Ground Zero Patriots
An adivasi woman takes on India’s largest steel plant. A doctor leads thousands of farmers in their fight for a river. A young urbanite is jailed as she tries to secure rights for forest communities. As India turns 62, TEHELKA profiles those who are fighting to keep its democracy alive
EVEN THE most cynical of generations wonder: why did giants once roam the world, when dwarves now surround us? How is it that those who built our nation found time for more than the task of waking millions, for more than the intricate clockwork of statecraft? When did they sit down long enough to forge new ways of compassion, of courage, of living? To write enormous tracts, translate the ancients? What were they, to use the easy parlance of hallucinogens, on?
It has been 62 years after the giants won us a country and built the political scaffolding to make it kinder, more just. But greed and cruelty are still part of our public lives. When people stand teetering on the edge, we carelessly push. When the path of least resistance runs over the homes, fields and forests of others, we charge on. It would seem like the gods have departed, leaving behind only the vulnerable and the revelers.
But the giants still live on in odd corners. When novelist and sociologist Susan Visvanathan visited the fishworkers of Kerala, a fisherman asked her, “Thakazhy Sivasankara Pillai made millions out of his novel [Chemeen] on the life of fisherpeople. Are you also going to do the same? I wake up at two in the morning and I get nothing.”
Magline and Peter Thayil, two leaders of the fishworkers’ movement are just as resistant to mythologising. Regardless of their Biblical names, the Jesus-invoking sea, the romance of it all, they are people who wake up at two in the morning and get on with their lives’ work. They protect the livelihoods of lakhs of people by ensuring that we and our trawlers don’t eat the oceans out of fish, that no one buys and sells the sea in the fine mesh of arcane contracts.
Elsewhere, others are jailed and assaulted for protecting what ought to belong to the commons, not shredded into toothpicks. A young doctor in Karnataka joins thousands of farmers and the urban poor in a decade-long political struggle. A woman in Assam becomes the first in her village to go to college but cannot forget the fear caused by the soldiers who roam her lands with impunity. A young man in Orissa realises that the dozens of struggles across the state need to come together and he is the one to do it. A young adivasi woman in Jharkhand comes to the same realisation. She once ran a tea-shop and is now a journalist, but like the Bhakti poet Akka Mahadevi, she must wander from village to village awakening her people to the approaching fangs of a steel empire. Another empire poisons a whole city, thousands die, and decades later a man, battles the false memories and absurd lies that seek to hide the stillseeping poison.
The fate that awaits these strange, sleepless beings is not — unlike in the case of the giants who built India — the crowns and sceptres of a grateful nation. We are instead more likely to be enraged. If they must be misguided, we argue, let them do it without discomfiting us, depriving us of the soft light and canned music we are used to. Inevitably we call them traitors for warring against the nation.
Even when we are sympathetic to their tireless work, their ambitions seem against the natural order of things — because the natural order of things are made for us — in the same way that Indians claiming the right to independence must have seemed preposterous to the British.
We have hard work ahead, warned Nehru in the midnight hour. Sure, most of us responded, and went off whistling and thinking of lunch. But luckily, in the place of the giants who are gone, others have sprung, prepared to sleep on railway platforms and footpaths, to have their young bodies broken from lathis, their voices hoarse from shouting — all to preserve democracy, to protect us from ourselves.
This week TEHELKA meets some of these giants from across the nation. They — like Richard Wilbur’s prophet — are “madeyed from stating the obvious” but refuse to blink. And someday in the future someone will ask: did they really exist? Were they as tall as they seem? And we can answer, yes.