January 23, 2010

Himanshu Kumar’s Satyagraha in Chattisgarh: Report of a Visit

By Rajiv Vora of Swaraj Peeth Trust

Not so long ago, from 19-22 Nov 2009, we congregated in Surajkund to revisit Hind Swaraj in the centenary year to rededicate ourselves to Gandhian values and principles in order to contribute our mite to  the reconstruction of a just and humane order by pursuing the path of truth, love and nonviolence.  You may recall the presentation by Himanshu Kumar of the Vanavasii Chetna Ashram (VCA), Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, on the 21st November plenary, sharing the experiences of his continuing Satyagraha in the strife- torn tribal belt of the state of Chhattisgarh in central India. A statement was jointly issued on the conclusion of the Hind Swaraj Centenary by Prof. U.R Ananthamurthy, Ms. Elabahen Bhatt, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Sri PV Rajagopal, Dr. Niru Vora and Sri Rajiv Vora in support of Himanshu’s struggle for making space for a Gandhian path in an environment of violence, lawlessness and impunity.

A committed Gandhian of a Gandhian parentage (his father Shri Prakashbhai  worked with Vinobaji), he is relentlessly seeking to intervene and restore peace in the predominantly tribal region of Chhattisgarh, scarred by intractable violence involving the Maoist Naxalites, the State and the Adivasis. In the 18 years of his selfless service and constructive work for tribal community, Himanshu has earned the credibility and goodwill of the people, many of whom are government functionaries and Maoist militants, who silently admire and respect him for his love for the adivasi and his pure motivations, even if they have strong reservations about Gandhian methodology of non-violence to which he is wedded.  

In this state of desperation and utter helplessness, when all democratic spaces were being shut, knowing not what to do, he decided upon a fast for atma shuddhi (Self-purification).  During this period (26 December 2009 - 04 January 2010) of self-imposed fast against none, simply for soul-searching for an answer; he survived on water, the spinning wheel and books.

After sharing and discussing Himanshu’s resolve to go on a self-purificatory fast in the best Gandhian tradition with Ms. Elabahen Bhatt, Prof. Partha N. Mukherji, Prof. Ashis Nandy, and Dr. Niru Vora, I went to Dantewada and was with Himanshu on the 27 and 28 December. On my return, I shared my experience with them and with Sri M. P. Mathai.

Satyen Bardoloi and Priyanka from Mumbai, Abhay Rathwa from Vadodra, Gangesh from Lucknow, team of VCA’s, fieldworkers and other staff, were by his side providing support in various ways. Satyen  and Priyanka were sending regular despatches fom Dntewada. 

Himanshu, with his thorough understanding of tribal structure and culture, and the contradictions between modernization and democratic governance that have led to this impasse necessitating such drastic action by the government, is of the view that we need to put our mechanisms of constitutional protection in place. If that is not done, if there is absolutely no way of getting heard without fear or favour about the brutalities that then go unchecked, the ideologically non-committed tribals who were apprehensive of Maoists, will only swell their ranks. From about 5000 odd in 2005, the Naxals are estimated now to be nearly 100,000 strong. In an agonizing voice he observes: 

“I stare dumbly at all these people who come to me – the old man who saw his daughter raped and son shot dead; the young wife who was gang raped; the families whose houses were burnt;…They come to me pleading for help. I keep quiet, not knowing what to say or how to help. Nor can I ask them to suffer quietly. It is in such situation of utter despondency and helplessness that I have resorted to this fast. I have no demands, no conditions underlying my fast. I am only trying to collect and strengthen my inner strength for nonviolence.” 

His words are reminiscent of what Mahatma Gandhi said when he undertook  fast unto death during the 1924 riots in Kohat…(now in Pakistan): ‘how can I ask them to be nonviolent after what they have suffered…’.  

It would be instructive to recall that the Bhoodan movement was born in Pochampalli village in Andhra Pradesh in response to the violent communist movement seeking to redress the sufferings of the poor and the landless. Acharya Vinoba Bhave had declared: “The Communists want your head and land both; I am asking for your land only, that too one sixth. Take the landless as the sixth member of your family”. 

After more than six decades of democracy in our country, in the forests of Bastar, Himanshu is experimenting with the principles and practice of non-violent Satyagraha to find a way out of the dual challenge from the politics of Naxalism and anti-Naxalism. Going by the violence and terror unleashed on the tribals, by both the Naxal, the anti-Naxal “people’e militia supported by the state, namely Salva Judum, with total impunity and disregard of even minimum democratic governance, it would appear that the onslaught is a war on the  very existence of the tribal. If there is any truth in the corporate interests tying up with the government/state or Salva Judum to ‘clear’ the iron and  mineral rich areas of all tribal habitation, as some fear, then this must be properly handled. Himanshu is neither denying the development of mining nor the fact that Maoist violence is an impediment to development and democracy. If the intended or unintended consequences of Operation Green Hunt are to terrorise innocent people, chase them out of their villages and livelihoods, then it is duty of citizens to stand by the side of lakhs of tribal brethren who have turned homeless and are uprooted.  

Himanshu is seeking justice for victims of rape, arson and murder; he is opposing the savage violence of security forces and Salva Judum, armed and supported by the government against all democratic norms; he is demanding the return of the inhabitants of about 650 evacuated villages; he wants the adivasis, mostly forcibly concentrated in filthy, socially degrading camps, compelled to live on doles, to be able to return to their homes in the villages. He has already demonstrated how to get them back to their villages and begin anew by introducing the programmes of development, anganwadis, health services, schools and the rest. He promised them a non-violent human shield against any violent attack from any quarter. 

He invited the Home Minister Sri Chidambaram to visit Dantewada for a jansunwai (public hearing) session with the public assuring him that no harm would reach him, or even any abuse. But the Governor  prevailed upon him not to visit the state at this juncture, as this could have a demoralizing effect on their operations. Under the pretext of giving him protection Himanshu is encircled by police, which keeps monitoring his every action or speech. A vicious propaganda against him is being built up to hound him out of Chhattisgarh. First, his ashram was bulldozed in May this year; next, on the 6th day of his fast his landlord approached him with folded hands asking him to vacate his premises as he was being pressured to evict him. Smilingly, Himanshu assures him that he will do so as he did not want him to suffer on his account! On being asked where he will move, he smiled in response, ‘I dont know’. 

During the period of his fast, on 3rd January 2010, he organized that Shambho, a tribal lady who had been shot in the leg by the CRPF is sent for her second round of treatment to Delhi. Three times she and her escort were terrorised and prevented from boarding the bus to Raipur. Himanshu decided to escort her personally to Delhi in his jeep. A jeep-full of police kept tailing them most of the 400 km route, until they were prevented from entering Raipur and whisked away to Kanker Police Station, where they took her under police custody. 

All this while, Niru and I were in the field, but we were in constant communication with Himanshu. At the same time we alerted some of our friends in Raipur and Delhi. In particular, we connected with Prof. Partha Nath Mukherji and Prof. Ashis Nandy. In turn, Prof. Nandy connected with an important TV journalist, whilst Prof. Mukherji was able to establish contact with the DGP and the DIG of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). As per request of the NHRC, Prof. Mukherji faxed a letter of complaint after sharing the draft with me and Himanshu. The NHRC promptly took action and sent the complaint to the S.P. Dantewada and also obtained some reply, which was to be put before the Commission. Prof Ashish Nandy followed up with NDTV, which gave a good coverage on its Hindi channel. This was the minimum that could be done by way of trying to secure some protective and restraining measures. 

The way things are moving, it would appear that the government is doing exactly what the Maoists would like to happen, namely, the increasing oppression of the state on innocent, defenseless tribals who had so far shied away from them, but would now end up in their lap! Himanshu is providing a Gandhian intervention that is against none, only against violence as an instrument of solving the problem. In his conduct and language there is no trace of ill-will against anyone, including his tormentors. He speaks for truth, justice and love. He speaks for the tormented and the agonised. For a satyagrahi there is no scope for desperation, frustration or defeat. His is a win-win model. The Mahatma had once remarked that 80 percent of the consequences of nonviolence are not visible to the eye, they happen beneath the surface. Those who think that nonviolence does not work must grasp the meaning of this very insightful observation of non other than Mahatma Gandhi himself. 

Himanshu’s is a test case, for all of us, nay for the nation perhaps. I have no doubt that the more he is tested the more he would shine. How does one reconcile with the fact that a satyagrahi, wedded to Gandhi and ahimsa is being horridly harassed and hunted? Has nonviolent action no legitimacy in a country which is a responsible democracy? Our security forces are fully accountable to our Constitution, not the Maoists who wish to destroy and rewrite it for a state governed by the barrel of the gun. We fully appreciate the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens. Himanshu Kumar, just as any one of us, is asking for the rule of the law. We mourn the casualties of violence, whether they are from among the innocent people,  the police or the Maoists.  The vicious circle of violence has to be broken. We believe that non-state options and initiatives in resolving problems of deep rooted violence strengthen democratic culture. We also believe that civil society should address its actions and efforts of reforms more in the direction of the society.  

In this context, the nonviolent, self less Gandhian force must come forwards and  be allowed to intervene in order for the tribal people to share equally  the fruits of freedom and democracy  and assist the nation in wiping out the alarming democratic deficit that is plaguing the tribal regions of the country.  It will be sad if the corporate interests do not factor in the interests of the innocent tribal communities, who for centuries have inhabited these areas protecting national wealth. It is time for the corporate world to proclaim that they are not for the uprootment of tribal life and culture for their gains; that they will make the inhabitants of the soil their partners in their well-being and prosperity. Let them stand behind Himanshu’s Gandhian efforts to restore sanity and peace for the welfare of all.  

I propose

  • That we research rigorously into the causes and consequences of the violent Maoist movement.

  • That a team of accredited impartial persons visit the area urgently and meet all the concerned parties involved and affected by the situation of violence to prepare a non-partisan report particularly with a view to find possibilities of a nonviolent assistance in reducing violence. In this regard we have two models to learn from; one, the Bhoodan yatra ; and, the Chambal  dacoits surrender.


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