Khemraj moved out of Alirajpur in the late 1980s deciding to return to his village in Chittor and starting work there among the Adivasis who worked as labourers in the stone quarries. Since then he has taken up many a struggle of the Adivasis and Dalits in Chittor district including the famous Khat Campaign. The casteist oppression was such in the rural areas that Adivasis and Dalits could not sit on their cots in front of their houses and had to take off their shoes when they passed in front of the houses of the dominant castes. So Khemraj launched a mass movement to stop these abhorrent practices which was very successful.
Last month Subhadra and I went to Chittor to hold one of our reproductive health camps in Khemraj's area of work and that is how I met him again face to face after more than a decade. Things had changed for the worse in the meanwhile. A few months back he was diagnosed with colon cancer which had metastasised onto his liver. Luckily immediate chemotherapy has resulted in the cancer being contained and he is in good spirits again. However, the ravages of the chemotherapy are there to be seen and he has lost his earlier strength. Yet he continues even at the advanced age of 65 to go on his daily morning walk followed by the rounds of the villages to distribute clothes and money to destitute families like a real life Santa Claus. He has not only spent his whole adult life fighting for the rights of under privileged people but is now running a hostel for Adivasi and Dalit girls to educate them and prevent them from getting married as child marriage is rampant in Rajasthan.
However, our close encounters with the village scene in the course of organising the reproductive health camp showed to what extent people like Khemraj and activists in general are marginalised given the huge barriers to justice and equality in the society and the economy. Try as we might we could not get a gynaecologist for our health camp. All the gynaecologists in the town of Chittor area engaged in private practice including the ones serving in Government hospitals. They are busy in doing caesarian sections to deliver babies or in in vitro fertilisation to make it possible for childless couples to have babies. Eventually we had to rope in a general practitioner lady doctor who had some gynaecological experience and somehow hold the camp. Casteism too is rampant as the laboratory staff who came to collect the samples refused to eat in the Bhil Adivasi home in which we had organised the camp saying that he would be ostracised by his caste if he did so. As is usual, the camp revealed that the women are mostly anaemic and suffering from various gynaecological problems. What is even more disturbing is that a large number of women tested positive for chronic typhoid. The women go to private quacks and get a few tablets and injections which do not solve their problems apart from giving them temporary relief. Thus, casteism, patriarchy and class rule all combine to keep the Adivasis and Dalits downtrodden and Khemraj's and my life long missions haven't made much of a difference.
Khemraj soldiers on regardless. He said he had initially been very depressed to learn that he had cancer. However, the huge support that he got in the form of friends coming to help him with the treatment and other contributing financially, which resulted in the cancer abating fast has filled him with greater energy to carry on he says. When in college I had read the book "Lust for Life" written by Irving Stone on the life and work of the Dutch post impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh had battled mental problems to live life to the full and paint some exhilarating pictures like the famous one below that even today light up our lives. Khemraj too displays a similar lust for life