December 09, 2019
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Iron In The Soulless State

Chhattisgarh seems intent on proving we are a half democracy

Iron In The Soulless State
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Iron In The Soulless State
Having just flaunted its democratic credentials through Elections 2009, India returned to its undemocratic ways the morning after. Though the results were announced on May 16, the state did not go to sleep in Chhattisgarh. The wee hours of May 17 saw the might of the state raze down a tiny Gandhian ashram in the little village of Kanwalnar, approximately 10 miles from Dantewada. As 500 men of the CRPF and the Chhattisgarh state police demolished with bulldozers the premises of the Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, they did not even spare the tubewells and an open well constructed by the government. Just as independent journalists cautioning against undemocratic and inhuman excesses have fallen prey to a vindictive Sri Lankan government, people like Himanshu Kumar, the founder of the Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, and Binayak Sen (just released on bail by the Supreme Court after two years in jail) before him have drawn the ire of the Chhattisgarh government for highlighting out similar excesses against innocent tribals committed as part of the war against the Maoist rebels.

Inspired by Vinoba Bhave and Nirmala Deshpande and their ideal of non-violent social work, Himanshu and his wife came to Dantewada in 1992 from Meerut to work among the Gond, Koya and Muriya tribals. With the help of some local boys and girls, he has been trying to bring education and healthcare to the adivasis. But soon Himanshu too, like the tribals of Dantewada and Bastar, was caught in the crossfire of the civil war raging between the government and the Maoists. This war has displaced around 50,000 tribals from their homes and villages in Dantewada. While some have moved on of their own will, others have been uprooted by either the government-sponsored Salwa Judum or the Maoists. The tribal refugees live in makeshift camps without proper food, water and employment. Moved by their plight, Himanshu has played a key role in bringing it to the attention of the outside world in the past few years, playing host to various fact-finding teams of citizens groups and people like Ramachandra Guha and Nandini Sundar—who have petitioned the Supreme Court against the Salwa Judum. This was a sin big enough for the government, but Himanshu has compounded it in recent months by trying to help various batches of uprooted adivasis settle back in their villages against the will of the state. He was also instrumental in bringing to light several extra-judicial killings of alleged Naxalites by the state, the latest being the Singaram massacre, in which 19 villagers were killed on January 8. Though the administration accuses Himanshu of harbouring Naxalite sympathies, the Maoists have criticised him for diverting the tribals from the true revolutionary path.

The Chhattisgarh government chose to demolish Himanshu's ashram on May 16 and 17 while the rest of the country was busy with the election results and the courts were closed, removing any chance of Himanshu obtaining a judicial stay. The government's pretext was that the ashram was built on encroached government forest land. The inmates claim that it was revenue and not forest land, acquired legally by the ashram with permission from the panchayat. The dispute was pending in the courts since 2007, yet the administration chose to demolish the ashram without waiting for the verdict. A subdivisional magistrate supervised the demolition. The ashram inmates point to a conflict of interest, as he was the one who conducted the magisterial inquiry in the Singaram case. He is also the one who ordered the assault on some students from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who had come as interns to the ashram, when they tried to protest.

Probably the BJP government in Chhattisgarh has once again felt emboldened by the election verdicts in its favour to demolish dissent, which is as much a precondition for democracy as elections. Local activists fear that the government is planning an intensification of anti-Naxal operations in Dantewada that might mean more atrocities against innocent tribals in a new cycle of violence and retaliation. By demolishing Himanshu's abode, the government is trying to remove him from the scene so that there is no one left to give the outside world a true picture of what is actually happening in Dantewada. Repressive and undemocratic as it is, the Chhattisgarh government's action is also foolish—as was demonstrated in the case of Sen, who has been given unconditional bail by the Supreme Court. Even in a half democracy like India, adverse public attention for years might work against you in the long run.
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