A District Damned

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There is smoke of teargas in the air, and the bullets are raining all around. In this night of ignorance, how can I praise thee?

— Habib Jalib, Pakistani Poet

common-manGetting shot by the police on Ambedkar Jayanti (14 April) — a day of solidarity for the struggles of India’s most oppressed people — was a life-altering moment for Aklu Cheru, an Adivasi from Sundari village of remote Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. Aklu was protesting with other Adivasis and Dalits against land acquisition — “illegal”, they call it — for the Kanhar Dam project.

“A police officer was misbehaving with Adivasi women and I stopped him. That made him angry. He took out his revolver and shot at me,” says the 40-year-old. “The bullet narrowly missed my heart but lodged in my chest. Some villagers took me to the hospital at Banaras Hindu University and I was operated upon. I didn’t die but it’s still painful.”

A couple of months later, the once assertive man has lost his fighting spirit. His daily routine has changed. After getting up early in the morning, he takes a bath and puts on a light blue pant-shirt uniform. He tops it with an olive green military cap. A big police-style lathi completes his look. He must now walk to the Kanhar Dam site, the very place where he had his near-death experience.

When TEHELKA meets him on the way to his new office, he is in a hurry. “I’m late. I was supposed to report to officials by 9.30 am. I’m now a security guard at the dam site,” he says, not unaware of the unmistakable irony of his situation, that of an Adivasi working to protect the same project he had been opposing and because of which he took a police bullet in his chest. “Sonbhadra District Magistrate (DM) Sanjay Kumar and other senior police officials threatened me that if I didn’t join as a guard, I would have to face the consequences. They would fabricate cases and throw me in jail. My family members could also be targeted. I love my kids. I don’t want them to get into trouble because of me.”

“It’s not as if I love my job and have betrayed my people,” he says, visibly overwhelmed by the injustice that is rubbed in every day when he puts in his hours of work. “I’m truly disheartened. The police slapped false cases on two villagers who took me to hospital and saved my life. They are now in jail and the police is forcing me to withdraw the complaint I filed against the officer who shot me.”

The conversation with Aklu is shrouded in a palpable sense of dread, of being stripped of every shred of free will. He wants to be with his people protesting against what he knows is a monstrosity but is forced to be an accomplice in the atrocities being unleashed against them. He knows that violence, or the threat of violence, has always been the crux of the authorities’ game plan to deal with dissent and resistance from people like him, and he knows that as well as he knows the palm of his hand, which now holds a lathi that could be used against fellow Adivasis who share his woes.

By denying him the right to stand up for himself and his people, the State is pushing Aklu to an identity crisis where he is bound to ask, Frantz Fanon style: “In reality, who am I?”

“I have been told not to meet journalists and activists. It means trouble,” Aklu says when requested for a photograph. “See, it still hurts, this bullet wound.” Under the blue uniform that hides the depredations of the State on his person, he wears a discoloured vest. The vest still has a ragged hole in it. “I was wearing the same vest when they fired at me,” he explains. Asked why he continues to wear it, he says he doesn’t have a choice.

When contacted, a senior bureaucrat in the district administration had only this to say: “Aklu is happily working with the government.”

It’s not just an Aklu who is crushed by the State machinery in its bid to build the Kanhar Dam. Meet Adivasi leader Shivaprasad, president of a village panchayat near Kanhar Dam. During his tenure, he had initiated local development projects that resulted in positive changes. Today, he cannot live in his own house or walk around freely in the village. What did he do to lose his freedom?

Uniform blues Aklu has to put a brave face on his new role of guard at the project site
Uniform blues Aklu has to put a brave face on his new role of guard at the project site

As vice chairman of the Kanhar Baandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (KBVSS), an organisation formed by Adivasis (Bhuinyas, Kharwars, Gonds, Cheros, Panikas) and other locals whose lives would be washed away by the dam, he played a key role in mobilising protests against the dam.

“After the police firing on Ambedkar Jayanti, the police fabricated cases against me and other villagers who were against land acquisition. I could sense that the police are trying to entrap me, so I went underground but continued to use my mobile phone,” he recalls. “One day, DM Sanjay Kumar called and asked me to work for the government to facilitate land acquisition,” Shivaprasad says. “As a first step, he suggested I surrender to the police. I refused and told him that I’m not a dacoit and am only fighting for my constitutional rights. He became furious and warned that I could be killed in an encounter. This region has a history of several fake encounters where police killed Adivasis by branding them as Naxals. I think they mean business, so I’m still underground.”

“You must be wondering whether a collector would dare to do this,” says Ashok Chowdhury, general secretary of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), an independent trade union that got into trouble after interventions in Kanhar. “But it is not surprising in places where socioeconomic conditions and everyday life are dominated by feudal relationships between the people and all forms of authority. Sonbhadra has the worst forms of feudal relationships. Even two years ago, Adivasis and Dalits were not allowed to sit in the front seats of public transport vehicles. They were also not allowed to walk through markets. That is why the State assumed that the marginalised sections would give away land to big business groups whenever they were told.”

Chowdhury believes that the peculiar aggressiveness of the bureaucracy in forcing villagers to give up their land has feudal roots. “The State and dominant caste groups cannot tolerate it that people, who they think should not even walk through the market, have mounted a militant resistance against their interests. The bureaucrats feel that failure to acquire land for the dam would hurt their feudal pride, a pride that is the signature of bureaucracy here,” he sums up.

No wonder the officials and dominant caste groups are keen to get the dam constructed at any cost, hoping, perhaps, that when the villages get submerged in the reservoir, those who refuse to part with their land would be flushed out like rats from waterlogged burrows.

Ravaged earth The dam site looks like a disaster zone tunnelled through by machines
Ravaged earth The dam site looks like a disaster zone tunnelled through by machines

What will the State do to the ‘rats’ who resist? For instance, what will be done to Gambhira Prasad, president of KBVSS. A Chamar by birth, Gambeera plays a crucial role in stitching together a united front of the affected people around the Kanhar Dam site. He is actively involved in the legal fight initiated by five village panchayats, which argue that the project is illegal since it doesn’t have the mandatory consent of local bodies. The 74th and 75th constitutional amendments and subsequent laws based on them make the consent of village panchayats manadatory for land acquisition.

On 22 April, almost a week after the Ambedkar Jayanti police firing, Gambhira was in Allahabad to meet lawyer Ravi Kumar Jain, who is also the national vice-president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). When he went to take xerox copies of some legal documents in a shop close to Jain’s office as well as the high court, he was “attacked and kidnapped” by a gang that came in an SUV.

People who gathered around when they saw the scuffle managed to get hold of two assailants they believed were part of an extortion gang and took them to the nearby police station. “Soon, it was revealed that they were part of a special police team from Sonbhadra to catch Gambhira,” says Jain. “Gambhira had received death threats. If a crowd had not gathered and managed to catch the two plainclothesmen, it was quite likely that Gambhira would have been bumped off in an ‘encounter’. The police failed to kill him but put him in jail by slapping fabricated charges such as attempt to murder, conspiracy and dacoity.”

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In Total Denial

Sonbhadra District Magistrate Sanjay Kumar outright denies Adivasi leader Shivaprasad’s allegation that the bureaucrat threatened him with an ‘encounter’. “I don’t know who is this Shivaprasad. I have not called him. I’m here for winning hearts and minds of people. The district administration is very sensitive to the concerns raised by project-affected people. The state government will offer a comprehensive compensation package. I frequently visit the project site. Now more [villagers] are expressing their willingness to move out,” says Kumar.

Project executive engineer Vijay Kumar, on his part, did not agree with the villagers that the dam will devastate the local economy. “Instead,” he says, “the dam will revolutionise irrigation in the district. We have started the construction work. It had to be stopped for a few days due to heavy rain but will be restarted soon.The entire project will be completed within three years. As per the new compensation package announced by the UP government, a family will get Rs 7,11,000 as compensation. We are also offering them a housing plot measuring 150 sq m. It is human nature to protest. But everyone needs to cooperate for the sake of development.”

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