather die. There will be many, many dead “Naxalites”, not just three or four.

Back to VCA

We sped back towards Dantewada as the sun was starting to set behind the distant mountains. The journey back was quick and uneventful. The sentries in the check-posts must have been pleased that we did leave before sunset. They did not have to worry themselves to death imagining that we were spreading discontent among the villagers at night.

It was just past sunset when we reached the VCA.

“To dekha aapne?”, smiled Himanhuji. (So, you saw?). I could only nod my head, still trying to come to terms with what I had seen.

I noticed that there were some people sitting in the patio where we were sitting. There was a woman in a colourful sari who was accompanied by some other people. Himanshuji pointed me to her.

“Who Gorka gaon sein hain. Unka kapra utar diya gaya tha, aur unlog unko rape karne jar aha tha. Ek aurat nein usko bacha diya.” Himnahuji said “Who abhi case file karne ke liye idhar aayein hain”. (She is from the Gorkha village. They had stripped her naked and were about to rape her, when another had woman saved her. She is here to try to file a police report).

“Yeh kaise ho sakta hain?” I asked in dis-beflief (But how can this happen?).

“Aap khud hi unko puchiye. Hahan, aap usse khud hi baat kijiye.” he replied. (Why do not you ask her yourself? It is all right to talk with her. Ask her yourself.)

On his request, she sat in a chair opposite mine. Himanshuji told me that she could converse in Hindi, so I did not need an interpreter. I asked her to relate her story.

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Umi Dewang, the woman from Gorka village who was stripped and nearly raped by the Judum

Her name was Umi Dewang. In a clear voice, with the tell-tale sing song intonation that is present in the Gondi dialect, she told me about her experience.

They had come one day, many of them, with the CRPF and the military. Before she knew what was happening, she had been surrounded.

“Unlog mera sari utar diya, mera petticoat utar diya,” she paused, with a catch in her voice. (They took off my sari, and they took of my petticoat). After a pause, she said, “Mera madam, jisko main bees saal sein pahchanta hoon, beech mein aake mereko bacha diya.”(My madam, who I had known for twenty years, came between me and the people then, and saved me.)

Some elderly woman, who had thrown herself at a raging and lusty mob, had save her from being raped, and very likely from subsequently being killed. Her own life could have been so easily lost. If there was ever a case of awarding the PadmaShree, India’s medal of bravery, I could not think of a better one.

“Phir case nahin file hua? Kanon hain na? Yeh to bohut hi galat hain!”, I helplessly tried to make some sense out of this. (But have you filed a case? What about the legal process? this is a terrific injustice!)

“Kaise case file kar sakte hain, jab military aur police bhi Judum ki saath tha?” (How can they file the case, when the military and the police had come with the Judum?)

Are they going to seek justice among the very people who came to attack the village?: Himanshuji was quick to point out the contradiction.

“Lekin kanoon, kuch to karna chahiye “, I tried to find reason when there was none. (But there is the law, something should be done .. )

Should. Many things should have been done. And many things should not have been. When Nandini Sundar, one of the few prominent academics who had spoken about Chhatisgarh, had gone to visit the Gorka village from which this woman came, she had returned to see her car broken and vandalized. Reaching the village requires a 20 km walk through the forest after the closest one can get with a car.

Even that should not have happened, but it did.

“Hahn,” Himanshuji smiled, letting me off the hook.(Yes.) Yes, we are trying to file a FIR. We have to go the SPO, and it is a long process.

Some day. Let’s hope we can at some point even register a case. We are even asking that a specific such and such be brought to justice for this violation of human rights; we are only hoping to get people in the government to accept that an injustice has taken place.

Meanwhile, Umi is now at grave risk if she goes back to her village without any complaint filed. This time there might not be anybody present to save her.

And the same for the Konta rape victims. I saw these women, who were huddled in the make-shift camps, in the open tent just outside the gate. Himanshuji had mentioned that due to privacy reasons, their photographs should not be taken. He had asked me to go talk to them, but I did not. I did not know what to ask, what to listen to, what to say.

The Supreme Court has once again postponed the hearing of the rape cases. Till then, those victims will have to stay in the tents outside. They are at least alive, and if they return to their villages, they might not remain that way.

After having dinner which Himanshuji graciously offered, I returned to the hotel. This was essentially the end of my trip, the next day I would leave early morning to head back home.

Final Thoughts

Next day, as we started on the long drive back, a small but telling incident happened. Out of apparently nowhere, a jeep cut across the road just ahead of us, neatly cutting us off. Our driver had slammed the brakes, and the jeep missed us by a barest whisker. The jeep continued to cross the road and backed into a side alley that was intersecting the road perpendicularly. The driver of the jeep, a young boy barely in his teens, was busy trying to avoid the wall present on one side of the alley into which he was reversing, was oblivious to the fact that there was another side that he also needed to look at when backing the vehicle.

It was symbolic of what is going on in India today.

On one side, there is development, economic progress, tall buildings, and modern cities.

And on the other, there are the nameless, faceless masses, the 80% of Indian’s who live on less than half a dollar a day, the poor, the marginal, and the forgotten indigenous people who still live in the resource rich dense forests.

The Indian government, with its eye firmly on development, the Sensex, and the GDP, is determinedly making the way towards its goal. It has somehow forgotten about the people who are becoming the casualty in this process.

A road in a busy rural village in India is a sight to watch. These are often packed full of people, cows, chickens, goats, vegetable sellers, bicycle riders and what have you. Driving through such places, after navigating the uncountable potholes, while not running over living any living thing is perhaps the most difficult feat that any driver can hope to accomplish. If you are familiar with the scene, you would recall how vehicles speed even through even this milieu, while animals and people and children scatter left and right. A miracle that happens in every Indian village many times every day. The car or truck goes through, and life continues in its disordered but hectic pace, as if nothing had happened.

But once in a while there is that careless or reckless driver who just ploughs into the crowd, running over some people, children, goats, cows or dogs. And once in a while in the middle of the crowded street, there is suddenly a smashed and lifeless child, or someone who can barely move because a car has just gone over his legs and they are not where they used to be a moment ago.

The police eventually arrive hours later, but people do not wait around for that.

When such an accident happens, usually one of three things take place. It is a crude form of justice, but it is vicious and sudden.

Either the vehicle manages to change course, and then madly dash away, scattering everyone around, perhaps crushing some more people in the attempt to break through.

If that happens, both the driver and the vehicle leave the scene intact.

More often than not, the car or truck gets quickly surrounded by an irate mob that magically appears in the scene. At this point, if the driver can, he makes a dash for it and runs away from the place, or at least disappears into the crowd. If that happens, the mob contends themselves with smashing and burning the car. At least the driver survives with his life.

And once in a while the driver is not so lucky. He is caught, and the mob kicks and punches him mercilessly. Quite often, by the time the police forces arrive, the driver is just a heap of battered, dead flesh. And they also burn and destroy the car to complete the revenge.

A few years ago, the Tata Motors decided to open a Nano production factory at Singur, just outside of Kolkata. Nano, valued at just under 2000$, was to be the peoples car, the car of the masses, which would revolutionise the transport for the burgeoning Indian middle class. The actual plot of land was about the worst place that could have been chosen for building the factory. It was prime arable land, a three crop soil, which many of the farmers were not just willing to give up. The state government, bent on having the factory, came out with full force in order for having this plan succeed. They brought the land from the farmers with what they felt was the fair price (and they subsequently, sold it to the Tata’s for a tiny fraction of that price) but many farmers were not just willing to sell their lands.

There was mounting protests, and despite venting the full state force on the unarmed farmers, the Tata’s finally withdrew after years of unrelenting agitations and protests. After completing almost 80% of the setup, the Tata’s took all the heavy machinery that had been installed and moved them to another state.

They left behind a polluted and dug up ground which was no longer arable, the dead and burnt corpse of Tapasi Mullick, the 21 year old brave girl who had led the farmers protests and had been brutally raped, murdered and burnt so that she was scarcely recognisable, and many very disappointed real estate sharks who had brought the land all around the proposed factory site hoping to make a killing after the factory was fully operational. And now they were left with a lot of not so valuable land.

The Indian juggernaut of progress has just rolled into a remote but densely populated area in the forests in Chhattisgarh. The dazed, stunned people are just starting to pick up the fragments of their shattered lives, and are starting to come to terms with the terrible monstrosity that has suddenly appeared in their midst.

Let’s see what happens next.

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