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Death On The Margins

From Outlook:
Far from the national gaze, the establishment practises a dangerous malevolence when confronted with its anti-people policies, reports SHOMA CHAUDHURY from Raipur and Dantewada. Photographs by SHAILENDRA PANDEY

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Old threshold 2.30pm and Binayak Sen finally closes the door of his home to the stream of visitors who have come to see him after his release

ONE YEAR ago, before the campaign on his behalf had gained m o m e n t u m , TEHELKA did a cover story on Binayak Sen — doctor and human rights activist, jailed on false charges under the draconian Chhattisgarh (People’s) Public Security Act (See TEHELKA: No Country for Good Men). On May 25, when Supreme Court judges Markandeya Katju and Deepak Verma took just sixty seconds to undo an injustice that had been wilfully perpetuated by the State for two long years, it should have been an occasion for another cover story, more celebratory, documenting among other things, Binayak’s wife, Ilina’s Herculean legal struggle for his release. But Binayak and Ilina’s story is merely symbolic of a much bigger, on-going and faceless struggle. And so, even as the human rights community exploded in joy with the May 25 victory, 400 kilometers from Raipur, another big battlefront was being opened.

It is two days after 59-year-old Binayak Sen got to go home. May 28, scalding, red dust everywhere, a hot loo blowing. A man in a white lungi and kurta sits under a leafy tree, listening to ten Gond tribals tell their story of how two nights earlier their village was looted. Every ration burnt. Every goat taken, every hen kidnapped. Not even a little chick left behind. The tribals have trekked from faraway Kamanar village in the hope that this man in white will help them access the ear of the State. It is a difficult proposition because it is the State that has looted the village: How do you lodge an FIR with the police when it is the police that have stolen your chickens?

As the man listens, his mobile rings. It is Raju, another tribal boy from village Lingagiri. Raju’s sister had been raped and shot through the mouth some time earlier, their father killed by a bayonet slicing through his stomach. Raju is calling now because there is no rice to eat in the village, people are dying of hunger. The man in white promises to do something. Send rice. Call the district collector. Do anything he can to try and staunch the inhuman civil war going on in central India below the radar of national media.

THIS IS Dantewada, a remote district in the south Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. The man in white is Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian human rights activist from Meerut who has been working in Dantewada for 17 years. And the war is an old triangular one: between the State, the Naxals, and the tribals — cleft violently from within by the infamous government-sponsored Salwa Judum.

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Trial by fire Binayak Sen and Naxal ideologue Narayan Sanyal in the witness box, seen from the corridores of court

As he listens to the troubled stories swirling around him — trying to give it voice, trying to draw the nation’s attention — a vast debris stretches behind Himanshu. He himself has been brutally looted a few days earlier. On 17 May, a day after the Lok Sabha election results, a police force of over 500 surrounded Himanshu’s Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, ten kilometers from Dantewada town. He was given half an hour to wrap up two decades of work. Then, the bulldozers moved in. They broke everything: home, dispensary, dormitories, training halls, kitchen, telephone towers (sanctioned by the government itself), swing, even a lone hand-pump that was the only source of clean water for the villages around. “Like skimming malai from milk”, says Veena, Himanshu’s wife.

The police broke everything: home, dispensary, kitchen, even a lone hand-pump that was the only source of clean water for the villages around

As the bulldozers stamped the ashram out, it began to rain. Himanshu and Veena sat under a tree with their daughters — Alisha, 12, a student of Rishi Valley School, and Haripriya, a spunky 7-year old — and watched. Alisha began to cry. “I told her, if you do good work, you have to be ready for the tough times. I am glad they saw it happen. It was good training for my daughters,” says Himanshu. (It was good training for others too. The police caught two students from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru who were visiting for field work and beat them. They yanked a journalism student, Veronica, by the hair and beat Javed Iqbal, a young freelance photographer from Mumbai, who had been travelling in the interiors, photographing the State’s assault on its villagers.)

WE VISIT the ashram site ten days later. Demolished is a poor word. Erased is more accurate: erased with an implacable anger: an obscene violence. There is nothing there but crushed cement and strewn papers. A tiny pink crocus that has escaped the bulldozers droops in the heat. For 17 years, Vanvasi Chetna Ashram had functioned as a kind of fine nerve connection between the tribals and a forgetful State. Come from distant Meerut and Delhi, painstakingly learning Gondi, Himanshu and Veena had focused on teaching tribals about their entitlements, traveling on foot into villages deep inside the forests, slowly tugging isolated communities into the democratic system. Building concepts of community monitoring: what government schemes had been announced in their name, how were they to access them, how were they to hold corrupt officials to account, how were they to file FIRs and applications, how were they to demand teachers in their schools. “Our work was to strengthen democracy at the roots,” says Himanshu, bending down to pick up a paper fluttering in the rubble. It’s a pamphlet teaching tribals how to vote. Another sheaf of papers lying in the dusty ground documents which children are in school, and why others are out. “The government accuses us of being Naxalites, but Naxals are out to prove that the system can’t work. We are strengthening the system, bringing trust back into it by asking questions, holding it accountable. We are friends of the system — it is the system that is destroying itself from within.”

Rani Devi is one among a few tribals standing mutely at the site. “I don’t feel like eating,” she tells Himanshu. “My head has been spinning since this happened. I feel dizzy. You have to rebuild the ashram here.” There are other tribals standing around whose own homes have been burnt nine or 10 times by the police and Salwa Judum vigilantes. They know what it is to be raped, driven out of their homes, live on the run, live without food. They know what it is to be booked under false charges and what it is to be beaten when you go to complain about an injury. Their stoic silence — their unspoken understanding as they look at the wasted remains of the ashram — tells you they also know how to live without the hope of justice.

The demolition of the ashram is part of the State’s illegal war against its own people. Part of a wilful intimidation of human rights workers

The demolition of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram is part of the Chhattisgarh state’s on-going and illegal war against its own people. Part of a wilful and cynical intimidation of human rights workers who dare to ask questions. Binayak Sen and Himanshu Kumar are part of a continuum: their stories matter because they approximate the stories of hundreds of other anonymous tribal men and women who do not command our attention because they cannot speak English and live below the line of who the metropolis considers Indian.

Binayak Sen and Himanshu Kumar’s stories matter because they approximate the stories of hundreds of anonymous tribals who do not command our attention

Himanshu — a man of irrepressible positivity and a humblingly ready smile — came to Dantewada in 1992. His father, Prakash Kumar had given up college in 1942 to join the Quit India movement; he met Gandhi in Sewagram in 1945. Later, he joined Vinobha Bhave’s Bhoomidan movement. “My father helped give away over 20 lakh acres of land in Uttar Pradesh,” says Himanshu, “but he and I do not possess one acre between us.” Inspired by his father and men like Vinobha Bhave, Himanshu started out under a tree in Dantewada, asking tribals questions about their lives and needs, slowly helping them heal ailments like diarrhoea, snake bites, malaria and pneumonia. As their trust grew, the local gram sabha offered Himanshu a patch of land and built him a mud hut to live with them. For 13 years, there was no trouble as Himanshu and Veena — unusual daughter of a garment exporter in Raja Garden, Delhi, and a woman of equally inspiring positivity — went about their advocacy work. The trouble began in 2005, when the Chhattisgarh government started the Salwa Judum.

Early in 2005, a young anganwadi worker called Sonia from Kamalur village was brutally beaten by the police on the pretext of being a suspected Naxal sympathiser. They hit her with poles then tied her hair to rope and dragged her through the mud. Broken, fractured, she came to the ashram seeking help. Himanshu hesitated. He had two young daughters himself. If he took up her case, he knew he was walking towards a dragon’s lair. “For the first time, I was afraid,” says Himanshu, “but Veena urged me on. You call yourself a human rights worker, she told me. After that, we have not looked back.”

Like Binayak, Himanshu began to protest against the excesses of the State, in particular the police and Salwa Judum vigilantes. He sent Sonia’s story to the National Women’s Commission: chairperson Girija Vyas did not think it worth investigating. Since then, Himanshu has sent hundreds of complaints to the Human Rights Commission. Their response? A committee led by the police to investigate police atrocities. Himanshu then also sent at least 1,000 complaints to the Superintendent of Police (SP) in Dantewada. He refused to file FIRs. (In fact, when Himanshu took up a recent false encounter case in Singaram, where 19 tribals were shot dead by the police, SP Rahul Sharma brazenly told the Bilaspur High Court that he had refused to file FIRs because Himanshu always lodged false complaints — forgetting that it is for the courts and not the police to decide whether a FIR is baseless or not.)

Like Binayak, Himanshu’s advocacy brought him increasingly into hostile radar — erasing his past reputation for humanitarian work. In 2006, suddenly — 13 years after he began to work here — the state government sent him a notice declaring his ashram an illegal encroachment. Himanshu produced all the relevant papers. The issue went to court. In January this year, the government suddenly cancelled his FCRA and choked off his foreign grants. Himanshu had to let go of almost a hundred full-time workers. On May 16 — as the country was celebrating Indian democracy and the mandate for a stable government — Himanshu was suddenly handed a notice that his ashram was up for demolition the next day — illegally, since it was a Sunday. He called Chhattisgarh Chief Secretary P Joy Oomen and reminded him that the issue was still in court and that the next hearing was on June 17. Oomen assured him the ashram would not be demolished. The next morning the bulldozers moved in.

The police do not dare file a single FIR against the tribal‘Special Police Officers’. If they do, the SPOs, fattened with the power of the gun, will turn on the police

THERE IS a reason for the State’s precipitous intimidation of Himanshu Kumar. After the growing outcry against the Salwa Judum in 2008 the Supreme Court had ordered the State to dismantle the camps and militia. The Chhattisgarh government promised to do so and in February 2009 told the court that the Salwa Judum is ‘slowly disappearing’. On the ground, no such thing has happened. The truth is, the Chhattisgarh government is now sitting on a situation that it does not know how to control.

In the four years since the Salwa Judum was launched, more than 600 villages have been forcibly evacuated. Many tribals have been driven into relief camps. Others have fled into the jungles or to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to work as construction labour. But tired of living in fear and on the run, many are now slowly returning to their villages. Himanshu has started a “human shield” programme to help them return and rehabilitate: this involves volunteers from his group living with the villagers till life has been restored to some normalcy. “We reject the theory that every tribal is either a Naxal or part of the

Salwa Judum,” says Himanshu. “We are trying to tell the tribals about the Supreme Court order, and urge them to return and start farming.”

Nendra village was the first such experiment. Others have slowly followed. Basagoda, Avapalli, Dimapur, Lingagiri, Dholaigura — Himanshu calls it the “peer effect”.

But all is not well. The men and women from Kamanar village sitting under the leafy tree, telling Himanshu about their kidnapped goats and hens, are merely the tip of a growing social malaise. Their attackers comprised both police and tribals from the Salwa Judum camps. “The tribals in these camps have become criminalised,” says Himanshu. “They have no source of income in the camps. They have no land, they cannot farm. Looting has become their only employment.” What makes them more deadly is that they have the sanction of the police. The police do not dare file a single FIR against the SPOs — the tribal ‘Special Police Officers’ the State has armed. If they do, the SPOs, fattened with the power of the gun, will turn on the police. “The government has divided tribal society dangerously,” says he. “It will prove a historic mistake.”

IT IS PRECISELY this sort of statement the government wants to intimidate Himanshu from making. On 26 April, 19 houses in Badepalli village were burnt by the Salwa Judum. The urgent call for rice from Lingagiri is proof that the relief committees the Supreme Court had ordered have not kicked in. The ration shops have not been restarted. Himanshu is the only vocal witness to State failure here: the government wants to snuff the witness out.

The Chhattisgarh government told the Supreme Court the Salwa Judum is disappearing. The truth is the State is in a situation it does not know how to control

But the will to fight intimidation is the first lesson a human rights worker learns. The night their ashram was demolished, Himanshu and Veena moved in with their daughters and their core workers into a makeshift house just a few kilometers away, ironically just a little way down a three-way cross-road: one road leading to Dantewada jail, one to the old ashram, and one to a new beginning. Here, while Veena cheerfully sorts through the debris of 17 years — a daunting mess of cupboards, mattresses, computers, and files rescued from the ashram — Himanshu, without a trace of bitterness, has already begun work anew. Back where he started 17 years ago — under a tree.

His father, 82, a dignified old man, has come to give him moral support. He sits calmly, uncomplaining, amidst the heat and mess. “I fought in the freedom movement. I know truth always prevails, but it takes time and much sacrifice. Himanshu is my only son. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know the road he is on is right. The more consciousness he generates among the tribals, the more they will be able to claim their right to life.”

MINUTES AFTER he emerged from jail, Binayak Sen told waiting media that there is a state of war in Central India and his battle lay in replacing that war with peace. The fight against the immoral intimidation of the State is a big part of restoring that peace. It is what kept his wife, Ilina going for two years as she fought to get him out of jail. “The McCarthyism was really hard at first,” says she. “I am a very private person and valued my anonymity. But suddenly everyone was talking about us and looking at Binayak and me as these big Naxal leaders. I have lost a lot of innocence in these two years, but I have come out stronger. Today, I know I can win.”

But fatigue can be an insidious thing. Two baseless years in jail can make any warrior want “to lower their pitch”. The battles Himanshu and Veena and Binayak and Ilina — and countless other human rights workers — are fighting are not their own. They have made it their own because they are fighting to preserve our democracy, fighting to articulate “a particular perception of reality”, as Binayak puts it. Fighting — to quote Binayak again — to dismantle the “structural violence” that perpetuates inequity and poverty. The fact that they do not lower their pitch cannot be taken for granted. India needs to strengthen the jurisprudence in favour of human rights workers and magnify their voice. Men like Binayak Sen and Himanshu Kumar are voluntary ICUs at the most wounded edges of our society. If we crush them, we will not even hear the echoes of the greater tragedies, and greater wars brewing beyond.