"Camps symbolise democratic history in this state" | By Sanjay Barbora
In the rest of the country, at least metropolitan India, it has become fashionable to talk about inclusive growth, GDP percentages and India as a growing power. But in Assam, we talk about living in camps — refugee camps, relief camps, armed camps and ceasefire camps. Camps have become the symbol of democratic history in the state, and I can tell you, it is not a good place to be. We thought that the late 1990s and the 2000s were the worst of times in Assam, but things are only getting worse.
In the past 10 years, there hasn’t been a single district in Assam that has been free from violence. It says a lot about us as a state and country that even as we talk of encouraging dialogue and equal growth, we have been unable to last a decade without murdering one and other. Unfortunately, many in India have been too quick to label the incidents of violence as ethnic, put them on the backburner and conduct studies to understand the root cause. But for me, that is lazy sociology.
For those on the ground... we are forced to think and talk about issues under the barrel of the gun, waved in our face by the State. As a result, our understanding has become far more nuanced and deeper than some Delhi-based think-tank and we are clear that these are issues that are fundamental to a democracy. These are issues about representation, sharing resources, and unequal distribution of wealth and power.
Decades of clashes have left thousands displaced. Scared to go back home, they live in relief camps — some since 1996. These camps have become a permanent feature of how the Centre governs the Northeast.
Coming back to the camps as a metaphor of contemporary politics of violence in Assam, since the early years of this century, one has seen radical political opinion being set apart in different camps: some developed deep-rooted splits; others decided to talk to the government, and others still have signed agreements to suspend operations with the Indian Army. With time, these camps have given way to ceasefire camps (while the active ones have moved across the border into Myanmar). But the question is: What do you do with them? Do you pacify the rebels, buy them out or wait for them to die? There doesn’t seem to be any clear thinking on this issue and governments — both past and present — are satisfied to let things drift. This reliance on camps is a recipe of doing politics behind closed doors. They are the symbolic expression of backroom deals and the lack of accountability on the part of the larger polity.
Today, it is impossible to tell what the ULFA thinks because the ones who are overground have not been interacting with the public: they too live in their camps and it is difficult to enter them. For the factions, who for some reason don’t believe in the process of dialogue with India, we don’t even know if they are a real threat. Yes, the police constantly say that there is a threat, and swear by it, because otherwise it makes no sense to have a large police and military force deployed in the state. But I am not sure if the factions that continue to engage in military action against the State are capable of influencing public discourse as they did a decade ago.
I don't think we should credit the government and its policies for this. What happened is that the idea of the armed struggle has run one cycle and the people feel that this sort of system has its limitations.
It is true that Assam is better than other states in the region, but there is tension simmering under the surface and that stems from policies that are pro-rich. On the one hand, you have this inexplicable growth of urban Assam, but at the same time the state allows community and tribal land to be privatised in the semi-urban and rural areas. The state is rolling back, but doing so in favour of the creamy layer, giving away land to private players for a song. So, the anger is very much there and it is never too far from the surface.
While the youth in Assam have similar aspirations as their counterparts in the rest of the country, the lack of opportunity and persistent conflicts have resulted in thousands of people leaving the state in search of employment. But no one talks about them. They work as security guards and unskilled workers for anywhere between Rs 6,000 and Rs 9,000 a month, living in pitiful conditions, facing discrimination in an effort to scratch something to send home. But no one asks them what they feel about India and her independence. They are forced to leave because even basic jobs don’t exist in the state and they cannot think of a secure life back home.
There exists a huge disconnect between the people of Assam and the rest of the country. At one level, a section of India points fingers at the Northeast for being pampered and living on handouts, but they never question the fact that everything is more expensive here and the fact that even after 66 years of Independence, the region still needs handouts.
One of the things that best represent this disconnect is the issue of immigration. It is one of those unfinished businesses of Partition that most policymakers and academics outside the Northeast have little patience with. They either buy into the “illegal Bangladeshi” argument, or live in denial that the issue, which dates back to the early 20th century, has not quite been resolved. I disagree with sociologists who believe that organisations such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), All Bodo Students Union (ADSU) and the Shiv Sena are cut from the same cloth. There may be elements of convergence in their political language, but this is because we don’t have a sophisticated language on citizenship. AASU and ABSU are symptoms of a deeper malaise arising out of a perception that the average Assamese, Bodo, Rabha, Karbi or Dimasa is unable to share space and resources with people who are not from their immediate kin group. It comes from decades of marginalisation and the focus of political ire has fallen on similarly impoverished Bangla-speaking Muslims, Garos, Adivasis, etc.
India is not a country where dialogue filters up. Policy is driven by a small elite, which somehow manages to control a state where rituals of democracy have allowed for an imperfect but celebrated form of majoritarian, participatory system of government. Sometimes the success of India’s electoral exercise can blind us to undemocratic structures of violence. So, the Northeast’s experience with India is that of its colonisation, its complete subjugation in terms of military and its resources, but none of this becomes a story that makes it to metropolitan India.
We must keep in mind that India is a very modern construct; the country was created only in 1947. But when we were created, certain conditions were laid. One was that everyone would be equal under the Constitution. However, since 1958 (even earlier for the Nagas), that has not been the case for the Northeast and this is a very fundamental question that any democracy has to answer. While celebrating India’s democracy, in Assam, you can also find reasons to doubt it. So, there is always this sense of frustration — especially because often you feel as if you are talking to yourself and no one is listening.
We continue to be misfits in Independent India | By Grace Jajo
They look alien, with thick moustaches and a ready finger on the trigger. We used to shiver at their very sight. For most of the country, Independence Day and Republic Day are symbols of what India stands for and the men who fight to protect her. However, we in Manipur grew up knowing that the men in camouflage are “walking devils”. For us, they represent the fierce face of India.
The courage of Irom Sharmila, who has been fasting to protest the army’s atrocities since 2000, has helped highlight our plight nationally and internationally. However, the media buzz and shrill activism have pushed the people’s experience into a narrow view. In truth, it shadows and undermines the testimonies of all the faceless survivors in the state.
Manipur exists within layers of conflict. We grew up asserting our overlapping identities and ethnicities, sharpening the community divide, because each group views the others with suspicion. While identity becomes significant, it increases the vulnerability among the comman people. The divide marks every instance of tension, and the minority tribals, especially Nagas, continue to feel insecure within this administration.
In the past, the extension of the Naga ceasefire had led to an uproar where an exodus continued for months. Subtle threats continue to provoke the already volatile situation. A sense of psychological warfare continues unabated towards each other. Finally, in 2010, the Nagas decided to sever ties with the ‘communal’ Manipur government.
Six decades of political confrontation have pushed us into a state of hopelessness. Various forms of national integration policies have depoliticised our people and confused the youth. Living in the midst of two-dozen underground groups, it is impossible to perceive a homogenous enemy. The crime rate increases every year and so does our indifference to the abnormality. The impunity of the State, especially in conflict areas, is an open secret. Recent incidents exposed the involvement of the men in uniform in all forms of antisocial activities, proving their greed for money and gallantry awards, which increases the vulnerability of the comman people.
Every day, we wake up to news of conflict casualties. Our proximity to violence seems to ripple backwards.
Over the past two years, I have experienced three bomb blasts, all within a 100-metre radius of where I was located. The first, on Republic Day last year, shook the walls of the guesthouse where I was having breakfast. My ears were ringing for a long time. For a moment, I thought I was dead. I handled my second blast better; though I was shaken, I remained calm. By my third blast, I was a pro. It was a double explosion that happened just three houses away. But I didn’t flinch. I was already immune.
If a family member fails to return home, the first thing we do is to check the hospitals and morgues. Then we visit police stations, not to file a missing complaint or an FIR, but to check the list of those arrested. In several cases, innocent civilians have been found dead wearing rebel uniforms. They were listed as encounter deaths.
For parents, the safety of their children is a constant worry as curfews are announced at the drop of a hat. In 2011, a girl from my village died in a bomb blast in the heart of Imphal while returning from school. Her mother is yet to recover from the trauma. Educational institutions are not spared either. In 2009, during the fake encounter agitation, all schools and colleges were shut down for four months urging the government to take cognizance of Right to life. Eventually, students had to appear in board exams without finishing half the syllabus.
Most of the families prefer to send their children elsewhere so that they grow up in a normal environment. As a result, there is a massive exodus of youth. Many of the Northeasterners you see in the metros working as salespersons, waiters, etc, are from Manipur.
When I went to college in New Delhi, it felt like heaven. The men in uniform never stopped us and asked for our IDs. My parents back home used to update me about the price of petrol shooting up to Rs 200 a litre as highway blockades went on for months. It was also the time when my uncle fainted while queuing in front of the ATM, which takes two hours on an average to access. The power supply used to last for just four hours a day.
The lack of normality is amplified by the scars of the past. One night, when I was a 10-year-old, I was home with my younger brother when suddenly, I heard a loud banging on our door. I remember dragging my brother under the bed and both of us praying and sobbing, frozen in fear. The knocking persisted and I finally opened the door. A guy pushed me aside with his gun. Seven men in uniform asked us strange questions about militants and audiotapes. They asked if we had guns. My brother said ‘yes’ and showed them his toy guns.
They searched our house and even opened the locker where mother kept money meant for our school admission. They repeatedly questioned us about where the money had come from. Later, they got hold of our tenants, who were blindfolded, abused and thrashed. It was a chilling experience. I was too scared to attend school for several days. I couldn’t face the “camouflaged devils”.
While we are still hopeful of freedom, the imagination of the same by our political leaders seems to be frozen in time. It is imperative to refashion our political agenda according to the trend of the times towards a regime more accommodative to human demands. If the government stops using its military in civil policing, the comman people will enjoy a sense of security. Right now, Ukhrul, a town located 84 km away from Imphal, has been under siege for a month. The blockade has ratcheted up tension.
For getting good grades in universities, we were forced to write long essays glorifying the Indian polity, history, administration, growth rate, democracy, diversity, non-violence, equality before law, right to life and freedom. Once we return to Manipur, we remain unemployed. The government remains indifferent to the rising number of educated, unemployed youth and the security forces continue to see everyone as a suspect. Every day is a living nightmare. Despite facing discrimination, our youth shift to metros for the sake of survival. We seem to matter only for our strategic geopolitical location and not as equal citizens. We continue to be misfits.
Our casualties remain mere statistics as more and more families silently bear the invisible brunt of the conflict.
One wonders whether we will ever experience normality again. India seems to have forgotten that it fought and won freedom from a coloniser. It has become the mighty reckless ruler of this region. Conflict is both a context and pretext for failing as a welfare state. Rampant corruption dogs the bureaucracy and the blame is conveniently shifted to the unaccountable militants. Jobs are given to the highest bidder. Conflict becomes a perfect pretext for the failure to deliver governance.
Right to education remains a distant dream, leading to numerous cases of child trafficking on the pretext of providing free education. The benefits of the Centre’s flagship programmes fail to trickle down. Military boots are the only things that reach the villagers. The failure to deliver on health, education and other basic amenities makes a mockery of the welfare state. The government’s only priority seems to be maintaining law and order.
As India celebrates its 68th Independence Day, we imagine our free past before India imposed its military might to curb our voices and independence. We wonder whether India will ever restore our freedom of existence.
A state held to ransom by a violent minority | By Kyrshan Singh
It is the Independence Day weekend and while the rest of the country celebrates, I will be confined within the four walls of my home. An imposed house arrest, if you will. Not because I have broken the law, but because a small, armed and aggressive minority has decided to rob me of my fundamental rights. I am a hostage in my own land, caught in a deadlock between a government that is supposedly working for my development and a group that is supposedly acting with my best interests in mind. In truth, both parties are doing it for their own benefit.
The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) has called a three-day bandh in Meghalaya and has threatened violence against any citizen who does not obey its dictum. The government has not done enough to assure the citizens of their safety or encourage people to break the bandh. In any case, even if they did provide some assurances, the lack of faith in the political and bureaucratic powers of Meghalaya has always been low at best. Why should we trust them to provide us with safety and security now, when they have done so much to disprove their ability to rule effectively previously?
A bandh has been observed in the state on 15 August for the past 35 years. A generation has not been permitted to celebrate India’s independence. No wonder then that the youth feel a disconnect between themselves and the country they belong to. It has become a national pastime to focus on the differences between communities. However, Independence Day is a reminder of the time when we all came together as one, no matter what religion, caste or creed, to fight shoulder to shoulder for a common cause. It is a reminder that if we set our differences aside, how easy it is to work together to achieve something truly great. In Meghalaya, we do not get this opportunity; we only get the opportunity to focus on differences. Focussing on differences is not healthy, it breeds hate and hate breeds conflict and violence.
If you were brave enough to defy the bandh and venture out then you would notice several CRPF jawans patrolling the streets. This makes you feel safe. However, that false sense of safety quickly vanishes when you turn the corner and are welcomed by a stone thrown through your window, or worse, a bullet through your windshield.
It is not that you are safe in your own home either. I remember attending an Independence Day tea party about a decade ago, when the violence was at its peak. Having safely negotiated the streets with my wife, I arrived at my cousin’s house in an exhilarated mood. I had fought for my rights and defied the bandh. I felt empowered. Halfway through the tea party, we were greeted by gunfire from the adjoining street. People paused and looked at each other nervously. A few minutes later, bullets started spraying through the drawing room door and windows. We collectively fell to the ground but there was no sense of panic. The firing would soon end, we thought. About five minutes later, when the firing hadn’t stopped, we decided to continue our tea party on the ground, with an aunt passing around delicious pastries and tea while crawling on her knees. When you grow up in a city like Shillong, you learn to take violence in your stride. There is nothing you can do about it, so might as well keep doing what you were doing.
The violence has eased off in the past few years, but the memories die out slower, which is why I won’t be surprised if a majority continue to observe the bandh.
Agitation became a part of our lives during the statehood movement in the late 1960s, with the demand for a separate hill state carved out of the then undivided Assam. We attained statehood on 21 January 1972. Surely, this would bring an end to the violence and we could look forward to a future of peace and prosperity.
That was not to be, the violence just became worse. The movement took on a nasty turn and became increasingly xenophobic with resident non-indigenous communities such as the Assamese, Bengalis and Nepalese being targeted. There were mass killings and ethnic violence throughout the 1980s and the ’90s. “Khasi by blood, Indian by accident” was a popular anti-national slogan. If you go to Shillong today, you can still see this propaganda graffiti on the walls. That was when the exodus began. The share of non-indigenous people has fallen from 20 percent in the 1970s to less than 10 today. Shillong went from a thriving and vibrant cosmopolitan town to an increasingly insular, insecure and violent city.
But the agitating groups didn’t stop there; with hardly any non-indigenous people to prey on, they started targeting local politicians and the elite tribal businessmen. “These men and women are the reason for our plight,” we were told. “Their only motive is to gain wealth at the expense of the comman person.”
Are we inherently violent? Visitors to Meghalaya describe the people as fun-loving, peaceful, musically inclined and welcoming. Gender equality is one of our strengths. Our youth are sought after in the hospitality sector and at BPOs where their English language proficiency and people skills are an attraction.
So, where does this anger, hatred and violence stem from? There are two facts that surround the agitation movement. Firstly, the perpetrators are predominantly male, and secondly, the violence always gets worse just before an election. In Khasi society, the man marries and moves to his wife’s house and his children take their mother’s surname. He traditionally inherits no property, which is passed down to the ‘Khun Khaduh’ the youngest girl-child of the family. In his wife’s house, he is abused and taunted for not having a proper job to support the family and only finds peace at the bottom of a bottle or on an occasional fishing trip with his friends. Due to low development and infrastructural investment in the region, the hope of finding employment is minuscule.
The second point is a common thread all over India, where politicians use vote-bank politics and sectarian violence to secure the election and solidify their power. They then use this power to pocket vast sums of public money and use the local unrest as a tool to convince the Centre to allocate more funds to the state. However, none of these funds are translated into development as the state government and the creamy layer keep the spoils for themselves, further increasing the frustration of the local population and then perpetuates this violent cycle and the rhetoric of outsiders snatching opportunities.
So, you have a population of educated, unemployed, intoxicated men who feel disempowered at home and are constantly reminded by the powers that be that they are a minority facing extinction and that their opportunities are being snatched away. Add to this the ease at which one can get a gun and this frustration soon turns violent.
For the past few years, the Garo rebel group Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) has been restricted to ceasefire camps and minting money from the coal business, while the HNLC was on its last legs. However, the frustration has started to boil over once again. Led by Sohan Shira, a former ANVC rebel, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) is setting the Garo hills on fire. At the same time, the HNLC is back on a recruitment drive. Insurgency is making a comeback.
Whenever one reads an article about Meghalaya, the word ‘potential’ is mentioned a lot. The potential for generating hydropower, the potential for becoming a trading gateway with Bangladesh, the potential in horticulture, agriculture, tourism, hospitality, technology and medical sectors. Due to political instability and social unrest, this potential is never going to be achieved.
Independence Day comes as a poignant reminder that we live in a democracy, where people wield the power. We, the people, have to recognise this and assert our authority. We have to tell these violent minorities that we shall not be cowed down. We need to let our political representatives know that we will hold them accountable for their actions. If we manage to do this then Meghalaya will not be included in the next story on conflict zones.
Independence-a euphemism for 67 years of hard luck | By Al Ngullie
Nagaland is democracy’s favourite rabbit. Apart from the elected Naga People’s Front (NPF) government, at least six other ‘governments’ operate in the troubled state. These ‘people’s governments’ are run by various factions of the rebel groups — the Naga National Council and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland.
As a tradition, any new underground group that rears its head makes it a sacred duty to claim (before another faction comes up) that it came into existence with the “mandate of the people”. The weary people must meekly hand out a ‘mandate.’ Not doing so would activate the guerillas’ favourite (and only) skill — pointing an AK-47 to the head. Indeed, democracy is flourishing in Nagaland. I bet the Greeks did not see this coming.
Such an explicit approach perhaps explains why even after 67 years of Independence, the comman person in Nagaland still remains empty-handed, with an empty stomach, and uninspired by hopes of mercy. For the Nagas (the live ones, that is), 67 years of Independence is primarily a euphemism for 67 years of hard luck.
Since the 1950s when the early Naga nationalists began fighting for independence from the Indian Union, political education has been a brutal taskmaster for us. The first plague came in the form of the Indian military and the cowardly Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Probably scared that the foreign, naked savages might be carrying some jungle-borne diseases, the fidgety army snuffed out half of my race and planted a wound that stings to this day.
We, the younger generation, inherited that wound. The legacy the Indian military left behind was horrific: hundreds of villages razed to the ground, uncounted women and children raped and killed; villagers mowed down among the very paddy they had planted. The military temper echoed even recently in the form of the 27 December 1994 massacre in Mokokchung and the wanton shelling of civilian homes in Kohima. Visit and listen to our pain yourself.
The latest twist is as cruel: Those days, it was the Indian Army. These days, it is the Nagaland government, armed rebels, and a pitiable community leadership. Those days, the Indian government killed with bullets. These days, it is the government leaders, the Naga underground groups, and the narrow-minded social leadership that are tormenting the people — not necessarily always by bullets, but by rampant corruption, policy failure, pathetic law and order administration, moral lethargy, insular ambitions, extortion, and threat to life and property (oh yes, civilians have died too, don’t worry). The people’s right to lead a dignified life remains a prostituted theory.
The people are just grateful that neither the AFSPA nor the Naga political struggle has shot them yet. However, successive regimes of the Congress and the NPF might just starve my people to death yet. Nagaland is a Russian roulette, you see.
When the ceasefire breaks, the people will be facing a sad truth: an apathetic Indian government, a pathetic Nagaland government, a murderous Indian Army, and tyrannical underground groups. More than 12 years of ceasefire have added no quality to our lives.
What profit in belling the cat? Any citizen that criticises the NPF-led government will find in store a liberal measure of condescending, self-righteous, uncle-to-little-nephew talkdown. Any person who questions the tyranny of the armed rebels is labelled ‘anti-Naga,’ ‘Indian agent’, ‘raw agent’ — ‘anti’ anything, just like in primitive North Korea or paranoid China.
Simply put, the once-hallowed movement has regressed into a gang war and a palpably unashamed gold rush for those that wield the baton. In fact, it has traversed to a point where even the state’s newspapers now publish ‘Indo-Naga’ stories in the back pages, or cram a 2×4 insert at the bottom just to complete the layout.
Headlines? They are usually about bloodshed, extortion, illegal liquor, border skirmishes, or some synthetic give-peace-a-chance nonsensical speech by overweight Naga politicians. This is the great Nagaland experience.
The saddest yoke for the state, however, lies not in the failure of a microcosm — it lies in the causes that contributed to the collapse. It is the lack of moral representation by once-influential civil beacons such as the Naga Mothers’ Association, the Naga Students’ Federation, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, and comic puppets such as the divided Naga Hoho.
They have failed us. Their bias, feeble political posturing, parochial ambitions, intellectual tepidity and their heartbreaking lack of moral courage have not only cost our socio-political capital, but have begun costing our younger generation a shot at a productive future.
That weakness has often found application in the whims of the people in power who conveniently manipulate fundamental realities. On 8 March 2008, the then chief minister, Neiphiu Rio, sidestepped a direct question by TEHELKA, which asked whether the underground groups were running parallel governments in his backyard.
Rio responded with this masterpiece: “Political adversaries will always make such allegations. They should substantiate them. People are the best judge.”
If people are the best judge, then we, the people, are right: There are parallel governments in Nagaland. Moreover, we can substantiate that angle more than satisfactorily. In fact, even the government pays a yearly ‘tax’ to the underground groups as “welfare contribution”. To this day, the government deducts 25 percent from every state employee’s salary as ‘percentage’ for the rebel groups. Every Naga minister, department, every worker from the chief secretary down to the peon knows it. Every Naga does.
When I was in school, the underground groups were always there: Gaon buras (village leaders) regularly collected Rs 140 from every household. My mother’s monthly salary was a meagre Rs 300. Then, there was the ‘house tax’ to the tune of Rs 40. It was a small fortune.
My school nearly threw me out because I could not afford textbooks. I grew up pounding gravel at construction sites; I dug septic tanks and toilets to buy books and socks. To this day, the word ‘freedom fighter’ always conjures up images of, well, toilets.
Citizens no longer give a rat’s ass about our lily-bellied mammon-loving government in Nagaland. The Opposition Congress — a weak, drooling, uninspired antiquarian puppet that nobody gives a damn about anymore — remains useless at best. Our ministers have gained a reputation for loving the camera, as did their feeble, hedonic, sophist predecessors who loved posing for photographs with Union ministers.
However, they have no time for a state where a kilo of tomatoes now costs Rs 80; no time for corruption and financial mismanagement in the departments; no time for the cancerous growth of crime, including murder and extortion; no time for citizens who must do every bidding of the 9 mm/AK-47-waving ‘freedom fighters’; no time for the growing youth unemployment, crumpling education infrastructure and generational regression; no time for road development, electricity or health amenities; no time for movements such as the popular Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation that continues to speak for accountability, while Naga ministers fly in their planes talking about Planning Commission funds; and no time for a state that is on a downward spiral.
Nobody seems to realise that there are literally tens of thousands of unemployed youth fighting for one lower-division assistant’s post (which, more often than not, goes to some someone who bribes the MLA). Nobody cares that in many villages, parents pay in rice, timber and even vegetables as fee for their children’s primary education.
In fact, Nagaland’s series of corrupt — and disturbingly weak — governments have even bred a bizarre business practice in the commercial centre, Dimapur. Traders hike prices based on whether or not ministers would be travelling! In May, a newspaper in Dimapur reported that autorickshaws and vegetable sellers were hiking prices because Rio would be living in New Delhi as an MP!
What about the Independence Day that India celebrates? Seriously, whose independence?
So, what do the Nagas want? Well, is this article not obvious enough about what we wish for our people and future? I raise my glass to the gangraped dreams of my people.
When the adivasis have no tongue | By Shubhranshu Choudhary
On a rainy afternoon, the sun was out after a few spells of shower at the Salwa Judum camp in Maraigudem on the Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border. One needed to take permission to enter these fortified camps where people escaping the fight between Maoists and State-sponsored Salwa Judum vigilantes had taken refuge.
After negotiating our permission with the police officer in charge of the camp, we reached the makeshift school located inside it. We found the headmaster, Mr Tiwari, sitting on the verandah, working on some pending files.
I was keen to understand the situation of education in Adivasi schools. But Mr Tiwari was in no mood to help.
“You guys from Delhi come here for disaster tourism,” he said. “You have no interest in understanding and solving the problems. Let us have tea and talk about something else.”
Mr Tiwari had been living in Bastar for the past 22 years and spoke Gondi, which was a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t met many government servants who were posted in Bastar and spoke Gondi, which is spoken by the majority of the Adivasis there.
My observations about Gondi speakers helped Mr Tiwari open up. He was in his late 50s and corrected me first that he was not a headmaster but a sankul samanvayak (de facto cluster manager), a post higher than a headmaster. He was in charge of a cluster of 24 schools that were shifted to the camp to save them from the “wrath of Maoists”.
“Even better. So, what is the situation of education in your schools,” I asked.
“So, you really want to know?”
“Yes, I have come all the way from Delhi to understand this.”
“Ok, then listen. I have 64 teachers under me but none of them speak any Gondi and I have hundreds of students in these schools but none of them understand any Hindi. Is the situation of education in my schools clear to you?”
I was not shocked.
Since Independence, working in places such as Bastar has often been considered punishment postings for government servants. My father served in a similar district called Surguja. There was a popular saying about the district: “Jahar kha na mahur kha, koodat koodat Sarguja ja (If you want to kill yourself, no need to consume poison; a trip to Surguja is enough).”
More than 50 lakh Gondi speakers live in central India, but just like school-going Gond children, they have no platform to express themselves. Like teachers, it is hard to find government officials who understand any Gondi.
All India Radio (AIR) is the only effective mass communication tool in operation in these parts of the country, but they hardly broadcast anything in Gondi. They don’t broadcast any news in the language.
If you are a Gond who hasn’t completed school, which is the case with many people in the community, then in all likelihood, your world will be limited only to your family and community and no one from the outside.
A majority of Gond children don’t complete their education for this very reason. Hindi is a foreign language for them. There are no newspapers, magazines, radio and television programmes in Gondi either.
Gondi is also the lingua franca of the Maoist movement, described as the biggest threat to our internal security.
The Maoists publish many magazines in Gondi. They also run schools, where lessons are taught in Gondi. They have also handwritten books in subjects such as medicinal usages of plants and herbs. These books are lifesavers because not many doctors are available here.
But the irony is that these are considered banned materials. Gonds can be jailed for possessing the only magazines available in their mother tongue.
Once in a Maoist camp, I noticed a young Gond boy armed with an AK-47 rifle, reading an English learning book in Telugu. He was the bodyguard of a top Maoist leader called Sonu, and was from north Bastar, a Hindi-speaking area.
I was surprised that he was learning English from a book in Telugu and not Hindi.
“This is also politics,” he said. “Our language Gondi is much closer to Dravidian languages, but we are taught in Hindi. In the space of one week, I lost my parents to malaria. But, officials in Raipur later said that no one had died of malaria that year. My parents died because of this politics of neglect, which I want to change.”
It was rather painful talking to that young boy. Revenge was the only thing on his mind.
In mainstream India, boys of his age want to become the next Bill Gates, but the Gond wanted to be a Maoist and change the politics that he said “kills the poor”. But will his politics of death bring about any positive change? Is there an end to this war? Will anybody win? Will the Adivasis gain in the long term? He had no answers. But he said he had no other option but to fight.
I wonder why learning English was so important to fight, which was the only thing he wanted to do. I am sure he was telling me a lie and wanted many more things from life like any other youth of his age.
During the Mughal era, Gondwana was a state ruled by Gond kings and queens. But after Independence when states were created on linguistic lines, Gondwana got parcelled between many Indian states.
Just like Bastar, all these parts of the erstwhile Gondwana were located very far away from their respective capitals such as Bhopal and Mumbai, a perfect setting for punishment postings.
On the day Narendra Modi won a landslide victory, I was travelling to those areas. Until I got an SMS at 3 pm, I had no clue about what was happening in the country. There were no mobile signals. Though the markets were filled with people, no one was discussing the election.
I also visited many villages in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. Forget finding Hindi-speaking, educated people, the whole village had no pen or paper.
When the Quit India movement started in August 1942, the Congress had started a rebel radio station. Freedom fighter Usha Mehta was arrested for running the station.
Adivasis feel more comfortable speaking and listening and not reading and writing. We promoted a Brahminic form of communication in free India. After 67 years of Independence, radio is still restricted in the world’s largest democracy, and doesn’t address the world or the needs of the Adivasis.
I recently met a Gondi-speaking air officer who told me that as soon as he started airing Gondi programmes from Jagdalpur station in Chhattisgarh, he was promoted and sent to Aizwal in Mizoram.
The government is now promoting community radio and talking about the possibility of allowing news on private FM stations. This is being hailed as a progressive step, but no one is addressing the fact that FM is an urban phenomenon and can’t help rural and Adivasi India. The radius of a community radio station is restricted to 5-8 km and an Adivasi village is often spread over larger than that much area. They need shortwave radio, which is considered a security threat.
If a democratic country can’t trust its own citizens to speak their mind, then it raises a question about the health of that freedom and democracy. There is a bit more of India beyond Gurgaon and Gujarat. If free India can’t take care of their interests, there will be trouble.
You cannot manipulate the idea of freedom | By Aamir Malik
Like every year, the Kashmir Valley will turn into an open prison on 15 August. Security forces — symbols of India’s colonial oppression — will be deployed across the region, keeping watch on every street corner. We, the youth of Kashmir, who have lived through this new form of colonialism, are trapped within our own homes. A day that starts off with an enforced house arrest of sorts will end with stone-pelting. That is how we have come to ‘celebrate’ India’s Independence Day.
After 67 years of freedom, you talk of India’s growth story, but how does that matter to me? I live in the heart of Srinagar, but for the past three days, there hasn’t been any electricity in my area. I had to travel across town to charge my phone so that we could have this conversation.
New Delhi always comes up with plans and special packages, but nothing happens on the ground. So much money has been pumped into the state, but it all goes unused. The only ones profiting are our political masters who have bought bungalows worth hundreds of crores.
During the time of the freedom struggle, each and very Indian leader — be it Mohandas Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru — held British passports and many even studied in England. However, they wanted their land, they wanted their own identity, they wanted their resources that were being exploited by the British government.
Kashmir is facing a similar situation today. For example, we are selling our power and water resources to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation at a lower rate than at which we are buying back. Why can’t we exploit our own resources?
In the first three years of the Kashmiri movement, educated people led the cause. Just like those who led the Indian independence struggle. They were well-read and understood the issues. But with time, this generation was wiped out by the security forces and the next lot lusted for money and power. Thus began the downward spiral.
If someone wanted to marry a girl, they would pick up a gun, enter the house and proclaim, “I want to marry your daughter.” These same men, who were fighting for our cause then turned collaborators and joined the ranks of the Special Task Force to kill and harass the local population. At that time, it was a four-way battle — the Centre, the army, the state government and militants — and the local Kashmiris were caught in the middle.
Our local political class should cop a lot of the blame. If it was not for them, the pre-1956 autonomy status we want to go back to — where we had our own prime minister and Parliament — would never have been lost.
Those leaders were only good at making money and bickering with each other. If they really wanted to do something for the state, given that the Centre pumps in crores of rupees, at least we could have had basic amenities in Kashmir. Instead, we have blame games.
Do you know who introduced the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir? It was none other than PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. When Sayeed was the Union home minster, he asked for the AFSPA to be applied in Kashmir, a law that allows the army to shoot to kill on mere suspicion. A law that provides them blanket immunity from a civil trial. Ironically, when Sayeed came to power in Kashmir, he said that we have to remove the AFSPA as it was an “oppressive” Act. Like everywhere else in the world, our politicians think that the people are stupid and can be manipulated.
Seventy percent of the killings in Kashmir happened at the hands of the Central forces and the rest at the hands of the police, but local politicians support all such killings in Kashmir.
The prime minister and president of India don’t come to Kashmir to kill. It is done at the nod of the state government, who are acting on their own interests and alliances with those in New Delhi.
Today, we have Kashmiris killing Kashmiris, but what is the fundamental reason behind it? It is quite simple. When you put a financial incentive for killing, it becomes a lucrative business. Both the police and the paramilitary forces have killed around 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh people. Add to that 13,000 rape cases, 20,000-30,000 cases of missing persons, and mass graves, each housing tens of thousands of people. How do we compromise with those who have killed our loved ones?
The political leadership in both Srinagar and New Delhi may have succeeded in manipulating the illiterate people living in the state’s fringes, but the average educated Kashmiri knows the truth. We cannot be trapped by promises of jobs, money, growth and other material things because you cannot manipulate the idea of freedom.
But we are not free. If you remember, just a few months ago, Kashmiri students were kicked out of their college for supporting Pakistan during a cricket match against India. It was initially called an act of sedition and the police even went so far as to file a complaint.
If supporting a non-Indian team in sports equals sedition, then why did not the police file thousands of cases of sedition during the football World Cup when everyone was supporting Spain or Argentina? It is just a sport. It is just a matter of choice. Why is India so insecure?
The youth in Kashmir is done with India. We know India can offer us nothing. In fact, it is the reverse; they take from us our natural resources and then say, ‘Come join us. We will make you part of our growth story.’
Today, the struggle has come full circle. University graduates and educated youth are taking up arms. Why? What is their frame of mind? The only answer is that when injustice becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.
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(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 34, Dated August 13, 2014)