Tuesday, Jun 28, 2022
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One Year Of Protests: The Emergence Of A Civil Society In Chhattisgarh

Bastar has seen several Adivasi protests in the last few decades, but they have mostly remained short-lived and localised. The protests that began in a small village in south Chhattisgarh last year have spread across the seven districts of the Bastar zone, an area bigger than Kerala.

One Year Of Protests: The Emergence Of A Civil Society In Chhattisgarh
To mark the one year of Silger protests, Adivasis gathered at Silger yesterday. Ganesh Mishra.

Adding a significant chapter to the recent history of Bastar, the Adivasi movement that began following the killings of three persons in police firing in Silger village completes one year today. Bastar has seen several Adivasi protests in the last few decades, but they have mostly remained short-lived and localised. The protests that began in a small village in south Chhattisgarh last year have spread across the seven districts of the Bastar zone, an area bigger than Kerala. Significantly, around the same time, the northern part of Chhattisgarh has also witnessed a protest over coal mining in the Hasdeo Arand region, a protest that has moved out of the local forest and spread across several major cities. Together these movements have created a new civic consciousness in Chhattisgarh and can be seen through three chief prisms.

Confidence in the Adivasis

It has given confidence to the Adivasis, a self-faith to lead their own battles. On May 17 last year, three Adivasis — Kawasi Wagha, Korsa Bhima and Uika Pandu —died after the police had opened fire on a gathering that had been protesting the opening of a police camp in Silger village of Sukma district. Poonam Someli, a pregnant woman who was injured during the stampede following the firing, died a few days later. The protests that were limited to a few neighbouring villages soon took a massive shape as Adivasis from distant villages marched to Silger. As the Silger protests intensified, some young Adivasis formed Mulwasi Bachao Manch and took their movement to various other parts of Bastar. They received support from the local population and mobilised large gatherings at different places like Singaram (Sukma), Elmagunda (Sukma), Gompad (Sukma), Pusnar (Bijapur), Dharamaram (Bijapur), Naodi (Dantewada), Desa Ghati (Narayanpur). 

“We have spread across Bastar, we have units at several blocks, we have committees at block and district level. We are holding protests all over Bastar.” Azad Musaki, a Manch leader said. 

In just a year the Bastar Adivasi is more assertive about their identity than they were ever. There are now vocal demands for various constitutional rights, including the implementation of Schedule V.

 

To mark the one year of Silger protests, adivasis gathered at Silger yesterday.
To mark the one year of Silger protests, Adivasis gathered at Silger yesterday. Ganesh Mishra

Focus on non-violence

Since the beginning of the Silger protests, the Congress government tried to label them as Naxals. While Agriculture minister Ravindra Chaubey said that the Naxals had infiltrated the ranks of Adivasi protestors, Congress spokesperson R P Singh said: “Naxals will not let those villagers who don’t join the protest do any farming for five years.”

These statements overlook the complex realities of Bastar. Large tracts of Bastar are dominated by the Naxals, as most Adivasis in the region follow a kind of informal dual citizenship. Both the Naxals and the Adivasis inhabit the same wilderness, and the guerrillas draw their recruits from Adivasi households.

However, the Silger protests have been thoroughly peaceful and constitutional.  The main demands of the Manch include the removal of police camps from Bastar, restoring mining rights with natives, fresh enquiry of various fake encounters in Bastar and registration of cases against the guilty policemen.

The emergence of a civil society

Both the Silger as well as Hasdeo movements chose democratic and constitutional ways to spread beyond their immediate geographies. A large number of students, young and old professionals have taken to the streets in various parts of Chhattisgarh against the mining in Hasdeo region. “The Hasdeo movement has moved out of its forests and spread all over Chhattisgarh, even in various parts of India and the world. It is no longer a movement merely against a mine; it is an environmental issue, as well as an Adivasi issue,” says Alok Shukla, convenor, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.

 

Alok Shukla.
Alok Shukla.

He underlined that so far mostly the people affected by a project fought for their rights as ordinary citizens didn’t join the protests. However, the Hasdeo movement emphatically placed its cause before the public and soon several sections of the society joined in.

The biggest contribution of these movements is towards the construction of a vibrant civil society in Chhattisgarh. While the neighbouring Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have a glorious tradition of writers, teachers, scholars and lawyers working together, engaging in fierce debates over civil and constitutional issues, such discourse had always been absent in Chhattisgarh. As the people of Chhattisgarh found themselves coming together over Silger and Hasdeo, a sense of solidarity gradually developed among them, a togetherness that they had to jointly fight for their rights.

“There had been general despair in the country about the movements for constitutional rights. But the movements in Chhattisgarh organized people for their rights, for their community assertion. They have proved that people can fight in an organized manner and help overcome despair,” Shukla says.

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