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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 25, June 6, 2009

‘Fifty Per Cent Democracy’: Demolition of a Gandhian Ashram in Chhattisgarh

Saturday 6 June 2009, by Ramachandra Guha


In the early hours of May 17, while the rest of India was asleep after an election conducted honestly and won fairly, a massive contingent of police and paramilitary descended on a Gandhian ashram in the interior of Chhattisgarh. They woke up the sleeping social workers, and gave them exactly one hour to pack their belongings. The Gandhians were then escorted outside the ashram that had been their home, thus making way for the bulldozers that had been sent for demolish it. The machines were supervised by some 500 men in uniform, variously owing allegiance to the Central Reserve Police Force and the Chhattisgarh State Police. Over the course of that Sunday, as the rest of India was considering the consequences of the election just held, the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada was razed to the ground. The office, the training hall, the staff quarters, even the tubewells—nothing was spared.

In the summer of 2006, I had myself eaten several meals in that ashram in Dantewada. Its founder, Himanshu, is a sharp-eyed, well-built, and forever smiling man in his late forties. Originality from Meerut, he was inspired by Vinoba Bhave and Nirmala Deshpande to devote his life to the adivasis of central India. In 1992, he moved with his wife to Dantewada to fulfil his calling. He recruited a group of local boys and girls, and with their assistance worked on bringing education and healthcare to the adivasis.

By the time I visited the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, it had established a solid presence in the district. Its campus lay in the little village of Kanwalnar, about 10 miles from Dantewada town. Ringed by mango trees, the ashram contained a set of low, modest buildings where the members lived. From the home in the forest they ventured out into the surrounding countryside, to work among the Gonds and Koyas and Murias of the district.

The activities of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram would be reckoned by most people in most times to be uncontroversial. But these are dangerous times in Dantewada, with a civil war raging between Maoist revolutionaries and a vigilante group promoted by the State administration and known as Salwa Judum. In this war, the tribals are caught in-between—so are Gandhian social workers. No one living in the district of Dantewada is now allowed to be neutral, to condemn even-handedly the barbaric acts of the Naxalites as well as the barbaric acts of the Salwa Judum.

As a consequence of the civil war, more than 50,000 tribals in Dantewada have been uprooted from their homes. Some left voluntarily; while many others were forcibly displaced by the Salwa Judum or by the Maoists. These refugees live in camps strung along the main road, in leaking and unstable tents, and without proper access to food, water, and means of employment. Many victims of the civil war fled across the border to Andhra Pradesh, where they live in equally pathetic conditions.

AFTER months of living in this way, some tribals asked that they be allowed to return to their villages, so that they could live in their own homes, and close to their lands and their livestock. While the state wanted them to stay on in the camps, the villagers were encouraged to go back by the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. Thus Himanshu and his co-workers set about rehabilitating those adivasis who wished to have no more of life in the camps.

The pretext behind the demolition of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram is that the campus has ‘encroached’ on government forest land. The Gandhians, on the other hand, insist that they built on revenue land acquired legally and with permission from the local panchayat. The case is currently being heard in the local courts. Rather than await the court’s verdict, the district authorities unilaterally chose to demolish the ashram, in what is very clearly an act of vindictive retaliation against the refusal by these Gandhians to wholly condone the support to the Salwa Judum of the Chhattisgarh State Government.

As it happened, four students from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore were visiting Dantewada on the weekend of May 16/17. They were thus eye-witnesses to the ashram’s demolition. One scholar I spoke to said that the Sub-Divisional Magistrate directing the operations, Ankit Anand, was particularly belligerent. When a student weakly protested, Anand commanded the police to have him silenced. The boy was taken away, beaten up, and asked to confess that the good Gandhian Himanshu was (a) an agent of the Naxalites, and (b) running a prostitution racket.

It was surely not an accident that the State of Chhattisgarh chose the very weekend that the election results were being declared to carry out this savage act of retribution. Who, at a time like this, would care about a violation of democracy in a remote and inaccessible corner of the country while the world was celebrating the victory of democracy in India as a whole? For this winter, the juxtaposition of these two events was powerfully symbolic. For I have long argued that India is a ’50-50’ democracy. In the formal, institutional sense of holding fair elections contested by many parties, allowing freedom of movement for its citizens, and nurturing a free press, India is indeed democratic. But in other respects, it falls short of the democratic ideal. Kin and caste play far too important a part in politics and governance. Levels of corruption among politicians and officials are unacceptably high. The autonomy of the judiciary is somewhat compromised. The use of force by the State is often capricious and arbitrary.

Even in safe and (mostly) peaceable places like my hometown, Bangalore, one can occasionally encounter the dark side of Indian democracy—as in tax officials who take bribes, or politicians who fill in common waterbodies and sell them to private builders. But it is in the conflict zones of Kashmir, the North-East, and Central India, that the state shows itself at its most unappealing. To be sure, there are extenuating circumstances, such as separatist movements and revolutionary struggles. But to explain is not to apologize. One must condemn the violence used by the Naxalites and by the Kashmiri insurgents. One must yet insist that the Indian state, our state, be held to a higher order of morality and accountability.

Over the past few years, the Government of Chhattisgarh has had a particularly undistinguished record in this respect. The burning of adivasi villages under the government-sponsored Salwa Judum has been documented in a series of independent reports. Then there is the unconscionable incarceration without bail of the respected social worker and doctor, Binayak Sen, on the very filmsy charge of carrying a letter from one Naxalite to another. Now comes this savage act of retribution against a group of law-abiding, peace-loving, and utterly non-violent Gandhians.

Supporters of the Chhattisgarh Government deflect such criticism by pointing to the fact that the Chief Minister of the State has won a series of elections. But democracy does not begin and end with the counting of votes. Those elected to political office are sworn to uphold the rule, and to honour the ideals of the Indian Constitution. This holds true at the national as well as provincial levels. It applies equally to Congress-led governments as to Bharatiya Janata Party-led ones. So long as incidents such as the demolition of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram occur and recur, India will not count as much more than a 50 per cent democracy.

(Courtesy: The Telegraph)

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