“My father was arrested because of me. My work as a journalist and my involvement in bringing to light issues faced by adivasis in Bastar had consequences. Over the years, my family paid a heavy price. The men in uniform barged into my home. They couldn’t find me. So, they took my father away. The villagers stood by us. They surrounded the police station and demanded that they release him at once. My father came back home that night. Not everyone has that privilege, you know. Many don’t come back to their families. Some never return alive. And, some we may never know what happened to them,” says Mangal wiping his hands on a piece of cloth as he led us towards a settlement behind a cluster of mahua trees.
Here, in the forests, the sun remained hidden. In burrows, there lay creatures and insects that seldom made their appearance today. Save our footsteps, nothing rattled the dead twigs and branches strewn all over the ground. Now and then, shadows flitted across barks of trees; and the dim roar of engines faded in moments. A steep path ran down to farmlands adjacent to the road. At this hour, in Kirandul, there was no one in sight.
The rustle of dead leaves ricocheted in a distance. “Many have come and gone,” he said breaking our reverie, “Some even won national awards. All these big reporters who live in the cities know me. I soon realised I had to take a step back and perhaps make some compromises in my journey. I couldn’t let my family suffer. However, it didn’t stop me from ensuring that our voices were heard. Some reporters have now become my friends. Many don’t stay in touch. For some people, it’s all about the story. In the end, that’s all we are: stories, reports and data.”
Fixers and handlers: they called people like him. We saw him many times over the years. Two years ago, at the railway crossing in Dantewada, we crossed paths again. His trademark aviators hung in his pocket. “I am heading to a meeting. I will see you around,” he said riding away from us.
Sudru Ram Kunjam expected no visitors today. There was barely anyone who knocked on his doors these days. The faint fragrance of ground spices, charred wood and smoke wafted in the air. Amidst piles of firewood in the corner were rocks and pebbles. Running hither and thither in the distance were children whose laughter echoed in the air.
Project number 8, Mine no. 14, Project number 13, Meyapal: we caught strings of phrases and broken words escaping from Mangal’s conversation, a few moments earlier. He was bothered, we could tell. We heard anklets and the distant screeching of birds in flight. The crinkles around Sudru’s eyes deepened as he studied our clothes. “I have seen people carrying motorcycles on their shoulders to cross the entire stretch leading to their village. It is impossible to walk on those roads without falling down. It’s nothing but a pile of red dust. That’s all you see everywhere: broken mountains and dust,” he said offering us a mug of water and inquiring if we were hurt, “When NMDC and their big machines arrived in these regions, the forests disappeared, our soil turned lifeless, and we lost our homes. Some of the people who lost their land and homes were compensated with jobs. How much will a watchman earn? How will they eat? What will they grow? Below the hills, there are settlements that never received anything. A few educated men roam aimlessly in these lands. There’s no employment for adivasis here. We have no place amidst them. Do you know that 567 farmers have lost their farms so far? When it rains, red water flows from the mountains destroying everything in its path.”
Ever since the first revolt against mining companies began in these regions, only once were the villagers compensated for their loss. “That’s all,” said Sudru with disdain. Some received 60,000. Others got 100,000. Ours homes, land and lives were tallied with money. And, we all waited; waited for those in power to gauge our worthiness. “People were compensated for their loss with payments upto 3 lakhs. This was for the four years of struggles they went through. What about losses incurred before that? We wrote a letter to the collector informing him of the same. Now, they have begun a fresh survey of areas affected by mining.”
Sudru was released from jail a while ago. There were several alleged false cases filed against him. He fell silent again. He looked at us, through us, and sometimes away from us. And, there it was again: a sense of aloofness that we had witnessed in their eyes many times over. “We would gherao NMDC more than often. We wanted their people to know the truth. We wanted them to know what happened to us, our villages and our farmlands. We wanted to let them know what was happening on ground. We were fighting over issues related to rightful employment given to members of those families who were displaced, and the compensation they never got for destroyed farmlands. I was arrested by the police. They called me Maovadi and claimed that I was involved in incidents that had devastating consequences including loss of lives.”
In 2010, a few days after the gruesome attack on Congress leader Avdesh Singh Gautam’s house in Kuakonda where two men were killed and two other persons injured, Sudru Ram Kunjam, Channu Ram Mandavi, Annu Futane alias Anil Kumar, Aanda, Harish Podiyami, and Ramu Bhaskar were arrested by the police. Back then, Sudru was a prominent member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Dantewada District Panchayat.
“Apparently, Maoist cadres had attacked a police station too. They said I orchestrated the whole event. A vehicle was set ablaze in the adjacent area. They blamed that on me too. Maoists planted a crude bomb to blow up a bridge somewhere else. Then, there was a blast at the Tehsil office. According to them, I was involved in all these incidents. I was in jail for three years. I believe both the NMDC and Union members were also responsible for my arrest. With the latter, a few of us had demanded that employment must be only given to people who lived in those villages affected by mining. Instead the union accepted and demanded bribes from outsiders and ensured that none of the adivasis benefited from any of the schemes. ‘You are all dalals,’ I told them,” he said adding further, “Perhaps, they didn’t like to hear it. They were miffed with me. The business men residing here too exploit naïve tribal people. For instance, our forest produce such as imli, tora and mahua are never weighed appropriately. They use rocks that often given incorrect measurements thereby resulting in immeasurable losses for the poor tribal farmer. We wrote to government officials informing them of what was happening here. When they crossed all limits, we even got into a fight with some of these traders. Also, whatever funds are released to both the Janpad and Zila Panchayat are never really put to any good use. They do a shoddy job with the projects implemented in these regions and conveniently blame it on Maoist terror while pocketing the funds. If you have to build a school in a village, appropriate tenders for construction will be issued to contractors. However, no one will ever set foot in these villages to build schools. Both contractors and officials work hand in glove with one another. They inform the government that they were unable to build anything here due to alleged interference by Maoist cadres. That’s how they destroy the reputation of villages. They then misuse the funds meant for development of villages.” He raised their voices against them: all of them; the babus who occupied powerful positions.
Sudru spent three years in jail waiting for the hearing. He had no choice. When the police arrested him, they had filed one case against his alleged involvement in an incident. However, a few days later, he learnt that there were at least seven or eight cases against him. “In fact, some of these events occurred when I was in jail. How then could I have orchestrated and partaken in them? The magistrate upon hearing my case burst out laughing when I informed him that I was in jail when many of these incidents happened. The police just wanted to make sure that I never get released. We were acquitted of all charges. There are many cases like mine. If someone is brutally murdered in a village or if the army was attacked by Maoist cadres, adivasis living in the vicinity suffer the worst. There are people who have borne witness to gruesome acts committed by both the Maoists and army. Innocent villagers are arrested. Some make it to the jails. Some don’t. Some are treated as criminals. Some get acquitted. The dead are often declared as terrorists. ‘They were killed in an encounter. They were killed while attacking police personnel’: that’s what they tell their loved ones. And, families bear the consequences for the rest of their lives. Corpses are tossed from Kirandul station to Bacheli, Bhansi and even Nakulnar till the family finally manages to track them down. And, they’ll never know how their loved ones died.”
Yes, they kill them by their bullets, by their words, by their indifference.
Sometimes, death comes quicker. At times, it lingers…
“The state wants to end Maoist terror. The Maoists want to overthrow the state. So far, neither the former nor the latter have been able to cause any harm to the powerful men and women in control from either sides. The ones who pay a heavy price are the advisasis of Bastar. Their struggle and their battle for freedom have resulted in severe loss of lives within our communities. Tribal people are stuck in between,” he said folding his arms across his chest.
And, they will be for a very long time. For years, they have seen bloodshed, corruption, greed and selfishness rip apart their society before their eyes. Seldom it seems that their remorse and grief will wither over time. An entire generation born and raised during the conflict often seek refuge in silence. We crossed paths with them toddlers and teenagers who barely spoke above a whisper lest they are heard, whose eyes did not follow us wherever we went. Their laughter did not echo in the halls of their school. Fear does that to one. It engulfs and grips every fleeting moment as it roams these lands.
“I have served as a people’s representative for the last 20 years: three years as Janpad member and five years as zilla panchayat member. We would submit proposals for numerous projects. What would eventually get implemented would bear no resemblance to our suggestions. Nobody wants to pay any attention to villagers. Their needs are secondary. We ask for roads. They will construct buildings. We ask for schools. They will build bridges elsewhere. By merely building roads and bridges, we aren’t walking the path of progress. We also need electricity, water and medical facilities. What is the point of having representatives on ground to bring to light issues when nobody wishes to truly address them?” he asked gesturing for us to sit beside him.
He went on for a while. He spoke about suppression, deliberate subversion of concerns and false hope. In protest, they block roads and raise slogans against those in power. At times, they marched with their fists held high in the air. In retaliation, the police would file false charges against them.
“Lathi charge karna ya jail bhejna. They would use brute force to ensure that we remained silent. That’s all they want us to do: suffer in silence,” he said. Once, he was in the presence of officials from 32 regions including the collector and other ‘influential’ personnel. When he brought up some of the issues that continued to remain unaddressed in these regions, the zilla CEO walked away from him. In a while, the collector left the room. “Who then would listen to us? In the next meeting, I raised similar concerns and told them that they don’t listen to us. They then retorted by saying that I speak too much and others deserved a chance too. These IAS officers are incredibly smart. We get entangled in their words and phrases,” he said as he placed his legs on the floor, “Our politicians are no better. Tall promises made during campaigns remain unfulfilled. Some never set foot in these villages again. If they all kept their promises, we would see progress. This region would have thrived. We wouldn’t be struggling the way we are.”
A while ago, Sudru mentioned that they had brought the NMDC plant to a complete halt for 48 hours. The company disagreed with their demands. They refused to listen to them. They didn’t deem it important. None of the units functioned then. One morning, as villagers gathered to fill water, they realised they had none. They cut the connection supplying clean drinking water to their homes. “The chairman arrived in an airplane, I remember. This irked the local employees who were in-charge of operations here. This was one of the reasons why I was thrown in jail. As a part of Parichetra Vikas Vidhi funds, 700 crore rupees was set aside for work here . At that time, we held a meeting with both the General Managers of the projects along with the government and came to an agreement that the aforementioned funds would be mobilised towards overall development of the region within one or two years. With the support of the collector, work began gradually towards everything we had hoped that would be implemented here. They threw me in jail. The collector was promoted, and shifted elsewhere. Not even 100 crores was spent here. Since then, all CSR funding goes to the centre which is then allocated and distributed to the state. By the time, it reaches rural areas, everything disappears at the zila level. Look around you! Does it seem like we are walking the path of progress?” he asked placing his arms behind his back. We walked for a while in his courtyard as he pointed at clusters of trees in the distance and engaged in deep conversations with Mangal.
His feud, he said, wasn’t with the act of mining or industrialisation. “We are dependent on technology too,” he said, “However, we must work towards implementing an ethical system in place when it comes to mining. Forests must be replenished. Land and water can’t be destroyed.” He spoke of ethics and the importance of maintaining a modicum of decency. He hoped for them to honour humanity and not treat adivasis as a means to an end.
For, they weren’t endings or pathways. They weren’t records or data.
They were human.
Yes, they deserved that much; to be treated as human beings.
A few hours later, as we drove away from Kirandul, we reminisced about our time with them. We thought about what they said to us all afternoon. It reaffirmed our deductions we had inferred in Bastar over and over again. Locals often resist and deny mining companies the privilege to set up their base and operations in villages for they have borne witness to the devastating impact of mining on families, communities, and forests. Therefore, tribal communities believe that the process inevitably results in loss of life, destruction of land and will bring forth immense suffering and agony to the local population. If both the Government and mining corporations practised ethical mining and addressed environmental concerns as well as issues of affected communities, then people would have developed a different attitude towards the implementation of such operations.
Understandably, communities are skeptical and fearful of mining. On the other hand, imposing a blanket ban and blind opposition of any and all mining operations by tribal and environmental activists too are impractical. With increasing population, our dependence on industries and technology, the demand for minerals in order to supplement the lifestyle that we all partake in requires mining to be undertaken in a significant manner.
However, in order to see fundamental changes in the way we function including perpetuating an environmentally sustainable mode of operation, there must be a civilizational shift in society. It is imperative that activists focus on ensuring that all codes of ethics and morality are upheld and government as well as mining companies respect these practices instead of flouting rules to maximise profits at the cost of the environment, animals and human beings.
“I didn’t give up the fight,” he said masking the remorse that crept slightly across his face, “It’s understandable if people do. It isn’t easy you know to rise once you are beaten down; to be constantly reminded that you aren’t worth their attention.”
“Did you ever think about it?”
“Giving it all up.”
“Perhaps. But I didn’t. I can’t witness the injustice anymore. I can’t bear to see it. Every other day, we are violated and stripped of our rights, our dignity. During the weekly bazaar, our people take roosters, hens and sometimes even goats. They are paid half of what they deserve. However, when we buy from traders we are charged double the original price. Be it our produce, our forests, our land, our homes or even our lives, someone else decides their worth. Take a look at what happened in my own village. We took them to every street corner and showed them the state of our roads. After that, tenders were assigned for repairing and building a stretch of 7 kms of which eventually just 3 kms was tarred. They then stopped the work. We even wrote to our collector informing him that the contractors had done a shoddy job. He said there would be legal action and cases filed against them. Nothing happened. They shut down operations on those roads. The last time we visited the collector, he said: We don’t have the funds right now. We will take a look at it in the next budget. The contractors were never punished. Everyone got away.”
He walked us to our car. He never said anything else. He asked us where our home was. We told him we didn’t have one and yet we had many everywhere. He smiled and held his hands in the air for a while.
“You have been here long enough. You will understand Bastar before you leave. At least, you came to see us. Many don’t. There’s an air of fear about these lands, you know. May the Goddess protect you wherever you are.”
In the coming years, we read his name in the papers. Sudru had contested as an independent candidate, and lost the elections. Two years later, when we drove through Kirandul, we thought about him, his village and the cluster of trees that hid the sun that afternoon.
We never met again.
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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