Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Farewell to Arms

The last month has been a sad one. Saying good bye to Alirajpur is not easy. The seniormost activist there, Khemla, refused to believe that I was indeed leaving. He was the first guy I had met in Alirajpur at a time when he was in his prime as a fiery activist taking on a very anti-people state system. After all these years both he and I are a shadow of our former selves as is the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, which now as a matter of policy does not undertake any actions that may lead to the lodging of criminal cases against its members. Since 2007, as there are now laws that enable us to fight legally for various rights and entitlements that earlier we had to go to jail for and the cost of fighting legal cases has become exorbitant, the KMCS treads the straight and narrow path of the law!!! Here is a description of what Khemla was like in his prime.

I spent almost a decade in Alirajpur in the 1980s and early 1990s living among the Bhils and they have been the best years of my life. It all began with my first meeting with the most colourful Bhil character I have known, my colleague and fast friend Khemla in his small hut in Badi Vaigalgaon village. Khemla is a born rebel. He is the only one of five brothers who attended school. Traditionally the Bhils mostly make their children tend to the cattle when they are small and once they reach adolescence they marry them off and harness them to the farm operations. Not surprisingly they have been highly reproductive as a result and combined with a continuous disposession from their lands, water sources and forests by non-adivasis and the colonial and post-colonial states, this had led to them being reduced to penury by the time Khemla grew to school going age in the early nineteen seventies. His father decided to send him to school seeing that there wasn’t enough land to sustain all his sons.
The government had introduced a residential school system for adivasi children who cleared the primary level to counter the high dropout rate and so Khemla went to study in a hostel school in class six at the nearby weekly market village of Umrali. Unfortunately corruption, which has been and continues to be the bane of Indian governance, meant that the children in the hostels used to be dished out substandard food. Khemla protested against this and when the hostel superviser beat him for this Khemla hit him back and was rusticated for his pains. So that was the end of schooling for Khemla. Naturally he got married once he was back home in accordance with custom. But that did not douse his latent fire. He had taken training under a “burwo”, a traditional medicine man, and was capable of going into a trance to commune with the spirits. So he was highly respected by villagers far and near and was quite effective with his cures for sundry ailments. About this time the government decided to introduce a new scheme of barefoot doctors called the “Jan Swasthya Rakshak Yojana”. Khemla, being educated and also a burwo, was easily selected for this, given some training and then appointed. This increased his prestige within the community, as he became a "sarkari" or government man.
What bothered Khemla the most was the tremendous repression and extortion that his people suffered at the hands of local government officials and the ubiquitous sahukar or moneylender-trader. The most reprehensible was the behaviour of the police. The Bhils had a traditional community dispute resolution system in which the agrieved parties and the whole panchayat, which could be as big as the people of ten to twelve villages in case of inter village disputes, would sit together and sort out matters. However, this was not favoured by the police obviously because it would reduce their earnings and so they systematically weaned the village patels or headmen off this system and instead encouraged people to report disputes to them. Thus over time an excellent community system was destroyed and the misrule of the police established. Once this was done custodial torture and the many other tools of harassment that the police have were brought into play to extort money from the illiterate adivasis.
Khemla began a singlehanded struggle against this malpractice. Every time the police would arbitrarily pick up some adivasi and the news reached him Khemla would go to the police station and get him released. He even went to the tehsil town Alirajpur and met the Subdivisional Police Officer on a few occasions and submitted written complaints to him. The news of his activism reached the local Member of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly (MLA) who was himself a patel and had been one of the first people to be lured by the non-adivasis to break the traditional adivasi system. He called Khemla to Alirajpur and told him to give up his foolhardy ways and join his political party instead. There was so much to be earned by cooperating with the police and other government staff and acting as their agent and informer the MLA said to Khemla. Khemla in his inimitable style ticked him off for being a traitor to his people and living off their blood and sweat and came away determined to continue his campaign.
No sooner did he get off from the bus at Umrali on his way home than he was arrested by the police there and taken to the police station. There he was stripped to his underwear and given the lambasting of his life by the assistant sub-inspector and told that he had better desist from his wayward ways. He was kept in the lockup for a night and released the next day. Instead of going home he took a bus back to Alirajpur and then from there to Jhabua. He went straight to the District Collector, the head of the district administration and gave him a written complaint and also a vivid oral description of what the police had done to him. The net result was that the ASI was transferred and an inquiry instituted against him. This concatenation of events added to the legend that Khemla was becoming and made him into a one-man army.
Khemla is a resourceful guy. He regularly took advantage of the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) schemes. He had been given ten goats and two thousand rupees for tending to them as a loan once. He said that money was not needed for tending goats, which had to be grazed in the forest. So he had immediately sold two of the goats for three hundred apiece and along with the two thousand rupees cash had made up the two thousand five hundred rupees that he had to pay back as there was a fifty percent subsidy and deposited it in the bank thus becoming debt free. The remaining goats have ever since provided some supplementary income. Since he promptly paid back his loan he became eligible for another grant. This time he had landed another rupees six thousand for the construction of a hut under the Indira Awaas Yojana and built his own home. This scheme at that time was so structured that the grants could be given only to a group of people who were setting up a new colony together. So Khemla had roped in six other people from his village, done the entire running around, got a barren hillock sanctioned for the purpose and got the money released for all of them together. He had then got another loan sanctioned under the IRDP for starting a provisions shop and his wife was running it when I met them for the first time. Once again he had paid back the seed money immediately and so cleared the loan and had no payback problems to worry about.
Khemla was to take me to Gendra village where the initiator of the Bhils' struggles in Alirajpur under the aegis of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, Khemraj, stayed, so I got down from the bus at Umrali on a hot summer afternoon in 1985 in the midst of barren hills like red dragons all round. I had been told to ask for directions at a pan kiosk. The owner of the kiosk raised a clenched fist in salute and greeted me "zindabad" - long live, when I introduced myself to him. He called a young boy and told him to take me to Khemla’s hut.  I crossed the Angkhar River, which was a dry sandy bed, walked along a dirt track behind my young guide in between hedgerows of cactus boundaries of fields and finally reached the bottom of the hillock on which stood Khemla’s hut. My young guide shouted out to him and we climbed up the last few rocks to the hut. A dark short man with muscular limbs and a round face emerged and raised his fist in greeting saying as was customary – zindabad. I responded similarly a thrill going through me. I had found my romantic revolutionary niche at last! Inside was Thavli, Khemla’s wife who was slim and tall, taller than Khemla and sharp featured and as I was to learn later sharp tongued too! He had three daughters at the time one of them a toddler. All of them were living together in a dark windowless hut, whose walls were only shoulder high.
After spending a night in novel surroundings listening to Khemla's second daughter singing a lullaby while she swung her younger sister to sleep in an improvised cradle made from a rope and a bedsheet we set off the next morning for Gendra. The road from Umrali to Bakhatgarh was metalled but not macadamised and was a dusty brown in colour. The joke was that the road upto Mathwar ahead even of Bakhatgarh was black in colour only on paper as the money had in fact been used to colour the lives of the government staff, contractors and the political leaders instead. So Khemla and I bumped along in a ramshackle bus and after some time got off at a village called Palvi. From there it was nine kilometers of walking up hill and down dale to Gendra. We were greeted by occasional shouts of zindabad as we wended our way to and finally reached Gendra and the picturesque country tiled primary school, one small room of which was to be my home. Khemraj came out, hugged me and said he was really happy that I had come. At last he could boast, he said, that there was a man in the organisation who had actually read Marx in the original! He introduced me to Shankar an adivasi boy who had just passed his higher secondary examinations. Shankar had heard of the exploits of the activists and come to Gendra to meet them. He had liked what they said and what they were doing and decided to join them. Amit the other non-adivasi activist in the group had gone home to Delhi for a change of air.
We immediately set off for a swim and fish in a big tank in nearby Kosaria village some three kilometers away. Khemla dived into the water and by some magic of his own caught as many as six fish with his bare hands. We came back, cooked the fish over a slow wooden fire, and had them with rotis made of maize flour, something that I had never had before. 
This first introduction to Khemla and the decade of reckless militant activism that followed in Alirajpur is all history now as we have become old and comparatively sedate having bid a farewell to arms.

1 comment:

Painter Brisbane said...

Lovely images and interesting narration
nice blog!!!
thanks for sharing this...