Dantewada, Dec 14th to 17th 2009: Three days in the cauldron, on the eve of the Padyatra

January 11, 2010

By Amit Basole, Sanhati. Photos by Rudra Rakshit Saran.

Hum aah bhee bhartay hain to ho jaatay hain badnaam
Voh qatl bhee kartay hain to charcha nahin hota

Akbar Allahabadi

[A sigh is enough to earn us notoriety
While they get away with murder]

People say I am a naxali. What kind of naxali is this who gets police protection? – Himanshu Kumar, VCA

“Because God is in favor of equal distribution of everything, so God is a Maoist. Arrest God.” Proclaims Himanshu Kumar dramatically, an impish grin on his face, to reporters gathered in front of him. We are all sitting in the sun outside the rented premises of the Vanavasi Chetna Ashram (VCA). Himanshuji and his co-workers rented this house in Dantewada to continue their work after the Chhattisgarh Government sent a force of around a 1000 men and 4 bulldozers one early morning in May, 2009 to demolish the old Ashram situated in Kovalnar, about 12 kilometers from the district town of Dantewada in the Bastar region of the state. There is a formidable tree outside the house, with a chabutara, a platform built around it. Here Himanshuji sits early in the morning and plies his charkha. He continues dialog about this work and about the political situation in Bastar with people, adivasis, activists, reporters, who come and go.

Bastar, the tribal majority region of the state of Chhattisgarh, has become a battleground where the State has declared war on its own people. As Gujarat was the laboratory where an experiment in Hindu Rashtra was conducted, Bastar and India’s other tribal regions are laboratories of development where the State is experimenting with methods of dispossession of its own people. It is almost a textbook example of what Marx called “primitive accumulation of capital,” the forcible separation of working people from the means of production with the aim of concentrating capital in as few hands as possible. Those areas of the country where adivasis happen to be in a majority, parts of Chhattisgarh, western Maharashtra, Jharkhand, western Orissa, are also areas well-endowed with mineral and forest wealth. We, the urban elite, endowed with superior knowledge of the use these resources know better than the adivasi who happens to live there. We have the police, the military and the paramilitary, the monopolistic violence of the State on our side, and if that’s not enough we are armed with economic theories too. The adivasi has truth, justice, and the knowledge of a life in balance with nature on hers. And since that is not enough, she has guns too, a few.

To bring national attention to bear on what is going on in Bastar, Himanshuji has planned a padayatra, a satyagraha and a jan sunwai over a period of three weeks, from December 14th to January 7th. I am in Benaras, doing field-work for my PhD research on the handloom and powerloom weavers when I see this program. Though I can’t afford to take a break from work, I decide to go participate in the padayatra. I can’t stay the full three weeks, but even a week is better than nothing. When I hear that Sandeep Pandey, founder of Asha, an active NAPM leader and a Magasaysay Award winner, will also be going from Allahabad, the matter is settled. It will be a chance to spend some time with two commited activist and thinkers, Himanshu Kumar and Sandeep Pandey.

Sunday, December 13th

The four of us, Sandeep Pandey, two of his young associates, one a long-time ASHA worker involved in NREGA social audits, and another a recent MSW graduate from Jamia Milia, and myself, reach the VCA in Dantewada on the night of Sunday, Dec 13th. In retrospect, “sneak into” might be a better word, sneak by under the police radar. We are here to participate in the Padayatra to be led by Himanshuji from Nendra to Lingagiri, two villages destroyed by the Salwa Judum, the State-supported people’s militia entrusted with the task of clearing the forest of tribals under the guise of fighting Maoist guerillas. The workers of the VCA have rehabilitated these and 28 other villages in the area.

The private luxury bus (there are no public long-distance buses in Chhattisgarh) from Raipur to the mining complex of Bailadila passes through Dantewada. We reach Dantewada around 9pm after an uneventful bus ride lasting eleven hours. Dantewada seems to be the proverbial middle of nowhere; four to five hundred kilometeres from any large town, Raipur, Nagpur, Visakhapattanam, Hyderabad, Allahabad, north or south, they are all a ten-hour or more bus ride away. No trains come here from any of these cities either. At least not trains meant to carry people.

Standing on Dantewada’s sleepy main street, Sandeepji makes a phone call and within five minutes a white Bolero pulls up by our side. A man in his mid-forties, dressed in a white kurta pyjama and a maroon vest steps out. He is smiling broadly, a smile I will come to know very well in the next few days. This is Himanshu Kumar, who has come to take us to the VCA.

At the Ashram, which is also Himanshuji’s residence, I quickly understand that Dantewada is not your regular sleepy small town. Himanshuji reads us an SMS he has received from a “concerned citizen.” The message says that under the present circumstances if Himanshuji were to undertake the Padayatra, he would be risking undesirable outcomes. It is phrased as a message of solidarity but seems to me to be a threat. Indeed Himanshuji informs us that he has learnt from sources in Raipur that if a Padayatra is taken out the police may have planned an encounter to finish him off. The modus operandi, which has been used on earlier occasions, would be as follows. A few police officers wearing plain clothes and disguised as Maoists would hide in the forest on one side on the road while another police party would be on the other side. The police would attack the “Maoists” and the Padayatris would be caught in the crossfire. If all this seems too “filmy,” read on to see what the realms of possibility of Chhattisgarh truly are.

Monday, December 14th

I wake up around 7am. I have a very bad cough and have chosen to sleep indoors rather than along with all the outsiders in the tents put up outside. The first thing I learn is that 39 women activists enroute from Raipur to Dantewada in the night, in order to take part in the Padayatra, are being prevented from reaching here. The story unfolds slowly over the course of the morning through many phone calls between Himanshuji and Sudha Bharadwaj, a human rights lawyer in Raipur and leader of a faction of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. The three hired jeeps carrying the women have been stopped first in the town of Charama, where the vehicles are seized on a pretext (one of the drivers is underage). The police have known all along about the itinerary and have been waiting for them to arrive (“we’ve been waiting for you since 10 pm” says one of the more innocent young policemen). The women are warned that they would be proceeding at their own risk since around 4000 tribals are waiting ahead in Kodenar to try and stop them. The women are offered police vehicles to proceed to Dantewada, but they turn the offer down. They then attempt to travel by bus but are stopped again in Kondagaon. The police warn the bus driver not to carry them, else the bus will not be allowed to proceed. They have to get off, but they persist in proceeding. They change buses. At Kanker the bus carrying the women has its tire punctured (reported later in the papers at “tire bursting by accident”). At various places the activists of the Salwa Judum in its latest incarnation, the Danteshwari Adivasi Swabhiman Manch, threaten the women, call them Naxal supporters and ask the outsiders to keep out of Bastar.

By this time it is morning and Himanshuji asks the women to return since it is clear that they will not be allowed to reach Dantewada. So only six people have been able to reach here from outside Dantewada. The four us who came on Sunday, and two others, Suresh, an AID-India volunteer from Hyderabad who arrived just before us and Rudra Rakhsit, a photojournalist from Bangalore, who has been staying at the ashram since last week.

Meanwhile more news reaches us. Trees have been felled and roads dug up along the way to Nendra where the Padayatra is supposed to start. The local adivasis who work with the VCA are also being prevented from leaving their homes due to the atmosphere of terror being created by the administration. Himanshuji’s driver has also not arrived. The arrest of Kopa Kunjam, a senior VCA worker on false charges of murder, and the beating of Kopa and his lawyer Alvan Toppo are all occurrences only a few days old. In these circumstances which tribal can risk trying to come here for the Padayatra or for that matter for anything else?

A steady stream of reporters starts arriving from 9am onwards. Microphones and cameras surround Himanshu Kumar and Sandeep Pandey both sit plying their respective charkhas (see photo). It is a peaceful morning and looking at the scene one cannot really get a sense of latent violence or impending disaster. In the distance, the forest is visible on the mountains. I can imagine tribal villages in those mountains. Will I be able to see them for myself? Himanshuji briefs the reporters on the status of the Padayatra. But he doesn’t lose the opportunity to talk about more fundamental issues. Why is the State so afraid that it won’t let the women enter Dantewada, that is won’t let a harmless thing like a Padayatra take place? Why is it afraid of Himanshu Kumar?

Na to mere paas koi pad hai, na koi paisa hai, na koi hathiyar hai, mere paas ek sach hai, ki aapne nirdosh advisasiyon ko mara hai. Agar who sach-much ke doshi hote to sarkar mujhse katai na darti.”

(“I have neither an official position, nor money, nor weapons. I have Truth on my side, that you have killed innocent adivasis. If they had indeed been innocent, the administration would never be afraid of me.”)

At 10am, while reporters are still hanging around, a police car drives up with the Dantewada Police Chief, an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) and a few constables in it. My first thought is that they are going to arrest Himanshuji. But it turns out they are here to protect him. Himanshu Kumar has been given security, presumably because the administration feels there is a threat to his life. Who from? From the Maoists who have never taken a public stand against him? From the adivasis who come to him for redress from both the police and the Maoists? Or does the State want to protect Himanshu from itself? The policemen are under order to remain with Himanshuji until further orders. As I write this around 10 days later, they are still there.

They serve one very important purpose. In their presence it is very difficult for Himanshuji to visit any of the interior villages. Doing so risks a confrontation with the Maoists or with the villagers themselves.

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Sandeep Pandey (left) and Himanshu Kumar plying their charkhas

Around 11am, when I am on the phone inside the house, I see a truck pull up on the main road around 100 meters from the Ashram. It is entirely full of people, men and women. They begin disembarking and proceed in rally fashion towards the Ashram shouting slogans. The men are carrying lathis. I hang up the phone and rush to the front entrance to see what is happening. I can hear “murdabad, murdabad” but not what precedes it. Then I hear “Himanshu bhagao, Bastar bachao.” (Drive Himanshu away, save Bastar). The mob approaches down the kachha road leading past the Ashram into the woods beyond. Policemen watch on and reporters are clicking away with their cameras. Chants of “Himanshu Kumar muradabad” grow louder. I am aware of my own lack of experience of such situations. I cannot predict what is going to happen next. The crowd forms a semicircle facing Himanshuji and Sandeepji. I am standing at the back behind the crowd trying to be non-descript but very aware of several pairs of eyes on me. The women in the rally squat on the road, men stand behind them, resting their lathis on the ground. Three Salwa Judum leaders, Chhabindra Karma, son of Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma, Sukhdeo Tati and Chaitram Atami, are at the head of the procession along with their security guards carrying large self-loading rifles, similar to the ones issued to the police here. The leaders now step forward. Himanshuji gets up and welcomes them. He has a broad smile on his face and shakes Chaitram Atami’s hand (see photo). The Salwa Judum leaders appear somewhat taken aback by the warm reception. Himanshu invites them to sit and talk.

I watch spellbound as the scene unfolds in front of my eyes. Immediately in front of me are the tribals in the rally, men with lathis, women squatting on the ground in front of them. Beyond them a plastic table with a few chairs surrounding it, occupied by Chhabindra Karma, the Zilla Panchayat Chair, Sukhdev Tati and Chaitram Atami. Facing them across the table Himanshu Kumar. Beyond that the policemen watches the drama along with reporters. The Salwa Judum leaders launch into their speech. Himanshu and the outsiders who are with him, waving their hands towards the rest of us, are troublemakers creating problems for the adivasis. Before the VCA started its activity Bastar was a peaceful place. What development have they done for Bastar in all these years? The VCA is a place where tribal women are exploited. We [the Salwa Judum leaders] are Bastar-vasis and adivasis. We warn you (outsiders present) not to work with Himanshu. And if anyone gives land or space to the VCA the adivasis will socially boycott that person. Himanshuji listens along with the crowd who has now settled into the role of spectators, perhaps surprised at the turn of event, perhaps not, it is hard to tell. When the Salwa Judum leaders are done speaking he asks them if he can present his view.

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Himanshu Kumar inviting Chhabindra Karma (background) and Chaitram Atami for dialogue.

Just as he is going to speak another commotion is heard from the road. A car has pulled up and a man in suit, the Superintendent of Police of Dantewada district, Amaresh Mishra, alights from it. What is going on? He yells. Don’t you people know section 144 (law preventing more than four people from congregating in public spaces, usually in force during elections) is in force? How did all these people gather here? Turant hataiye, turant hataiye [Take them away immediately]. Shouts of “Himanshu Kumar murdabad” are now replaced by “Police Murdabad.” After a round of chants condemning the police, someone gets on the ball again and we are back to “Himanshu Kumar Murdabad.” Just as quickly as a crowd had gathered, it is dispersed. Many are arrested and forced into the police van accompanying the SP’s car. The SP does not come close to the Ashram or speak to Himanshu or Sandeep. He disappears just as quickly as he had arrived and we are left there alone as we were before the Salwa Judum protesters arrived.

We sit around discussing what has just happened. I am still shaken and confused and not a little afraid, not ever having experienced anything like this before. Slowly explanantions start coming forth. One that finds favor with most of us is that the whole episode has been orchestrated by the SP (or someone higher up): first the provisioning of police protection citing threat to Himanshuji’s life, then a protest which justifies that protection. The reporters who are still present now begin questioning Himanshu and Sandeep on what has happened and a most interesting conversation follows. I present the highlights of it below.

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Salwa Judum leaders with their security guards

Himanshu is in the mood to challenge the reporters’ understanding of issue. He asserts:

“Bastar ke gaon mein bina police ke na to chori hogi na balatkar hoga. Policewale bhi jaante hain, kii gaon mein hamri zaroorat hai hii nahin. Hame to zabaran bhejaa gayaa hai.”

(“If there is no Police there will be neither theft for rape in the villages of Bastar. Even the Police know they are not needed in the villages, they have been sent there by force.”)

He pushes the point further: adivasi ne kahaa kya kii mujhe bachao?…Aapko zameenen chahiye. aap samajh nahin rahe hain yeh pura khel. (“Has the adivasi asked you to save him?…You need the land. You are not appreciating this whole game.”)

The reporters repeatedly challenge him on the issue of being a Naxal sympathizer. He points out that he has simply been asking for implementation of Supreme Court orders to rehabilitate adivasi villages. Is the Supreme Naxalite too? Further, he points out the obvious, which the press somehow always choses to ignore. That atrocities comitted by Naxalites are immediately registered in FIRs, but not the same for atrocities committed by the police. Not only that but these atrocities are wilfully overlooked. Himanshuji challenges the reporters to talk to a woman Shodi Shambho, sitting with us, who has been shot in the leg by the CRPF. The surgically inserted rods are clearly visible in the leg. He challenges them to get her FIR registered and informs them about the incident that happened in the woman’s village, Gompad, on 1st Oct. A two year-old baby’s fingers have been cut, the mother raped and killed.

Conversely “atrocities” on part of Naxals are often made up. He offers an example. One day there is a story in the newspapers about eight people being burned and killed by Naxals. The next day al eight appeared at the police station and said we are alive. This is not published anywhere.

He does clarify his position on the Naxals somewhat further.

Aap naxalion ko maro, kaun rok raha hai, main ek nihatta akela aadmi hun aur mein nihatte akele aadmi ke adhikaron ke liye lad raha hun. Log mujhse kehte aap bayan nahin dete, mere bayan dene se naxalwad khatam ho jayega? Mere kaam karne se hoga. Mujhe kaam karne dijiye…mujhe gaon ko basaane dijiye..woh main hi kar sakta hun. Naxali basaaenge police ujaad degi, police basaenge naxali ujaad denge…Mera vasta bastar ki us janta ke prati hai jo ladnaa nahin chahati hai. Ya to tumko salwa judum kaa saath dena padega ya naxalwad se judna padega.

[Who is stopping you from killing Naxalites, I am a solitary unarmed individual and I am fighting for the rights of other unarmed individuals. People say to me, why don’t you issue a statement (against Naxal violence), will Naxalism end because I give a statement against it? It will end if I do my work. Let me work…let me resettle villages…only I can do it. If the Naxals resettle a village, the police will destroy it, if the police resettles a village, the Naxals will destroy it…I am concerned if those people in Bastar who does not want to fight. Either they have to support Salwa Judum or the Naxals.]

He reinforces the point that al doors of justice have been shut for the adivasi, leaving him no choice: aap band kar dije court ke darwaze, police ke darwaze, prashasan ke darwaze…

Later that day, as we discuss future courses of action, people call up from Raipur, Delhi wanting to find out what is happening. But Himanshujji’s phone is being tapped by the police, so he must always be careful about what is said. At night, after dinner, we sit with an adivasi from a neaby village whose two sons, Madvi Kona and Madvi Hidma, both not quite 18 years old have been killed by the Police and SPOs. Sandeepji asks the man questions about the incident with Himanshuji translating Hindi to Koyamata.

When did this happen? Asks Sandeepji.

It was a moonlit night.

How old were your sons?

They weren’t married yet.

Why were they killed?

No reason at all. They were not Naxals.

Tuesday, December 15th

We are woken up at seven the next morning by Himanshuji’s voice calling to us from outside our tents. He wants to “test the waters” by venturing out to Nendra in the Bolero. The idea is to distribute pamphlets announcing the Jan Sunvai on the 7th of Janurary. If the Padayatra is not happening, at least we will do something instead of sitting around at the Ashram.

But more discussion over breakfast reveals problems with this course of action. Leading the plainclothes police with large automatic rifles into the rehabilitated villages wil nto be the smartest move. And the rest of us going without him does not seem to make much sense. So we shelve the idea and decide to do low profile things for a day or two. Himanshuji sings a couple of movement songsfor us to the accompaniment of his dafli, one in Hindi and one in Telugu. We start talking about languages. Koyamata is the name of the language the adivasis here speak, he informs us. It is spoken in Dantewada, Kanker, Kondagaon, Karimnagar (AP), and Gadchiroli (Maharashtra). He seems fluent in the language, having lived in Dantewada since 1992. I ask him how many people speak it. 20 lakh is his estimate. Of course the local administration works in Hindi or Chhattisgarhi (close to Hindi). In their own state the adivasis cannot speak to those who govern them, in their own tongue.

While we sit in the shade of the tree, the charkhas plying silently, Himanshuji tells us more about his life and background, about growing up in Muzaffarnagar, early college activism, about his Gandhian father, about first coming to Dantewada 17 years ago, about running development programs here with the government’s help and funding. He describes work that the VCA did with the government on watershed management. Kopa Kunjam joined him in 1996-97 coming from the government-collaborated development works. At one time 250 full-timers were working in the area, and even now 80-85 full-timers work on health, education, malnutrition, human rights, rehabilitation, mother-child care.

A person calls from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) asking for more information of the nature of the rehabilitation work undertaken by the VCA. It involved constructing homes, running anganwadi schools (gaon ke ladke ladkiyon ko ekattha kiya), distributing seeds, tractors and so on, he explains.

After lunch Himanshuji offers to take us to the old ashram site in Kovalnar. But there is a hitch. The Police van hasn’t arrived yet with the replacements of the men currently on duty at the Ashram. No van, how will the police accompany us? The ASI requests us to wait. Himanshuji refuses. We set off, the seven of us in the Bolero, Sandeepji driving. The Police know where we are going; they will come as soon as they can. Incidentally none of the jeeps and trucks carrying police officers has a license plate here. Someone offers the logic that this is so they are not identified as police vehicles, becoming targets for the Maoists. But surely the absence of a license plate is identification in itself?

“We created these ponds as a part of our watershed management projects,” Himanshuji points to a couple of small ponds on the drive to Kovalnar. We pull off the main road onto a kachha road that leads to the Ashram site. On both sides of the road we see piles of rubble, the remained of the bulldozed ashram. The police van pulls up with five minutes of us reaching there. They fan out on the ground. One gunman positions himself facing away from the Ashram into the woods as if in anticipation of an attacker leaping from the forest cover.

“This was the office, this was the dispensary, you can still see medicines lying around.” Himanshuji shows us around. It appears to have been a large enterprise. There are remains of a workshop, which employed two full-time mechanics, a telephone tower, a dormitory and staff quarters. There was also a storage room for toilets, which were being distributed in the villages. Broken ceramic toilet bowls lie buried in the dirt and rubble. Children from the neighboring village have gathered seen the crowd roaming around, taking pictures, policemen in tow. An elderly adivasi man appears and greets Himanshuji. Not much can be said because the police instantly come closer. Protection.

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Destroyed remains of the Vanavasi Chetna Ashram

From the Ashram site we proceed back to Dantewada and on the way Himanshuji offers to take us to Bailadila, 80 km south of Dantewada where the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) has a large iron-ore mining facility. It is a huge complex, a township complete with worker colonies. The sides of the mountains here have zigzagging conveyor belts that run from top to bottom. These carry ore mined at the top to loading sites where the ore will be dumped into waiting railway wagons. We halt at one such loading site. Gigantic piles of red dirt, the precious ore, lie everywhere around us. Ore is being dumped via a machine into wagon (see photo). Women workers gaze up at us somewhat amused, somewhat apprehensive. It is an industrial landscape that could inspire a Nehruvian-era poet. The foundations of a modern civilization are being built here. Too bad if a few primitive people are in the way. They will go the way of others like them, in America, in Australia, why should India be any different?

One of the SPOs says, you should come here at night. The mountain is lit up. We call it akashnagari (city in the sky). The railway wagons you see in the picture are all empty, waiting to be filled with ore. Once full they will be taken to the port at Vishakhapattam among other places. Goods trains carrying ore pass through Dantewada town many times a day. Not a single passenger train goes there. The main roads though, everywhere here are wonderful. Well-paved, no potholes, quite a change from UP. Of course the adivasis have little use for them, the roads, like the police are to serve capital, mainly the mining interests. The police and the roads to carry them have reached much before schools and hospitals. I am reminded of what a Muslim weaver once said: hamare mohallon mein school baad mein banti hai, police chowki pehle banti hai, kya musalman janam se hii gunahgaar hai?” (In our localities schools come later, police stations come first. Is the Muslim born a criminal?).

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A Special Police Officer (SPO) accompanying us at the Bailadila NMDC site.

Wednesday, December 16th

Yesterday and today, Suresh, the AID-India worker from Hyderabad has been helping me type up English translations of the Hindi affidavits which document cases of police atrocities on the adivasis. I get an idea of the exact nature of oppression. One episode sticks out, recounted matter-of-factly by the tribal who experienced it and lived to tell the tale. I paraphrase the account from my recollection. Many similar affidavits are available at the VCA.

“I had gone to my farmshed along with my son. Leaving him at the shed I went to a nearby water source to take my bath. On returning I found there were some SPOs waiting there for me. They had with them a few other villagers and their belongings. They caught me also, took my money and clothes and brought everyone to the village. From there they took the entire party along with the looted belongings towards the forest. On the way, they divided us into three groups. One group, of which I was a part, was left with the belongings. A few SPOs took the other two groups into the forest on either side of the road. Soon we heard gunshots and we realized that the SPOs were killing our companions. The SPOs returned by themselves and we started walking again. After a while I heard one SPO say to another, `lets finish the work and go.’ I heard a gunshot behind me and looked back to see one of my companions had been shot and blood was flowing from his chest. I realized I was next. I dropped the stuff I was carrying and ran for my life into the forest. I made my way to my village and told people what had happened. They went back to the spot to investigate, but I was too afraid to go.”

After this straightforward account, the letter addressed to the SP of Dantewada requests that an FIR be registered regarding the incident. One source of irritation for the Chhattisgarh administration has been that Himanshu Kumar and his associates have constantly kept such cases visible via the system of the police and the courts. Even though no favorable court judgments have been handed down, the process keeps up pressure on the administration.

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A child SPO outside the VCA as part of Himanshu Kumar’s security detail

After breakfast, while the day’s plans are still unformed, some of us are hanging out with the SPOs on duty. One of them, I haven’t seen him before today, looks barely 14 years old (see photo). His gun reaches up from the ground to his shoulders. He is a tribal boy who doesn’t speak Hindi though he seems to understand it. The other SPOs and police officers gather around us and we discuss the tribal situation. One of the policemen, a striking Gond man, outlines the mainstream position on the matter. The problem is these tribals do not integrate with the rest of society. If they did, they would be better off. I wonder if he has the Gonds in mind, a scheduled tribe, which has intergrated to a larger extent with society, albeit at the bottom of the social ladder. One of us asks the policemen how much they earn. Rs. 10,000 a month, no doubt a princely sum in this context. This is probably the wage of a regular police officer. SPOs must earn a lot less, perhaps in the range of Rs. 2000-3000 per month.

Around 10am Himanshuji asks us if we would like to visit the town of Sukma on the Orissa border where he knows a local CPI leader, Manish Kunjam. Kunjam has organized several mass protests in the region against Tata, Essar etc. Himanshu wants to get Kujam’s help for propagating word of the Jan 7th Jan Sunvai. We set off in the Bolero as before, the police van following closely. Along the way we stop at the VCA’s legal office in Dantewada town. Waiting for Himanshu and Sandeep to finish their work Rakshit and I talk with the ASI who always accompanies us. A tall, dark, heavily built man, with a light paunch, and trim mustache, he seems to fit a stereotypical image of the small town police officer. He offers us his analysis of the problems. The problem of Chhattisgarh, he says, is that it has been part of the periphery, the edge (kinara). No leader or officer from Delhi comes here in the interior areas. Sure people read about it in the newspapers, but he says

“Akhbar ka padha hua alag cheez hai aur practically andar mein ghus ke dekhna ki log kaise rehte hain, kya khate hain, kya awagaman ke saadhan hain,” this is something else.

[Its one thing to read about it in the papers and its something else to practically see it for yourself, how people live, what they eat, what are the means of transport.]

The main problem he says, lowering his voice for some reason, is that people here are not educated (shikshaa kaa abhaav). Otherwise, even unemployment is not such a big issue here. But because people are uneducated, illiterate they have been misled by the Naxals. If they had been educated they would not have been duped (unki baaton mein na aate). The main cause of the lack of development is the Naxalites, he says, contradicting his earlier proposition that the main problem was neglect of the region by the authorities…This is a very large area, he says after a pause. You haven’t been inside the forest. Its beautiful, no pollution, very serene. Not like here.

As if on cue a goods train passes by whistling and thundering. Ore? I ask.

Haan, jahan apan kal gaye the na, vahin kaa le jaate hain maal.”

[Yes, where we had gone yesterday you know, they take the ore from there.]

The train goes to Vishakhapatan, he says and from there the ore goes by ship to Japan. How many trains pass by here daily? Asks Rakshit. Difficult to say, but there is a train almost every 15-30 minutes. They spent a lot of money on this route, digging tunnels etc. When was it made? Asks Rakshit. 1964-65. With Japanese investment.

The road to Sukma goes through small towns and plains with the forests looming in the distance. As always the road is in excellent condition. On the way Himanshuji discusses the issues with us.

Yeh issues Naxalite party se zyaadaa bade hain, naxalite party khatm ho sakti hai, issues bachenge. Yeh issues chunki janate se jude hue issues hain, aur janata government se badi hai. Agar government yeh samajhti hai ki who janata par kabu kar legi to woh ghalatfahmi mein hai. Agar yeh form of government ne kaam nahin kiya to yeh form of government bhi mitaayii jaa sakti hai. Aur yeh koi ideal form of democracy to hai nahin.

[These issues are larger than the Naxalite Party, the naxalite party may go, but the issues will remain. This is because the issues relate to the people, and the people are greater than the government. If the government thinks that it can control the people, it is mistaken. If this form of government does not work, then this form of government can be destroyed. After all this is not some ideal form of democracy.]

Himanshu points out that even Vinoba and others have criticized this form of government where 49% become zero and 51% becomes 100%. They used to talk of consensus…Democratic values are developing but government cannot fathom these values. It thinks elections are the sum total of democracy. While democratic values mean the autonomy of the citizen. This is what the people’s system. If the government violates its liberties, the public will overthrow its government. aur aaj zyaadaatar ladai janata versus system chal rahi hai, janata har jagah aapke system se takraa rahi hai, police se takraa rahi hai. [most of the conflict is a people versus the system type of conflict, the people everwhere are challenging your system, challenging the police.]

Hal ek hi hai, jo saare akalmand logon ne kahaa hai, ki bhai khuda ne sabko barabar diya hai, isko barabar baaton. Vinoba kehte the kii dhoop aur pani ki tarah zameen bhi sabki barabar hai.

Jo samajik andolan hoga woh values ko badalne kaa andolan hoga. Yeh jo hamari sadi-gali values hain na, jat-pat, firkaparasti, bade aur chhote ko jaayaz manane wali, inke rehte naya samaj to bani hi nahin sakta. In values ko badal kar jo naya samaj banae kaa movement hai who hi Gandhi aur Vinoba kaa movement hai. Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Vinoba sab yeh kaam kar rahen hain. Main to Buddha ko dekhtaa hun, unse badaa to koi communist nahin hai. Saare purane values ko tod karke, jo hai, jo vastaviktaa hai usko sweekaar karo. Woh to na ishwar to mantaa hai, na tantra to mante hai, na rajya ko mante ha, usse bada anarchist nahin hai, buddha se badaa.

[There is only one solution, which all intelligent people have spoken about. That, God has distributed everything equally, so distribute everything equally. Vinoba (Bhave} used to say that the land belongsto everyone equally, like the sun and water. Now the social movements that will happen will be movements that bring about a change in our values. The decadent values that we have, casteism, communalism, values that reinforce inequality and hierarchy, as long as these persist no new society can be built. The movement to change these values and in the process create a new society, is the movement of Gandhi and Vinoba. Mohammad, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Vinoba, all are doing this work. When I look at Buddha I think there isn’t a bigger communist than him. Shatter all old values and accept reality for what it is. He does not believe in God, nor in the State, there isn’t a bigger anarchist than him, than the Buddha.]

We reach Sukma around 1pm. Just as we are settling in our plastic chairs in a school compound where Manish Kunjam is waiting for us, a police jeep arrives with a sub-inspector and 4-5 plain clothes policemen. These are reinforcements from Dantewada. Apparently the four gunmen who have accompanied us are not protection enough. We have ventured far from Dantewada and more protection is needed. Our retinue now consists of the six of us, two sub-inspectors, and nine plainclothes policemen and SPOs armed with self-loading rifles.

Manish Kunjam, himself a tribal leader, talks about the problems of the adivasis in the state. The percentage of jobs etc. reserved for STs is 22%, a carry over from the days when the region was part of Madhya Pradesh. Tribals now constitute over 32% of the population of Chhattisgarh, but the reservation quotas have not been revised. The tribal is being exploited in a state created in her name. Further the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution that gives greater autonomy to the adivasis and creates a Tribal Advisory Council, which has the power to modify laws passed by the centre and the state, has not been properly implemented. The State has come just a middleman for the big corporations. These days helicopters are being used for city municipal elections. Where is this money coming from?

He talks at length on the difficulties in working under the CPI banner in the presence of the Maoists. People say that the Naxals also oppose Tata, the Communist Party also opposes Tata, we carry a red flag, they carry a red flag, so people think we are the same. But they have damaged us greatly in elections by publishing pamphlets against us etc. In Bijapur we were once very strong, now we are finished. And the Naxals have killed adivasis not big merchants or contractors or those who are exploiters. Is this consistent with Marx’s vision? He asks of the Naxals and says that they have yet to give him a satisfactory response for this question. But if the CPI takes a stand against Naxalism the party worker in the villages will get killed. This is what the Congress and BJP want. So the Naxals are helping them in this regard. The CPI, says Kunjam, suffers from both ends. When the force comes to villages, who will they kill? Those carrying red flags. So our workers will also get killed. More than one lakh people are now refugees in Andhra Pradesh. Even more than were there at the time of Salwa Judum’s campaign. The Maoists have to think about this. The Police and the administration will only work in the interest of big capital. But if they [Maoists] want to keep a movement alive, they will have to leave arms and enter into discussions. Otherwise adivasis, who the Maoists consider their biggest source of popular support, will get eliminated.

One of the police sub-inspectors sitting right behind me speaks up taking advantage of a pause in the conversation. Sir, ek question hum karen sir? Yeh jo development ya vikaas jo wahaan se chalta hai woh yahan se shuru kyun nahin hota hai? Delhi aur Raipur se hi kyun chalta hai? Yahan se shuru karen aur wahan khatam karen jaa ke.

[Sir, may I ask one question? This development, that starts from there, why doesn’t it begin here? Why does it [development planning] originate from Delhi and Raipur? We should start it here and end it there.]

It’s a good question, everyone agrees. That is what should happen. Where there is poverty and unemployment, there will be terrorism, says the inspector. True, agrees Kunjam, but we didn’t think of ourselves as poor. More than poverty it was the forest officers, the patwaris that forced people to take to arms. The patwari, the forest-wallah had to be wined and dined whenever they went to a village. Roads were constructed by forest officers with unpaid adivasi labor, Naxalites came and stopped this. In those days they seemed like messiahs. Today the patwaris don’t exist but their place has been taken by the police force. Nothing has changed for the adivasi.

After the meeting with Manish Kunjam we stop for lunch at a dhaba in Sukma town. It would be an amusing sight if it was not also ludicrous and tragic at the same time. Into the dhaba, behind us march nine policemen with large rifles. It is like a VIP has stopped in to inquire about the welfare of the masses. While we are drinking tea after lunch, Himanshuji receives a phone call. His landlord has asked him to vacate the Ashram premises. The landlord, who knowing VCA’s work, had given them space earlier this year, has now been threatened with the loss of his government job unless he asks Himanshu to go.

It has been decided that everyone except the ASHA worker will leave for Raipur tonight. A Press Conference has been arranged at the Raipur Press Club tomorrow at noon. There is nothing more to be done in Dantewada for the moment. Himanshuji will carry the word of what is happening to the world outside.

As we eat dinner that night, before leaving for the bus station, the police chief of Dantewada comes to the VCA. He is all smiles, politeness itself. He wants to know if three armed policemen can accompany us on the bus to Raipur. After he leaves, Himanshuji tells us that this is the same person who has created a lot of trouble for VCA in Dantewada by harassing its workers, arresting them on false charges and so on. The administration’s duplicity and lies permeate through its entire fabric.

Thursday, December 17th

The trip to Raipur on Payal Air Lines is uneventful. It is a sleeper bus and I don’t even realize when I fall asleep. I wake up to daylight and the outskirts of Raipur. Himanshuji has called an autowallah to the bus stand. This autowallah helps him out regularly in Raipur. And thereby hangs another tale of police harassment. After the autowallah has dropped us at Rajendra Sail’s office, he calls Himanshuji a little while later. The police are looking for him. They are saying he has stolen a bag from one of the bus passengers. The State has many tiny and not so tiny ways of troubling those who trouble it.

We leave for the Raipur Press Club around 11:30. The press conference is at noon. The floor of the press club is so shiny I almost slip on it twice. Reporters are hanging out in the foyer and outside room, but the conference room itself is empty. We start setting up inside and around 12 people start trickling in. Go to http://vimeo.com/8574824 to listen to the 50 min recording of the Press Conference.

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L to R: Rajendra Sail (PUCL-Chhattisgarh), Himanshu Kumar (VCA) and Sandeep Pandey (NAPM) at the Press Conference at the Raipur Press Club.

After the Press Confernece we leave for the courts. Dr. Binayak Sen is in town today because his case if up for hearing. I am quite excited at the prospect of meeting him. After Dr. Sen was imprisoned on cooked-up charges of sedition etc. by the Chhattisgarh government, the Free Binayak Sen campaign managed to make his case gain global attention. Still it took two years to get him out on bail. Not surprising in a place like Chhattisgarh where a “routine visit” to the police station can mean a few years in prison. Still, Binayak Sen was a member of the urban elite, albeit one who had chosen to live in the other India. The doctors and engineers sitting in offices and universities all over the world could identify with him. What about Kopa Kunjam, who is now in jail under false charges? What about many other lesser-known adivasis rotting in jails all over the country for the crime of being an adivasi sitting on resources we need? How many Free Binayak campaigns will it take to free them? And are we up to the task?

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L to R: Dr. Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar, Rajendra Sail and Sandeep Pandey at the Raipur courts.

After lunch at Sail sahab’s office, Dr. Sen leaves to go back to the courts. Back at the office some people sit around talking about the situation. Tragi-comic events are described. Such as a Tata-sponsored “jan sunwai” for land acquisition in which local people are kept out by force using the police, and 50 people are brought in from the nearby town of Jagdalpur for the sunwai. Who are we fooling? The adivasis? Or ourselves? Himanshuji inquires rhetorically.

Tomorrow he heads to Delhi, before coming back to Raipur and finally to Dantewada where the satyagraha is due to start on the 25th. I am heading back to my infinitely calmer world of the weavers of Benaras.

As I was writing this report the situation is changing very fast on the ground in Dantewada. Himanshu Kumar, on the 9th day of his indefinite fast, was detained by the police along with Sodi Sambo, the adivasi woman who has been shot in the leg by the CRPF and is an eye-witness to the attack by secuity forces on her villge of Gompad. The police have been looking for her, presumably so they can extract a false statement from her as they did with four rape victims from Samsetti village. These women, who had been raped by the police and had raised their voices about it, were later threatened by the same officers who had raped them to retract their statements. Suresh, the AID-India volunteer I met during my stay there was first places under house arrest at the VCA premises, along with three other visiting journalists and students. Later FIRs were registered against them for trying to confiscate cameras from local journalists. It is through relentess lies lies these that the State seeks to wear out its opponents.

Sitting a thousand miles away from the Alice in Wonderland world of Dantewada, it feels like I am writing the script of a very ordinary Bollywood movie. Would that it were so.

5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Dantewada, Dec 14th to 17th 2009: Three days in the cauldron, on the eve of the Padyatra

  1. preeti chauhan Says:
    January 13th, 2010 at 21:03

    All those who have visted dantewada and VCA know this so well, priyanka borpujari has continously written on it but as Hindi poet Nagarjun wrote,”Sach ko lakwa maar gaya hai, wo pada rehta hai sara-sara din sari-sari raat..wah fati aankhon se takta rehta hai, koi bhi samne se aye jaaye, satya ki sooni nigahon mein zara bhi fark nahi padta, pathrai nigahon se wah yun hi dekhta rahega…”

    In dantewada too, truth stands paralysed by the terror unleashed by the state in numerous forms!

  2. Nisha Mehta Says:
    January 23rd, 2010 at 03:31

    The two political travelogues on Chhattisgarh recently brought out in Sanhati, one by Siddhartha Mitra and this one by Amit Basole, are very
    instructive. These, coupled with the recent incidents around Himanshu Kumar, led me to the following string of thoughts on specific issue-based
    “people’s movement” vis-a-vis the Maoist rebellion in India: with special reference to Himanshu Kumar.

    Amidst the current gruesome war of the state power in India against a section of its own poorest people rebelling under the leadership of the
    Communist Party of India (CPI) (Maoist), the recent episodes of persecution of Himanshu Kumar (HK hereafter), the avowedly Gandhian activist
    running Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), by the Governments of Chhattisgarh and India are poignant as well as curious. The incidents of
    persecution are too well-known (apart from the collection: http://sanhati.com/articles/2058/ , the following videos give HK himself summarizing
    these episodes:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4cTZfZ6-k8,
    http://www.youtube.com/user/cjpkarnataka#p/a/u/0/PehyyNZAOSs).
    One of the salutary features of these episodes is that HK himself seems to have been changing his political views gradually. So, below we summarize
    some lessons that appear to stand out from these episodes: especially regarding the understandings of revolutionary Marxism in India on the correct
    path of emancipating the poor in the country vis-a-vis the understandings of the specific issue-based “people’s movements”. This seems quite
    important as one perennial complaint against the CPI (Maoist), from Nandigram to Lalgarh, is that they have been regularly `hijacking’
    spontaneous people’s movements geared toward some immediate goals to convert these into components of the broader struggle for seizure of
    political power by the working class and the poor. Below we try to understand whether these incidents with
    HK provide some justification for the perception and the corresponding revolutionary strategies of CPI (Maoist).

    A. What is the nature of the state:

    One of the very first lessons of Marxist understanding is that “the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another;
    it is the creation of “order”, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes” (Lenin: The State and
    Revolution). The further elaboration by Lenin is very well-known but still worth-quoting:

    “In the opinion of the petty-bourgeois politicians, however, order means the reconciliation of classes, and not the oppression of one class by another;
    to alleviate the conflict means reconciling classes and not depriving the oppressed classes of definite means and methods of struggle to overthrow
    the oppressors. … the “Kautskyite” distortion of Marxism is far more subtle. “Theoretically”, it is not denied that the state is an organ of class rule,
    or that class antagonisms are irreconcilable. But what is overlooked or glossed over is this: if the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class
    antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and “alienating itself more and more from it”, it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class
    is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling
    class and which is the embodiment of this “alienation”.”

    Obviously, CPI (Maoist), following this understanding, characterized the class character of the Indian state (rightly or wrongly) and the battle led
    by them in Chhattisgarh is directed against what they perceive to be the constituents of this state power.
    HK avowedly perceived state in a different way. He seems to have understood the Indian government and its constitution to be quite sacrosanct.
    He repeatedly claimed that his aim was to assist government’s own work in perfectly legal ways (he has elaborated on this in his speech available as
    a four-part video in http://www.youtube.com/user/tehelkatv#p/u). But it seems that when his apparently tame efforts at some seemingly harmless
    issue-based movement (like rehabilitating the villagers driven away by Salwa Judum) came into conflict with the class interests of what CPI
    (Maoist) would call the monopolistic capital and their ally of comprador bureaucratic bourgeoisie, the Indian state did
    not hesitate to brush aside HK, his reconciliatory moralistic rhetorics notwithstanding. This raises the question once again: whether it is possible to
    continue a ‘people’s movement’ without making it culminate into a war against the existing state.

    B. To mobilize on the basis of what identities:

    A person can, and often does, have several identities: nation, colour, class, religion, gender etc. From a Marxist standpoint, class is the most
    important identity among these. This perception is rooted in the Marxist conception of materialistic foundation of historical development.
    Thus, from Marxist point of view, one basic political task of the revolutionary left is to organize the oppressed people mainly along class lines.
    Again, as a classic illustration of this point Lenin’s writing in the context of Jewish workers in Russia can be quoted:

    “The great slogan “Workers of all countries, unite!”, which was proclaimed for the first time more than half a century ago, has now become more
    than the slogan of just the Social-Democratic parties of the different countries. This slogan is being increasingly embodied both in the unification of
    the tactics of international Social-Democracy and in the building of organisational unity among the proletarians of the various nationalities…
    The Bund’s mistake is a result of its basically untenable nationalist views; the result of its groundless claim to be the sole, monopolistic representative
    of the Jewish proletariat, from which the federalist principle of organisation necessarily derives; the result of its Long-standing policy of keeping
    aloof and separate from the Party. We are convinced that this mistake must be rectified and that it will be rectified as the movement continues to
    grow. We consider ourselves ideologically at one with the Jewish Social-Democratic proletariat. After the Second Congress our Central Committee
    pursued a non-nationalist policy; it took pains that such committees should be set up (Polesye, North-Western) as would unite all the local workers,
    Jewish as well as non-Jewish, into a single whole”. (To the Jewish Workers)

  3. Nisha Mehta Says:
    January 23rd, 2010 at 03:32

    HK seems initially to have perceived the adivasis of Chhattisgarh having a pristine identity of their own. He still invokes this idea:

    “There are three types of poor – (i) those who survive on your riches – the balloonseller, the domestic servant, construction workers; (ii) those who
    feel they are unworthy of being rich; they feel they are low caste, uneducated; they can never be rich; and (iii) those like the adivasis who were
    living happily in the forests till you invaded their land to make yourself richer.” (http://sanhati.com/articles/1937/)

    However, the CPI (Maoist) would characterize current phase of the struggle in Chhattisgarh in class terms. International
    monopolistic capital and their ally of comprador bureaucratic bourgeoisie are grabbing the means of production and this specific method of
    accumulating capital is determined by the pre-capitalist production relations existing in Chhattisgarh: non-anonymous hegemony of a dominant
    class that imposes unfreedom on productive activities (including surplus appropriation) of the broad masses of people.

    The curious thing is that HK himself is coming round to a similar perception! (see his speech in http://www.youtube.com/user/tehelkatv#p/u). So,
    from this the question again arises whether any `people’s movement’ in India can do without a scaffolding of class-based mobilization.

    C. How meaningful are the existing Indian democratic institutions?

    It is quite well-known that CPI (Maoist) considers the existing structure of democratic institutions in India as a sham which is quite in conformity
    with their goal of bringing about the New Democratic Revolution, ostensibly to usher in true `people’s democracy’. From such an understanding
    emerges their strategy of boycotting parliamentary elections, one component of the democratic institutions. The strategy has been disputed a lot
    and earned them a good deal of criticisms.

    In contrast, HK tried to use these democratic institutions, MPs, ministers, judiciary… so far as possible but with almost no palpable success.
    Finally he has had to leave Chhattisgarh convinced that the existing democratic institutions there are merely a sham. Again, Lenin is quoted
    famously by all the parliamentary left parties in India in justifying their primary attachment to electioneering:

    “it has been proved that, far from causing harm to the revolutionary proletariat, participation in a bourgeois-democratic parliament, even a few
    weeks before – the victory of a Soviet republic and even after such a victory, actually helps that proletariat to prove to the backward masses why
    such parliaments deserve to be done away with; it facilitates their successful dissolution, and helps to make bourgeois parliamentarianism
    “politically obsolete”.” (Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder).

    Perhaps the unsuccessful but sincere efforts of HK, unwittingly, serves the same purpose–proving the point claimed by CPI (Maoist)! I hope I
    am wrong. This should also make the `people’s movements’ trying to work within the present set-up to improve it from within think more.

  4. Siddharth Tripathy Says:
    May 11th, 2011 at 07:45

    Good write – nice carry of words – made me nostalgic of my days there – havent been there for 5 years now – will write a fiction on the place someday

  5. aditya Says:
    May 26th, 2012 at 07:50

    Nice read, want you guys to do a follow up on Refugees streaming in to Andhra Pradesh

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