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.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Goodbye To You My Trusted Friend

Yet another stalwart of the Bhil Adivasi struggle for rights in western Madhya Pradesh passed away yesterday on the day of Holi after a long illness that had incapacitated him for the past few years. Chhotelal Bamnia or Chhotubhai as he was popularly known was made of the rebellious mettle that has again and again produced great Adivasi fighters in this country. He was part of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan in Khargone district and played an important part in the struggles for rights throughout the 1990s and in the first decade after the turn of the century. He was a glorious example of an organic intellectual who learnt to read and write after he became a member of the organisation and educated himself about mass politics by reading various pamphlets and documents of the struggle. He was unfortunately struck with paralysis after a severe stroke a few years back and though he recovered somewhat, he was mostly confined to his house where he could just about walk around with the help of a stick. Here I will describe in detail two of the many struggles that he participated in during his illustrious career as a grassroots Adivasi activist that will not only showcase his calibre but also highlight the kind of deep injustice that Adivasis in this country have to fight.
There was a problem of the lack of proper hostel facilities for Adivasi girls studying in his home village Katkut. The non-Adivasi headmistress of the government Adivasi girls' hostel in Katkut had been defalcating the funds meant for the running of the hostel for over a decade resulting in poor living conditions for the girl students. This affected their studies and so invariably the results in the board examinations were very poor. Some of the girl's parents were members of the Sangathan and so they had come in touch with the new atmosphere of revolt that was pervading their villages. Naturally they were affected by this and decided to do something to improve matters in the hostel. They prepared a detailed report of the irregularities and sent a complaint to the Joint Director of the Adivasi Department in Khargone in January. An officer deputed by the joint director came to investigate matters and made only a perfunctory enquiry, even going to the extent of warning the complainant students not to make any more complaints in future. The headmistress took this as a cue to start harassing the girls who had complained. Apart from berating them in the worst manner she began to deprive them of food. The girls then complained to their parents. The parents brought up the matter in the meetings of the Sangathan.
Chhotubhai and other leaders of the Sangathan, knowing that the political and administrative powers were against them decided to proceed cautiously. They first asked the girls to give a written complaint to the Sangathan and a copy to the police officer in Katkut. They then passed a formal resolution in a general body meeting of the Katkut Adivasi Gram Sabha or village general body that an enquiry should be conducted into the running of the hostel. A delegation of men then went to the hostel to enquire and investigate. The delegation members had discussions with the girls as well as the headmistress. They submitted a formal report of their findings to the headmistress and also sent a copy to the Joint Director of the Adivasi Department in Khargone recommending that he take steps to improve the sorry state of the hostel.
The girls after this decided to take over the management of the hostel themselves with the help of some of the adivasi teachers. The money for running the hostel was deposited in a bank account, which was jointly operated by two of the senior students. The headmistress used to draw out all the money by forcing the students to sign on the cheque every month. The girls then began withdrawing the money themselves and then managing the hostel activities with this money and keeping records.
All these years the headmistress had been getting away with her corrupt practices by bribing the higher authorities in Khargone and also the local political leaders. She now turned to these local leaders to get back control of the hostel funds. These leaders too saw this as an opportunity to get even with the Sangathan. They advised the headmistress to lodge a complaint with the police and then they got the police, who were only too ready, to register a false case against the people who had gone to investigate the running of the hostel on behalf of the Sangathan. A false case of having abused and threatened to kill the headmistress was framed against five members of the Sangathan. Then the police began arresting them one by one and sending them to jail. In the process they did not fail to rough up the arrested persons severely.
The women of the Sangathan then intervened. When the third person was thus arrested and beaten up, women staged a sit-in before the police outpost and prevented the police from taking the arrested person to court until some responsible officer had explained this lawlessness on the part of the police. Even though the Tehsildar and the Subdivisional Police Officer did come and assure the women that such illegal actions would not take place in the future and that no case would be registered against them for having sat in front of the police station, nevertheless a case was framed against fifteen members of the Sangathan of having threatened to kill policemen. Eventually, all the people implicated in these cases were acquitted but not before a long trial process that went on for thirteen years. The situation in the hostel improved as a result of this intervention but at a great cost.
The other incident is even more disturbing. There are various sections in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), provided to ensure public order and prevent breach of peace by criminal elements. However, these are in fact handy tools with which the administration can easily snuff out any democratic mass protest whatsoever. Theoretically, there is a division between the police who actually arrest people under these sections and the executive magistrates before whom they are produced before being sent to jail. However, in the case of controlling democratic mass protests the magistrates themselves take the decision that the leaders are to be arrested and then the police carry out these orders and bring the arrested persons before the very same magistrates who have ordered their arrest. The person arraigned has to bail himself out and after that regularly attend the court. Finally the arraigned person is made to sign a bond that in future he will keep the peace. Once a person signs this bond he automatically acknowledges that he has broken the peace in the case in question and so admits to his guilt and is considered to have been convicted. Once a person is convicted in this kangaroo court manner a few times she becomes a hardened criminal in the eyes of the administration who can then start a process under another draconian law, once again enacted for the control of criminal activity, for her externment from the district in which she lives and all the adjoining districts. Often people in mass movements have other similar false criminal cases too against them and so it is easy for the administration to pass an order of externment against an activist of the mass movements.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been jailed under such preventive detention sections of CrPC. But I have never ever signed on the dotted line saying that I am going to keep the peace in the future. The first time I was so arrested the people outside filed a Habeas Corpus petition in the High Court. I was released unconditionally after a few days and later the High Court ruled that proper procedure had not been followed during my arrest thus violating the basic principles of natural justice and passed strictures against the police for having written up a false chargesheet and against the executive magistrate for not having applied his mind to the falseness of the chargesheet and discharged us. That was the first time anyone in Alirajpur had moved the High Court against the arbitrary and illegal use of preventive detention by the administration and it created a minor flutter within the administration. On later occasions sometimes I have gone on hunger strike and on some others the administration knowing that I would not sign on any paper has released me on its own. On one occasion the Superintendent of Police of Dewas had me arrested from a bus in which I was travelling just to show me who was boss. He then sent wireless messages all around over the five districts of western Madhya Pradesh to see if there were any arrest warrants pending against me. There were none and so eventually after having kept me in custody for eight hours he ordered his henchmen to prepare a false chargesheet against me under section 151 of CrPC. I had in the meantime been continually pestering these lower level policemen to make out an arrest memorandum stating the reasons for my arrest as per the rulings of the Supreme Court. So when they finally asked me to sign on the arrest memo under section 151 CrPC after eight hours I refused to do so. This created a problem for the police and eventually the SDM before whom I was produced declared that the chargesheet against me was false and so discharged me unconditionally!
The same kind of toughness cannot be expected from Adivasis given there lesser acquaintance with legal nitty gritties. So these people invariably sign a bond stating that they will keep the peace in future and so convict themselves. Chhotubhai had been arrested many times under CrPC sections and also in other false cases under sections of the Indian Penal Code and had later signed bonds to keep the peace to secure his release. The Superintendent of Police of Khargone district put in a proposal to the District Collector listing all the cases pending against him and demanding that Chhotubhai be externed from the district. On receiving the notice the Sangathan engaged a lawyer to fight the case and made a detailed presentation listing the fact that all these cases were of old vintage and ones in which Chhotubhai was falsely implicated along with other members of the Sangathan for taking part in some demonstration or other. He had not been convicted in any of them and so he was not guilty until proved to be so. The District Collector then summoned Chhotubhai and told him in no uncertain terms that he had better give up his association with the Sangathan otherwise she would pass an externment order against him. Chhotelal not to be cowed told her that the Bhil homeland was very large extending over the four states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan in addition to Madhya Pradesh. The District Collector could only extern him from his own district and the adjoining districts not from his homeland. He challenged the District Collector to banish him from his homeland and came away with a flourish.
Just after this he took part in the preparations for the Mayday rally in Barwah and then played a prominent part in it. At the end of the rally the SDM in Barwah sheepishly handed him the order saying that he had been externed. The procedure under the law is that the person so externed has to appeal to the Home Secretary against the order within thirty days. So we prepared an application against the order and then the time came to go to Bhopal to meet the Home Secretary and give it to him. On the appointed day our lawyer suddenly fell ill and so I had to go along with Chhotubhai to Bhopal. I thought that if I were to reveal my identity to the Home Secretary then whatever little chance Chhotubhai had of getting relief would be scotched. So I asked Pushpendra Solanki, the other activist journalist in Bhopal of Alirajpur vintage who has just passed away a few weeks ago, to set up an appointment and I said I would tag along as his assistant. Pushpendra called the Home Secretary for an appointment and explained to him that an adivasi had been needlessly externed by the District Collector. The Secretary asked him to come over at once and he would look into the matter.
The three of us went off to the Secretariat. We were cordially ushered in and asked to sit down. After some preliminary exchange of pleasantries Pushpendra handed the Home Secretary the application on behalf of Chhotebhai. He started perusing it and then suddenly jumped with a start and exclaimed at Pushpendra that he did not know with whom he had got enmeshed. He said that Chhotebahi was a member of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan and this was a dangerous organisation that was out to destabilise the state and if Pushpendra did not watch his step he might get into serious trouble. Then he said that Chhotebhai and other adivasis like him were simple people and the real culprit was Rahul Banerjee who was instigating them from behind the scenes. Then he came into his forte and told Pushpendra that I was a very cunning fellow who was secretly preparing the base for the spread of Naxalism in western Madhya Pradesh and using the simple adivasis as a front. He told Pushpendra that despite the crushing police action taken by the state by killing Adivasis a few months earlier, they had not been able to wipe out the seeds of extremism from the region precisely because of my versatile presence.
The Home Secretary, warming up to his theme asked Pushpendra to do a story on the way in which I was vitiating the atmosphere in the region by using the press and the international human rights agencies to counter the efforts of the state to root out extremism. Pushpendra then asked him for some details about me and my activities for the proposed story. The Secretary immediately sent for a file and when it was brought began reading out from it. Pushpendra told me to take down whatever was being said! I felt flattered while I wrote down all the exaggerated insurgent activity that had been falsely imputed to me. Among other things it was also written that Subhadra and I were not married and that we were only living together. What a sin. Subhadra had not changed her surname after marriage leading to the police making this deduction. Indeed Subhadra's retaining her maiden surname has led to many bizarre encounters with the bureaucracy. On one occasion when I had gone to register our names in the electoral rolls after shifting to Indore the SDM refused to put down Subhadra's surname as Khaperde. When I told him that Subhadra is an independent person and free to use whatever surname she liked he told me that I had got a golden opportunity to put such an uppity wife in her place and should jump at it and put her surname down in the electoral rolls as Banerjee! We had to go to the Collector after that to get Subhadra's surname properly registered in the electoral rolls. Even then the published electoral rolls show only Subhadra's father's first name and not her surname!
After this the Secretary said that he would call up the details of the case from Khargone and gave us a date some fifteen days later for hearing arguments. Chhotubhai then asked him to sign on the copy as proof of receipt of the application. Once again the Secretary flared up saying that he could not imagine a simple adivasi not trusting him and plucking up the courage to ask him, the Home Secretary, for a receipt. All this was my work he fumed. We came out of the office and once safely out of hearing burst out in laughter that rang through the corridors of the Secratariat. Pushpendra finally recovered and clapped me on my back and said "Rahul all your years of struggle have not gone in vain." Needless to say that after dillydallying for about two months on various pretexts, the Home Secretary finally rejected the appeal. We then went in further appeal to the High Court and after another seven months or so we had the order quashed. The High Court held that the order of externment was illegal and had violated the provisions of the externment law and also the basic principles of natural justice. We then sent a demand of justice notice to the Superintendent of Police and District Collector saying that the High Court order clearly stated that they had illegally harassed Chhotubhai and so they should give a written apology and pay compensation. There was obviously no response from the culprits. We subsequently sent applications to various authorities right upto the President of India demanding permission to prosecute the two in the courts as is mandatory under the law. Again we never received any response.
Throughout, the period of externment till the High Court order quashing it, Chhotubhai continued to stay in Katkut and work under ground. Such was the solidarity of the Sangathan that the police, despite knowing his whereabouts were unable to apprehend him. The first decade of this century was the crucial time in which many people friendly laws like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Forest Rights Act and the Right to Information Act were enacted due to the mass movements of people's organisations across the country. It was due to the committed struggles of many local people like Chhotubhai that democracy was both broadened and deepened in India as a consequence.
Naturally, the loss of such a doughty fighter has left all of us in the Sangathan distraught. He was the same age as I am and yet he is no more. That Adivasis in the western Madhya Pradesh region today enjoy greater power as a community is due to the many battles fought by grassroots activists like Chhotubhai. I rushed to Katkut from Indore as soon as I got the news as I couldn't believe that he was no more. Only a few days back I had visited him with another old friend and had a long chat. I somehow got a last glimpse as he was being taken out for the funeral in the huge crowd of people that had gathered.

To paraphrase the opening lines of a famous folk song from my school years - 
Goodbye to you my trusted friend, 
Glorious times did we together spend.  

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