Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Tribal Gandhi of Dantewada

Himanshu Kumar is no Gandhi. Yet, he has Gandhian aspirations to the extreme. While Gandhi wanted to bring independence for the nation, Himanshu wants to bring peace and justice to the millions of tribals across the nation. By a quirk of fate, the place he chose for his ashram, Dantewada, 17 years back, is today at the heart of conflict. Maybe it was destiny that a man who shares his birthday with Swami Vivekananda and follows Mahatma Gandhi, both of who wanted the rest of the world to see the poverty rampant in the nation and to work towards eliminating it, were to get acquainted with the people, the territory, the culture and the language, so that when the time came, he would stand up for them, when no one else would. Become their voice, when theirs would be silenced with naked terror.
Himanshuji Making Thread On His Charkha Under A Tree Outside His Home Today (26 Dec 09)

Yet, even by a large stretch of imagination, it does not seem to me that his notion of justice could be achieved in a world increasingly hostile to tribals and their beautiful way of life. Then I wonder, if I had met Gandhi while he was still Mohandas and not Mahatma, wouldn’t I have felt the same about a man ready to take on the most powerful empire on the planet armed with a charkha, ideologies of truth and non-violence, and a frail lean body that could be blown with the wind? And wouldn’t I have had to eat my own words on August 15, 1947?

Yet, I doubt. For the odds seem impossibly stacked against Himanshu Kumar. The government of the ‘largest’ (and one of the most corrupt, inefficient and iniquitous) democracies of the world hates him because it want the minerals that tribals live over, so that the GDP can show a rise of a few points. And Himanshu asks them not to do so. The state sponsored militia ‘Salwa Judum’ wants him dead because he is exposing the thousands of murders, rapes and abductions they have committed in the last 5 years of their existence in the name of fighting Maoists and Naxalites. The police hate him because they were hand-in-glove with the Salwa Judum SPOs (Special Police Officers). The politicians, who will get their share of the mineral profit, can’t wait to get started if only this stubborn man were not standing before them asking them to be fair. The Naxalites have attacked him because he’s a ‘bloody’ Gandhian who talks of peace and non-violence even at terrible state crimes. The intellectuals have not aligned themselves to the Adivasi cause as they had to the peasants cause during the times of Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and the Naxalbari uprising. Aspiring and established politicians are wary of what Himanshu attempts to expose as it has nothing to offer them since even the votes are scattered all over the place (the Adivasis have a literally spaced out existence). The bulging middle class of India ‘shining’, the ones who fantasize about Che Guevera or Netaji Bose, are content fantasizing. After all, fantasy of revolution is a complete package minus the trouble of disappointment, which the TV generation of today can’t afford to waste time on.
 Samsetti is Beautiful Enough to Build a Resort
Worst of all, the tribals are themselves not too keen on justice, as I was witness to yesterday, after they were threatened repeatedly.

Yet, here stands this man who heeded Gandhi’s call (his father has been associated with both Gandhi and Vinoba) to go to villages and work, and 17 years ago, camped in the district of Dantewada in the middle of a Chhattisgarh jungle and built a place for their awareness as citizens of the nation, aptly called ‘Vanvasi Chetna Ashram’ (VCA). Yet, this May, over a thousand armed men and women (police, army, Salwa Judum), came and demolished this place, legal papers in hand (even after the Gram Sabha had given them the land). Today, at his residence, the books inside the cupboards lie disheveled ever since that day, because their keys were lost in the melee of destruction and there is no keymaker in Dantewada.

Yesterday when we were casually chatting with him, he said with his characteristic smile, “The government expected me to bow to their pressure tactics. But now that I’m not scared, they are running scared.”

Despite the odds, there must be something about a man who really, really, really angers everyone, right from a local politician to the Home Minister of the country and heads of many billion-dollar companies across the world. Why would they stop him when he goes for a padyatra (foot march) to the jungles? Or deny him permission to do a satyagrah (a peaceful protest)? Or have 50 odd Salwa Judum supporters shout slogans against him outside his home, threatening his life? Why would the landlord of the house where he says today, plead him to vacate saying it’s the question of his life? Why would the lodge where he had given the advance to book rooms for people who’d be coming for his satyagrah, return the advance stating that he had received orders from the collector’s office? Why would a group of 34 women and 5 men coming to join him during his satyagrah, be stopped many times en-route their journey for flimsy reasons and finally be prevented from going to Dantewada? Why would news be splashed across a channel (CNN-IBN) stating that the roads to Dantewada from Raipur were blocked even when I passed through and reached Dantewada before time? Why would only those that lied and stayed below the radar like me reach the place a day before he begins fasting? Why should he have to resort to a private fast, instead of a public one, which he began in solidarity with the tribals today, and do so without making any demands? Why would a page full of negative writing against him suddenly appear today, in a local paper?

A Malnutritioned Kid In Samsetti Village. "We are living in chronic famine," says Dr. Binayak Sen

His tactics are completely Gandhian and the reaction of the administration, expected. They have hoped something would work: destroying his ashram, arrest of his most important volunteer Kopa Kunjum on false charges, beating of a lawyer who worked with him, bad press, Salwa Judum threatening to kill him right outside his home, preventing him from doing anything he wants to do… the list goes on. Nothing has. And, he cannot be ignored either for his very existence, like Gandhi’s, pricks at the conscience of all of us enjoying the India shining, while mostly it is actually India dying. The difference between the haves and haves-not is increasing and the only reason bits of India seem to shine is because the number of ‘haves’ has increased considerably. Sadly, so has that of the ‘haves-not’, and at a much greater pace and in much larger numbers.

Dr Binayak Sen, another man who raised his voice peacefully against the administration’s violence and was arrested and illegally detained for two years (something they might do to Himanshu any day, i.e., if they don’t kill him first), says, “Thirty three per cent of Indians are malnutritioned. The UN puts every nation that reaches a 40% malnutritioned population into indefinite emergency. We have had chronic malnutrition since decades now. What do we do about it?” He explains that in parts of the country, especially the tribal belt, malnutrition is often as high as 90% of the total population. Hence, when the ‘have’ part of India is told about the ‘have-not’ part of it, it pricks them and they react with disbelief and verbal violence without bothering ever to check it out.

I believed, yet I wanted to see for myself. And yesterday I saw, the whole cycle of terror and violence coming to fruition right before my disbelieving eyes.

The scenery just outside the village of Samsetti was so idyllic, the city dweller in me almost expected to bump into a resort. Instead, I got to see close to 100 men wearing army fatigues and armed with automatic rifles, march out of the village with a few men tied with ropes. The story begins a year and a half back, when the Salwa Judum, in one of their raids of the village, raped four women. Inspired by the confidence instilled in them by Himanshu and his VCA volunteers, the four women filed a case in the court against them, which the court has been pushing the dates for. Six days ago, these four women were forcibly taken from the village, kept in illegal detention for four days without food and told to put their thumb impression on blank sheets of paper. The entire village was threatened with extinction if they continued with the case. Four days later they were returned to the village.

Yesterday, when we were there, 100 kms from Dantewada, we saw 100 odd armed men come out of the village. Hence when we went in, the villagers hid the girls. For four hours, we talked to two of them, with the villagers, trying to convince them of taking the legal course. But the fear had so deeply been entrenched in them, that they refused. We returned empty-handed. The logic that now the Salwa Judum will not dare to burn the village (as they have done to many villages) because the case is in court, fell on fearful ears.

When asked about the purpose of his fast, Himanshu says, “I don’t have any purpose or any demands. I have wishes which the world knows. I am conducting a voluntary starvation for self-purification. They denied me a padyatra. They denied me a satyagrah. They are threatening me against conducting a jansunwai (public hearing). What can I do but fast silently? If I make a noise, they will deny me this as well.” He appeals to your morality when he says, “I am man with nothing in his hands – no power, no politics, no reach… nothing. And I want to prove the strength of an empty hand to the vast majority of the suffering people of this nation. Lakhs of people have put their trust in me. I promised that I will fight for them. And I will, till they kill me.”

He is indeed a helpless man, but not cheerless as he laughs at his own plight. He watches as the tribals he worked for so many years are raped and killed. He watches helplessly as his right-hand man Kopa Kunjum is arrested under false charges of murder and knows he cannot get him out for years now. He watches helplessly as many of his volunteers quit under pressure (Kopa had refused a job and a bribe of 25,000). He watches helplessly as the young firebrand lawyer who was beaten with Kopa, fled. Yet, he walks on, inspired as he is from one of his favourite songs, “Sunke teri pukaar, sang chalne ko koi ho na ho taiyaar, himmat na haar, chal chalaa chal, akelaa chal chalaa chal.” (Hearing your call, Whether anyone agrees to join, Don’t lose courage, Keep walking, Walk alone if you have to.)

The Town In-charge (a post equal to a Police Inspector in a city), came to see Himanshu and asked him what a satyagrah meant. After he left, Himanshu explained that the man perhaps wanted to hear him say he was conducting a satyagrah, for then he could arrest him as the state had denied him permission to do so. But he believes he would be arrested soon nonetheless. The man sees me writing something frantically in a piece of paper and I catch him checking me out from the corner of my eyes. He asks Himanshu about me. He expresses surprise that I am from Mumbai. Someone later tells me that he was surprised that anyone managed to sneak in. Another said, I was marked. For what? Imagine his surprise if he were told that two Mumbaikars, me and Priyanka, were fasting with him and that there were people in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai who were doing something similar in solidarity with Himanshu.

Can one man sitting under a tree, spinning his charkha making thread, not eating anything, in a village rarely anyone has heard (forget going there), aspire to be a Gandhi, to live by the Mahatma’s principle, and succeed? His guru did it. He ‘wishes’ he could. I don’t know whether he can. You tell me, can he?

Himanshuji on whey he's fasting and how:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar: Story of Tribals Through The Ages

Warning: Those reading this review to know ‘more’ about the film’s spectacular special effect, better visit a million other places that rave about it. This is about the story of ‘AVATAR’.

THIS IS ancient history: a human race reaches a particular place on the planet, settles down and over thousands of years builds a personal bond with nature, living in perfect harmony with them. Meanwhile, ideas of ‘civilisation’, ‘development’ and ‘technology’ take root in another part, and these ‘modern humans’ reach out to spread the same. They reach the ancient places that live in peace and quiet, call its residents – savages, and kill, rape and destroy what has been built over thousands of years and brand this annihilation - ‘reformation’, ‘religion’, ‘education’ etc. This has happened in North America since the doomed day when Columbus led a pack of murderers into the continent in 1492, and over 500 years almost wiped out their culture and tradition, flora and fauna… and yes, almost the entire race. This happened in South America, during the Spanish inquisition in the name of religion. In Australia with the aborigines. And, how can we forget the cradle of ‘real’ civilization, Africa.

The only problem with this ancient history, is that it is really not so ancient. This sadly IS recent history… nay, this is not history, this is what is happening… TODAY, in many parts of the world.
"This is why we are here. Because this grey rock here sells for 20 million dollars a kilo. Their village happens to be resting on the richest deposit and they need to relocate. Those savages are threatening our whole operation. We are on a brink of war. "

James Cameron thus hits the proverbial bull’s eye with the story of 'AVATAR'. Yet, ironically, while he was trying to subtly depict the European conquest of the Americas, and the current American conquest of Iraq (there’s even a dialogue where a character refers to the planned attack on the tribal population as ‘Shock and Awe’, cheesy…) what he misses out (or perhaps not), is that by a freak of ‘nature’ what he depicts in 'Avatar', is happening in the tribal hinterlands of India. Exactly the way he shows it, that is if you remove the special effects bit, and the magic, and the positive ending, it is occurring, as the cliché goes, to the ‘T’. Let’s find out how.

In the jungles of central India live many indigenous tribes who have lived in the land for thousands of years. Sadly they reside on top of some of the richest reserves of bauxite, coal, diamond, gold etc. known in the world. This, multinational corporations wants to mine. So, what does the government, that has a stake in these companies, do? They brand the tribals – savages, Naxalites, Maoists and send over 50,000 troops (today’s news confirm that it will be increased to 75,000 within a few more weeks), declare it a war zone and go on a rampage. Now consider this dialogue from ‘Avatar’ which the head of an MNC on Pandora delivers, explaining a mineral cheekily titled ‘unobtainium’ in the film: “This is why we are here. Because this grey rock here sells for $ 20 million a kilo. Their village happens to be resting on the richest deposit and they need to relocate. Those savages are threatening our whole operation. We are on the brink of war.” It is like our villain in ‘Iron Man’ telling the protagonist, “Just because this was your idea, does not mean it belongs to you.” Just because you happen to be living on the mineral deposit for thousands of years, does not mean it belongs to you. Fundamental rights, as one uncle pointed out to me the other day, is for the fundamentally rich.
Your average Naxalite warrior in Tribal India, protecting history.

Among the group of soldiers which the MNC brandish in this far off moon (of a planet) called Pandora (its 2154 and humans have already destroyed nature on Planet Earth. By 2154 we would, the way we are going, won’t we?), there’s a scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, who had started a school amidst the local Na’vi (made to sound like the word ‘Naïve’, which almost every tribal in the world is: naïve, uncouth and too trusting of the outside world), who screams for restraint, who wants to study this tribe as she understands their deep connection with nature and knows that their deepest treasures are spread across the planet, and not just below the surface in the form of an ore. All the way through, she pleads for restraint, but is not heard. In Chattisgarh (where the bulk of the 75,000 armed forces of India is stationed), there’s a man called Himanshu Kumar, who believes in Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals of peace and non-violence and has been crying hoarse asking the government for restraint and pleading them to help the tribals, instead of sending armies to destroy them just so some ores can be dug up in the name of ‘development’. He has been pleading to the controller of the armies (the Honorable Home Minister of India P Chidambaram is exactly like the character of the MNC representative who is bent on using arms, except that he wears a lungi, instead of a tie) to stop this war, and Chidambaram has been listening, just like this character in the film, only initially.

Avatar, Real and THE REAL: Sigourney Weaver's Avatar, Weaver and Himanshu Kumar.

The MNC sends a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake, in the body of the tribal, called Avatar, to learn the ways of the Na’vi people (symbolism can be found here that to understand somebody, you have to be like them or ‘I See You’ as the beautiful greeting in the film goes. This has been practiced by many social workers across the world, e.g. Dr. Prakash Amte and his group of volunteers, to win the trust of the Madia and Gond tribals in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, discarded their own clothes just so the tribals who hardly wear anything and have always been cheated by outsiders, could feel comfortable around them). This is ideally for scientific purposes, like the character of Sigourney Weaver, who has studied and made the avatar body, but the army is bent on knowing the secrets of the Na’vi so they can destroy them. Jake, initially with them, begins to realise the truth, that the Na’vi are not savages, but are a highly evolved race, in a way that humans don’t yet know. He falls in love with the daughter of the chief, and like Sigourney Weaver, is determined to save them. When the Army declares war in the end, he chooses to fight from the side of the Na’vi. The analogy for this in the Indian tribal context can be found in thousands of people, who belonged to the educated middle class of the country, but went there, saw what was happening, how the poor tribals were being mal-treated (dialogue from the film told by Jake: “The strong prey on the weak, and nobody does a thing”), and joined the cause. These Jakes of the real world, when they saw that peace and non-violence were not working (many employing non-violence were killed, like Shankar Guha Niyogi, about whom I write in this blog post: , and many others like Dr. Binayak Sen, were illegally imprisoned and not released by the state even when 22 Nobel Laureates from across the world appealed to everyone for the same. Others like Dr. Prakash Amte and Dr. Abhay Bhang are still free, but fear for their lives from the police), took up arms, like Jake does. They have today been branded Naxals/Naxalites (relating to a peasant uprising during the late 60s in a place called Naxalbari in West Bengal in India) and Maoists (owing their allegiance to Communist leader Mao Zedong of China) and it is to hunt them ‘allegedly’ that the Indian government is sending the 75,000 strong army, just like the army in Pandora send their troops to kill Jake as well. And like Jake perhaps, these Maoists, Naxalites too must have thought, “I was a warrior, who thought he could bring peace.” Sadly the Indian ‘rebels’ wrongly killed a few police officers which the government declared all over the planet’s media and thus got one up on them, especially since the thousands the army and police have killed have never been reported so far.
The beautiful, but ferocious Na'vi Neytiri

However, to give the government due credit, just like the army in ‘Avatar’, it is not that they have not tried other means, or shall we say - 'carrot before the stick' as they say in the film. They have. However, the Indian government also realises, like Jake says, “There is nothing we have that they want.” When the army realises this, they send in the military might, both in 'Avatar', and in the tribal regions of India.

These tribals, un-advanced as they are, use bows and arrows, and the guns Jake manages to get to defend themselves. This is happening in the tribal regions of India where they are literally fighting with bows and arrows and with rifles stolen from the Indian police.
Every tribal in the world uses bow and arrow, ironically the pinnacle of weapons technology a few centuries back.

Now, after the armed forces launch their first offensive, the tribals of Pandora group together and their resistance swells from a few hundred to a few thousand, exactly what happened in Chattisgarh as well. After the inception of the state-sponsored militia, Salwa Judum (which even hires minors and gives them guns, just like child soldiers in Africa) four years back who went on a rampage killing, raping and ravaging tribal villages (over 700 tribal villages have been emptied and the inhabitants of those villages forcibly housed in camps controlled by barbed wires) the number of so-called Maoists and Naxalites in these regions have grown from 5000 to over 150,000 (government estimates).

Yet, while the tribals win in the end in 'Avatar', thanks to Hollywood cliché and Cameron’s magic (and a lot of foreshadowing of the magic that went into it), the tribals in India stand no chance. They will be systematically eliminated, just like the Red Indians in America, the Aborginies in Australia… you get the point. This is where, sadly, real life departs from reel life. Hollywood is sadly trapped in celluloid, otherwise in a world where filmmakers like Frank Capra, John Ford, Ernst Lubitch, Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and others exist, it has to be a world where the just, fair and truthful win, and the bad guys lose, no matter how powerful, in the end…

It is impossible to talk about ‘Avatar’ without in some way talking about its spectacular effects. Yet, it is spectacular only to somone who has never ever seen the 'new' 3D films. I having lost my 3D virginity 6 years back (again a Cameron underwater film in the big IMAX screen in Hyderabad and having seen other 3D animation films, 'Up', 'Monsters Vs. Aliens' etc. wasn't impressed so much). Yet, in simple terms, what Georges Méliès ‘A Trip To The Moon’ was in 1902, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was in 1968, 'Star Wars' was in 1977, 'Matrix' was in 1999, ‘Avatar’ is for 2009. That is as far as technology goes, which in a few more years, would be usurped by something even better. That is the circle of life (and technology). As far as the execution of this beautiful story, well, what can you expect from a guy who made the chick flick ‘Titanic’? Like ‘Star Wars’, its special effects and the execution of the story, do not complement each other too well. Yet, you have to give it to the maker: his heart is in the right place. In almost all his films he talks against the dehumanisation of the planet, against war, and in favour of love and nature ('Terminator', 'Abyss', 'Alien', 'Titanic' etc.). You have no option but to give in to the vision of a guy who after his film became the biggest grosser of all time, refused to simply ride the wave (as is wont of any conformist) but chose to do something extraordinary, to push the limits of…er, not filmmaking (for it is the composite of a million other things), but at least of special effects. You have to say for the ‘king of the world’ (his famous Oscar acceptance speech), that his ‘heart does go on’ and he does have something to say, no matter in how Na’vi a manner.
Machines of Mass Destruction

And like the Wachowski brothers who commented on our addiction to technology and our conformism ('Matrix', 'V for Vendetta', 'Speed Racer'), Cameron wants to warn us time and again about our addiction to war. Sadly, Cameron is no Wachowski. He does not have the intellectual depth and knowledge of the world and its philosophies enough to pull off a ‘Matrix’ (anyone thinking of remaking ‘Matrix’ in 3D?), that marries a complex story (that had the world talking about its complexity for years) with great special effects. But, like I said before, his heart is indeed in the right place. And you are indeed happy for the same.

Yet, it is ironical, that Cameron had to invent technology, to criticise technology. He seems to be mocking us all humans about our blindness. You don’t have to be amazed by the spectacular ‘special’ nature he created in 'Avatar'. All you have to do is just step out, keep all your senses open to smell, feel, see and touch nature in ‘real’ 3D instead of the recreated, colourised and spectacular 3D of 'Avatar' (which you should not miss even if you don’t like films). The greatest three-dimensional wonder in this world is all around us, not in theatres. But we are all blind to it. Hope ‘Avatar’ pushes many of you enough to explore this wonderful world that you live in, to lie on the ground in a pitch dark night with your beloved, look at the stars above and kiss her, instead of merely wondering at Pandora(‘s box) that this film offers.
It's a shame if we have to see Avatar 3D  'nature' for us to really 'see' and feel nature all around us.

To know how beautiful your own world is, see Tarsem’s ‘The Fall’ where he uses no special effects, choosing instead to shoot in such places that amazes you (even in 2D). If between ‘The Fall’ and ‘Avatar’ you cannot open your eyes (like Jake’s, in the last shot of ‘Avatar’) to the all pervading magic around you, and to the perils of displacing the remaining tribals in India and the rest of the world from their natural homeland that they protect, than you better rest in piece. RIP.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Young Lawyer Appeals For Justice

Those of you who have been reading my blog posts regularly, know about the back story of Kopa Kunjam (a tribal leader now falsely accused of murder) and Alban Toppo (a lawyer working towards tribal rights). Even if you don't, you can read this open letter by Toppo and it will give you enough info. He writes, "I have been subjected this kind of brutality for working for poor and powerless. It is against law, against democracy and even against morality to do this to an advocate. If such kind of treatment is given to young lawyers who want to work towards a better society, young generation will loose hope." What do we have to say about that?


      I am a fresh lawyer coming from a tribal family of Jashpur, Chhattishgarh. I finished my law graduation in year 2008, got enrolled with Chhattisgarh Bar Council and started working for poor and underprivileged. For which I had a commitment since my college days. I started learning basics of human rights litigation at Delhi office of Human Rights Law Network and very recently had come to Chhattisgarh to do research for right to food case which is going on in Hon’ble Supreme Court of India and for this. I went to Dantewada, and met Mr. Himanshu Kumar, Director of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, who has done some study on this issue and taking information, his advice and guidance. I was also providing some legal assistance to him during my stay in Dantewada.

      On 10 December, 2009 at about 2:30 P.M. the Thana Incharge (TI) of Bhairamgarh Police Station Mr. K.S. Nand in civil uniform came to the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) situated at Katiyarraas accompanied by approximately more than 25 SPO’s in 5 cars. Director of VCA, Shri Himanshu Kumar and few other volunteers of VCA were present. I was also present there. TI spoke to Himanshu Kumar about taking Kopa Kunjam, s/o Lacchu Kunjam, resident of village Alnaar, Block – Geedam, P.S. Dantewada, who is a volunteer of VCA stating that they need him for some interrogation by the Superintendent of Police. He said, “SP Sahab ne bulaya hai, kuch puch tach karni hai”. No notice was served for this. However on being asked by Himanshu Kumar to give some written notice about it, the TI Bhairamgarh immediately wrote on a piece of paper that, “Prati, Kopa Kunjam ! Apse thana Dantewada me kuch poonch thanch karna chahta hoon. Kripya ap mere sath sadar P.S. kotwali chalein.” (I want to do some investigation with you at Dantewada Police Station. Please come with me to P.S. Kotwali). Being an Advocate present at the spot, I thought it to be my duty to accompany VCA Volunteer Kopa Kunjam to Dantewada police station. With the consent of Himanshu Kumar, Director-VCA I went alongwith Kopa Kunjam. At Dantewada police station we were asked to sit down. After making both of us wait for about half an hour, we were asked to come and sit in a vehicle . Thinking that we were being taken to the S.P. Office, we sat in the vehicle. As vehicle proceeded, I introduced myself to the IT Bhairamgadh saying that I am an advocate, having done my law course from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur and am associated with Human Rights Law Network. When the vehicle crossed Dantewada, we became suspicious and asked as to where we were being taken now, to which TI, Bhairamgarh, replied, “Kopa Kunjam is now being taken to Beejapur District”. Kopa Kunjam refused to go further as he was not informed about being taken to Beejapur earlier. I also objected to it, stating that the police should follow necessary procedures under the law and should act as per guidelines of the Supreme Court and that they cannot take Mr.Kopa to Beejapur without giving any notice in this regard. By this time Kopa Kunjam came out from the Bolero vehicle and I also got out of the vehicle. The TI along with 2 others got hold of Mr.Kopa and with the help of around 15 S.P.O’s bundled Mr. Kopa into another vehicle which was also coming along with them. When I again resisted to such behavior saying that it was illegal to behave in this manner, two S.P.O.’s started abusing and slapping me and bundled me also inside the car.  Before being bundled into car, I somehow managed inform  my senior Lawyer, colleagues and friends in Delhi about this incident. Noticing this two SPOs, started slapping and beating me and tried to snatch my mobile and, but I didn’t give my mobile, but after this they force me inside the car and did not allow me use the mobile phone.

      At about 5 P.M., we reached Bhairamgarh police station. The IT, Bhairamgadh asked me to give my mobile phone and also asked to switch it off and we were asked to sit there inside the police station. We were kept at a place inside police station with two S.P.O. keeping an eye on us. At about 8 p.m. we were taken for dinner in a nearby Hotel, from where we came in 15-20 minutes. At about 8:45 P.M. the officials of Bhairamgarh police station called me inside a room and tried to ask about the reason of me deciding to accompany Mr.Kopa. About three minutes later TI of Bhairamgarh started addressing me in an extremely rude and disrespectful manner and soon became violent and abusive. He started abusing me with slur and offensive language, which was followed by beatings with a thick bamboo stick and with a hard rubber cane, continuously slapping me while pulling my hair and kicking severely. After sometime he went out and started beating Kopa Kunjam. Kopa Kunjum was brought into the same room and both of us were beaten severely for 30 minutes by the TI Mr. Nand and an assistant constable Banjara, while some 15 other police staff & S.P.Os surrounded both of us. TI Mr. Nand  also said that “ No Advocate in Bastar dares to speak in my presence and you talk a lot. Now show me how much you can talk!  Show me how much law you know?” Later I was taken to a separate room and was questioned about the purpose of my stay in Dantewada and association with VCA. At around 10 PM, I listened someone saying that , “Sala Bada Admi hai , Delhi se Sahab ka phone aya hai.” Soon after this I was asked to write in a paper that I was brought to Bhairamgadh and as it has become late evening and there is no mode of transport and since the area is a very sensitive and unsafe, I  decided to spend the night at Bhairamgarh station, where I am safe. In Bhairamgadh Police Station, they said that that Himanshu is a Naxalite and whoever is working with Himanshu is a naxalite and who stays with Himanshu it a Naxal supporter.

      Mr. Kopa was very badly beaten and had received serious injuries on his chest, back and leg, due to which he was even unable to walk and sleep properly. I have got injuries on front portion of elbow of right hand, biceps and back causing severe pain and swelling. I was even not able to move my hands and back due to severe pain. I spend whole of night shivering and in pain, speculating what next is to happen.

      On 11 December, 2009 at 9:30 a.m. I was send to Dantewada police station accompanied by 4 S.P.O.’s in a vehicle and one head constable of Bhairamgarh police station, while Mr. Kopa was kept detained. When they reached Dantewada Police Station, two volunteers of VCA were called and I was handed over to them.

      After being released, next date day, I went to Ambedkar Hospital, Raipur to get a medical examination done, however I was asked make a compliant before the police and I was informed that the police will come after I make the complaint and then MLC will be conducted in the presence of police. I thought of going back to Dantewada to lodge the F.I.R. but because I was scared of being implicated in any false case this time, I did not go there.

      However, being very much concerned about the trend of even lawyers not being allowed to function freely and being beaten up like this, I have no other option except to write this open letter-cum-appeal addressed to every body so that the issue could be taken up by the society itself. I have been subjected this kind of brutality for working for poor and powerless. It is against law, against democracy and even against morality to do this to an advocate. If such kind of treatment is given to young lawyers who want to work towards a better society, young generation will loose hope. 

      Kindly take appropriate step against those who have abused power vested in them to beat and insult me in this gruesome manner and help restoring the faith of young people in the democracy and rule of law.
      Yours Sincerely

      Alban Toppo


Monday, December 14, 2009

Letter To President, Prime Minister & Home Minister Of India

If you feel for the cause, please pass it on to the email ids of the three respected people. Their email ids are:

Respected Madam Pratibha Patil, Shri Manmohan Singhji and Shri P. Chidambaramji,
New Delhi.

Respected Madam and Sirs,

In your position of power, you are like a father and a mother to your citizens. And I write to you from that position of a son appealing to a mother/father with whom he has a difference and wants to make a point. I make this appeal to you, in another respect - as one human being to another. By 'human' I mean a person who can feel the pain of others and has the power, no matter how small or big, to alleviate it.

The idea of a country entails that the entire nation is a family and one's problem is another's too. And each of us in our own little capacity do our bit to solve the others problems. Now, when I look at the mirror and ask, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the most downtrodden of them all,” I get the answer, “The Tribals, The Adivasis, The Aborginies” of this great nation of ours. And logically, this nation belongs to them. They have been living in their lands, respecting and protecting it for thousands of years. Now the law of our country stipulates that if you have been paying rent of the house you have been living in continuously for a particular period of time (it's 10 or 15 years) then that house is yours (actually even if you don't pay rent, as the legalisation of slums across the country show) and no one can evict you from that place. Going by that logic, the land adivasis in belongs to them. But you want to give away that land to big corporations, national and international so that they can mine it for the resources they contain. And you do it without the consent of the adivasis. Is it fair?

Having said that, yes, the nation needs its development. Though I don't agree at all with your notion of development, I believe you have the right to pursue your model of the same. But, what I am against is doing it 'illegally' and making it a 'non inclusive' rather than an inclusive development.

For decades now, indeed much before that, much before our independence, the adivasis have been abused and their innocence misused by unscrupulous elements. At least 62 years back they were foreigners, today it is us. And at no point in the history of our great nation, has there been such a rampant abuse of them and their rights and ironically, in the name of 'development' .

What is worse, when someone tries to bring peace and justice in their lives, the state machinery, instead of supporting them nay, instead of being the true perpetrators of true development, actually oppresses those that are working for their welfare. Sir, Father, Mother, I ask you, is this democracy?

Let me give you specific instances. I have been influenced highly by Mahatma Gandhi, 'apparently' the father of our nation, the apostle of peace and non-violence. And whenever I have found someone who has worked towards the development of the nation with Gandhian ideals in mind, I have lent him my whole-hearted support. One such man, as you know since you've met him, is Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, Dantewada, a humble and gentle man, one of the few in the country who heard Gandhi's call and headed to the rural hinterland of the country to serve its true people 17 years back. Yet, you had your security forces bulldoze his painstaking work of 17 years in half an hour in May this year. A Gandhian treated to such violence. Sir, Father, Mother.... I ask you again, is this democracy?

But his life has been spared. So far. He wants to go on a padyatra/peace march, satyagrah and jan sunwai from today, but you don't want that either. And we've come to know that the Salwa Judum is gathering forces to kill him off and blame it on Naxals. Now if that happens, Sir, Father, Mother... I ask you, can I call this nation a democracy?

On Human Rights Day, tribal activist and a very peaceful man himself, Kopa Kunjum, along with lawyer Alvan Toppo were arrested by the police and beaten up. Alvan was released, but Kopa is in custody and false charges have been brought up against him. Why? Because he was trying to bring notice to police atrocities and helping Himanshuji in his peaceful satyagrah. Sir, Father, Mother... I ask you, can you call this a democracy?

The collector of Dantewada asked Himanshuji to take back the money paid as advance to book a dharamshala for workers and activists coming from across the country to join the march. Tell me, Sir, Father, Mother... is this a democracy?

A group of 39 women were on their way from Raipur to Dantewada to express their peaceful solidarity with Himanshuji's peace-march. One of them was a friend from Mumbai. They have all been illegally detained by the police well before they reached Dantewada. And neither are they allowed to go to Raipur, nor to Dantewada. Sir, Father, Mother, I ask you, is this democracy?

One day, no matter what we've done or achieved, we'll all turn to ashes and dust. But, while we are here, we can try to leave this world, this nation, a better place than we found it. It's not an option, but it's everyone's responsibility. I ask you, Sir, Father, Mother... can I leave a better world for my and your children? Will you allow it? Will you do what is in your power to do it? Will you allow me little space to do my bit, or will you too, someday, put me in jail, threaten my life and maybe kill me just because I seek to dissent in the pursuit of justice?

All I can do right now Sir, Father, Mother... is appeal to your good judgment. Please prevent your forces from killing and abusing my and your adivasi brothers and sisters. Please, please, please at least listen to this child of yours, if you can't help him. I fall at your feet, and with tears in my eyes beg of you to do so.

With deepest respect and hope,

Your citizen, your son

Satyen K. Bordoloi
Ex-Journalist – Times Of India, Indian Express

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Teen Deviyan (Three Goddesses)

In a nation where its two most powerful people are two women; constitutionally President Pratibha Patil - the commander-in-chief of our armed forces, and politically Sonia Gandhi - the commander-in-chief of all politics in the country, it's a shame that this is happening to a woman and both these two respectable women choose to do nothing even as they grant statehood to a demagogue fasting only for 10 days. Also Madam President being the supreme commander of the armed forces, is directly responsible for all the atrocities committed by the forces she commands on its own people.

Please repel the draconian AFSPA and let the morality of Irom Sharmila, and thus the conscience of the nation, live.

Read and then sign the Petition Here:

To know more about her, read this evocative piece by Shoma Chaudhury in Tehelka:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


What does it take to move a billion people out of slumber? 10 terrorists kill tens of people in a city of 10 plus 10 million and even a year later 10 million words fill its tens of newspapers and magazines. Tiger Woods has 10 affairs till date and counting and again 10 million voyeuristic words are pasted in the newspapers of the world on his 'affairs'. 10 days a proven demagogue K C Rao fasts, and his supporters threaten to raise hell, not just in AP but the rest of the country. Why even when 10 million people sign a petition calling for a "fair, ambitious and binding climate treaty" to be signed by world leaders, it gets attention.

10 years ago, after 10 innocent civilians were gunned down by the Army (Assam Rifles), a frail poet began her fast unto death... that continues till date. She has been under arrest for the past 10 years and has been force fed by the administration to keep her alive. Yet, even after hundreds of people have been killed by the armed forces in the intermittent 10 years, even after the doctors 'certified' her feat as being superhuman, even after tens of hundreds of protests and rallys across the nation in her support, even after a Nobel Peace Prize winner thundering in a conference in Delhi in 2006, “If Sharmila dies, parliament is directly responsible,” there's wide spread apathy to this frail woman's attempt at responding to “extreme violence with extreme peace.”

Besides Tehelka, whose beautifully composed article by Shoma Chaudhury is reproduced below, no major media house has 'dared' to cover her most extraordinary story. Books and plays have been written about a woman raped and now living like a vegetable in a hospital in Mumbai, while this rape of a woman by the government of a nation goes unnoticed. And this in a country where a 'breaking news' is broken every 10 minutes.

If the story of Irom Sharmila or even this melodramatic despite being a factual story from Tehelka, does not move you, then like Shoma Chaudhury writes in this piece, “nothing will.” You might as well call yourself a robot.

Irom And The Iron In India’s Soul


Extraordinaire Sharmila says it’s her “bounden duty” to protest in the most peaceful way

SOMETIMES, TO accentuate the intransigence of the present, one must revisit the past. So first, a flashback.

The year is 2006. An ordinary November evening in Delhi. A slow, halting voice breaks into your consciousness. “How shall I explain? It is not a punishment, but my bounden duty…” A haunting phrase in a haunting voice, made slow with pain yet magnetic in its moral force. “My bounden duty.” What could be “bounden duty” in an India bursting with the excitements of its economic boom?
You are tempted to walk away. You are busy and the voice is not violent in its beckoning. But then an image starts to take shape. A frail, fair woman on a hospital bed. A tousled head of jet black curls. A plastic tube thrust into the nose. Slim, clean hands. Intent, almond eyes. And the halting, haunting voice. Speaking of bounden duty.
That’s when the enormous story of Irom Sharmila first begins to seep in. You are in the presence of someone historic. Someone absolutely unparalleled in the history of political protest anywhere in the world, ever. Yet you have been oblivious of her. A hundred TV channels. An unprecedented age of media. Yet you have been oblivious of her.
In 2006, Irom Sharmila had not eaten anything, or drunk a single drop of water for six years. She was being forcibly kept alive by a drip thrust down her nose by the Indian State. For six years, nothing solid had entered her body; not a drop of water had touched her lips. She had stopped combing her hair. She cleaned her teeth with dry cotton and her lips with dry spirit so she would not sully her fast. Her body was wasted inside. Her menstrual cycles had stopped. Yet she was resolute. Whenever she could, she removed the tube from her nose. It was her bounden duty, she said, to make her voice heard in “the most reasonable and peaceful way”.
Yet both Indian citizens and the Indian State were oblivious to her.
The humbling power of Sharmila’s story lies in her untutored beginnings. There is no rhetoric, no cliched heat of heroism
That was three years ago. On November 5 this year, Irom Sharmila entered the tenth year of her superhuman fast — protesting the indefensible Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has been imposed in Manipur and most of the Northeast since 1980. The Act allows the army to use force, arrest or shoot anyone on the mere suspicion that someone has committed or was about to commit a cognisable offence. The Act further prohibits any legal or judicial proceedings against army personnel without the sanction of the Central Government.
Draconian in letter, the Act has been even more draconian in spirit. Since it was imposed, by official admission, thousands of people have been killed by State forces in Manipur. (In just 2009, the officially admitted number stands at 265. Human rights activists say it is above 300, which averages out at one or two extrajudicial killings every day.) Rather than curb insurgent groups, the Act has engendered a seething resentment across the land, and fostered new militancies. When the Act came into force in 1980, there were only four insurgent groups in Manipur. Today, there are 40. And Manipur has become a macabre society, a mess of corruptions: insurgents, cops and politicians all hand in glove, and innocent citizens in between.
True Gandhian For ten years, nothing solid nor a drop of water has entered Sharmila’s body

A FEW YEARs ago, an unedited CD began doing the rounds in civil society circles. It showed footage of humiliating army brutality and public rage. Images of young children, students, working-class mothers and grandmothers taking to the streets, being teargassed and shot at. Images of men made to lie down while the army shot at the ground inches above their heads. With each passing day, the stories gathered fury. Disappeared boys, raped women. Human life stripped of its most essential commodity: dignity.
For young Irom Sharmila, things came to a head on November 2, 2000. A day earlier, an insurgent group had bombed an Assam Rifles column. The enraged battalion retaliated by gunning down 10 innocent civilians at a bus-stand in Malom. The local papers published brutal pictures of the bodies the next day, including one of a 62-year old woman, Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. Extraordinarily stirred, on November 4, Sharmila, then only 28, began her fast.
Sprawled in an icy white hospital corridor that cold November evening in Delhi three years ago, Singhajit, Sharmila’s 48-year-old elder brother, had said half-laughing, “How we reach here?” In the echo chamber of that plangent question had lain the incredible story of Sharmila and her journey. Much of that story needed to be intuited. Its tensile strength, its intense, almost preternatural act of imagination were not on easy display. The faraway hut in Imphal where it began. The capital city now and the might of the State ranged against them. The sister jailed inside her tiny hospital room, the brother outside with nothing but the clothes on his back, neither versed in English or Hindi. The posse of policemen at the door.
“Menghaobi”, the people of Manipur call her, “The Fair One”. Youngest daughter of an illiterate Grade IV worker in a veterinary hospital in Imphal, Sharmila was always a solitary child, the backbencher, the listener. Eight siblings had come before her. By the time she was born, her mother Irom Shakhi, 44, was dry. When dusk fell, and Manipur lay in darkness, Sharmila used to start to cry. The mother Shakhi had to tend to their tiny provision store, so Singhajit would cradle his baby sister in his arms and take her to any mother he could find to suckle her. “She has always had extraordinary will. Maybe that is what made her different,” Singhajit says. “Maybe this is her service to all her mothers.”
There was something achingly poignant about this wise, rugged man on the sidelines – loyal co-warrior who gives the fight invisible breath, middle-aged brother who gave up his job to “look after his sister outside the door”, family man who relies on the Rs 120 a day his wife makes from weaving so he can stand steadfast by his sister.
Ten years on, her fast is unparalleled in the history of political protest. If this will not make us pause, nothing will
It was a month and a half since Singhajit had managed to smuggle Sharmila out of Manipur with the help of two activist friends, Babloo Loitangbam and Kangleipal. For six years, Sharmila had been under arrest, isolated in a single room in JN Hospital in Imphal. Each time she was released, she would yank the tube out of her nose and continue her fast. Three days later, on the verge of death, she would be arrested again for “attempt to commit suicide”. And the cycle would begin again. But six years of jail and fasting and forced nasal feeds had yielded little in Manipur. The war needed to be shifted to Delhi.
ARRIVING IN DELHI on October 3, 2006, brother and sister camped in Jantar Mantar for three days – that hopeful altar of Indian democracy. Typically, the media responded with cynical disinterest. Then the State swooped down in a midnight raid and arrested her for attempting suicide and whisked her off to AIIMS. She wrote three passionate letters to the Prime Minister, President, and Home Minister. She got no answer. If she had hijacked a plane, perhaps the State would have responded with quicker concession.
Tehelka expose The killing of Sanjit in a fake encounter by commandos, caught on camera
“We are in the middle of the battle now,” Singhajit had said in that hospital corridor. “We have to face trouble, we have to fight to the end even if it means my sister’s death. But if she had told me before she began, I would never have let her start on this fast. I would never have let her do this to her body. We had to learn so much first. How to talk; how to negotiate — we knew nothing. We were just poor people.”
But, in a sense, the humbling power of Sharmila’s story lies in her untutored beginnings. She is not a front for any large, coordinated political movement. And if you were looking for charismatic rhetoric or the clichéd heat of heroism, you would have been disappointed by the quiet woman in Room 57 in the New Private Ward of AIIMS in New Delhi. That 34-yearold’s satyagraha was not an intellectual construct. It was a deep human response to the cycle of death and violence she saw around her — almost a spiritual intuition. “I was shocked by the dead bodies of Malom on the front page,” Sharmila had said in her clear, halting voice. “I was on my way to a peace rally but I realised there was no means to stop further violations by the armed forces. So I decided to fast.”
On November 4, 2000, Sharmila had sought her mother, Irom Shakhi’s blessing. “You will win your goal,” Shakhi had said, then stoically turned away. Since then, though Sharmila has been incarcerated in Imphal within walking distance of her mother, the two have never met.
“What’s the use? I’m weak-hearted. If I see her, I will cry,” Shakhi says in a film on Sharmila made by Delhi-based filmmaker Kavita Joshi, tears streaming down her face. “I have decided that until her wish is fulfilled, I won’t meet her because that will weaken her resolve… If we don’t get food, how we toss and turn in bed, unable to sleep. With the little fluid they inject into her, how hard must her days and nights be… If this Act could just be removed even for five days, I would feed her rice water spoon by spoon. After that, even if she dies, we will be content, for my Sharmila will have fulfilled her wish.”
This brave, illiterate woman is the closest Sharmila comes to an intimation of god. It is the shrine from which she draws strength. Ask her how hard it is for her not to meet her mother and she says, “Not very hard,” and pauses. “Because, how shall I explain it, we all come here with a task to do. And we come here alone.”
For the rest, she practices four to five hours of yoga a day — self-taught — “to help maintain the balance between my body and mind”. Doctors will tell you Sharmila’s fast is a medical miracle. It is humbling to even approximate her condition. But Sharmila never concedes any bodily discomfort. “I am normal. I am normal,” she smiles. “I am not inflicting anything on my body. It is not a punishment. It is my bounden duty. I don’t know what lies in my future; that is God’s will. I have only learnt from my experience that punctuality, discipline and great enthusiasm can make you achieve a lot.” The words — easy to dismiss as uninspiring clichés — take on a heroic charge when she utters them.
For three long years later, nothing has changed. The trip to Delhi yielded nothing. As Sharmila enters the tenth year of her fast, she still lies incarcerated like some petty criminal in a filthy room in an Imphal hospital. The State allows her no casual visitors, except occasionally, her brother — even though there is no legal rationale for this. (Even Mahasweta Devi was not allowed to see her a few weeks ago.) She craves company and books – the biographies of Gandhi and Mandela; the illusion of a brotherhood. Yet, her great — almost inhuman — hope and optimism continues undiminished.
But the brother’s frustration is as potent. The failure of the nation to recognise Irom Sharmila’s historic satyagraha is a symptom of every lethargy that is eroding the Northeast. She had already been fasting against AFSPA for four years when the Assam Rifles arrested Thangjam Manorama Devi, a 32-year-old woman, allegedly a member of the banned People’s Liberation Army. Her body was found dumped in Imphal a day later, marked with terrible signs of torture and rape. Manipur came to a spontaneous boil. Five days later, on July 15, 2004, pushing the boundaries of human expression, 30 ordinary women demonstrated naked in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort. Ordinary mothers and grandmothers eking out a hard life. “Indian Army, rape us too”, they screamed. The State responded by jailing all of them for three months.
Every commission set up by the government since then has added to these injuries. The report of the Justice Upendra Commission, instituted after the Manorama killing, was never made public. In November 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee to review the AFSPA. Its recommendations came in a dangerously forked tongue. While it suggested the repeal of the AFSPA, it also suggested transfering its most draconian powers to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Every official response is marked with this determination to be uncreative. The then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had rejected the withdrawal or significant dilution of the Act on the grounds that “it is not possible for the armed forces to function” in “disturbed areas” without such powers.
Manorama mothers Manipuri women pushed to the brink after the horrific rape of Manorama Devi

Curiously, it took Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to raise proportionate heat on Irom Sharmila, on a trip to India in 2006. “If Sharmila dies, Parliament is directly responsible,” she thundered at a gathering of journalists. “If she dies, courts and judiciary are responsible, the military is responsible… If she dies, the executive, the PM and President are responsible for doing nothing… If she dies, each one of you journalists is responsible because you did not do your duty…”
Yet, three years later, nothing has changed. After the boundless, despairing anger of the ‘Manorama Mothers’, the government did roll back the AFSPA from some districts of Imphal city. But the viral has transmitted itself elsewhere. Today, the Manipur police commandoes have taken off where the army left off: the brutal provisions of AFSPA have become accepted State culture. There is a phrase for it: “the culture of impunity”. On July 23 this year, Sanjit, a young former insurgent was shot dead by the police in a crowded market, in broad daylight, in one of Imphal’s busiest markets. An innocent by-stander Rabina Devi, five months pregnant, caught a bullet in her head and fell down dead as well. Her two-year old son, Russell was with her. Several others were wounded.
But for an anonymous photographer who captured the sequence of Sanjit’s murder, both these deaths would have become just another statistic: two of the 265 killed this year. But the photographs – published in TEHELKA – offered damning proof. Manipur came to a boil again.
Four months later, people’s anger refuses to subside. With typical ham-handedness, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh first tried to brazen his way through. On the day of Sanjit’s murder, he claimed in the Assembly that his cops had shot an insurgent in a cross-fire. Later, confronted by TEHELKA’S story, he admitted he had been misled by his officers and was forced to set up a judicial enquiry. However, both he and Manipur DGP Joy Kumar continue to claim that TEHELKA’s story is a fabrication.
Still, hope sputters in small measure. Over the past few months, as protests have raged across the state, dozens of civil rights activ ists have been frivolously arrested under the draconian National Security Act. Among these was a reputed environmental activist, Jiten Yumnam. On November 23, an independent Citizens’ Fact Finding Team released a report called Democracy ‘Encountered’: Rights’ Violations in Manipur and made a presentation to the Central Home Ministry. A day later, Home Secretary Gopal Pillai informed KS Subramanian, a former IPS officer and a member of the fact-finding team, that the ministry had revoked detention under the NSA for ten people, including Jiten. In another tenuously hopeful sign, Home Minister P Chidambaram has said on record in another TEHELKA interview that he has recommended several amendments in AFSPA to make it more humane and accountable. These amendments are waiting Cabinet approval.
IN A COMPLEX world, often the solution to a problem lies in an inspired, unilateral act of leadership. An act that intuits the moral heart of a question and proceeds to do what is right — without precondition. Sharmila Irom’s epic fast is such an act. It reaffirms the idea of a just and civilized society. It refuses to be brutalized in the face of grave and relentless brutality. Her plea is simple: repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It is unworthy of the idea of the Indian State the founding fathers bequeathed us. It is anti-human.
It is true Manipur is a fractured and violent society today. But the solution to that can only lie in another inspired, unilateral act of leadership: this time on the part of the State. Eschew pragmatism, embrace the moral act: repeal AFSPA. There will be space beyond to untangle the rest.
But unfortunately, even as the entire country laces up to mark the first anniversary of Mumbai 26/11 – a horrific act of extreme violence and retaliation, we continue to be oblivious of the young woman who responded to extreme violence with extreme peace.
It is a parable for our times. If the story of Irom Sharmila does not make us pause, nothing will. It is a story of extraordinariness. Extraordinary will. Extraordinary simplicity. Extraordinary hope. It is impossible to get yourself heard in our busy age of information overload. But if the story of Irom Sharmila will not make us pause, nothing will.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 48, Dated December 05, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Che Guevara And The Call To A Gandhian Revolution

It is fashionable in the city, to wear the T-shirt of Che Guevara, or to read his books or see that wonderful film 'The Motorcycle Diaries'. Yet, I don't know if of those there's even one who truly understands the essence of Guevara, what he fought for, and finally died for. Because if they did, they'd care to look around and realise that the revolution that Guevara died for, is far from over (it never will be). E.g. if you took a motorbike like he did, or even take the ubiquitous and wonderfully efficient State Transport buses to go to the interiors of the country and check out how people live there, you'd realize that things have not changed much from what Guevara saw in the 30-40s. The only difference you'll note is that the situation has worsened. Yet, there's no need to pick up guns to fight for and herald a revolution. It's pointless. For two reasons, one that no armed revolution has brought about the intended results of revolution and secondly, it's next to impossible in todays' world of big armies owned by governments (and thus by big corporations backing governments) to fight them with outdated guns like Guevera did. Yet, Mahatma Gandhi showed us a weapon that's better than any guns. After all the fight is ideological, and killing someone while the system thrives, serves no purpose. 

Smokingg... The Importance of Being Ernest Che

There is a big revolution going on in the heartland of India, a non-violent struggle (as opposed to the armed revolt of Naxalites and Maoists) that aims to bring about a equality for millions oppressed by a system we ironically call 'democracy'. This is a call to join one such little effort, in whatever capacity you can. Either by being there, or by spreading the word (because the mass media will not do it and just because you don't read it in the papers or see it on TV, does not mean it does not exist for sadly, media today has not remained even a broken mirror to reality but is a floating surrealist fantasy with no roots in either truth or reality), so that the next time you wear a Che Guevara T-shirt or talk about him with pride, you'll know in your heart you're not being a hypocrite.

For the People's Right to say NO to displacement and Tribal Genocide
And to demand the right to live with justice and peace

Raipur / Dantewada
1 December 2009
Dear Friends,

You are aware that the Tribals of Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh State are continuously facing large-scale displacement from their homes, fields and forests. Activists, journalists and scholars working in this area have also provided evidence of tribal genocide in the last five years by State and its various agencies, including the police.

The recent past of gross human rights violations has consisted of the aggressive onslaught by the State sponsored vigilante group called the Salwa Judum. Simultaneously, an anti-democratic draconian law called the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 was brought in to silence all dissent. In the last four years it has been systematically used against human rights defenders, journalists, film-makers, lawyers, intellectuals and ordinary citizens whenever they have the State has felt the need to silence people. The latest move regarding elimination of the tribal people has been an escalation of the offensive by the State, in the name of Operation Green Hunt in the heartland of Dantewada. Paramilitary troops along with the state armed police deployed in very large numbers by the Central and the state governments have been carrying out military operations against the tribals in the name of curbing Maoists and retrieve territories from them.

In order to build public opinion and to support the tribal people in their demand to stop this displacement and genocide and to reclaim their right to life with justice and peace, several community based and people's organisations, trade unions and human rights groups from Chhattisgarh and outside are planning a series of activities in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh.

This letter is being sent to you so as to ensure your presence and participation between 14 December 2009 and 7 January 2010 at Dantewada and express your solidarity and raise your voice in support of the tribals. The list of events and dates are as follows:

1.  Padyatra: 14 December to 26 December 2009
The first phase of this three week campaign consists of a padyatra from Nendra village to Dantewada town via Lingagiri. This padyatra will be led by Himanshu Kumar of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and other tribal leaders of this region and will pass through more than 17 villages.. A group of approximately 40 students, journalists, academics and activists from different parts of the country will also join the padyatra. The main objective of the padyatra is to restore a sense of confidence amongst the tribals who are living in acute fear due to the continuous onslaught of the security forces. The padyatris will also document the atrocities that the tribals have been subjected to including the situation of hunger, food insecurity, lack of health and educational facilities and other forms of deprivation faced due to the ongoing displacement and war in the region.

2.  Dantewada Satyagrah: 25 December 2009 to 5 January 2010
Tribal people from all over Dantewada and other regions of Chhattisgarh will launch a Satyagrah on 25 December 2009 which will have the support of tribals from Jharkhand, Orissa, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh among other states. We are hoping that large groups of people from these states and from all networks, unions and organisations working on diverse people's issues will respond to this call and join in the Satyagrah for atleast a few days. The objective of the satyagrah is to bring together concerned people from all over the country to demand in one voice an end to displacement of people and to the war that is underway in this region, apart from demanding the implementation of the SC orders on rehabilitation in the context of displacement due to the violence of salwa judum.

A Raipur Support Group coordinated by Chhattisgarh Unit of PUCL has been set up for the Satyagrah. This group will provide assistance to the people coming from the Northern, Eastern and Western regions India as well as from other parts of Chhattisgarh. Raipur is situated on the Mumbai-Kolkata route and is well connected by train from most parts of the country. Dantewada is situated 400 kms from Raipur and direct buses are available between the two towns through the day and night that take about 12 hours each way.

People coming from the South can take trains or buses from Vishakhapatnam or bus it down from Hyderabad. The distance between Hyderabad to Dantewada via Bhadrachalam is 500 kms and takes about 16 hours.

 3.  Jan Sunwai: 6-7 January 2010 (the date may be advanced or postponed by a day)
 The Satyagrah will culminate with a Jan Sunwai where tribal residents of this region will share their experiences of the Salwa Judum, Operation Green Hunt and their struggle for justice. This Jan Sunwai will be witnessed by a panel of ex-justices, senior activists from various people's movements, ex-bureaucrats and policemen, journalists and intellectuals including those from among the tribals.

 This letter is a request to you and your group/organisation to begin preparing for your participation in the series of events given above. A more detailed invitation shall be sent to you soon. For more details please contact at the phone numbers provided below.

We are:                                                                                             
Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, People's Union for Civil Liberties (Chhattisgarh), Chhattisgarh Visthapan Virodhi Manch, Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha – Mazdoor Karyakarta Samiti, Nadi Ghati Morcha, Human Rights Law Network (Chhattisgarh), National Alliance of People's Movements, Chhattisgarh Mahila Jagriti Sangathan, Chhattisgarh Bal Shramik Sangathan, Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF)-Chhattisgarh,  Gram Sabha Parishad, Tribal Welfare Society, People's Union for Democratic Rights, Committee for the Release of Binayak Sen-Mumbai and others (endorsments by other organisations are awaited)

Contact Persons:
            v      Himanshu Kumar (Vanvasi Chetna Ashram) : 09425260031;
v      Veena Bhalla (Vanvasi Chetna Ashram )9424270922, Mithlesh (VCA): 9407641487
v      Rajendra Sail, (PUCL-Chhattisgarh):  09826804519;
v     Sudha Bhardwaj (Chhattisgarh Vistahpan Virodhi Samiti and CMM-MKS): 09926603877;
v      Vijendra (PUCL-Chhattisgarh) : 09406049737;
v     Gautam Bandhopadyay (Nadi Ghati Morcha): 9826171304;

Friday, December 4, 2009

Activist, Environmentalist, Hero: The Legend of Shankar Guha Niyogi

What could prompt some group to pump six bullets into a sleeping man, a man who worked peacefully and well within the framework of the democratic rights entrusted to him by a nations government? As you read this life inspiring story of Shankar Guha Niyogi, activist, environmentalist, a soul sensitive to nature and a hero, you'll discover one word: greed.

Have patience and read his essay till the end (this is quite old, from 1992). I've never read a more simpler, yet profounder call to protect nature and the reasons for the same. Many new 'environmentalists' have come up with the 'vision' to protect the world trapped within powerpoint presentations in their laptops and their words which are not backed by action, but none can replicate the sights and sound his words spring to my mind which is better than any work of fiction i've read. It is perhaps so because unlike the new breed of environmentalist who experience nature only vicariously from time to time, Shankar Guha Niyogi lived and breathed it every day. It's a amazingly simple and pragmatic solution to most of our environmental woes. And with collective action, as he anticipated and worked for, it is quite possible.

His essay is filled with gems like: “It is true that the public consciousness is not moved by statistics alone. Yet the need for creative action demands that we combine logic and statistics with our emotive response to the environmental crisis. It is only from such a combination that a national consciousness about the environment will emerge.”

Another time he says, “In the society we want to build, love for people of the country will be seen as an act of love for the nation and love for nature would be considered patriotic. This is the kind of national consciousness we need, to save the environment.”

Simple. Practical. Doable.

It's truly an inspiration and a vision for everyone working to make this world a better place than we found it, activists, environmentalists... everyman everywhere in the world.

Shankar Guha Niyogi - 14th February, 1943 to 28th Sept.,1991
His Work & Thinking

"Niyogi was first and foremost a great social thinker of the alternative development movement, but worked as a trade union leader in order to be able implement his ideas in practical ways. Responding to another need of the times when various secessionist and disruptive forces have been raising their heads in the country, Niyogi's movement provided a model of how poor people from an exploited backward region could be organised for real socio-economic change without any encouragement of separatist or divisive ideas or forces. There has never been any contradiction in this movement between the people's love of and pride in their region (Chattisgarh) and their feelings for their country.

"At a time when it was being increasingly said by pessimists that in the prevailing atmosphere mass movements for genuine change would not be free of contamination from various ugly distortions, Shankar Guha Niyogi succeeded in sustaining such a movement for 14 years from 1977 till his death in 1991. It is now for all of us to ensure that his dreams are not destroyed and the lamp of ideas is carried further to dispel darkness."

-  A Tribute to Shankar Guha Niyogi by Bharat Dogra.

In the early hours of September 28th, 1991, an assassin reached in through an open window of the CMSS office in Bhilai and fired six bullets into Shankar Guha Niyogi, who was lying peacefully asleep there. Within hours, thousands of workers gathered at the hospital where Niyogi now lay awaiting final rites. Draping his body in the red-green flag of the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, his comrades and followers marched in a resolute procession to the cremation site.

Across the Chattisgarh region, over two lakh workers struck work that day bringing 150 industrial units to a standstill. About one and a half lakh men, women and children followed the funeral procession and then stood in homage as crematory flames consumed the earthly body of a legend.

Niyogi was 48 years old at the time. Three decades earlier he had come to Bhilai from his native Bengal, and like hundreds of educated young men sought employment in the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP). He studied for and obtained a B.Sc Degree while working as a skilled worker in the BSR By 1964-65 he had become a union organiser and was Secretary of the Blast Furnace Action Committee. In the next few years Niyogi Was associated with the Co-ordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries, the precusor of the Communist Party Of India (Marxist-Leninist). The growing intensity of his political activity eventually caused him to lose his job. He then left Bhilai and roamed the far-flung areas of Chattisgarh - that vast cultural entity which includes the districts of Bastar, Bilaspur, Durg, Raigarh, Raipur, Rajnandgaon and Sarguja.

After a brief period of working underground with the CPI(ML), Niyogi left the organisation and was on his own. The legend of Niyogi began to take shape in the following period, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.

" For the next five or six years his nomadic existence took him to many occupations and struggles, all within the Chattisgarh region. Forest work in north Bastar, catching and selling fish in Durg district, agricultural labour in Keri Jungata, shepherding goats in interior Rajnandgaon, were some of the occupations he was involved in. Everywhere he was involved in local struggles. The struggle of adivasis in Bastar, agitation against Mongra reservoir in Rajnandgaon, and the Daihand people's struggle for water were some of the struggles from which he learnt his early lessons in mass organisation. Eventually he settled in Dhani Tola working in the quartzite mines, where his long interaction with mining and miners began."

-- Niyogi & the Chattisgarh People's Movement, by PUDR.

It was in Dahni Tola that he met and married Asha, herself a miner. By 1975 his activities as an organiser of the miners were sufficiently irksome to the establishment to lead to his arrest during the Emergency. He spent thirteen months in jail under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). On returning from jail he shifted to Dalli Rajhara and soon founded the Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS).

The CMSS began by organising successful struggles for more wages and working conditions. The wages increased from Rs. 3 a day to over Rs. 20 a day and are even higher now. But soon the union was initiating processes for creating, in an overall sense, a better life for the miners and their families. It spearheaded a successful anti-alcohol campaign which closely involved women and led to their growing participation in the functioning of the CMSS. The union began running a dispensary in a, small garage and by 1983 had built a 15 bed hospital with modern facilities. The hospital was built with the savings and labour of the union members. Later it built school buildings, where the government now runs schools.

The local authorities had never seen fit to provide basic facilities like garbage collection from the miners 'bastis'. When the union's demands were repeatedly ignored, its activists began loading the garbage in trucks and dropping it in the residential area of the officers. They threatened to keep doing this till arrangements were made to keep the workers' 'bastis' clean.

The Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), was formed to take up the wider problems of the region, especially those of the adivasis. A subsequent struggle to free bonded labourers in the region led to the formation of the Chattisgarh Gramin Shramik Sangh (CGSS). Over the years the CMSS, CMM and CGSS have worked in tandem.

The tortuous course of the struggle is marked by numerous cases of state repression and the harassment of its leaders. Over the two decades in which he emerged as a prominent leader Niyogi went to jail some 25 times — usually without facing any formal charges, let alone trial. Even in those petty cases that were foisted on him, he was never convicted by any court of the land for any offence.

Since 1991, Niyogi's focus of new activities had shifted to organising workers in the industries of Bhilai. The earlier struggles had been primarily in 'interior' areas. Now the movement came into direct, sharp and sustained conflict with the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists of the area. As tensions mounted and physical attacks on union workers increased, Niyogi anticipated his own murder. In a message which he recorded a few weeks before his death, he spoke of how the industrialists of the Bhilai area would make their final assault on the movement in the form of a conspiracy to kill him. "This world is beautiful," Niyogi had said in the message, "and I certainly love this beautiful world, but my work and my duty are important to me. I've to fulfill the responsibility that I've taken up. These people will kill me, but I know that by killing me none can finish our movement."

The significance and meaning of Niyogi's life and death must be understood in the context of the post-colonial 'development' that he was struggling against.

A report by the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) has noted that:

"The post-colonial development in backward regions like Chattisgarh essentially results in the self-sustaining nature of underdevelopment, notwithstanding any development programme. This process continuously throws people out of their traditional occupations. And then they become, as casual and contract labour, the cannon fodder for industrialisation, whether under the aegis of the public sector or private, under planning or (under) market (economy). And when people begin to assert their rights, the economic and political parasites bred by this kind of development attempt to crush it with the help of the state.

"This all too familiar process faced resistance in Chattisgarh. During its course the workers struggle transcended the much narrower traditional boundaries of the trade union movement. Wage and working conditions, skills and semi-mechanisation, education, health and environment have all become part of their agenda. The innovative features of this militant mass movement are informed by alternative visions of developmental processes. Yet it is confined to the constitutional boundaries imposed by a ruling elite against whom it is fighting. The Directive Principles of the Constitution articulated with more clarity and forthrightness are its hallmark. Enforcement of labour legislation is the arena in which the battles are being fought. The movement pursued peaceful methods with remarkable patience in a political environment where violence has become the only language which the rulers can understand. Realisation and appropriation of democratic space within the threshold of the constitution is the essence of the Chattisgarh movement. It is this process, spread over almost three decades, that changed the life and living of the people of the region."

Last year a Citizen's Committee conducted a detailed inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Niyogi's murder. The Committee consisted of D.S.Tewatia, ex-Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court and later of Calcutta High Court; Kuldip Nayar, senior journalist and ex-High Commissioner of India to the United Kingdom; Vijay Tendulkar, well-known playwright and theatre personality; Anil Sadgopal, noted educationist and social activist; and Rakesh Shukla, advocate, Supreme Court. The Committee's report entitled 'Behind the Industrial Smokescreen' stated that:

"He (Niyogi) was killed because he was an odd man out in an area where none had dared to challenge the network that some industrialists operated to deny their workers even basic amenities and living wages Shankar Guha Niyogi's murder  assumes  sinister  proportions  when  seen  in  the context  of  the  rapidly  changing  industrial  scenario  in  the country,   under  pressure  from the  World   Bank  and  the International Monetary Fund. It is reflective of the drastic erosion in the democratic space open to the workers to agitate for rights assured by various industrial and labour laws, in asking for minimum security of employment and a wage which stretches the notion of dignified survival to its limit The establishment would go along with all this in order to ensure that the outside banking institutions and multinationals stayed and prospered. A person like Niyogi, with a vision of self-reliance and alternative development of Indian society, will then be missed more than ever before".

"Niyogi's politics and the politics of the CMSS is the politics of struggle, and creativity. Struggle for creation and creation for struggle - this is our nara (motto, slogan)," says the introduction of a booklet titled 'Our Environment: The Perspective of the CMSS'. Niyogi wrote this booklet in the last two weeks of July 1991. It was his last piece of writing. In October the union published the booklet, as originally scheduled. The introduction to the booklet adds that: " Comrade Niyogi wrote about the CMSS's thinking on the environmental movement in the hope that it would reach and become part of the wide-spread debate among the various sangathans involved in these struggles."

The following is a translation of Niyogi's article.

Our  Environment

Perspective of Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh

by Shankar Guha Niyogi

The Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS), a registered trade union of the mine workers, has from its earliest days attempted to expand the scope of trade union work. Unlike most other trade unions in India, it has not limited itself to struggling for higher wages. Members of CMSS have, in diverse ways, been actively involved in social and cultural issues.

Over the last eight to ten years, CMSS workers have joined hands with unorganised workers, adivasis and peasants to run a 'Let's Struggle for Good Health' campaign, through the use of magic shows, street plays, booklets, lectures and various other programmes. The CMSS workers also set up a hospital as part of the campaign. This 50 bed hospital has a modern operation theatre and a maternity ward.

The CMSS also worked on the history of the area and initiated the practice of observing the martyrdom days of important historical persons of the region -- thus inspiring a greater sense of self-esteem among the people. Veer Narayan Singh is among the most notable of such leaders.

To counter alcoholism among the workers, the union led a vigorous anti-liquor campaign. The union has today become synonymous with this campaign.

The CMSS has also done substantial work in sports, education and other such fields. It has built at least 6 school buildings and handed them over to the government.The union itself runs one primary school. Thousands of women have got organised and are actively involved in the leadership of the CMSS to ensure that women's special concerns and issues form an integral part of the Union's agenda. Likewise the union has also been actively working on environmental issues. Instead of shedding crocodile tears over the environment, the CMSS has evolved and acted upon its understanding of the environmental problem through concrete actions.


For some time now, workers in the CMSS have been gathering information about and discussing the disturbing news about holes in the ozone layer, the growing disproportion of harmful poisonous gases in the atmosphere and the declining oxygen content in the air.

Closer home, they have watched as the Shankhini River and a little stream emerging from the Dalli mines turn blood red in colour from the high iron ore content in the water. Effluents from the distillery, the steel factory and fertiliser plant have poisoned the water of the Kharoon and Shivnath rivers. There are frequent heated discussions, within the union on the problems arising out of this destruction in the name of industrial development.

When those working on gas boosters, accelerators, the compressor or blast furnace, complained that they could no longer hear the sweet music of the cuckoo bird (koyal), we would think that it is their bad luck and leave it at that. Though these self-evident problems are part of everyday life we were not able to relate these observations to the wider issue of environmental protection.

The Chattisgarh mines are an example of the worst havoc wreaked by destruction on the environment. The workers of CMSS firmly believe that:

1)Wherever there is injustice and oppression, there is bound to be resistance.

2)The process destruction can be countered by the creativity of construction.

The union's involvement in environmental issues began with a small incident. One day an adivasi came weeping to the union office. He said that he and some other people from his village were bringing headloads of firewood out of the forest to sell in the local market when they were stopped by a official of the forest department. The official beat the adivasi and forcibly took the firewood from him. Then, even as the adivasi watched, the official sold the firewood to someone else. The next day was the 'hariyali' (greenery) festival. The adivasi spoke of this and said despondently that now he and his children would have to go hungry during the festival.

Some of the union activists went to the City Superintendent of Police (C.S.P) in Rajhara and demanded that he take action against the forest official. After some initial resistance, the C.S.P relented, investigated the matter and had the forest official brought to the police station. When he was produced before the C.S.R, the official said: "This man (the adivasi) is destroying the jungle and we have to protect the environment. I can even start a case against him." When the union activists asked whether taking a Rs. 5 bribe for the headload of firewood made it 'legal' he denied this charge. But all the jungles have disappeared, the trade union activist pointed out, because of the saw mills. The contractors and leaders of political parties have all joined hands to wipe off the jungles. "Wasn't that damaging to the environment?" the activist asked. "Wasn't that a violation of the law? Why is it that all your laws seem to apply only to the adivasis and poor. If the protectors of the law instill insecurity and fear among the residents of the jungle, then we will have to work for the security of the adivasis through people's movements"

From that day, our union accepted a challenge and soon it began a campaign with the slogan "apne jungle ko pehchano" (know your jungle).


Soon there were weekly meetings in the union office on how to give this campaign a constructive direction. After several discussions, the following issues were identified:

1) The causes of environmental destruction will have to be analysed.

2)Consciousness on environmental issues must be developed at the national level in a comprehensive manner.

3)The rights of forest dwelling people over the forest produce and the forest must be secured, so that they will continue to feel that 'the jungle is our own'.

4)Steps will have to be taken to rectify the faulty aspects of existing forest policies and laws. By initiating alternative methods and processes at the village level, we will have to build a strong popular base for this campaign.

5)The distortions and corruptions of the administration will be challenged and opposed with full force. Suggestions will be made for better forms and means of administration.

6)Under the 'Know Your Jungle' campaign, we will have to build programmes which strengthen our relationship (rishta) with the forest.

7)Tough action will be taken against water pollution and we will demand that the administration provide clean drinking water to all by digging a sufficient number of tube-wells.

8)To curtail noise pollution, we will try to raise public consciousness against the excessive use of loud-speakers.

9)The more conscious activists of the union will try to build an understanding of the environmental movement in India and the world. They will also work to build fraternal links with the movement and prepare activists and general members to represent the union in events and activities of the movement.

10)In those industrial units where the union has some strength it will demand stricter air pollution control measures by the management. It will also fight against the problems of noise pollution and evolve a programme for workers who are suffering due to noise pollution.

11)The wastage of human and financial resources by government officials in the name of environment protection, will be vigorously opposed. Anti-labour measures in the name of environmental protection will also be opposed. The abstract approach to the environment, which fosters an anti-industrialisation climate, must also be countered with tough opposition.


The CMSS's area of work lies north of Bastar and includes the southern part of Durg District. The entire area is rich in iron ore and now has one of the most productive mines in Asia. But just 35 years ago when people went from Kusumkasa to Dondi or Bastar, they had to cross dense forests. On the way they would encounter small villages of Gond adivasis. Under the lush green canopy of trees, lived numerous species of birds and their songs filled the air. Little streams and rivulets roamed and rippled across the miles creating yet another kind of music. Children played freely. Young men and women frequently gathered to dance in the forest through the night.

Then one day some officers of the Geological Survey of India arrived in the forest. They were soon followed by a team of Russian and Indian engineers. Then there was a sudden, unexpected, thundering blast. People, birds, animals and trees alike trembled from the shock. That first blast was followed by many, many more. After this the jarring noise of the bull-dozers came to dominate over all that was before. Who knows where the koyal and peacock fled to? The drums fell silent and young people no longer danced in the forest, for there was no forests left. One by one lakhs of trees were cut and carted away. In their place sprang up scores of saw-mills.The once crystal clear, bubbling streams all turned blood red from the iron ore particles which now flowed in them.

Finally the day came when no trace of the green canopy was left. Instead, from Rajnandgaon to Durg and Raipur, grand palaces of the saw-mill owners and traders came up. The iron ore from Rajhara was smelted to make steel at the plant in Bhilai and the swirling smoke from its chimneys heralded 'development'. Upon foundations tainted by destruction, came to stand the edifice of 'new development'.

Then the cement plant was installed and the powder dust shower of cement which spread over the fields destroyed the agriculture of lakhs of farmers. Meanwhile the putrefying molasses at the newly opened distillery created an all pervasive odour Eventually all the rivers were polluted. A vile itching spread among the people who live beside these rivers. The mortality rate of cattle became unnaturally high. More and more people began flocking to the townships and cities. There amid the ceaseless noise of machines, the stink of chemical pollutants and filth, hutment colonies proliferated where people were compelled to live like insects.

The protection of the environment is now the central issue. It is the new challenge-to which we must rise.


Now when the skies darken in anticipation of rain, the peacock no longer dances spreading the full glory of his feathers. His dancing ground, the jungle has been destroyed beyond repair. And, still the felling of trees continues unabated.

Meanwhile, the concrete jungles spread their tentacles ever wider. People are learning to live in a new world of iron and brick cages. Through television, they watch the varied sights of the world within minutes. Offices of big companies hang oil paintings of jungles and beautiful adivasi women - and this is meant to project their appreciation of adivasi culture. When they feel bored, the people of this world go to Darjeeling or to Goa -- to watch the sunset over the Arabian sea.

Back in the villages, the night is still dark and sometimes the young people dance and sing. "When you city people sleep," they say," we sing and dance as companions of the moon".

What a difference. When truck loads are, continuously carting the jungle away to the cities and the bamboo is vanishing into the paper mills, it becomes difficult to workout how national awareness on the environment can be created.

People all over this fast shrinking world are worried about the environment. The damage to the global environment is so severe that we can well ask how the five trees in my home or a few dozen bushes in the 'basti' are going to help save the environment. It is true that the public consciousness is not moved by statistics alone. Yet the need for creative action demands that we combine logic and statistics with our emotive response to the environmental crisis. It is only from such a combination that a national consciousness about the environment will emerge.

The union has thus substituted the word 'environment' with the word 'nature' — that which has been there from even before our ancestors. We have no right to destroy the air which our ancestors breathed and the crystal clear waters with which they quenched their thirst. This river, this air, this mountain, this jungle, these chirping birds -- this is our land (desh). We will take the help of science to move our world forward, but we will also ensure that the rivers remain clean and flow freely and that there is pure invigorating air. We will always need to hear the melodies of birds which kept our ancestors one with nature.

In the society we want to build, love for people of the country will be seen as an act of love for the nation and love for nature would be considered patriotic. This is the kind of national consciousness we need, to save the environment.

It is common knowledge that people who lived hundreds of miles away from the forests, came here as traders and merchants to loot the trees and became millionaires. They are in league with the forest officials. Most of them have some close relative who is a powerful politician. They own several trucks and often saw mills as well. Some of them are themselves forest contractors. Their every moment is consumed by the pursuit of narrow self-interest. The forest dwellers in India are primarily adivasis who have never used the forest and its products for narrow self-interest or out of greed. But today, even to use forest produce for their minimal daily needs, they have to bribe forest officials and workers.


Public or collective interest and national interest are all complementary to each other. But, at the time of formulating legislation on the forests, the collective interests of the adivasi communities are not taken into account. The first Forest Act was enacted by the British in 1817. This marked the beginning of the long drawn-out calamity which continues to unfold even today. These laws, which made indigenous residents aliens in their own natural habitat, were a direct attack on the adivasis.

The adivasis could no longer say with pride 'this is our jungle'. So it came to pass that the forest was orphaned, without a mother or a father. In the hands of the bureaucracy, the forest laws have become instruments for establishing freedoms of forest officers. Reform of the Forest Laws is a dire necessity.

Clearly there is a need to identify the real robbers of the forest. A list should be made of all the millions of plants and leaves in the forests. Then the laws must be framed in a manner that requires full participation of forest dwelling villagers in their implementation. The local people must be prime beneficiaries of all the forest produce -- like the Tendu leaves, Bel, Char, Salpi, Mahua and numerous medicinal plants. The fuel-wood needs of farmers dwelling near the forests must also be taken into account. The right of the adivasis to cut trees for building their homes must also be protected by law, even if they are required to pay for it.

To some extent these needs have been provided for in the current Forest Act. But the procedures for its implementation are complicated. The inefficiency, irresponsibility and unrestrained corruption of the forest officials and other workers makes things still worse. An effective forest policy that protects the interests of adivasis must take this into account.

When the people are able to feel and know that the jungle is truly theirs, from that day every one of them - even the little children -- will keep a watchful eye and protect the forests. Then the forest thieves will be stopped and the ills created by useless and irresponsible officials will be undone. When the forest becomes a means of preserving collective well-being then all its dwellers will act against every stroke of any axe used to cut trees illegally. Such protection of community interest will in turn secure the national interest. This will not only protect the environment but also guarantee the future of humanity.

The union has taken up these issues in discussions with officials. Where necessary agitations have also been launched to protect the interests of adivasis and curb forest thieves. Some ten years ago there was a problem in Salhetola village, where a near-by saw mill was cutting all the Sagwan trees in the area. The villagers complained to the police, to the forest department and politicians, but none responded to their pleas. Then the union suggested a big function at which some trees would be planted amid much fanfare. This had both symbolic and practical value, plus the large gathering of people served as a show of strength. After this function the Sagwan robbers of never came back.


The need for protecting the environment has been recognised from the early stages of industrial development. The smoke and foul gases spewed by factories can partly be off-set if a balance is maintained by preserving the forests. But if the forests are treated only as raw material for the industries and wiped out then how will this balance be maintained? Under the current forest policy, eucalyptus, nilgiri, and pine trees are being planted in large numbers because of their commercial uses in industry. Such trees and the large-scale monoculture plantations, which current policies foster, cannot save our forests.

1) The union has discussed, at length, the effects of such monoculture plantation and fought against them. Even the monoculture planting of Sagwan is not healthy, for no grass grows where the large leaves of this tree fall and cover the ground. The union has repeatedly shared these observations with the Forest Department and made suggestions for corrective action.

2) While the monoculture plantations are favoured by government policy with funds coming even from the World Bank, the cutting of natural forests with all their natural diversity continues unabated. Piled high in timber depots these trees are proudly displayed as 'production'. There is competition among officials to show annual increases in such production. So long as 'production' is defined in these terms, the forests will keep vanishing.

3)There must be strict prohibition against the cutting of Mahua, Char, Tendu and other such trees. This ban will help the natural reproduction of these trees to increase. Since the livelihood needs of the local people depend largely on these trees, their protection will ensure the overall economic balance of forest dwelling communities. This alone can guarantee the survival of the forest.

4)There should be research into the medicinal and other chemical properties of various trees and herbs in each forest area. This will help in giving special attention to the preservation of such plants.

5)Often there is news about a tiger, lion or other wild animal in a sanctuary attacking and killing local dwellers. Then hunters are called in to kill the man-eater and under this pretext many other lions and tigers are killed. The problem of man-eating wildlife is further evidence of how the natural balance has been upset. The animals attack people because their natural prey --wild boars, deers, rabbits etc. -- have become scarce. Thus all efforts must be made to restore the natural balance and the Union has undertaken programmes for this purpose.

6)Large dams are submerging vast areas of forest and destroying many precious trees which grow under special conditions. Any project that leads to the destruction of trees like the Lac and the Sal must be opposed. For this reason our union is opposed to the Bodhghat Dam. The union also opposed the construction of the Mongra Dam in Rajnandgaon District because it involved large scale deforestation. A song, written by a labourer who is a member of the union, "Mongra ke bandh banan devo nahin bhaiya", urging people not to allow the dam to be built became vastly popular because of this struggle.


Issues that are easily understood by ordinary people are often beyond the comprehension of bureaucrats and officials. For example, when people propose a small check dam on a stream or river, even if the Revenue Department has no objections the Forest Department actively opposes the scheme. Such small dams can enhance efforts to add to the forest growth and are also a watering source for animals. But unlike the big dam projects, the small schemes do not bring any profit to the forest officials. When a big dam is built there is usually large scale 'production' of timber from the area about to be submerged. Nevertheless, in some places, like Tuygodi and Jugera, the union has been successful in having small dams built.

Rain water flowing out of the iron ore mines carries a fine silt of the ore into the surrounding area where it spreads in a thin layer over the top soil, destroying the productivity of the land. The union led a struggle and got compensation for the affected farmers. It also made efforts to redirect the flow of water out of the mine, in order to prevent it from destroying cultivable lands.

Coordination between the various government departments is usually poor. This is a major deterrent to the search for innovative solutions to problems. For example, certain lands in a village, particularly grazing lands, are often under dispute. The powerful people of the village tend to grab control of such lands. Often 'camps' are formed in the village around such disputes and these conflicts can even lead to bloodshed. Government policies have called for coordinated efforts by the Revenue Department and the Forest Department, for planting useful trees on these disputed lands. Schemes of this kind can also generate such good grazing lands for cattle that there could be an 'Operation Flood' here.

But who is to take the responsibility for making this a reality. A people's movement alone is not enough. This dream, cannot be realised until a sensitive environmental perspective influences the thinking of the bureaucracy and the political leadership. The union is making sustained efforts to foster debate on the development of such a perspective.

There is a great-deal of noise being made today about the environmental crisis, but there is still little evidence of long term efforts that can make a difference. The protection of the environment necessarily demands sustained long-term programmes. The close involvement of local people is equally essential. For then such efforts can also be instrumental in the progress of adivasi communities. There is need for a new national level government organisation to undertake this work. Just as there are police stations everywhere, there should be 'environment stations' (thana). Today there are 15 crore unemployed people in India. Under the new environmental programme it should be possible to give work to at least 50 lakh of these people. This organisation would have to be run by environmentally sensitive people.


When a distant relative whom we have never seen dies, we are not as upset as we are when tragedy strikes someone in our neighborhood, whom we have known and seen for many years. Our relationship with and attachment to the jungle is also similar. If I don't know the jungle very well I may inadvertently destroy a fledgling Sagwan tree. Therefore about seven years ago the union launched the 'Know Your Jungle' campaign. This on-going programme includes:

1)Selective planting of trees that have domestic uses, like: Bamboo, Salphi, Mahua, Mango, Jamun, Parhar, Seesham, Ber, Sagwan, Neem, Karra, etc.

2)Such trees that are commercially useful and are grown in plantations, such as -- cashew, sandalwood, and various kinds of eucalyptus.

3)As part of the 'Revive the Jungle' programme, the planting of lime trees, Karanj, Karonda and a certain kind of Arhar which has a bush that lasts about three to four years.

Over the last seven year the union has nurtured a small patch of forest near the union office as an example of what is possible. Here several varieties of trees have been planted, such as -- Khamhar, Kadam, Almond, Raintree, Coconut.

The union members now proudly call it 'Hamara Jungle'. Through this programme we were not only able to make creative use of the free land around the union office but also evoke interest among the union members. Soon they began planting trees around their own homes. Where earlier there was no greenery in sight today many areas where workers live are lush green because of the trees planted by them.

In the process we also gained a closer understanding of the government's tree planting schemes. We concluded that only 40% of the trees planted in such programmes survive, because the local people are not involved in nurturing them.

If a programme of tree plantation is undertaken with the full participation of the people, the break-down of trees planted would be as follows:

Bamboo:  15% -- used by people to build homes.
Local varieties: 35% -- including Char, Mahua, Bael, Awala, Kaad.

Commercial Varieties: 20% - Rookh, Arhar, Almond, Cashew, Sandalwood, Lime, Neem, Jamun, Mango etc.
Varieties promoted in Government schemes: 30% .

The trees grown under the 'Know Your Jungle' programme now have little sign-boards on them giving the local name of the tree, its Hindi name and botanical name. We have also collected information on the botanical families by which different species of trees are related to each other. This has helped to generate a fuller understanding of the trees, especially among school children who are thus able to expand upon what they learn in school.The union is also planning to bring out booklets about the uses of these trees and how much oxygen each produces.

Through the 'Know Your Jungle' programme we were able to build an understanding of our most reliable companions -- trees. Along with this understanding the planting and preserving of trees has been popularised, which alone can guarantee the protection of the environment. The campaign still continues with whatever limited resources the union has.


In Dalli-Rajhara life has revolved around the Dalli and Jharan streams for centuries. The names of many villages are in some way related to the streams. Even today people in this area depend on these streams for their daily needs. When these streams became polluted the union took up this issue, demanded action from the authorities and got some results. Today instead of being blood red the water in these streams is orange coloured.

The union also succeeded in getting 89 tube-wells dug in the part of Dalli-Rajhara where the workers live. It is now striving to ensure similar safe drinking water facilities in the surrounding rural areas.

The union also plans to launch an agitation against the pollution of the Shivnath River by the Kedia distillery. This agitation will require the involvement and support of workers, farmers, intellectuals and environmentalists in large numbers.


Fifteen years ago when workers in Dalli-Rajhara earned about Rs.3 a day there was no social problem of noise pollution. Prolonged struggle by the union succeeded in raising the wages. Now the minimum wage of workers is around Rs.70. As wages increased people began making frequent use of loud-speakers - playing film songs at full blast on various festive and ceremonial occasions. Even shopkeepers began to make regular use of loud-speakers. Before long noise pollution had become a major public hazard in Dalli-Rajhara.

Through its neighborhood committees the union has been campaigning to raise public awareness about the harmful effects of noise pollution. The health workers of Shaheed Hospital have also been actively involved in this campaign, which aims to reduce the use of loud-speakers.


For centuries poets and writers have described the glories of nature. In our land too there are many great such works of poetry and other literature. Knowledge of and familiarity with such literature can form a powerful emotional foundation for environmental protection.

Today all over the world scientists quote complicated statistics to describe and explain why they are deeply worried about the environment. Union members discuss these findings and strengthen their own understanding of the problem. We also make an effort to collect detailed information on environmental movements.

In Tehri the enemies of nature have been working hard to destroy the balance and harmony of nature. We value and share Pandit Sunderlal Bahuguna's ideas and work, and are in solidarity with him. The Chipko Movement inspires us and we consider it a revolutionary movement. Since the 'No Dam' movement began in the Narmada Valley our union's people have gone there and wholeheartedly joined the struggle under the leadership of Baba Amte. The success of environmentalists in stopping the construction of the Silent Valley Dam in Kerala fills us with hope. We feel one with the spirit of the American Indians and their love of nature and their motherland.

The workers feel a sense of solidarity with all those in environmental struggles. We feel they are part of our family and we try to raise our voices along with theirs in unison.


Even the management of the Bhilai Steel Plant could not ignore the rising environmental consciousness of the workers. Earlier the management was indifferent and uncaring. There was always a fine dust flying in the air from all the unpaved roads and denuded areas. Medical tests showed that many workers were beginning to suffer from silicosis.The union demanded that the management do something about the problem. In the Rajnandgaon textile mill also the union made special efforts of this kind. Now in the mines and roads of Dalli-Rajhara the management is sprinkling water to cut down on the flying dust. Miners who suffered ear damage due to noise pollution at the work place have also been given E.N.T. treatment, due to the union's efforts.

Once upon a time there was a king. He was very worried about the corrupt ways of one of his ministers. The King transferred this minister to a remote place by the sea shore thinking that there he would not have any opportunities to gain wealth by wrongful means. But when the Minister reached his new post by the sea shore he took upon himself the task of counting the waves. Then from each ship that passed that way he charged a fine because it disturbed his 'task' of wave counting. And so the minister became very wealthy just counting waves. There is no shortage of wave counting officials in our country. This kind of 'counting' is going on even in the name of environmental protection. Large industrial units like the Bhilai Steel Plant now have 'Environment Departments'. Those officials who have no interest in any other department are posted to the environmental wing. They give out contracts in the name of tree plantation, where little effort is made to ensure the survival of the trees. The union is firmly opposing such programmes.

Private companies like Simplex Engineering, V.K.Engineering and others take plots from the government for planting trees and then gradually convert the land to their own private use. The union is actively fighting against this kind of corruption.

When the management of the Bhilai Steel Plant was planning to mechanise its mines at Dalli, some years back they claimed this would be environmentally beneficial. The union was able to show their claims to be false. You cannot expect to grow trees on land where no top-soil is left.

These days, anti-industrialisation ideas also appear in the guise of environmental protection.The union opposes such ideas.

The truth is that we will have to protect our earth and our planet. The trees, plants, clean drinking water, clean air, birds and animals and human beings - together all of us form part of this world. Through sensitive ideas and flexible programmes we will have to maintain a balance in nature and in science and this can be done on the basis of the development of people's consciousness.

-  Translated  by  Rajani  Bakshi
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