Chhattisgarh government is unable to accept the right to protest and unwilling to hear the people’s voice.
By going to town as the Chhattisgarh police and media have recently done on my alleged Maoist links, the real questions have been sidelined. As citizens of this country, do we have the right to protest democratically and constitutionally, and as journalists, researchers or human rights activists, are we free to pursue our vocation?
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The police arrested one Badri Gawde on January 23, and paraded him before the media four days later, after his family had filed a missing report. Puffy faced, and barely able to keep his eyes open, Gawde “revealed” to the media that I was working on behalf of the Maoists to oppose the mines and railway line that are to come up in the Raoghat area of the state. The activities that my doppelgänger is up to, such as leading the Raoghat Rail Sangharsh Samiti in faraway Chhattisgarh, even as my mundane self takes classes in Delhi, amazes me. If only I had that much energy and time.
Like many young men in conflict areas, Gawde is a man of many parts. Stylishly dressed, and with political ambition, Gawde is active both with the Congress and in local Gond community politics, which involved supporting Vikram Usendi, the Gond BJP candidate in the assembly elections against the Halba Congress candidate. But being political in these parts also means, perforce, keeping up with the Maoists. In November 2013, soon after the assembly elections, I visited Bastar as part of my research on counterinsurgency and democracy. With me was a friend with ancestral roots in Narayanpur-Antagarh. Badri mentioned that he was going to meet a Maoist leader, and asked if we would like to come. Since this was a rare opportunity for us, we went along.
While the Maoists have often given access to embedded journalists and others, they have been deeply resentful of my criticism of them. If meeting a Maoist is a crime, then dozens of journalists should be instantly arrested. Can it be anyone’s case that there is a different law for journalists and a different one for scholars, each of whom contributes to information and knowledge dissemination, but in different ways? On that same visit, incidentally, I also met a senior police officer.
Our meeting with the young Maoist, who had a childlike face and giggled frequently, lasted an hour or so. We discussed the implications of the Raoghat mines of course, because it would be impossible not to, but also Godse versus Gandhi, local gods and customs, and his own life history. I came away from that meeting with a sense of great sadness, after having travelled through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen — mist covered mountains blue-green with trees, and clear pebbled streams. Badri pointed out a special tree from which alone the Anga Deo, or the log god, can be fashioned.
This area deserves to be treated as a national biodiversity paradise rather than mined into a wasteland. It has a unique expression of Indic religion unavailable anywhere else in the world, described by Verrier Elwin as “a special and characteristic faith”. Each hilltop houses a clan god, and people come from faraway places in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to their clan festivals every few years. People are immensely proud of their culture. And yet the fake gram sabha certificates, which the government has produced as evidence of popular consent, all state in identical language that there is nothing of cultural or religious value in the area. This is a Fifth Schedule area, yet none of the safeguards that the Constitution affords in the form of PESA or the Forest Rights Act have been followed.
Part of the sadness I felt is that while people think the Maoists are saving the land, they are hardly the answer. The government, however, appears insistent on stopping all peaceful protest, and violating every law to ensure the mines come up. Ten years ago, when the mines were still emerging, the police made people deposit their bows and arrows in the thana, and entire villages now have no means to defend themselves against wild animals. There are ghost villages of women and children, because all the men have been arrested. Twenty-two CRPF camps have come up in the area financed by the Bhilai Steel Plant. Ostensibly, the mines will be used by the public sector, but large private players are waiting in the wings. Those who have not been arrested are being silenced through civic action programmes.
Sadly for democratic politics, the post-1947 government has inherited, among other things, a colonial theory of incitement. Unable to accept that people have a legitimate right to safeguard their lives, they are always looking for conspirators to explain resistance. In this case, the aim is not simply to target me, but to pre-emptively act against all democratic, peaceful and lawful opposition to the Raoghat mines by raising the Maoist bogey. It also helps the Chhattisgarh government to deflect attention from its deliberate refusal to act on the Supreme Court’s orders. Schools are still occupied by security forces putting girl students at risk, no one has been compensated for their houses being burnt and, of course, no one has been prosecuted for the killings and rapes the security forces and the Salwa Judum carried out.
The Chhattisgarh government has long tried to claim that our petition against the Salwa Judum in the SC has been filed at the behest of the Maoists. It cannot accept that ordinary, democratic-minded citizens, who have witnessed or experienced firsthand the devastation brought about by the Salwa Judum, might independently want justice. My co-petitioners, Ramachandra Guha and E.A.S. Sarma, can hardly be accused of being Maoist dupes. The incitement and urban network theory can only go so far. Till the day that our Constitution says that the profits of mining companies outweigh the right to life, affected villagers will continue to fight, and democratic people will continue to support them.
The writer is professor of sociology at Delhi University and a co-petitioner in an ongoing PIL in the Supreme Court against the Chhattisgarh government.