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Manual scavenging is a brutal occupation often imposed on the most disenfranchised dalits. Hazardous and with poor income and dignity, it often kills manual scavengers entering toxic drains without protection. This is a problem, but the answer needs to see the bigger picture.

I am mainly talking of manual scavenging as people getting into sewage systems to clear them of blockages and such - because it is the most dangerous kind. Physically carrying excreta away or removing dead animals and such is also manual scavenging, and it may be humiliating but is unlikely to kill the way a modern sewage system can and does (unless of course you're a dalit removing a dead cow and run into her sons).

Another death in manual scavenging. People routinely die in sewage. Another outrage against manual scavenging. What a hideous death! As though dying in sewage is somehow worse than making a living working in it on a daily basis. Perhaps it is. It is a symbol of the extreme of living with filth to the point of not being able to live at all. It is a symbol of the oppression of castes. It is illegal. Humans should not do manual scavenging. It is not safe or against dignity, etc.

A country of so many people poops a lot. It has to go somewhere. Us elites have these nice systems where we flush it down and it goes to somewhere out of our sight and mind. Others have a bit more thinking involved with more conscious choices like composting it for fertilizer or producing bio-gas. Still others flush it out of sight only for it to emerge in a drain on the outside of the toilet. Still others have pits in the ground that get filled with time and new pits are dug for use. Still others fertilize the railway tracks with their deposits.

All these methods have one thing in common. Manual scavenging (unless you go to a place no one cleans).

There is quite a bit of maintenance work that goes on around human excreta and acceptance levels for it vary. Some, as Rupa Subramanian so eloquently put it consider those touching the excreta to be irreparably filthy from the contact. This, indeed is the basis of the caste system, where people who traditionally do work considered unclean are considered unclean themselves. Note, the caste system was formed way before soap and disinfectants and many have refused to live outside that outdated mindset. Is there merit in separating the food, health and other public contact from people who have extensively touched contaminants in the absence of methods of sanitization? Definitely. Do you have to be an asshole about it? No, not in any century. Do you have to be paranoid about uncleanliness in the age of effective soaps, disinfectants and disposable barriers to prevent infections? Only if you get a high from judging people as inferior.

Most of the regular humans, even when not actively engaged in troubleshooting excreta management problems aren't that extremely Rupa and will casually spritz some toilet cleaner around the bowl, scrub it clean for further use (with a long handled brush) and wash our hands when done. Others have had to face blocked toilets in an emergency (let it flow out and cover the floor or deal with it and save the floor?) and valuables dropped into toilet bowls by accident (that is why your mom tells you not to use your phone in the loo).

Most of us are not too paranoid about this and will generally do the needful and address our distaste with various levels of vigor ranging from a casual swipe down the back of your jeans (you didn't need that visual, did you? I saw someone do it once and thought you should know.) to a complete hot water bath with multiple applications of soap and dettol in the water and throwing away of clothes worn.

On the other end of this spectrum are those that deal with excreta professionally, on a daily basis. I once saw a man standing in a sewer casually ask his colleague standing outside to hand him a bottle of water to drink. Doesn't sound that alarming, does it with water in the bottle still being clean, till you realize these people can't afford disposable bottles of mineral water - they likely fill their bottle at whatever tap daily. (I bet you didn't need that visual either)

Modern plumbing has brought with it the need to maintain the system of what goes on once we have flushed things out of sight. And if there is one place women must solidly shoulder condemnation, it is here. Among the biggest reasons of clogged sewage is menstrual cloths and sanitary napkins flushed out of sight and made someone else's problem to handle. Ask anyone who lived on the ground floor when sanitary napkins were newly introduced to the market and flushed away by those who lived on the floors above them. It is less common among us educated folks now that we know they clog sewage. But there are still plenty of embarrassed women who'd rather someone fished their menstrual evidence out of the sewage than them walking out of the toilet or leaving it on the floor for someone to know that they menstruate!

How many? Lots. Ask manual scavengers.

Of course, women can't be solely blamed for blocked sewage. Plenty of other things get into it too. Ill designed drains are eagerly looking for stuff to trap, it seems, which is why some sewers need cleaning more regularly than others. Some quite inexplicably. I have seen it and would definitely torture you with the details, if I could identify them. There is also necessary maintenance, dead rats and what not. It is quite an educational experience to stand and watch when blocked sewage gets cleaned. And for every 100 people who gingerly tiptoe past the grey-black oozing mess that gets shoveled out of the drain, there is one person wading in it fearlessly, shoveling it out, till the contents flow once more.

Coming to the point on manual scavenging

I have come to the conclusion that it is necessary. Unless of course we are willing to let civilization collapse in on itself and live in the filth they produce. It is necessary till it is no longer necessary. Which will be a long, long time in a country with a shortage of funds and power and an abundance of very poor and unemployed people.

What the condemnation of manual scavenging misses is the functuinality of their recommendations. "Stop manual scavenging" is an answer only if you live in a place where the drains don't clog and don't crap anywhere else. The fact is that sewage systems can get messed up in complicated ways in India. The need is to reduce problems in the entire chain that leads to the block that requires a skilled human to physically troubleshoot it.

How to "end" manual scavenging?

I am not sure it can be completely eliminated. The most developed of countries will need people willing to brave the sewers when something goes wrong. It is exactly what happens in India, except things go wrong more often. The key is to reduce instances where humans are put at risk and provide a dignified and sustainable existence. I have some ideas.

Prevent blockages to avoid sending manual scavengers when things go wrong

It is surprising how little attention robust sewage systems get when it comes to preventing manual scavenging. Manual scavenging has become a function of the system rather than service support and troubleshooting. This is hazardous and unsustainable.

Upgrade sewage systems

Create improved sewage systems designed to clog less and transport waste more efficiently. Process waste locally rather than transporting it over long distances to dump into rivers and the sea. Use technologies that allow recycling of human waste into fuel or fertilizer. Employ manual scavengers in their production so that they earn a lot more (both fuel and fertilizers are profitable products) and will still troubleshoot the fewer problems that arise.

Implement alternative methods of disposing sewage

If excreta will remain in place to clog the system without adequate water, the system is bound to fail where water availability is a problem. Develop and implement alternative methods of sewage disposal that require less water to maintain.

But this will be a time-consuming evolution for the country. Till then, while manual scavenging is inevitable...

Encourage responsible use of the sewage systems

Broadcast public service messages on not introducing objects that could prevent the efficient functioning of the sewage system. Lay stress on not flushing menstrual cloths, sanitary napkins, toilet paper and other non-excreta objects into the system.

Recognize manual scavenging as an important service

When it comes to keeping people healthy and safe, manual scavengers are probably at least, if not more important than healthcare workers. However, they face far more risks and are accorded far less dignity in their profession. This lack of respect exposes them to additional risks that can be avoided.

Manual scavenging is a profession necessary for society

People employed in this profession should not be considered any less than the far less life-essential professions like teacher or postman. Their income must reflect that. Their acceptance in society must reflect that.

Offer hazard pay and benefits

Manual scavengers face enormous health hazards so that the rest of the society is not forced to face them. Their profession brings with it physical and psychological stress as well as increased health risks. They should be accorded free healthcare (including at least some portion of it in their local private hospitals that they help keep safe as CSR). They should be offered hazard pay to help them address expenses they face because of their profession. They should have life insurance by default.

Treat all deaths on the job where inadequate protection is found as manslaughter

Manual scavengers who are not offered adequate protective equipment and die on the job should be considered to be killed, not accidentally dead. Just like a soldier shot in combat dead due to a lack of a bulletproof vest would be the responsibility of the government. This must result in convictions that include jail terms.

An argument I heard by a pro-government person recently on the subject was that "they will start asking for all kinds of perks or claim to be unprotected at work". Let me put it like this. If they ask for perfume because of the smell, and the employer isn't really economically capable of catering to such demands, it isn't going to result in dead people. Treating deaths due to lack of protection at work as manslaughter will obviously mean life-essential protection, unless anyone thinks people will die for want of perfume to make the government look bad.

Caste and manual scavenging

Manual scavenging in India is traditionally tied in with specific castes that are considered to be the lowest in the social hierarchy. This is because manual scavenging is not profitable, so they are not rich enough to influence anyone. I believe that improving dignity and income for the profession will automatically have the result of the entry of other castes. In my view, it is a superior way of indirectly detaching specific castes from specific humiliating work as well, without making it explicitly about caste.

Please leave your ideas in the comments.

This article about the Maratha Kranti Morcha  was published in 2016. It remains as valid today, as Maratha Morcha Mumbai shows power on the streets.

The gigantic Maratha rallies in Maharashtra have flummoxed everyone. Neither the politicians nor the media know what to make of them.

Unprecedented crowds thronged the Pune Maratha Kranti Morcha on 25th September 2016. Even if the claims of 25 lacs are exaggerated, it is undoubtedly the largest gathering Pune has seen. In each city the Maratha Kranti Morcha is breaking records with their numbers. But that’s not the only thing unique about the Maratha Morcha.

The most amazing thing is that it is a silent, peaceful protest, no speeches, no slogans. No wait, the most amazing thing is that it is led by 5 unknown girls who present the charter of demands at the end. In a country that believes one always needs a popular face to ensure success in any field – politics, or andolans, or Bollywood, or sports, the most amazing thing really is that no one knows who the leaders are.

Another really amazing aspect is that any political leader or public figure who tries to hijack the Morcha is respectfully shown the figurative door. Basically it is a movement that on every count has left the people amazed.

Marathas are approximately 35% of the state population and are considered to be the ruling class. Almost every state assembly has had 60% to 70% dominance of Marathas since decades. They are also the land owning class. The Marathas dominate the state’s economy as they control the cooperative sector which runs everything from banks, to credit societies, to agriculture markets, to cotton and sugar mills. This power is concentrated in the hands of the few – some even claim that all cooperatives in the state are owned by less than 200 Maratha families.

Shrewd Maratha Congressmen of yore replaced the old zamindaari system with a modern one – the Maratha strongman in every area joined politics and became an Aamdaar (MLA) or Khaasdaar  (MP). They used every trick in the book, nay, they wrote the book, on how to scam and acquire control of government and public lands.

These guys also became contractors, directly or through family members, and they won all government contracts making truckloads of money through corrupt practices. These same politicos floated and controlled cooperatives in every possible area that touched the lives of people – banks, mills, markets. They entered every business that people depend upon – education to transport to power generation. Today these few political families have a stranglehold on the state, and most of them are Marathas. So why then the protest? Because this power class has no connect with the Maratha masses.

The majority of the 35% of Marathas are tillers of small parcels of lands, they are the poor of Maharashtra whose livelihood is held to ransom by everything – from the weather to the rich ruling class. The Maratha Kranti Morchas are not just demanding reservations – they are demanding the right to survive.

Farmer Issues

Most of the Marathas are ordinary farmers. They are disconnected from the ruling class who has scammed every single resource of the state. Almost all farmer suicides were Marathas. Most farmers in the state had joined the Shetkari Sanghatana as there was a palpable need for organized protest. With the decline of the Shetkari Sanghatana’s various factions, these farmers who were left without any direction have now come together under the Maratha banner, and their issues remain agrarian. The BJP government has failed to make a single constructive step against the anti-farmer policies of the former UPA government – no security of MSP, crop insurance is a farce, and there is no move towards implementing Swaminathan Commission recommendations. Essentially the Maratha protest is a farmer’s protest since their needs have been neglected by every single political party in the State today.

Education

Today farming is not a viable career – its only 11% of the GDP even though 60% of the population works on it. Hence the farmers want alternate careers for their children but the stumbling block here is education. In a bid to promote privatized education for its cronies, Maharashtra politicians have completely neglected public education. The Marathas feel in the race for seats in the few government institutions they are at the losing end due to reservation – and hence the demand for reservation. The solution to this issue is not just reservation – it is vast investment in education infrastructure and making education accessible to the last man. However, the BJP government, just like its predecessor the UPA, does not have education on its agenda – from ‘anganwaadis’ to Universities there is unprecedented corruptionand there is not even an attempt being made to enhance the number of schools and colleges.

Law & Order

There is a breakdown of law and order in the state today and Kopardi is a flashpoint. I visited the victim’s family immediately after the incident and met the villagers. Both Maratha and Dalit members agreed that culprits should be dealt with severely and swiftly and no one felt that caste had any role to play in this most heinous crime witnessed in Maharashtra in recent times. What this incident really showed was the total absence of fear of law in Maharashtra today – the police is viewed as incompetent and corrupt and the government is seen as being unconcerned with justice. Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, commonly known as the Atrocity Act is indeed being misused to frame people – but so are a number of other acts. The misuse of a law does not reflect on the validity of the law, it reflects on the Government that is closing its eyes to the misuse.

Just a few weeks back a journalist in Osmanabad was falsely framed under the atrocity act and despite appeals to the Chief Minister who looks at the Home portfolio, there was no response. If the Home Department fails to act against the corruption or inefficiency or excesses of the police, we have to admit law and order in the state has collapsed. There are almost weekly acts of serious atrocities against Dalits in Maharashtra, and there is a need to protect them so there is no question of doing away with this act. What needs to be addressed is vacuum in the Home Department where the common man cannot appeal against the false and fabricated cases or the wrongdoings and failures of the State Police.

So the Maratha Kranti Morcha, in my view is amazing because it is a fight for survival in a failed state that has ignored the farmers, the students and the victims of growing crimes. There is a dis-enchantment with all political parties today – the incompetent Congress has been replaced by the incompetent BJP and corrupt NCP has been replaced by the corrupt ShivSena and the rest of the traditional parties like RPI and MNS are merely small time opportunists. Since the Maratha Morcha has steered clear of all political parties and focused on issue based demands it has received this unprecedented support.

At the end of the day however, in this deeply caste based society it is a Maratha protest and it is knocking on the doors of Devendra Fadanvis,  a Brahmin Chief Minister in a state whose politics have been  dominated by Marathas, Dhangars, Malis and Vanjaras.

 

This post was originally published here.

11

The following is a first person account by Md Hasanujjaman, M Phil in English, University of Hyderabad of the brutality unleashed by the police against the students and faculty of University of Hyderabad.

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VC Apparao resumes office at the face of the report of the two-member fact finding committee that stated the university should have handled the incident more “sensitively” -

I am one of the arrested students in connection with the protest against the VC of UoH. I belong to a minority community of West Bengal. My family is financially backward. Here I would like to narrate the police brutality on me and my fellowvictims in police van on the way from UoH to Miyapur Police Station on 22nd March. Before coming to UoH I was naive about the problems in the society. I had no idea of the pathetic and dehumanized condition of the dalits and the adivasis. I was hardly aware of the dangerous consequences of caste system in the Indian society. But coming to UoH I began to understand the real picture of the caste system which leads to utter discrimination and dehumanization of the dalits. I saw that this caste system makes the lives of the dalits extremely miserable. Realizing my responsibility as an independent and right thinking citizen of this country I found that the caste system is a tool of dehumanization and therefore it must be annihilated. I stood against this discrimination of the caste system and thus, I aligned with the movement which Rohith Vemula was part of.

Rohith Vemula being a dalit, was institutionally discriminated and forced to take his own life. The ‘Vice Chancellor prof Appa Rao Podile’ directly perpetrated in the institutional social boycott against the five dalit students including Rohith. Following the suicide of Rohith, the VC was booked under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act according to whose provision the accused must have been arrested within 24 hours from the lodging of FIR. However the FIR was lodged on 18th January, 2016 and till date he has not been arrested. This is a gross violation of the constitutional provision. Instead he returned to the university and attempted to illegally reclaim his ‘vice chancellorship’ on the 22nd March, early morning.

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Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and other security personnel unleashed brutal physical and sexual assault on students and teachers protesting against VC resuming office for Justice for Rohith

On the same day that is on 22nd March I went to attend a PreSubmission Seminar in the department of English, School of Humanities, at exactly around 2.00pm. Coming out of the department at around 3.00pm I saw that the peacefully protesting women and men teacher and students were being dragged and beaten up mercilessly by the police. The police were chasing and lathicharging on the protesters indiscriminately. It was obnoxious to see that the protesters are beaten up for raising voice against the injustice. It was a day of police violence on the democratic and peaceful protesters. I saw one student losing his sense and was rushed to a hospital. Many students got their clothes torn due to the brutal manhandle and lathicharge. But it was most painful to see that the women students and teachers being mercilessly beaten up by the police. They were thrashed on their private parts. I also witnessed female teachers being manhandled/molested by the police. It was a violation of women's rights as the women students and teachers were molested by the male police. Dr Tathagata Sengupta, an assistant professor of Mathematics was beaten up too.

It was a threatening moment in my life. I never saw such police violence in front of my eyes. I could not restrain myself from speaking against the police and as a result I was the next to be victimized. However, the police brutality actually began when one teacher, one film maker and the sixteen students including me were chased and dragged into a police van. I was standing near the ‘Goodwill canteen’ which is around 250 meter away from the VC`s lodge where the protests were happening. Standing there itself I could see students and teacher being dragged into the police van. But I never thought that I would also be a victim of the police brutality. Suddenly, one police chased me and caught the collar of my shirt. I pleaded not to apprehend me as I did not commit any crime except the fact that I stood for the Justice for Rohith and supported the students’ movement for justice. I feel that I was targeted because I questioned the police on their face that why Rohith did not get justice even after more than three months; why the accused for Rohith's murder has not been punished; on what ground the VC has come to take charge of the university. Instead I was beaten up and thrashed hard and pushed into the police van.

This inhuman and brutal torture continued on all of us for around 50 minutes on the way from UoH to the Miyapur Police Station. Dragging me into the van the police forcefully pushed me down into a corner seat. Before getting hit I quickly looked at a fellow victim Subhadeep Kumar and asked him what might happen to me as for the first time my life I got into a police van. He assured me that nothing will happen as I did not commit anything wrong. I could not turn my face to have a look at the rest of the victim in the van. Again the police hit me on shoulder. I pleaded not to hit me but the police pulled my hair and punched me hard on my back. Another police hurried at me snatched my mobile and spectacle. But when I pleaded to give me back the spectacle as I have serious eye problem, the police boxed on my right eye saying that why despite being visually challenged did I spoke against the police. Whenever I tried to look at my fellow companions who were beaten up black and blue, the police hit me and cowed me down not to raise my head again. I heard my fellow friends shrieking in pain as they were mercilessly thrashed and hit. Those who had beard and looked liked ‘Muslims’ were beaten up specifically as the police suspended them to ‘like’ terrorists. The sounds of slapping and hitting still haunt my mind and I feel the pain. Professor K Y Ratnam was also a victim of the police brutality. A filmmaker, Moses Abhilash too was unlucky to be a victim of the brutality. Abhilash was just shooting the videos of police lathicharge which the police did not want the public to see. The police beatings left wounds on my body. When I requested for water they gave me the water only to be ready to get beaten up again. The physical assault was extremely systematic and cruel. At that moment I doubted whether I was at all a human being. While beating up, the police also unleashed verbal abuse on all of us at extreme level. During the journey of police brutality from the UoH to Miyapur P. S., the police were continuously abusing us with the most vulgar and objectionable language. “M***d, b**d, chu**a, bho**ke” and etc were the common words they were throwing at us. They called us Pakistani ISI agents and alleged that we are spending Indian money and supporting Pakistan and threatened us to send us to Pakistan. They called us antinational alleging that we are conducting “beef festival”, “kiss of love” events on “Afzal Guru’, “Yakub Memon’. They said that they were taking revenge on us for their hard work on duty. They also assaulted our departed friend Rohith Vemula saying that he was a ‘bastard’, ‘spoiled child’ and people are unnecessarily paying attention to his death. They used extremely antiwomen, derogatory, and sexist comments. They said that they would rape our mothers and sisters and also they vowed to bring them here and take their naked videos. They also threatened to do the same with our women friends in the university. Hearing these comments I feel that the safety of the women is at great risk and I also feel that the posting of police poses direct threat to women teachers, students and workers in the campus. Their comments and attitudes were dangerous as far as the safety and security of women is concerned at large in the society. It is appalling to think what the police remarked against the women.

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The language police used against women protestors : "Tu kahaan ki rehne wali hai? Itti kaali hai! Aa tere ku sabak sikhata hoon! (Where are you from? You are so dark. Let me teach you a lesson)"

After brutal torture in the police van we were subjected to harassment in Miyapur P. S. After reaching there at Miyapur we all of us were made to sit on a dirty and spaceless corridor. The police humiliated us by making our respected teacher Prof K Y Ratnam sit on the same dirty floor. The police lectured us about moral and ethical correctness. They behaved with us very rudely while taking our detail information and pictures. On asking about our release the police told us that everything is in hand of their “BIG BOSSES” and they also said that the Gachibowli police have already decided our fate. We were kept awake throughout the night by putting light on in front of eyes and playing songs and videos. When we requested to let us sleep they laughed at us. The next day, a Subinspector of Miyapur P.S. called me for interrogation and he took all my information in detail including my family, relatives’ information. He also took the photos of my PAN, Aadhaar and university ID cards. He also took the phone numbers of my relatives checking my mobile. He abused me very badly and threatened me that in future if something happened in the university, I will be a target even if I do not commit any crime.

Thereafter we were secretly taken to Balanagar Police Station where we were again harassed both physically as well as mentally. The police made us sit in a dirty and suffocating room. Professor Ratnam was again humiliated by making him sit at the feet of the police who was sitting on a chair and giving us pedantic lecture on nationalism and education as to how we should develop our society. This is the same subinspector of Miyapur P.S. who abused me in vulgar language and giggled his teeth and lied to me when I asked him where we were taken to. He also mocked at me by calling me “team leader” and “mastermind”. I don't know his motive for calling such things. But I am apprehensive of my Muslim identity as he was targeting me. I was also not allowed to inform my worried family or friends about my whereabouts.
From Balanagar P.S. we were taken to ‘Government Area Hospital’ secretly. We were shocked to know that we were taken to a hospital. I had wounds and pain caused by the police brutality the previous day. But I had no reason to expect any medical treatment. In the hospital I was forced to stand in the queue for treatment. The doctor gave me “fit to be produced at court” certificate despite my critical health condition. I also saw Professor K Y Ratnam`s Blood Pressure reading to touch around 220 mark in the BP machine. After the “treatment” the Gachibowli CI J. Ramesh forced me to sign the arrest papers at around 9.00 pm on 23 March whereas actually I was arrested by the police at 5.30pm on 22 March. When I tried to raise objection the Gachibowli CI J.Ramesh threatened me that not signing the arrest papers would amount to additional cases against me. I was denied any interaction with any legal expert on these serious issues. When I politely asked him “Sir, my career would be shattered if my future is tarnished by filing cases against me”, he aggressively threatened me saying “shut your mouth up otherwise I will file more cases against you”. I do not know how to express the fear generated in me by J Ramesh. After medically certifying me “fit to be produced at court” I was again confined in the police van. It was suffocating and scorching hot. I requested the police to let me stand out of the van until it moves. But the police as usual again threatened us. I was very hungry as I did not get anything to eat throughout the day. The police did not bother to hear any of my problems. Then I was taken to the honourable Magistrate at around 11.40 pm. But the Gachibowli police Naveen and Bhupathi did not allow me to appear at the honourable Magistrate to narrate my suffering and wooes. At the Magistrate's order I was sent to Cherlapally Central Prison. Coming to the prison my health further deteriorated. I called a prison physician for treatment. He gave me a general painkiller injection and some medicine for the wounds and pain caused by the police on 22 March. But he did not give me any proper health treatment as I needed the most. It still pains me to remember that in prison the doctor was not allowed inside and therefore, I had to take an injection through the window. I also failed to have an eye check as 22 March as the police hit me on my right eye. The police action threatened my life and also the hopes of my family. I feel helpless, hopeless and unsafe. The police filed false cases against me and others with the deliberate intention to destroy our future and our lives. The police terrorized us throughout the first 33 hours to ensure that we do not again protest against the government and its agencies. They kept us saying that we should only study and not get involved in politics. They wanted to create a fear in us so that before protesting we will remember the trauma of the police brutality. This poignant memory will always be haunting my life.
Md Hasanujjaman
M Phil in English,
University of Hyderabad

Bastar. An abstract name of some strange place where there is Naxalism. And therefore a place to be avoided, to be dreaded and mostly ignored. Not a land of a people who love, have children, earn livelihoods, make houses, sing, dance and celebrate. Not a land of everyday interpersonal conflicts, a tiff with a neighbour, a fight with the spouse. Not a land where children play, tease and bruise their knees. Not a land where people can dream of a future.

Just some dark hinterland, a version of Western World’s Africa right here in India.

I bring Bastar to light. Here.

Bastar is a district in Chhattisgarh. The total area is 4029.98 sq kms. It has a population of 1,411,614 humans (as per Census 2011). 70% of this population are Adivasis belonging to multiple tribes. Chhattisgarh has the 4th largest forest land in India with 44.21% of land cover. Many sections of Bastar are poorly developed with no pucca roads and few medical facilities. Traditionally, Adivasis have depended on forest products for their livelihood. In more recent times, agriculture is a mainstay for many.

There are four main issues that should concern us as regards Bastar: 1) Adivasi rights; 2) Rights of the forests; 3) The future of Bastar; and 4) Who speaks for whom?

Adivasi Rights

Way before Naxalism became active, Adivasis often found themselves on the wrong side of forest officers. These officers had been using their authority to make life difficult for Adivasis to continue with their livelihoods. There was intimidation, rampant corruption and frequent sexual abuse.

After the spread of Naxalism and the subsequent attempts of the State to crush their rise, the many failed strategies like Salwa Judum, the everyday Adivasi has become tainted as either a possible Naxalite or a police sympathizer. S/he is born into this taint, unable to make a choice to be apolitical or non-ideological. Nor even to question State or Naxalism. With state control over media and public opinion outside of Bastar, there is a lurking assumption that every Adivasi is indeed a potential Naxalite. Erased by birth, erased by residence.

What has, therefore, followed is dehumanization of Adivasis by clumping them under a label and reducing them to an object that needs to be controlled. And mansplainers are extremely good in explaining in their daddy-voices on how one can’t trust the locals, how Naxalism has infiltrated the community and that therefore State violence is the only way out.

But Adivasis are citizens of India. They are given the same constitutional rights as all of us. They are protected by the Constitution. And no matter what we opiniate, there cannot be a localised need-based convenient interpretation or occasional reference to law. It basically means they are afforded the same freedoms that we have taken for granted — like right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to constitutional remedies, right to life. They are afforded the same human rights guaranteed by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.

And yet time and again, irrespective of Government, it has been trampled in Bastar. For e.g. when Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher spoke up in support of her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, a fearless talented journalist, she was arrested.  Cases were filed against her that led to arrest, torture and brutal sexual abuse. If it were not for the activists who followed up and publicized the gross human rights violation, we would have never heard of Soni Sori.  The courts have now cleared her of all the cases. She, in turn, has become a go-to-person who gives courage to women who have been exploited and sexually abused to speak up.

The question before us is why was she tortured? Even if for a moment we assumed she was a Naxalite, does that warrant sexual abuse and torture? Why were the Constitutional rights so openly flouted and yet key officers were not called to question?

Not only Soni Sori, but hundreds of other Adivasis have been wrongfully confined, false cases heaped on them and reports of torture have emerged from more than one place.

More recently, Bela Bhatia wrote about rampant rape of Adivasi women and random detention and assault of men in The Pegdapalli Files. This report is worth your time. For her efforts to expose the human rights violation, Bela Bhatia has been threatened and slandered.

Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) that worked for the legal rights of Adivasis have been evicted. Journalists who reported on Constitutional violation of Adivasis rights to life, dignity and property have been silenced – either by intimidation or arrest. As the India Today long story “Life in the Red” shows, journalists are reporting under the shadow of fear.

In absence of activists and journalists, we will never hear the other side of the story, the one beyond what the State machinery wants us to know.

Soni Sori campaign
Soni Sori campaign

Rights of the Forests

Chhattisgarh boasts of some of the densest forest cover in India. It is also rich in minerals, rich in natural resources. But that forest cover is quickly being depleted. Between 2011 and 2013, there is reduction of 19 sq kms (1 sq km= 100 football fields) of forest area in Bastar district alone.

Whereas Forests cannot speak for themselves, we the Citizens should ask why the forests are being cut down indiscriminately. One of the major reasons is mining. The area is rich in minerals, coal and other natural resources. A second reason is movement of Adivasis in giving up traditional forest-dependent livelihoods in favour of clearing land for agriculture which is facilitated by the State. The third reason that is cited is to evict Naxalites from these forests.

Forests hold rich biodiversity. Forests protect landscape from erosion, from multiple natural disasters, and provide oxygen to the world. How is it that under our watch the forests are being cut down and there is not more than a whisper of dissent? Except that of locals and human rights groups like Amnesty India.

Who gains by cutting the forests? The locals or big mining corporations and their corrupt nexus with politicians?

Future of Bastar

Like it or not, Naxalism arose as a counter to the atrocities committed by rich landlords. If you read Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita, you will know several stories of the horrifying crimes committed by the land-owning upper caste groups on landless. A systematic way in which groups of people were kept illiterate, under-developed, in poverty and complete dependence on the land-owning groups.

Like it or not, Naxalism empowered the marginalized, as Bela Bhatia said and I paraphrase, to name the crimes as injustice rather than fate. It is a different thing that Naxalism quickly veered into violence that consumed the very people they were fighting for. It pushed the locals into a state where they could no longer make choices, but remain in that uncertain diplomatic silence on issues.

So if we assume Mission 2016 will succeed and Naxalism will end, the question before is who will benefit from it? Will Adivasis regain rights over the land and rights to dignity? Will they have a voice in their own development and all issues that pertain to their district, to their community? Will they now begin to receive fair and just trials or will they be massacred as possible Naxalites? Will they be empowered to document injustice and successful get constitutionally-guaranteed remedies?

Or will it pave the path for multinational and big mining groups to set up shops, to make rich richer.

This is the question that we should ask. For Bastar deserves (as every land does) a prosperous, healthy and peaceful future. And the constitution guarantees that India is a democracy -- of the people, for the people, by the people. And Bastar is not an abstract name of a land, it is the breath of a people.

Who Speaks for Whom?

Why do activists speak? Is it because they have no other work to do? Are they mere noise makers disturbing the monolithic State narrative of what is happening on ground—the hurrays for the many surrenders of Maoists, the encounters that are supposed to have killed “dreaded” Naxalites, and the legitimacy of Mission 2016. Minus of course the erring journalists, the outspoken researchers, lawyers and activists. The manufacture of a public opinion -- that if you want to end Naxalism, it is given that there will be collaterals of a legitimate war, a.k.a ‘some’ Adivasis will die.

Democracy requires and is maintained by dissent. In a democracy, there can never be a single narrative. There are multiple truths jostling with each other for significance. A process that forces us to not move into easy judgments, but glimpse and empathise with the complex human lives caught in a complex web of power struggles.

And why should it concern those outside Bastar, in other words ‘us’? Don’t we all have own problems in life, our everyday struggles to make ends meet or aspirations to meet a dream? Don’t we have own interpersonal and organization conflicts to deal with?

Why should we? Because as Rahul Pandita had said in a tweet  in context of journalists and so have others, Chhattisgarh is a lab for brutal policies. You succeed in Chhattisgarh, you develop a formula, you set a precedent and then you can implement it in other parts of the country.

Then we must bring down this laboratory and return Bastar to the protection of our Constitution. Now. We have to ensure the protection, freedom of expression and dissent for local activists like Soni Sori and the many outspoken journalists of Bastar so that they, in turn, may stand up for their community.

There are three ways to support people of Bastar:

  1. Search for news on Bastar and please make yourself aware. Share news, talk about it, write about it.
  2. Follow human rights groups like Amnesty India or National Human Rights Commission and support them as needed.
  3. As a citizen, participate in the #OneMillionPostCardCampaign and send an e-card to Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Dr. Raman Singh asking him to bring CBI and Supreme Court to investigate matters that concern people of Bastar and Soni Sori. Let your voice be heard. http://goo.gl/forms/rvTT6CyHbI

Thank you for taking time to read this post fully. Bastar does need you!

Some information is referenced from Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita.

Featured image by Pankaj Oudhia

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This post began life as an attempt to boost the response to the latest wave of targeted violence and/or State-sponsored suppression of civil liberties in Chhattisgarh. Even as I typed away, trying to summarize the ever-mounting brutality in that state, the news breaking from the University of Hyderabad took centre-stage. Every day this past week I have been reflecting on the horrors unfolding in India. Whether Chhattisgarh, or Jharkhand, UP or Hyderabad there is only the sense that the various agencies of the central and state governments are brazen in their attempts in maintaining control of their narrative, either through commission or omission.

The War against Scholarship

The Central Government's Ministry of Human Resources & Development seems to be waging its own war against universities across the country. The earlier controversy at FTII was just the curtain raiser - the Ministry recanted on its decision to stop Non-NET Fellowships last year after massive protests from students across the country. But now it seems to be opening that can of worms all over again - with the current fire directed at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. However, over and beyond the critical question of supporting research is the amount of control being handed to the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The massive blow-up of sloganeering at a student event at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (even if it was about the controversial hanging of Afzal Guru), now appears to have been kicked off by the ABVP inviting media teams to campus, possibly without permission from the necessary authorities. Even as student leaders from other campus bodies were arrested (and subsequently released on bail), no questions were asked of the ABVP's leadership, with them seeming to get implicit support even from the Central Cabinet. This has emboldened them to become the government's henchmen on various campuses.

Which brings us to the grim episode as yet unfolding at the Hyderabad Central University. This too, started last year, with the shocking apathy of university officials towards Dalit research scholars leading to the suicide of #RohithVemula. The central player in that episode, the Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile, was suspended pending investigation into his abetment of Rohith's suicide. Strangely, he made an unannounced return to campus, in what appears to be a carefully orchestrated move. Again, it is important to note that on his return, Podile had the ABVP's support, as noted by many of the student protestors.

The other thread throughout this narrative is the inordinate, disproportionate amount of violence by the State. If Delhi witnessed scenes of lathicharge, water-cannoning, etc. during the UGC protests, the violence against the #HCU students seems to on a different scale altogether. It is almost shocking to think that this latter bout of violence has, up to the time of writing this, not received even one statement of censure from any state or central government official. Add to this the fact that the police detained and questioned protestors in Chennai (for attempting a hunger strike) and Mumbai as well.

As I write this, Pune's Fergusson College is becoming the latest theatre in ABVP's war for control of campuses India-wide. In this, the ABVP is only following the #BJP, whose gameplan to be India's politics new singular force was signaled by Amit Shah when he first took over as the BJP President. To be fair, there were some ABVP members who found the whole JNU fiasco, particularly the assault by the lawyers at Patiala House, revolting enough to step down.

Highlighting the Real Issues

The issue of student scholarship must be seen in the light of whom it affects most. The most-telling characteristic of the student politics at JNU and HCU is that they empower students from the most marginalized sections of society who would otherwise hardly get such an opportunity.  Their battle must therefore be seen against the backdrop of the various conflicts being fought in the remotest parts of India. As the journalist P Sainath said when speaking at JNU after the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU was now fighting the criminalization of dissent that had long been fought by India's poorest and most disempowered.

In Chhattisgarh, the State has continuously waged war against the tribals in the quest to make mineral resources available to corporates - this war is older than the state of #Chhattisgarh itself. Much of the most critical reportage on the circumstances in the state are already beginning to look dated, although their relevance is as yet intact, with on-ground situation mostly remaining intact, until now. Commentators now see a "Mission 2016", particularly in #Bastar, wherein any and every agency that attempts to speak for the tribals is flushed out of the State - the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group has been forced out, likewise doctors and journalists. Those two bravest of local voices - Soni Sori and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi are being attacked more insidiously now, but continue to speak. As do other local activists and lawyers like Bela Bhatia and Shalini Gera continue to hold their ground, even as they too are targeted by the government.

In Maharashtra, the impact of the irrigation crisis has now been compounded by the crippling drought that affects a large swathe of the state. The famed Section 144 of the Criminal Penal Code, is now imposed in places like Latur prevent riots over water. Latur's MLA, meanwhile, has disappeared leaving even his party whip in the legislature clueless. On the other hand, the state's Attorney-General, Shreehari Aney, has resigned his office after the legislature found controversial his support for separate statehood for Vidarbha and Marathwada (Latur falls in Marathwada, btw). Mr. Aney is now planning to take his protest to Jantar Mantar. It is useful to remember that Devendra Fadnavis sought his mandate in Maharashtra on this very promise.

The list goes on - the state of Orissa now fights the very people it is supposed to represent to get mining rights for POSCO in Niyamgiri, while Jharkhand's cow vigilantism seems to find support at the highest echelons of government. There are famine-related horror stories coming in from Bundelkhand,

Response

The purpose of this article is to not to recount a litany of horrors,  but to highlight the urgent need for responses. The resignation of Mr. Aney, the Orissa government's lawsuit, the ABVP members' resignations can all be seen as alarm bells of one kind or another. The journalist Prem Shankhar Jha also highlighted the worsening situation of India's Muslims vis-a-vis education and unemployment.

The students of various institutions have also shown the way, by becoming a credible opposition to the whip being wielded by government.

It is now essential that empathetic citizens also raise their voices. In Bastar, when journalists found no one to carry their stories, they went online, posting stories on Facebook. Suresh Ediga and Bhavana Nissima are now using social media to leverage public support for the initiatives of Soni Sori, through their  #OneMillionPostCardCampaign for #Bastar. Similarly, most of the news from Hyderabad has come out through Facebook, with the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice -UoH carrying content on its page.

The violence highlighted here runs across caste, class and (religious) community lines, especially in the run-up to elections. There is a visible attempt to communalize violence that isn't communal to begin with. Ultimately, these issues, along with those of land and water, will affect each and every one of us. I ask, beg, request, that readers at least broadcast any and every effort at combating these issues, if not supporting them in every way possible. Good night and good luck!