April 26, 2012
By Debasree De
This travelogue describes, among many other things, the travails of a researcher who simply wants to gather data on the state of women in a trouble-torn region. Through questions ranging from the Forest Rights Act to the Rs. 2 per kg rice scheme. the writer maps gender oppression to larger political and economic contexts. In the course of her journey, the writer takes an intimate look at the formation of her own political consciousness.
This is a personal account of a field survey conducted in West Midnapore. Being a representative of a University-educated urban middle class society I went to Jangal Mahal to know the actual truth. When I came back I found that my unquestioning allegiance to the social theories broke down and finally I surrendered to empiricism. This is the most agonising phase of a field survey, when I found that social reality is completely different from the social theories.
When I decided to visit Jangal Mahal, I called Mangalda (Mangal Nayak) who is one of the PhD research scholars of Jadavpur University and a lecturer of Garhbeta College. I told him that I was willing to go to Amlasole, since I had heard a lot about the starvation-deaths and wished to collect more information by visiting the village personally. It was, in fact, my first and last plea to him that Amlasole must be included in my one-day trip to Jangal Mahal. Mangalda assured me that he would arrange a car and some local guides.
Finally, the day came. I started my journey with my cousin Suvojit Sen who is presently working in a Bengali daily. The date was 13 November 2011. We boarded Rupashibangla Express and arrived at Midnapore station at 8.45 am. Mangalda arranged a car and a retired school teacher of Goaltore joined us as our guide. We all had some cha-pani there and started our journey for Jhargram.
Jhargram block is considered as the strong hold of ‘Maoist’ activities. The village we visited was Uttarsole (Anchal 1, Jhargram block). We talked to Sonma Tudu, Kormi Tudu, Sumono Soren, Joba Tudu and other women. They said that they had no land in their name. They worked on others’ fields. They were not willing to send their daughters to school due to abject poverty. Early marriage is the rule. They all reported the unique characteristic of bride-price which is still prevailing in the adivasi societies. Presently they are getting the facility of Rs. 2 per kg rice scheme, which is very irregular.
We moved to our next place, Shalukdoba village, Lalgarh (Silda Bananchal, Binpur-I block). We met Sandharani Hansda who said that there was no improvement of the roads. We also observed that the roads were muddy (locally called roads covered with moram) and too narrow. The small villages are hardly reachable. She also talked about the seasonal out-migration in search of livelihoods. This is called namal. They all have BPL cards but the rationing system is completely corrupt. Chanchala Hansda said that no information was imparted to them and no effort was made to raise their awareness regarding the participation in local self-governments from the side of the panchayats. They had no time to spend in festivals since life was getting harder and harder to arrange two square meals.
The tribals do not know about the recent Forest Rights Act of 2006. No awareness has been raised so far by the government about FRA. It is important to mention that the tribals are abiding by their age-old customary laws. And customary laws have always fought the battle of legitimacy with the modern laws. The forests and the forest resources are the lifeline for the tribals; they do not know either about the provision of wildlife habitation or protected area acts mentioned in the FRA. The division between the tribals and the forest dwellers made by the Act has caused confusion about the actual beneficiaries who could claim their land. They even reported that they do not go the panchayats for fear of subsequent harassments. As far as the implementation of the Act is concerned, the tribals were not given proper information about how to fill up the claim forms. Many tribals were not provided with their tribal certificates without which they are virtually unable to apply for their lands.
Sonia Hansda shared her experience regarding the Forest Rights Act. She said that one day when she went to the forest for collecting minor forest produce the police stopped her and demanded one thousand rupees. The police also snatched away her cycle on which she was carrying the load. She was forced to arrange the money on debt.
Fulmoni Soren talked about the poor condition of the health facilities and education. We then met Arjun Baske, the former president of the local Jharkhand Party (Naren Group). He told us about their demands which were written in Alchiki script. He talked about the poverty, deprivation of the adivasi people and the indifference of the government officials. He categorically asserted that there are no ‘Maoists’, rather it has become the convenient label which is tagged to every protest, to mar the dissenting voices.
We crossed many check-posts, but there was neither any police nor any process of checking. But, yes, we found the military camps, fairly big, well constructed and ‘secure’ camps. It represents, in fact, the single sign of the existence of governance here. We have not found any ongoing NREGS works. We also found the Silda camp where the EFR jawans were killed by the extremists. It was a complete mismatch, the puccca huts of the adivasis and the camps, both will give you two completely different pictures of variegated life-style. I came to know that more or less one crore rupees are being spent on the joint forces every month, whereas the adivasis of Jangal Mahal get only 4 kg rice by paying Rs. 2. The adivasis require at least 300 gram rice per head everyday since they work really hard round the clock. So, the amount of rice being given to them is too meagre for a week.
We had our lunch with some rice, torkari and fish in a small hotel in Binpur-II. Then we set out for Amlasole. I was really excited. A local private tutor living in Belpahari joined us as our guide to Amlasole. Our car reached the Belpahari Police Station where the road turns towards Amlasole. But suddenly we were stopped. From 9 AM to 1 PM for almost four hours we were roaming in the inaccessible forest areas of Paschim Midnapore. Nobody stopped us. I faced a lot of objections from my family about coming in these places because of the ‘Maoist’ disturbances. Even, when I went to the Deputy Finance Officer of my university for the approval of the funds, he also cautioned me by saying “take care”. My friends were worried, perhaps they thought that I might be abducted by the ‘Maoists’. But no such things happened to me or to my people. I was thinking that we, the educated urban people are so ignorant about the reality. I heard that there was a war going on between the joint forces and the ‘Maoists’. Joint forces are very much there, but where were the ‘Maoists’? I also heard that the ‘Maoists’ are manipulating the poor adivasis in order to sustain their revolution, but not a single adivasi complained against them. They talked about the atrocious deeds of the forest guards but not of the ‘Maoists’.
This was the first time that we were stopped. And I felt insecure.
The inspector stopped our car and asked for producing our identity proofs. My cousin showed his press-card first. He took it and then asked me to show mine. I showed my university student identity card and voter id. He took those and got busy with his mobile phone. We got out from the car and followed him. I suddenly remembered that I have my permission letters as well. I went to the car to bring them. When I came back I found that my identity cards were left on the dusty ground. I hurriedly picked them up, but the inspector did not even say sorry to me. I was shocked to see the carelessness and indifferent attitude of the police. I remembered the hospitality shown by the adivasis towards us. Whenever we entered the villages they laid the khatias for us to sit and offered some water to us. Those who have no food to eat have a great sense of humanity. Suddenly four jawans encircled all of us with guns in their hands. I could not understand what wrong we had done, we had no arms! Then the inspector came to me and said, “Today the Maoists have a programme there. I cannot let you go. Go back.”
I was shocked again. I replied, “Programme! Are you asking me to believe that the Maoists have declared that they have a programme here today? I have never heard that Maoists organise any programme which is declared beforehand. Then why are you not going there?” But he said if anything wrong happened to us, he would remain answerable to the higher authority. I became speechless when he uttered his next words. He said, “Why do students from Jadavpur University always come here and want to go to these places?” I said, “See sir, I am a UGC Junior Research Fellow of Jadavpur University and presently pursuing PhD on tribal women of India. I have come here for field survey. I have permission letters with me signed by the Head of the Department of History, Principal Secretary of Faculty of Arts and the Deputy Finance Officer of the university. Then why are you detaining me?” He kept on saying, “Few days before two women came from Jadavpur University and went there. They started gossiping with them and did not return. You may also start gossiping with them. Is there any guarantee that you will come back?” I was surprised by his worthless speculations. I tried hard to make him understand and said, “I do not know who came here before me. I have nothing to do with them. I am only to talk to the adivasi women. I want to collect information on starvation deaths. That is all. You keep my identity cards with you and return them on my way back.” He remained unmoved by my proposal.
Then I found a passenger bus was approaching us. I requested to the inspector and said, “Why don’t you stop the bus from going to Amlasole? You said there is danger!” I pleaded, “Look, I have come a long way from Kolkata and I have to complete my work today. I have to go to Amlasole. As far as I know there is no Maoist activity in Amlasole. I will travel alone by this bus.” He then said “I can give you permission but there are other check-posts, they will stop you again.” “But there were no police in the check-posts that we had crossed, you are stopping us at the police station”, I replied. But all my efforts went in vain. He did not pay heed to my request. I was clearly realising that the inspector was suspecting me of being a ‘Maoist sympathiser’ only because I was a student of Jadavpur University. It was irritating. I asked him, “If I were a student of Calcutta University or Vidyasagar University then you surely won’t stop me to go?” He then told me to talk to the SP of Jhargram; if he gave us permission then we could go ahead. I did not have the SP’s phone number; the inspector gave it to me.
I called the SP of Jhargram and clarified my purpose of coming. He wanted to know with whom I came there. I explained everything to him. He asked me, “Why did not you inform at the local police station about your visit to the district?” I said, “My purpose is to talk to the local adivasi people about their everyday life. Why will I go to the police first?” He snubbed me by saying “This is a Maoist-affected area, do you know that? You should stop the car when you are passing by a police station.” I said, “I was not conversant with these official details. I am a mere researcher.” Then he asked me “Do you have any problem if I send my forces with you?” I replied “No, I have no problem.” He said, “Then let me see whether forces are available or not.”
Mangalda told me that if I take forces with me nobody would talk to me. The adivasis are so scared of the joint forces that they would run away at the sight of the approaching forces. If anybody talked to me he or she would hardly reveal the truth. They would think that I was a ‘pulisher lok’ (police informer). My purpose would not be served at all. I was in a big dilemma. I thought I should not bring forces to a peaceful village just for the sake of my field-work. It is completely unethical. But, I was later informed that no forces were available and I had to go back.
I was really disappointed because the police stopped me since I was a student of Jadavpur University. When I was doing my Masters in 2007 I, for the first time, was asked to fight in the student election. I agreed first but later withdrew from it because my family did not want me to fight in the election. But that was for the first time when I was getting indoctrinated in the wave of student politics. On 14th March, 2007 I walked in a silent procession held inside our campus in protest of the killing of peasants in Nandigram. Many students along with professors did take part in that procession. That helped me a lot in forming my political consciousness. When I was pursuing MPhil coursework in 2008, another mass movement stirred the state as well as the minds of our students and that was the historic Lalgarh Movement launched against the police misbehaviour with the innocent tribals and essentially against the ill-planned destructive development. Perhaps Lalgarh Movement did not achieve its goal, yet it contributed to a great extent to the political as well as the historical understanding of the society that Naxalbari Movement of 1970s once did. It also influenced the student politics, chiefly because of its inherent radicalism, sacrifice and brutal repression as if Naxalbari had returned again. I was never related to students’ politics as such, but I have had sympathy for the uprooted, deprived, repressed people who are struggling for survival. In fact, that made me question the logic of the mainstream history writing and I chose tribal women as my MPhil dissertation project where Lalgarh Movement was discussed in detail. Since then Joint Forces have been active in the entire Jangal Mahal region. It may be possible that some students from Jadavpur University went there and met the local tribals (for the police ‘Maoists’) as I did, but does it mean that our objectives are objectionable? Does that mean that we have to seek permission from the police to meet our own people? Is there any wrong in revealing the deplorable conditions of the starving tribals? Is it correct to say that all tribals are ‘Maoists’ or whoever is protesting is a ‘Maoist’? I was amazed!
It was 3 PM and I was very disappointed but determined too to visit some other villages. I asked the driver saheb if there was any short-cut to reach Amlasole through the jungle. Everybody laughed. I could not give up my hope. I remembered when I visited the tribal villages of Purulia and crossed the Purulia border to enter Jharkhand I walked more or less 8 KM inside Jangal Mahal and crossed water bodies as well. Then why not now! But there was no other way to reach Amlasole.
We arrived at our next place, Krishnapur village of Belpahari (Binpur-II block). The women of this village told us that they had not been provided BPL cards. Kalpana Murmu said if anybody falls ill he is taken to the Jhargram hospital which takes four hours to reach. Mayamani Murmu talked about bride-price which is still prevalent in tribal society. They all are the victims of malnutrition. Their only meal is sak-bhat (edible herbs or leaves and rice).
From Belpahari we moved towards Jamboni. Jamboni is one of the most beautiful places of this region. The forest of Jamboni is the biggest one. We arrived at the village called Kopatkanta (Jamboni block). Mainu Hansda expressed her dissatisfaction with the Rs. 2 per kg rice scheme. She said the amount was insufficient for a four-member family. She also talked about witch-craft. She said two years ago a boy died from some unknown disease. The people of the village suspected that it happened due to black magic, but no one was accused. Churamani Hansda said she had not been paid any old age pension, she was in her seventies. Basana Baske talked about the market rate of sal and kendu leaves. She said that they are paid only 50/60 rupees for per bundle (1000 leaves) leaves, whereas the actual rate is 70/90 rupees. When I wanted to know whether there is any attempt going on for raising awareness about family planning, Lakshmimoni Mandi replied, “Didimoni comes and talks about the use of bori.” I came to know that an Aganwadi worker comes to the village and talks about the use of contraceptives. But the women are not always convinced by her. They are still not fully aware of the need of a proper family planning. Nilmoni Soren bursts into anger and says, “All our houses were destroyed during the monsoon, and we have not even been provided with a mere tarpaulin.” Rangamoni Soren said, “Government is not worried about us. We have nothing, just look at our huts!”
I think the difficulties faced by the tribal women are because of three reasons.
First is deforestation that is going on in this area on a massive scale. The criminal nexus between the forest department officials and the timber mafias is exploiting the natural resources and this is denuding the status of the tribal women. It is not only increasing their workload, but also snatching away their source of cash income. The second reason is obviously the failure of the panchayats. The panchayats are not raising awareness of the tribal women to take part in the decision making process, or in the management of the forests. The women have no land in their names, nor any other assets. They are languishing in the state of utter poverty and malnutrition. No health scheme has so far been initiated in the interior tribal areas; the pregnant mothers are compelled to work upto the last month of their delivery. And this failure is a systematic failure, no doubt. The last reason is of course the ill-impacted development programmes. Starting from NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) to NRHM (National Rural Health Mission) corruptions and malfunction have become the rule of the day. I think these are the main reasons behind this vicious circle of poverty that are making the tribal women disempowered and thus pauperised.
We started at 5 PM from Jamboni for Midnapore town. Within half an hour darkness covered the entire region. Our car was running at 110 KM per hour, with its head lights on. It takes nearly two hours to reach the town. I heard a lot about this ‘prohibited war zone’, but have acquired no such experience. I was shocked by the deplorable behaviour of the inspector. After some time my brother got a call from his office, they said the inspector investigated about him. The police also called my mother asking for me. Perhaps they were inquiring whether the numbers were correct or not.
I was feeling sick. The food of the hotel did not suit me. I stopped the car twice and went out to vomit. I was so tired that I could not stand straight. We somehow reached the station and boarded the train.
It was 10.15 PM when I and my brother took a taxi from Howrah station. On the way we found Nandan on the one hand where International Film Festival was going on, and on the other the Eden Gardens where India and West Indies had a test match the next day. Everything was so pompous, so delightful, and so normal! My brother said, “Then it is like heaven for them!” I remained silent. We could do nothing but to nod in front of the grievances of the poor adivasi villagers. I was so helpless that I could not even enter their villages and came back empty handed. I remember when I hugged an adivasi woman she was so happy. I then realised that it is the sense of alienation that always keeps them aloof from us. This sense of alienation has been created by us, the educated elite people. And the government does not want us to go there to conceal their corruptions and misdeeds.
Before starting my research I came across a lot of literature on tribals. Some are written during the colonial period and some after decolonization. Colonial histories suffer from a clear bias of romanticizing the tribal societies and their womenfolk. Histories that were written in post-colonial times mainly deal with the colourful sides of the tribals, such as, songs and dances. It made me believe that the tribals have their own languages, festivals, the women wear ornaments, they practice pre-marital sex, and they are completely different from us. I also heard that the tribal women enjoy a greater autonomy than their non-tribal counterparts. But the notion broke down completely when I found that the tribals are gradually losing their languages due to the want of preservation at state and national levels; this can be called linguistic genocide. They are forced to adopt Bengali as the medium of instructions in the local schools. They cannot even manage time to celebrate many of their festivals due to the pressure of migration. The womenfolk are taking jobs in the unorganized sectors of the cities and are forced to live in the slum areas. The women cannot even dream that good food would be provided to them and for their little children. How will they buy ornaments while their children are provided with torn clothes? The forces of multiculturalism and the wave of upward mobility have made them lose their cultural traits and they are relegated to the status of mere housewives. This adoption of the role of caste women snatched away their autonomy because women’s subordination is the basis of the caste norms. This is nothing but ethnocide.
The next day when I was lying in bed with a severe illness, I found my strength of mind had not weakened at all. I thought I should attempt to go to Amlasole again. And Mangalda has told me that next time he will take me to Amlasole by bus and I am still hopeful for that ‘daring’ journey.
Debasree De is a Junior Research Fellow at Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata