Day One: Dantewada to Nakulnar, 19th June 2010
It is drizzling. We wait for it to stop. It doesn’t. Thanks to Vinod Tiwari, who had the foresight to arrange raincoats from Raipur, the rain does little to dampen our bodies- and more importantly, our spirits.
To me, the rain is symbolic: it marks both an end and a beginning.
1.2 Maha Bhumkal
In an age when it has become fashionable to celebrate Centenaries of all sorts, it is indeed sad that nobody seems to have noticed that it is now exactly 100 years since the Maha Bhumkal. Those of us who know something about ‘the Great Rebellion of 1910’ view it primarily as a tribal uprising against the Raj. It is a view enforced by Maoists.
In my opinion, such a viewpoint isn’t entirely accurate.
The leadership of Maha Bhumkal wasn’t restricted to tribals. At its core, lay an alliance between Lal Kalindra Singh, an uncle of Bastar’s King Rudrapratap Deo, and Gunda Dhur, a Dhruwa chieftain from Netanar whose name, even now, is the stuff of legend among Bastarias. Other leaders included Bachchuprasad Pandit (one journalist at Jagdalpur objected to the inclusion of this name, saying that there was no such person, until I showed him Standen’s Report on the Revolt), Mukundadeo Machmara and Murat Singh Bakshi- again, all non-tribals.
Kalars, Rauts, Maharas- communities living in forests alongside tribals, but for some idiotic reason have been classified as ‘OBCs’- also took part.
The rebels occupied Jagdalpur for 7 days. The British sent in forces from Raipur, Nagpur and Madras (Chennai) to brutally crush the Uprising. Thousands were killed, shot at point-blank range by maxim guns; tens of thousands were whipped; entire villages were burnt; the more notable leaders were all summarily tried and sent off to perish at the Central Jail at Raipur. It is a plight still lamented in the Bhumkal Geet, sung in Gondi.
When I said that 100 years later, there is a need for another Maha Bhumkal, I didn’t mean that the people of Bastar should all take up arms and rise against the state. What I was saying was simply this. The Maha Bhumkal of 1910 is unique in that it showed a remarkable unity of purpose at two distinct levels: one, between tribal and non-tribal residents of Bastar; and two, between the various tribes- Dhruwa, Maria, Halba, Abujhmaria and Muria, to name the more prominent ones- occupying different regions of Bastar. It is this Unity that needs to be revived.
In the debate on how the problems of Bastar should be tackled (Left Wing Extremism (LWE), included) we don’t seem to be listening to those who really matter: the Bastarias. What do they want?
As far as weapons are concerned, well, I believe we do need them- but not of the kind that are currently being deployed. Books and medicines, and footballs, are far more effective as arsenals than bullets and bombs- if our battle is for the Heart & Soul of Bastar, and not simply for its territory and resources. This, I believe, we have amply proven through our seven day padyatra through the violence-prone regions of South Bastar.
1.3 Bastar Satyagraha
I’ve said from the start that Bastar Satyagraha is non-political. That is essential for our survival. There are people belonging to different political parties- Congress, BJP, CPI and the militant CP (Maoist). All of them are equally concerned about what’s happening to Bastar. All of them want to do what’s best for Bastar. None should be excluded. That is precisely why our Movement must remain non-political.
Anyone can join us- as long as they believe in two things. First, that all People, irrespective of background or persuasion, are good. Secondly, that nobody will oppose any effort, howsoever small, to do good.
The first phase of Bastar Satyagraha- in which we walked on foot through the violence-prone areas for a week, carrying not guns but books, medicines and footballs- was an attempt to test this hypothesis. If we were wrong, then the possibility of our returning unhurt would be remote. That, however, was a risk we had to take.
People have asked me about the timing of Bastar Satyagraha: why now? To that I’ve only one answer: why not sooner?
The fact is we were wrong, terribly wrong. It’s no use pointing fingers at anyone. That would make things worse. Our Satyagraha, therefore, begins by accepting that we, all of us, were wrong. There is no doubt in my mind: if the situation in Bastar is to be salvaged, we must begin anew.
We must search for those issues where there is overall agreement; we must, at this stage anyway, avoid all such issues where there is dispute. That is absolutely essential if the Unity of Maha Bhumkal is to be revived.
1.4 Ma Danteswari Temple
The goddess Danteswari- in all probability, a tribal deity absorbed as early as 11th century A.D. into Hindu cosmogony as a divinity sprouting from the place where the teeth of the slain goddess Kali fell (the cult of shaktipeeth)- is the supreme deity of all Bastarias. Traditionally, the King’s legitimacy- and power- was derived from the fact that he was the chief pujari (priest) of the goddess, interceding on behalf of the people before her.
As late as the 1970s, hundreds of people would fling themselves before her annual procession from Dantewada to Jagdalpur (Bastar) during the Dusshera festival, to be crushed under her chariot’s wheels. (I’m told that it still takes great efforts on the part of the administration to prevent some of them from doing this.)
Modern clothes- pants & shirts- are not permitted before her. You have to be clad in nothing but a simple loincloth (dhoti) in order to come into her presence. Only a precious few are granted the privilege of seeing her feet- and they must, in any event, be prostrating at the time so as not to offend her.
We paid our respects to the goddess, and began our padyatra with a secular hymn: Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Ishwar Allah Tero Naam, Sabko Sanmati Do Bhagwan. (Raghupati Raghav, Raja Ram, Ishwar and Allah are all Your Names, Give Good Sense to All)
It was, I thought, most apt.
1.5 A Bit of Civil Disobedience
A day before we began our padyatra, I wrote a letter to the District Collector, Dantewada, informing her about our route. She wrote back saying that we were free to go provided we followed certain conditions: one, we could walk only on the Dantewada-Sukma highway and nowhere else; two, there was to be no loud music of any kind; three, we could walk only between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. everyday.
Naturally, we didn’t intend to subscribe to any of them. It was, after all, not our intention to examine the condition of the highway, to count the number of potholes in it. We wanted to go to places most plagued by violence- and listen to what the people there had to say.
In any case, 25 policemen- all of them young men like us- were deployed to accompany us. An ambulance followed. I don’t think there was anyone in it (besides the driver, of course).
1.6 Kumhar Ras: A Study in Development
At his house, I was told about the Indira Awas Yojana intended to provide housing to below poverty line (BPL) families. More than 175 such families were selected; 35 were paid the first installment, of Rs 15000. They began construction. Then, the money stopped. They were told that the Yojana had been cancelled; its funds had been diverted to “Salwa Judum”.
Kumhar Ras is a strange sight to behold: a village full of roofless houses.
Later, the villagers took us to see their lone source of drinking water. It is a 55 mm cemented hole, about 5 feet deep, dug into a field. It’s less than half full. They have to ration this water: every family is permitted only 1 matka (pot) a day. To bathe, they have to go to the other side of the highway, to the river Shankani.
They also took me to see the village pond, built at a cost of Rs 10,00,000. It is little more than a mud pit, with no water in it.
The road back to the highway- on paper, it is made of cement by the NMDC- is muddy.
1.7 Masenar: So close, and yet so far
At Masenar, we work out our modus operandi. We divide ourselves into three teams: one, to do the Survey (form enclosed); another, to distribute school kits (each comprising a notebook, pencil, sharpener, eraser and a ballpoint pen); and last but not the least, a team of doctors and medical students. Each team has a satyagrahi, who can speak one of the 9 different local languages spoken here (the lingua franca being Gondi and Halbi). This way, everyone knows what he is supposed to do the moment we reach a village.
The main village is barely a few hundred meters off the highway. Yet, villagers have to walk more than 10 kms to get to it. That is because a river, Shankani, runs in between. Long ago, in 2002-03, a bridge had been sanctioned. Nothing has been built. In the morning, we’re informed, it was possible for villagers to wade through the river, as the water was only neck-deep. Now, it’s way too deep, and the only way to get across is to swim. We were, I’m afraid, too tired for that.
Consequently, we find ourselves screaming across the river, to have a conversation with the hundreds who could not come.
1.8 Mangoes of Ganjenar
On the way, an incident takes place. We spot a tree loaded with ripe, juicy mangoes. It is on the front-yard of somebody’s house. We’re tired and famished. I suggest we ask the occupant of the house- an old lady- if it’s alright to pluck a few mangoes. We offer to pay. She begins to shout at the interpreter. I ask him why. He tells me that a contingent of policemen, who were walking ahead of us, had already taken the mangoes without asking her permission. She thought we were one of them.
It is dark by the time we get to Ganjenar. We stop by to have tea and biscuits at the lady sarpanch’s house. She offers me a mango- the biggest, juiciest one from her tree.
We reach Nakulnar by 11. In all, we’ve walked 27 kms. Our feet are tired; some of us have blisters; all our shoes are soaking wet from the rain. Villagers are waiting for us inside the school building, where we’re to spend the night. They sing “Jai Jogi, Jai Sitaram” to welcome me. I am asked to distribute school-kits to the children, which I do under considerable pain. Immediately afterwards, I pass out on the mattress.
Day Two: Nakulnar to Mokpal, 20th June 2010
2.1 Change of Plan
In the morning, we have a meeting of satyagrahis at Awadhesh Gautam’s house. Despite his young age (he’s 40), he is the backbone of the Congress in this region. Everybody agrees that the itinerary needs to be revised. There are two reasons for it: one, it’s easier to plan an itinerary when one is sitting in one’s office- and not walking. Two, we didn’t come here to run a marathon (which is mostly what we were doing on Day One) but to listen to people, to experience their lives. Accordingly, we decide to reduce our daily walking distance to less than 20 kms a day. Tonight, we decide to halt midway at Mokpal.
The policemen aren’t too happy with our decision. Mokpal, they tell us, is ‘very affected’. People have been- are being- killed. ‘They’ (the Maoists) control the region. I convey this to my fellow satyagrahis: it’s either staying the night in Maoist-Mokpal, or walking an extra 15 kms to get to Bhusaras (where they’ve a police camp).
Call us lazy, but all of us unanimously chose the former- more courageous, less tiring- option!
2.2 A Classroom at Mailawara
At Hitawar, we came across Lakmaram, a 40-year old man caught in an epileptic fit, lying on the roadside. Our medical team was quick to act.
At Mailawara, each of the 3 teams gets busy with their work. I decide to hang out with the students. We go to a classroom, where we distribute the school-kits.
I ask them if they know who the Father of the Nation is. A 12th class girl, who goes to school at Nakulnar, gives the correct answer (Mahatma Gandhi). I turn around, and ask them to identify Nandalal Bose’s sketch of the Mahatma printed on the back of our t-shirts. They all know the answer.
I ask them how many can speak Halbi: 60 hands shoot up; for Hindi, it’s 38 hands (only 22 say they can write it), and none for English.
Next, I give them a test. They are asked to take out their notebooks, sharpen their pencils, and write their names and class on the front page. I write 6 questions on the black board:
(a) Who is the Prime Minister of India?Only one boy answers all the questions correctly. He gets a prize of Rs 200. I ask him what he would do with the money. He says that he will buy books with it.
(b) What is the capital of Chhattisgarh?
(c) What is India’s national language?
(d) Who is the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh?
(e) Who is the chief goddess of Dantewada/Bastar?
f) What do you want to be when you grow up?
As far as the 6th question is concerned, 3 (2 girls and a boy) wanted to become doctors; 1 wanted to become an engineer; 48 wanted to be teachers; and when I asked them if anyone wanted to be a policeman, not one hand went up.
Before we leave Mailawara, the medical team informs me that they are out of medicines. Apparently, they had grossly underestimated the amount of medicines they would be requiring during the course of our 7-day padyatra.
They also tell us about malarial deaths in the village, something that the administration has been denying strongly. Piluram is the panchayat secretary, an employee of the government. His brother, Shriram, died just two days ago because of malaria. His nephew (Shriram’s son) also showed symptoms of advanced malaria as did his own two sons. They were all administered ‘radical treatment’ by our doctor satyagrahis.
2.3 Football at Mokpal
The moment we enter Mokpal, I decide to go with the Survey team to a hut. Three women are talking among themselves. Even before we can ask them anything, the eldest begins to say something. She looks very nervous. I ask the translator to tell me what she is saying. He tells me that she denies ever going to ‘a meeting’; that she doesn’t know anyone.
Our very sight- or at least the sight of policemen accompanying us- has automatically triggered off her defense mechanism. We’re, I realize, now really in the ‘affected zone’.
There is still sometime left before sunset. We decide to use the remaining sunlight to play football. Since we haven’t walked that much today, we’re not too tired. In any case, it’s World Cup time- and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t soak up some of the excitement.
Prize money of Rs 2000 is fixed for the winning team. Sameer Ahmad Babla (Bilaspur) captains the satyagrahis’ team; Ajay is captain of the Mokpal-11. The play is aggressive. At least one referee, Pankaj Singh, is shooed off the field. Most of the play is restricted to the left side of the field, where the ground is muddy. It’s on this side that the local team has a distinct advantage over the mostly city-bred satyagrahis- and it’s from this side that most goals are scored.
Everyone has turned up to watch- but mostly, to cheer the home team. They win 2-1. Joga got the Man of the Match prize from Jogi! To compensate Pankaj, Ajay invites him to a local engagement ceremony.
Day Three: Mokpal to Chingawaram, 21st June 2010
3.1 The Doctors’ Diagnosis
The medical team, led by Vivek Sharma, has arrived at a diagnosis. They say that most of the patients they’ve treated exhibit symptoms of water poisoning. Whatever it is they are drinking is making them prone to diseases like diarrhea and anemia. Also, many of them develop serious skin problems when they bathe. They have observed the same symptoms- diseases- everywhere we’ve gone. Would it be possible, they ask, to collect water samples and have them tested?
It is not possible for us to send the water samples for a detailed chemical analysis- to Raipur, Nagpur or Hyderabad, the three cities nearest to where we are where such tests are done. That would have to wait. Instead, we send them to the medical college at Jagdalpur, in the hope that the medical students there would be able to do a quick, preliminary analysis. The Report arrives the next afternoon.
The doctors are right. The iron levels in the water samples are 50 to 100 times higher than the level acceptable for human consumption. What could be causing this? The answer is shocking.
Bailadila has one of the richest reserves of iron ore in the country. It is less than 25 kms from where we are walking. The ore is mined and then it is washed. The water used to wash the ore is released into the two rivers, Shankani and Dankani that run almost parallel to each other, north and south of the Dantewada-Sukma highway. Their water is not blue, or even muddy; it is a very deep, dirty red; it recharges the (underground) water table through aquifers. People drink this water, from rivulets and holes dug in fields like the one we saw at Kumhar Ras.
There are no deep wells in the villages, where the water would have- at least in theory- less iron content. There are no check dams and no water treatment plants at Bailadila. I’m told that there is an outdated purification plant; it works, like everything else here, on paper. During the rains, water is released directly into the rivers.
It’s one thing to turn a blind eye to the health problems of Bastarias; it’s another thing altogether to poison them intentionally. That is definitely criminal.
3.2 Lal Salam at Bhusaras
We’re entering Communist territory. Although I’ve kept saying that the Satyagraha is non-political, the fact is that so far most persons involved in its organization were Congressmen: it is they who kept the people of Koakunda Block informed of our arrival, and of our intentions. But now, we’re deep in Katekalyan, a Communist stronghold. The walls are painted red with “JOIN AISF”. There is no sign of any other party. I am apprehensive about whether we would get to meet any people at all.
It turns out that my apprehensions are unjustified: Chaman Kunjam has come to welcome me at Bhusaras along with hundreds of villagers. He is the local Communist party chief; he has also been recently elected Katekalyan BDC (Block Development Council) president. Like most educated tribals here, he schooled at the Mission School at Gangaloor, some 100 kms away. Every Monday, he would get up at 4 am, walk to Dantewada, get there by 9 and catch the 10 ’o clock bus to Gangaloor.
It is no longer possible for people- even tribals- to do so now. There is a ghat on the way, a steep climb down if you’re coming from Dantewada (thankfully). This is where the Maoist-guerillas have occupied all the strategic, hilltop positions; ready to take potshots at anyone they wish. When we were climbing down this ghat, policemen were lined up on either side. We were, however, more interested in the trees, which act like little dhabas along our journey: when we are tired, we stop at a tree, throw a branch at it, and- voila!- down come pouring the juiciest jamuns, kosums, chhinds (a variety of date) and mangoes we’ve ever tasted.
The three teams get busy with their work. Scabies are prevalent. But the children appear far more educated here. (Maybe, it’s the Communist influence!) Chaman asks me to address the crowd. I agree on the condition that he translates. I ask them what would they rather do with Rs 200,000: buy an AK-47 or dig 10 wells? They choose wells. How about Rs 75,00,000: would they rather get themselves a fancy anti-landmine vehicle or build 5 decent health care centers? They choose health care. From here on, all the way up to Sukma, I ask the same questions again and again- and I keep getting the same answers.
3.3 Schools for CRPF
At Chintagufa, we are told by Mahadev Markam, a tribal leader, that the girl’s school has been occupied by CRPF. It is the same story in Gendpalli, near Gadiras, where the school was closed to make way to house the CRPF. The Maoists, when they learnt of the plan, blew up the school building. When I ventured to ask what the students of these schools were doing, nobody seemed to know. It was as if they had quite simply disappeared.
Gendpalli- and several other villages like it- have neither students nor soldiers.
3.4 Chingawaram: Gathering the bits and pieces
Chaman is worried: he doesn’t think it is safe for us to spend the night at Chingawaram. Less than a month ago, Maoists had blown a bus here: 24 policemen sitting on the bus’ roof and 7 civilian passengers, most of them belonging to neighboring villages, were killed. Many others, including women and children, were injured. To add to our woes, Chingawaram had remained without electricity for the past 29 days: our arrival would mark the monthly anniversary of the blackout. But once again, the quest for comfort paves the way for courage!
The rain has stopped. It had been quite humid all day today, and our shirts are drenched in sweat. But now a cool wind is blowing. We can see the silvery moon. All of us decide to sleep outside in the school courtyard, and wake up at the break of dawn, thoroughly refreshed.
Day Four: Chingawaram to Korra, 22nd June 2010
4.1 Sabko Sanmati De Bhagwan
Early morning, we visit the site of the Blast. It is less than 400 meters away from Chingawaram, just beyond the place where a bridge ends. The Maoists dug up the highway and concealed a mine underneath. (They do so everywhere, to mark the ‘Jan-Pituri’ week.) Then, they waited patiently by the village pond, less than 30 meters away, and when the bus came at 5 am someone pressed the trigger. The bus flew 10 meters up in the air, and came tumbling down.
All its contents- shredded clothes, blanket, utensils, mobile phone cover, audiocassette, broken bangles, crashed headlights- were thrown out on either side of the highway. One month later, they still lay there, unattended, gathering rust. It was almost as if the Blast had taken place yesterday.
We gathered these items, wrapped them inside a blanket, sang “Raghupati Raghav”, observed a two-minute silence and immersed the bundle in the adjoining stream. There was some debate about how best to dispose these remains, and the local villagers- Sarpanch Hungaram included- felt that the proper way was immersion.
4.2 Edpal: Meeting with Rahul
To put it mildly, the police aren’t happy about our choice of Gurli. In any event, they cannot let us go to Gurli on the route the villagers propose to take us by. It is, no doubt, a shortcut: a dirt track through the forests. But it is also extremely risky. Just last night, the ASP tells me, Ganesh Uike, the top Maoist leader in Chhattisgarh, and Vinod, their local head, have been spotted in the vicinity. They are moving around with a 2000-strong armed contingent of the military dalam. He says that there simply isn’t enough ‘force’ to provide us security in that area.
I tell him that if that were the case, then it would be best if we went with the villagers, and without any ‘force’. It was, I felt, time to put our hypothesis to the test: can books and medicines- and good intentions- really be a better defense against brute violence than bombs and bullets? Accordingly, we decide not to put the jawans’- and our- lives at risk: of 25, only 4 would accompany us. The two senior officers, on from the district force and the other from the CRPF, would also come along, but in civilian clothes. The rest would travel in the ambulance and meet us directly at Dodpal. Sameer & Monty would march in the front; Vinod & Vibhash would take the back, to ensure that no one got left behind.
And so, with this novel arrangement in place- policemen acting the part of satyagrahis and satyagrahis doing a little policing- we left for Gurli, happily interspersing Raghupati Raghav…with slogans in Halbi and Gondi: “Bhiru var atra, var atra/ school taga pade vaaynaad var atra” (come one, come all, come to school to study) and “Er Gufa Bhoom, Id Gule Miyad” (water, forest and land, all belong to you).
Just before reaching Edpal, we decided to rest under the cool shade of a gigantic tamarind tree. Two boys came bicycling along. We stop them for a little chat. One of them answers me in English. When we discover his name, we applaud: suddenly our spirits are lifted. He is called Rahul. Like Chaman, he too goes to the Mission school at Gangaloor.
We also meet an old man. He is carrying something wrapped in a leaf. He shows it to us: they are gonghi (snails), his lunch. I ask him, through the translator, whether he would be willing to barter two of his gonghi for two of our toffees. After some thought, he agrees. While the exchange is going on, the cameras flash. I can see that it scares him.
On the way, Anand Pawar points out to the novel drainage system in use in the fields. Logs of teak have been hollowed from inside, to be used as drain pipes. Teak is also used as fencing in many of the homes. Anand says he would very happily exchange the pipes and the fences with proper cemented ones! Apparently, snails are not the only things that can be bartered!
As we approach Edpal, we see a school building. The ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ logo is painted on its wall in bright yellow: two girls riding a pencil. For a moment, we feel Hope. Then, when we get closer, we smell dung and urine. The school’s verandah is being used as a cattle shed. Its two unlocked classrooms are full of cobwebs.
Outside on a pavement, a few children, all under 3 years, are sitting having their mid-day meal. It consists only of parboiled, broken rice- no dal (lentils), no sabji (vegetable). We finally begin to understand why Kwashiorkor, a form of what doctors call PEM or Protein Energy Malnutrition, is so prevalent among the children here. They simply don’t get any protein in their diet. When we approach the children, they begin to cry- one after the other. I think it best to leave them at peace.
We also see smoke rising from a hut. Inside, they are making landha (a popular local beverage).
The entire village has turned up to greet us. There is no dance troupe; they are all dancing and singing. We too join in. We are taken in procession to the Devgudi, to seek the blessings of the village deity. Outside, they’ve tied a goat. A wood fire is burning nearby. Preparations are on to prepare our lunch. Although we’re getting late, it would be considered very rude if we left without eating anything.
So, we decide to pass time and play football with the Gurli-11. Hitendra, a young man who attends second-year college at Sukma, some 21 kms away, is the captain. He is possibly the best footballer I’ve seen in Chhattisgarh. Sandeep Sahu says its Raipur’s turn to captain the team. He has the ball, but Hitendra dribbles it away from him, and comes out from between his legs to score the first goal. Not to be undone, Sandeep jumps, and hurts his leg. We suspect a fracture. He is sent off injured to Sukma.
At the hospital in Sukma, it takes two hours to find the technician, and after four rather prolonged exposures, an X-ray is finally obtained. (Sandeep is more worried about the radiation than his legs.) When they show it to the Block Medical Officer (BMO), he looks quizzically at Sandeep: he is an Ayurvedic doctor, like the Hon’ble Chief Minister, and doesn’t have a clue what the X-ray shows.
Meanwhile, at Gurli, the satyagrahis have lost. It has been a crushing defeat: 3-0. They are in agreement that this is the last match they’re going to be playing.
By the time we return, the medical team looks horrified. Malnutrition is rampant, especially among women and children. All the infants are under the 2 kg weight. Most of them die anyway during birth. From what they’ve been told, infant mortality rates are extremely high. But that’s not it. While they were seeing patients, one of them said: “I am from the Movement” in English. They didn’t have to ask which Movement. Like so many others, he too had some kind of skin disease.
The villagers had all gathered. The elders told me that they wanted to listen to me. Harish Lakma, the young BDC president of Sukma, translated for me. I asked the same questions- and got the same replies.
After a sumptuous- if somewhat unconventional- lunch comprising of burnt rather than skinned goat cooked in its own fat, we decided to move on to Dodpal, our next stop. Once again, the entire village joined hands in a farewell dance to see us off.
4.4 Wedding at Tongras
Girish, our local guide for this part of the padyatra, hails from Dodpal. He told us that it is “just 3 kms away from Gurli”. What he didn’t tell us was that 3 kms, in his language, translates into 10 kms in ours! Midway, we came to Tongras. Everybody, especially the ladies, were all decked up in their finest clothes and ornaments. The entire village had been invited to a ‘Kharcha’.
It’s quite a novel concept- and would greatly please feminists (if not the men). When a boy marries a girl, it’s not the girl’s family who pays the dowry. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The boy has to pay the girl’s family, and the entire money is spent partying. We too were invited to attend. A pot of landha was placed before us, and some of the more adventurous satyagrahis had a sip or two; a fattened pig was also slaughtered. But this time around, we didn’t stay for dinner.
The only road to Dodpal to Gurli exists on paper. The first and the last 2½ kms have been built under PMGSY, while the in-between 3 kms was built under NREGA. It has been, for lack of a better explanation, stolen. We simply had no option but to follow Girish across the fields and through the forest. Then, after some 6 kms, the land ended. There was a river, and we had to swim across it. And so, we emerged on the other side.
It was late. Most of the villagers in Dodpal belong to the Mahara community. For some reason, they have not been incorporated in the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST) even though they live in the forests, and depend on it for their livelihood. The same grievance prevails among the Kalars and Rauts. Their children cannot go and study in tribal hostels; they get no benefit of reservation, and have to compete with children from cities on equal footing. Consequently, they aren’t selected for government jobs, which go to outsiders, who never come & join. Everywhere, they told us that they want to be included in the ST list.
We also met Malti Bai. She and her 2 small boys were on the bus when it blew up at Chingawaram. Her face is slightly battered, and she has plaster on her hand. She says that she was taken to the hospital at Jagdalpur, and left there for days. The villagers had to pool in money to go and bring her home. She- and many others like her- are yet to receive any compensation. They’ve been, for all practical purposes, forgotten.
We arrive at Korra. Again, the villagers have put an entire goat on a pit, where it is being grilled. They ask me to pose for a photograph with them; some of my fellow satyagrahis object to this. Satyagraha after all, they say, is against violence of any kind, including against animals. They are also worried about offending the popular sensibilities.
I disagree with them. Eating what the villagers have to offer us, out of love and affection, cannot be wrong. They do not force us to eat anything: whether one eats it or not, I believe, should be a matter of personal choice. I chose to eat with them; there were several others, like Monty, who didn’t. To me, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. What is wrong, however, is trying to impose our choices- and value judgments- on others.
Here, the attitude of the policemen underwent a noticeable change. Up until now, they didn’t sleep a wink: they would stand alert atop rooftops and on the boundary walls, with weapons ready to fire at anything that stirred. But after our safe return from Gurli, they were the first to hit the mattresses- and the last ones to get up!
At some unconscious level, both- satyagrahis and policemen- realized that our roles had been reversed: the satyagrahis were now protecting the policemen.
Day Five: Korra to Sona Kukanar, 23rd June 2010
5.1 An Amputation
In the morning, Vivek brings a boy. His right arm is a strange shade of yellow. He had a minor cut some months ago, working in his field; in the absence of timely medical care, it has become malignant. The only solution, the doctors tell me, is amputation of his entire arm. Otherwise, they say, the malignancy will spread across his entire body. We give his brother some money, to take him to Jagdalpur, along with a referral letter.
5.2 The Thakurs of Gadiras (& Nakulnar)
Gadiras and Nakulnar are the two main villages on the Dantewada-Sukma highway. Both have government-run high schools, teaching up to 12th class. They also have RSS-run Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, where better-placed people send their children to study. Neither village has a college. Depending of where your village is, you would send your children either to Gadiras or Nakulnar for their higher secondary schooling, and then onto either Sukma or Dantewada for college.
In any case, your child will have to travel tens of kilometers everyday to gain access to higher education. If he is a tribal, he has a chance of getting accommodation at the government-run hostel. If you have a daughter, then she would probably have to journey to and fro everyday to go to college at Sukma- where there is no hostel for girls. If you are a tribal, the government would give your daughter a bicycle once she passes her 9th standard exam- but as we discovered in our interaction with the Anganwari workers of Gadiras, this gift would be made only on paper.
Another point that needs to be noted about these two villages is the role played by Thakurs. The Thakurs of Nakulnar are mostly from Uttar Pradesh whereas the Gadiras Thakurs hail from Madhya Pradesh. They are influential, both politically and economically. It is precisely because of their influence that these two villages have developed as the twin-islands of relative prosperity. It would be difficult for officials and contractors to get away with their peculiar kind of ‘Paper Governance’ here. They give voice to those who cannot speak. And for this reason, everyone respects them.
But even the influence of the Thakurs doesn’t ensure them a proper, MBBS doctor. For that, people have to travel to Bhadrachalam in Andhra Pradesh. And only very few here can afford to do that.
5.3 A Bullock Trader from Nagaras
Nagaras is the home of the local MLA, Kawasi Lakma. He used to be a bullock-trader, who would walk 250 kms from Bijapur to Rajamundhry selling bulls. This way, he came to know everybody and everybody came to know him. He speaks no less than 9 different languages, including Telugu, Telgi, Dhruwa, Halbi, Gondi and Hindi- but he cannot read or write.
During my last visit to this constituency- in 2002- he handed me some applications to give to my father. When I showed one such application to him, and asked what was written in it, he knew exactly what it was. To humor him a little, I told him that that application isn’t what he said it was. He took it from me, gave it one hard look, and reiterated emphatically that the application said exactly what he said it to say. Of course, he was right. I asked him how he could be so sure. He simply smiled. Even now, he has his PA read to him all the newspapers, and he can then recite what is printed backwards, all from memory. In many ways, he reminds me of Akbar the Great, another brilliant administrator who couldn’t read or write.
Not surprisingly then, he is now the longest-serving MLA of the entire Bastar Division; and the only one to have won from Congress.
5.4 Raut Dancers of Kalarpara
The road has once again disappeared as we approach Kalarpara. It is a small basti, comprising about 30 houses. Here, we’re welcomed with a refreshing selection of wild fruits- kosum, dried tendu (which tastes like fig, only less sweet), mangoes and jamuns. Afterwards, we (satyagrahis) are invited to join hands to form an outer circle enclosing a circle of Raut women-dancers: we follow their steps as their circle contracts and expands to the rhythms of the music. It is, to say the least, exhilarating.
5.5 Gotul at Sona Kukanar
The name Sona Kukanar is not without significance: Sona is the name of the local deity; Kumars (Ku) and Kalars (Ka) are the two main communities living in this village (Nar). The nearby hills, I’m told, are rich in corundum and also, gold. It is late by the time we reach here, but the villagers are waiting for us. I make a small speech, ask the same questions- and get the same answers.
Afterwards, when I am shaking hands with the youngsters, who have been listening to me standing at the back, a young man, about 18 years old, slips a piece of paper into my hands. I want to read it, but he tells me to do so later. It is a moving letter: it urges me to do something for his village- boring a well, it says, would help immensely in getting them water; telling the teachers not to take money from poor students for admitting them into the hostel at Gadiras would be another step in making life easier for them. It ends with an apology- because he suspects that these demands might be too extravagant.
The medical team works late into the night. Then, when they’re done, the villagers come to take us to ‘Gotul’, organized especially to celebrate our coming. I dance a little and then retire; some of my fellow-satyagrahis, blessed with more stamina than me, continue to dance with them well into the early hours of the morning. I later learn that it rained that night. But that didn’t stop the singing & dancing.
Day Six: Sona Kukanar to Murtonda, 24th June 2010
6.1 Farming at Kamtiguda
Monsoons have broken, and Bastarias all over are busy leveling their fields, preparing them for sowing. Once ready, they will sow rice seeds (as opposed to transplanting saplings, which requires a constant source of standing water). Their tools are primitive, much as our ancestors would have used in Neolithic times. Everybody in the village helps each other out with this task; there is no concept of hiring agricultural labor to do the work. We decide to help.
Today, the villagers of Kamtiguda are going to prepare Maniram’s field. It is a fairly small patch. Besides leveling and tilling, its boundaries (med) also require mending. It is essential if the water is to remain standing, to allow the seeds to sprout. We divide ourselves- and Maniram’s field- into 4 parts, with each team in-charge of leveling, tilling and mending one such part. Maniram instructs us about what is to be done, and how. Afterwards, he will decide which team has done the best work.
For two hours, the satyagrahis toil. We take out earth from the raised portions of the field. It is carried in cane-baskets to mend the boundaries. Then, the Nagars (wooden plough) are brought. The bullocks, for the present, are indisposed. Till they come, it is left to some of our more able-bodied satyagrahis to play the role of bullocks. Tilling doesn’t take long once we get the knack of it. The ‘bulls’ at the head of the Nagar run the length of the field while the ‘tiller’ presses the plow at the back tightly into the ground, opening the moist earth. All the villagers have come to watch us work. Most of them seem very amused.
As far as the Prize for Best Work is concerned, well, Maniram has turned out to be quite the diplomat. He says all the 4 teams have done equally good work!
6.2 A School & a Hospital
After washing our hands & feet off the mud, the villagers of Kamtiguda take us to see their school. It is a hut, made of chhind leaves and bamboo. A rusty Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan board mocks at us. Behind it, they say, is the school building. I can’t see it straight away: a thicket of bushes conceals it. It comprises of un-plastered brick walls- that’s it. It has no roof, no doors and no windows. The building, they tell me, was ‘completed’ in 2007.
I am not surprised. At our last stop, at Atkariras, we had gone to see the hospital. Like the school at Kamtiguda, the hospital at Atkariras is a structure of un-plastered brick walls, with no roof, no doors, no windows, no medicines and no health care workers or doctors. On Paper, it too was ‘completed’ in 2007; and on Paper, ‘medicines’ are being given out from this ‘hospital’ by a team of ‘healthcare workers’ everyday. They’ve documentary records to show for it- and documents, as we all know, don’t lie.
6.3 Meeting at Murtonda
From Kamtiguda, we’re supposed to go to Nilavaram. Bhima, the local chief, had come all the way to Sona Kukanar last night to invite us. Certain constructions- an ashram and a bridge- had been done here during my father’s tenure as chief minister; and he was quite keen that I come and inaugurate them on Papa’s behalf. I had agreed. But I get word now that the villagers wouldn’t like it if I came with the policemen, more so if they spend the night with us. I politely tell them that I can’t possibly tell the policemen what to do- and what not to. It would mean getting into controversy- the one thing I am very keen our Satyagraha should avoid at this very early stage. Finally, it is decided that we would all go to Nilavaram by car the following evening, after concluding our Padyatra at Sukma. (It is a promise we keep.)
And so, we’ve come to the end of the first phase of our padyatra. From Murtonda, it is less than 4 kms to Sukma, our last stop. Although all of us have walked, eaten, slept and lived together like a family for the past 6 days & nights, Babla points out that we haven’t been formally introduced to each other. I, therefore, request everyone to tell their name, address and phone number one by one, and then answer any other question others might have from them. Vivek, from the medical team, is grilled the most followed by Sandeep Sahu.
Day Seven: Murtonda to Sukma, 25th June 2010
7.1 The Circle is Complete
Ayub was the first to bring this to my notice: he said that there simply weren’t any youth left in the villages. Wherever we went, we were struck by this near-total absence of youth. I asked Manish Kunjam, the tallest Communist leader of Bastar who came to meet me early in the morning at Murtonda in his jogging-shorts, why this was so. He told me that he had just returned from Hyderabad. At the zoo there, where he had taken his children, he was shocked to see that all the laborers were from Bastar.
In the absence of opportunities- for a decent education, a job- the youth have simply left Bastar. If they stay back, the police think they’re ‘Naxalite-sympathizers’ and beat and torture them, whereas the Naxalites kill them for being ‘police-informers’. And so, they have crossed the border into Andhra Pradesh to work as manual laborers (kulibuta); thousands of others have joined the Maoists. The Maoists, they say, at least give them an education and two square meals a day, which is more than what the government does. Even more importantly, they- the Maoists- give them a Purpose, something to fight for.
Before we leave Murtonda, I thank every satyagrahi. We’ve walked together for the past 7 days- and it is my earnest hope that we will continue to do so for the rest of our lives. I also request them that when they return to their homes, they must tell the people there exactly what they’ve seen, heard, done and felt. That is the message of our padyatra.
Afterwards I thank the policemen also. They tell me what a good job we’re doing; they ask me to continue doing it. They also tell me that they joined the police force, they didn’t sign up for the military.
Thousands of Bastarias have come to greet us at the conclusion of our padyatra. There are dancers from all tribes, even one from Andhra Pradesh!
Before we enter Sukma, we stop by a widow’s house just outside the township. She lives with her three children, two boys and a girl. Last year, the police took her husband in for questioning; in the evening, while she was preparing dinner, somebody dumped his body at the door. The police, she says, told her to keep quiet. They promised her compensation- due to a victim of Naxalite violence. But she didn’t. To date, she hasn’t got one paisa.
In my speech, translated into Gondi by Bichem Podhi, a brilliant young advocate, I narrate to them what I’ve seen- and felt.
I tell them that the people of Bastar are afraid- and if this fear is to be conquered, then we must win their faith. And bombs and bullets are not the best way to win people’s faith. Neither is uprooting them forcefully from their villages and herding them like cattle into makeshift roadside camps, where we have time and again failed to protect their lives. Once again, I ask the same questions- and get the same answers.
I tell them that we must begin- by doing small, concrete things that everybody agrees should be done- and which no one opposes. I identify three such things:
(a) Putting a roof on every school building and healthcare center
(b) Posting teachers and healthcare workers in every such building (and getting the armed forces out of them)
(c) Stop poisoning their water supply at Bailadila
The way things are, I believe that we have no moral basis whatsoever for continuing our government in the aforementioned regions of Bastar: not only do we poison them, we fail to provide them with even the most basic opportunities for decent education and health. Their young have nowhere to go- but to die here quietly. That is a fate they are not willing to accept. Militancy is merely a symptom of their rising disquiet. To contain violence- of every kind- we must attack not its symptoms, but cure its causes. Give the Bastarias what they want- which, in any case, is not much- and all the other problems will go away.
Brute force- bombs & bullets- can be an option only if our fight is for the territories and resources of Bastar- not the hearts and souls of Bastarias. Then, we would be no different from the imperialists our founding fathers gave their lives to overthrow- not by the force of arms, but through the Force of Truth that showed them the error of their unjust ways.
We’ve to pause for a while to decide what it is we’re fighting for. And we’ve to stop deciding what is good- or bad- for Bastar. That task must be left to the People of Bastar. And that, is the whole point of our Bastar Satyagraha.
What the Bastarias want is the preservation of their Right to Life, guaranteed to every citizen of India under Article 21 of our Constitution. The Supreme Court has understood that Right to incorporate the Right to Education, Clean Air and Water, Equal Opportunity and Dignity of Life, among other things. For now, Bastarias will settle if their Right to Life simply meant their Right Not To Get Killed- not only by bombs and bullets, but by a near-total absence of health services and poisonous water, which is the far greater, if somewhat silent, Killer.