Monday, November 30, 2009

How Chhattisgarh shames "us" – dreams , nightmares and our dark underbellies
Garga Chatterjee

"As a person born and brought up in Bastar I have been studying the recent happenings in this district with deep concern and I have come to the conclusion that in the long drawn out battle of nerves between the Government and you-know-who, the obvious casualty is the poor Adivasi, who has been constantly ignored and misunderstood. The Government has completely failed in understanding the sentiments of the people of this region. Economically depressed, and perpetually exploited by the urban settlers, these tribals are easy prey to the corrupt and high-handed administrative and police machinery. As a result, a permanent wedge has been driven between them and the Government. Community development schemes and tribal welfare departments of doubtful utility will not save the situation" - reads a letter by a certain S R Naidu to the editor of a weekly magazine.

Of late, most of us have heard similar views which seek to paint the state as a corrupt force, ruling by police intervention in Chhattisgarh. Such writers do not want to understand that development schemes take time to show effect and harbour sympathy for the Maoists at their root - right? Wrong. S R Naidu was really talking about Prabir Chandra Bhanj Deo, local Member of the Legislative Assembly and ex-ruler of the area. The letter was published on 6th May in NOW - a political and cultural weekly. In 1966.

Looking into the thoughts that rushed through our heads and the conclusions we made before we were told it was 1966 can give us a few insights into the automated consumers of packaged "information" we have become. None of this is new - not the packaging nor the consumption. Naxalbari in 1966 was still an unknown village in Darjeeling district. There were no armed Maoists in India then. In the 1967 general elections, in Bastar, Congress came fifth after two independents (including the winner), Jan Sangh and the Samyukta Socialist Party candidates. Times change. Or do they?

In 1967, 40 percent of the 20 million babies born in India each year were projected to eventually suffer from some degree of brain damage. The International Food Policy Research Institute in its 2008 India State Hunger Index classified the state of hunger in Chhattisgarh as "alarming". The best performance came from Punjab, classified as "serious", a notch better. An Indira Congress minister admitted to Time magazine in an interview in 1967 "we are producing millions of subhumans annually". That minister's name was Chidambaram – Chidambaram Subramanium. He died in 2000. We have a different Chidambaram – P Chidambaram ruling over this hungry multitude.Times change.

Some of the subhuman babies of 1967 are 38 years old now. What creatures have they developed into? Some of them inhabit Chhattisgarh. According to the much-denounced Arjun Sengupta commission report, in 2004-05, a total of 836 million (77 percent of the population) lived on below INR 20 a day. To people caught between 20-20, Sensex and MacAloo Tikki, these numbers come as anti-national conspiracies to denigrate the emerging giant that is India. What image are we projecting to the world - we ask detractors. Shouldn't we be united in this hour of initiation at the big table? We are preoccupied with what the world thinks of us. I wonder what do those millions of subhumans think of us - what do they think of our cafés, our news anchors, our "sufi" music, our engineering colleges, our BPO "revolution", our Dial-a-pizza.

When the sun goes down in Chhattisgarh tonight, when one of the subhuman women tries to close her eyes in sleep - what does she see. Does she dream that a four-lane highway come to her village? Are there cars on those roads? Is that me at the steering wheel of one of those cars? or is that you? How do we appear to these creatures in their dreams and nightmares - do we look human?

Abujhmad for the Gonds of Chhattisgarh is the unknown forest. For the Madia Gonds, this is their universe and reality of existence - the forest holding within itself chronicles, snake-bites, culture and much more. And this reality permeates much of Madia Desh [what is true?]. In 1978-1998, 91 percent of the Madia Gonds lived below the poverty. These are the people of whom Verrier Elwin wrote "These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old." Our cities are expanding - our gated communities need iron gates and wrought iron furniture is all the rage. Our eyeing at their land and the iron-ore beneath them is not new - their eyeing us back is not new either. They have been there since the Iron Age. They are not "innocent" tribals - they have never been. No human is. Those of us, living in sun-lit megalopolis, who learn the past from history books with worlds as broad as TV channels, feel distinctly uneasy about all this talk of moral rights and thousand-year-old claims. We know of our high cholesterol and lack of exercise epidemics, while overworked anaemic Gonds live in our republic. The possibility of a connection is bound to be distinctly unpalatable. I might even change the channel.

Godless ideologues of the Maoist variety, who possibly imagine the ghotuls, or youth dormitories, as future Red-Guard communes, are now arming the Gonds for their own violent ideological ends - pawns in their macabre "revolutionary" game. But what paths have we left for the Gonds - we, who think that an armed Gond is unnatural but a hungry Gond is natural. What happens when all that constitutes a people's dignity - Gods, histories, grandmother's tales, stubbornness, honour, ghotuls, groves, hills – have been off? Should they apply for a stay-order through the proper channel, in triplicate? Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian if there ever was one, and an untiring satyagrahi in Chhattisgarh, says with a sad rage "For how long will middle class ‘bhadralok’ remain silent spectators to the State’s colonization of tribal territory to subsidize urban growth in the name of ‘tribal development'?" It does not portend well for our democratic society.

During a showing of his documentary on the NGO Narmada Bachao Andolan, film-maker Sanjay Kak told me in almost a resigned voice that he was possibly filming an obituary of non-violent struggles in India. Is Himanshu Kumar a voice in the wilderness? Have we finally accomplished what Nathuram Godse tried to do? In these troubled times, Himanshu Kumar and his satyagrahi ways might actually appear insane to those deeply entrenched in urban society. Like some Aztec shaaman in a trance, Himanshu Kumar is talking a language which appears eeriely unfamiliar to us – non-violence, dignity, humanity.

In 1966, Prabir Chandra Bhanj Deo led the Bastar Gonds into a non-violent struggle for famine relief and cheaper rice against the Madhya Pradesh government. The government declared he was insane and finally shot him dead at his home along with many of his supporters when the Gonds had come to greet him during dusshera. The Gonds still revere his memory and were recently dispersed by force on his memorial day. That is how that story ended. I shudder at what new story ideas our collective greed is coming up with. We have no shame.

“The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” - Milan Kundera

Garga Chatterjee is a researcher at Harvard University and an observer of contemporary power, self-identities and plurality in the Indic context. He used to be a physician but now investigation into the psyche dominates his mind.