Raoghat mines in Bastar: Iron in their souls – by Paramita Ghosh (Hindustan Times – March 29, 2014)


Hills can be unkind, if you are climbing them, or even if you are trying to save them. They have no properly marked-out roads, the clock here is meaningless, but there is shade, and the trees here are everything. The trees point to the sky like compasses; they pelt down flowers, sour-sweet fruits; their leaves are eaten by cows and men; they house the gods, and gods here are like relatives – so why can’t the people keep them?

The nearby Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) iron-ore mine had led to massive deforestation in Dalli-Rajhara, destroyed fields of grain and corn, led to land seizure, so would its mine at Raoghat be any different? For over 10 years, Badri Gawde, 38, a social worker from Antagarh, a tribal-dominated no-frills town, 20 km from the Raoghat hills and 80 from Kanker city, had been asking himself this question. Lately, he had begun to ask it a little more insistently, holding public meetings, facilitating study trips for academics, tying-up with Chhattisgarh’s unruly bunch, the mine workers, and the state’s two-bit village officials, the sarpanches, and thinking himself up into a leader. Why not say he was a Maoist? And they did.

Gawde’s political pedigree is mixed. Ever since January 24, 2014, when he was picked up at Antagarh, and held in Raipur’s Central Jail under the draconian Public Security Act, he has become, like Lalgarh’s Chhattradhar Mahato, nobody’s man. Naresh Thakur, a Kanker Congress leader, admits Gawde was “with the party”, the state Congress chief, Bhupesh Baghel, said he was a BJP man.

The BJP, true, had also gained from Gawde’s dissatisfactions. Gawde was a contender for the Congress ticket in this year’s assembly polls from the Gond-majority Antagarh seat, but the party’s choice of a Halba tribe candidate made the Gonds vote for BJP’s Vikram Usendi at what they perceived to be a slight to the Gondwana Samaj, a socio-cultural organisation of which Gawde was vice-president.

As for his Maoist ‘links’, in Gawde’s case, it was a foregone conclusion due to a host of other factors — Maoists had ‘been seen’ at Gawde’s rallies; Gawde had ‘been seen’ attending theirs; he did not have a ‘problem’ with the Maoists, and they with him; the Maoists are said to have backed the Raoghat Rail Sangharsh Samiti, so had Gawde – therefore, they had to be one.

Arrested dissent

The Raman Singh-led BJP government has a good record of fixing ‘bad tribals’. Rajesh Bhaskar, the head of a Kanker-based sarpanch body, said educated tribals and “tribals with posts” had become recent targets of intimidation. To be Naxal-proof, a sarpanch these days had better be a police spy. “If you are not telling on the Maoists, or are being too assertive, you are suspect.

It means you have Maoist backing,” said a villager. “Ram Kumar Mandavi, sarpanch (Muragaon), Ganesh Kurgan, sarpanch (Timnar), Sonu Ram Dhuru, village official (Chichgaon), Dasrath Mandavi, village official (Pirpal), Dhannu Ram Dhuru, sarpanch (Tadoki),” lists Bhaskar, showing a petition that had been sent to the chief minister with names of those arrested from Kanker on the charge of being “Naxal supporters”.

An ongoing study by Shalini Gera, Isha Khandelwal and Parijata Bharadwaj, of a Jagdalpur-based lawyers’ collective, shows that sarpanch or no sarpanch, the state is not being choosy about its arrests.

“Three school boys were picked up from Tirathgarh in Bastar and presented before the media as hardcore Naxalites. Maoists in school dress makes a great story,” said Khandelwal. “There seems to be no thieves or drug traffickers in Chhattisgarh anymore, anyone picked up is slapped with 7-8 cases on an average; the first FIR may complain of an attack by unknown people; after a few months when a statement is recorded, the complainant will remember all their names, the names of their villages, and even the name of the Maoist commander who is said to have led the attack and the division s/he belongs to,”

Their analysis of disposed cases from the Dantewada Sessions Court between 2005-2012, for example, revealed that starting from 2005, there has been “high acquittal rates in these years. The average acquittal rate of data pooled over all years is 95.7%, while individual years range from 91.5% to 98.7%. A majority of these cases were “Naxali cases.” “Most cases were bogus and they don’t stand in court. But that’s after the accused has spent 2-3 years in jail. That’s enough to break a human being,” she said. “Villagers claim police stations have also become extortion dens,” said Bharadwaj.

Visits to some of the 35 villages to be affected by the Raoghat project reveal considerable BSF and CRPF presence. “They serve as forces of imtimidation, to harass the local population even though the pretext is that they are here to protect them. They are here to protect the mines from the Maoists, who alongwith the local population are protesting the project,” says Samantha Agarwal, a member of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA), an alliance of 22 organisations that have been working with displaced people in the state.

Much like the FBI’s counter-intelligence programme run for almost a decade, from the sixties to the seventies, against the Black civil rights movement or any shade of militant socialist dissent, the security apparatus, especially in Chhattisgarh has been targeting and discrediting the right of democratic dissent in the name of development or public peace. To protest and to want to negotiate with power, as Gawde and others like him have done, is to be an irrelevant, impractical, anti-modern dreamer, a voice crying in the wilderness and, therefore, purportedly somebody else’s mouthpiece.

The scale of arrests is massive and while the outrage around it is low key and, of necessity, invisible, it, however, points to the subterranean resistance and fight-back that is happening all over Chattisgarh today.

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