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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 37 New Delhi September 3, 2016

Kalahandi: Reliving the Callous State

Monday 5 September 2016

by Suranjita Ray

On August 15, 2016 we celebrated our 70th Independence Day. The least one does is to recollect the great sacrifices of our freedom fighters for the country and for us to see this day. Such celebrations remind us of what independence gave us. For the ruling party it becomes an opportunity to take pride in listing what its political regime has achieved during its tenure in one of the largest democracies of the world. While the anti-colonial struggles widened the inner meanings of Freedom, Right to Life, and Human Dignity, for the majority in contemporary India, experiencing freedom and human dignity remains a constant struggle against the social, economic, political and cultural oppressions and exploitations. For many it is difficult to recover from what they have experienced over the years. Lives of people are embodiments of conflicts that have increased between the state and its people.

The state is not only supposed to represent its people but also protect their rights and freedom. From what is continually happening around us, we see that there is an increasing trust deficit between the people and the state. And I fear the widening of this distrust. Incidents of violence against the Dalit community like the one in Una, hanging two Muslim men to death from a tree for cattle trading in a Jharkhand village, killing of Mohammad Akhlaq by a lynch mob in Dadri, the attacks on Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi, Perumal Murugan, and many others to crush the voice of dissent, and several similar living experiences of the people only help us to realise that the callous state is being relived. It is relived in not only denying the right to live with dignity but also in denying dignity to the dead.

Humanitarian Catastrophe

Dana Majhi, a tribal man in Kalahandi, wrapped his wife Amanga Dei’s body in old sheets from the bed at the hospital in Bhawanipatna (the district headquarters) when she died from tuberculosis in the early hours of August 24, 2016. He carried his wife’s body on his shoulders and started walking to his home in Melghar village in Thuamul Rampur block about 60 kilometres away. The district hospital authorities ostensibly refused to arrange for a van as Dana Majhi had no money. Despite several requests, he was not helped. Left with no option he had to carry his wife’s body, as his 12-year-old daughter walked weeping by his side.

It was after they had walked for 10 kilometres that some youths, who saw them, alerted the local officials and an ambulance was sent to take the body to Melghar village. This is not the first time that a person had to carry a body in a such manner. Similar incidents have been reported in the past. Recurrence of such tragedies has only reprojected the cruel state which refuses to learn the right lessons from its history. It is unfortunate that Kalahandi continues to be dragged deeper into the quagmire of humanitarian catastrophe. The tribal people in this region are vulnerable to the processes of systemic deprivations, exploitations and violations of human rights.

The complete disregard for human life has exposed a brutal state in a way that is impossible to comprehend. The state has become one with which the majority of the poor and deprived can no longer identify. While the state has not cared much about the human sufferings despite its constitutional responsibility that makes it accountable for its actions to the people, can the exploited and oppressed disown the state? Despite the growing distrust between the state and its people, the state is needed even more than ever before. The decision not to provide support to the poor tribal man when he needed it the most shows the failure of the state. Perhaps the authorities did not anticipate the consequences that will follow their decision. This is a serious mistake.

Political Mandate

Such tragedies spell calamity for the democratic governments. Preventing such crises in future should be a priority for the state. It is vital for the state to look beyond its narrowly defined political mandate as political parties across ideological divides have only campaigned for more funds during the elections to build infrastructures. Two decades after the imple-mentation of the Long Term Action Plan (LTAP) in the KBK (comprising eight districts—Kalahandi, Bolangir, Koraput, Nuapada, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, Sonepur and Malkangiri)) region, and huge grants poured into this region, nothing much has changed for the tribal people of Kalahandi. People have to travel 60 kilometres to reach a hospital for treatment without facilities. The Kalahandi experience shows that despite the positive responses of the state to pressures from the people’s rights movements and the fear of defeat of the ruling parties at the polls which brought about development programmes, successive governments for more than two decades have not been able to ameliorate the conditions of destitution and prevent the vulnerability of the tribal people, in particular, to the processes of alienation, deprivation and impoverishment that persist in this region. Though Kalahandi had declared its success in conquering famine (in narrower terms mass mortality), it has failed to prevent the tribal people from becoming vulnerable to the processes of hunger and famishment, which have a complex genealogy, and have been a subject of endless debate in the media, courts, Legislative Assembly, policy research and public forums. They raise larger questions of justice to the citizens in a democratic state.

It is imperative to understand the huge gaps between policy reforms and their implications in the context of democracy where the state has its constitutional responsibilities towards its citizens. The construction of structures of dominance and an analysis of the institutions and practices of control reveal that persisting poverty is the result of the cumulative distress that is caused by depriving the tribal people of their access, ownership and control over the resources of livelihood. The dialectical relations between the state and its people explain the process of democratic transitions, but that has not changed the class character of the state. In fact, the state is constrained by its very class character to intervene in the structures and practices of hegemony, which has rather got consolidated in recent years. The history of Kalahandi had seen the subjugation of the tribal people economically, socially, politically and culturally. This raises pertinent questions about the kind of democracy that is practised in the region in particular and elsewhere with similar experiences.

The state has made all possible attempts to make the growing conflict invisible—between the dominant class and the subordinates, and between the state and its people. It has been successful at times in weaving the conflicts and reworking the strategies that appeal to the vast majority, without annoying the dominant class. The two-pronged strategy of the government to enhance the capability of the poor through its rights-based approach, as well as its alliance with the economically dominant class to privilege the interest of the corporate world have added to the paradoxes.

The portrayal of the state as being trapped within the webs of hegemonic forces needs to be questioned as it has been a conscious decision of the democratic state to reinforce such forces for its political gains. The denial of dignity to the dead shows that the state is not an ‘impartial power’ which is accountable to the people. It not only maintains but also reproduces the inequalities of everyday life by prioritising the interest of the privileged class. Though democratic pressures have compelled the state to intervene and the inclusive society has enhanced the social capital of its citizens, it has not built their political capital, which has remained confined to participation in elections and not effective citizenship.


Though Kalahandi has always returned to the news to trouble the government officials, it is quite normal for both the ruling and Opposition parties to use such opportunities to claim their respective achievements only as attempts to win the ballots of the people. Bhakta Charan Das, a former MP from Kalahandi, has ‘expressed his anguish that despite its promise of development and better health care for the tribals and Dalits the Naveen Patnaik Govern-ment has done little’. He further said that ‘he had arranged two ambulances when he was an MP for the Bhawanipatna hospital... that they should have been of help to the tribals in time of need’! (Mohanty, 2016: 11) On the other hand, the Naveen Patnaik Government claimed that the launch of the ‘Mahaparayana’ scheme in February offered free transportation of bodies from government hospitals to the residences of the deceased. (The Hindu, 2016: 9) However, such claims are rhetorical for the poor tribals of this region who remain vulnerable to the processes of deprivation and exploitation. The democratic state has in practice provided a shield to the symbiotic relationship between the ruling class and the privileged class which is hard to break.

While controversies surround such claims, public officials at the higher level continue to defend their positions by putting the blame on the lower officials, who in turn blame the victims, in this case Dana Majhi, for not waiting for the vehicle. The Collector of Kalahandi, Brundha D., claimed that ‘Majhi did not wait for a vehicle to be arranged’. But, Majhi said that despite all efforts he could get no help from the hospital authorities. ‘A poor man cannot afford a vehicle...despite repeated requests they said they cannot offer any help...,’ he said. Brundha D. told The Indian Express that after learning about the incident she has sanctioned Rs 2000 to Majhi from the State Government’s funeral assistance scheme and another Rs 10, 000 from the District Red Cross Fund. (Mohanty, 2016: 11) The state officials should learn to be more responsive to build the trust of people and keep promises made during elections. The constitutional responsibility of the democratic state to secure the basic rights to its people shall not become the prerogative of the state.

Living Reality

Such tragedies should not be viewed in isolation but as part of a spectrum of the irresponsible state that has legitimised itself over the years. The life story of Dana Majhi might find no space in the statistics of the state, but for many of us it illustrates the real living conditions of a majority of the people. The state has no means to assess the continuum of distress beyond the period of extreme conditions of agony. It is high time that the state rethinks its strategies to protect the democratic rights of its people.

The image has shaken the people’s conscience provoking strong reactions from around the world. While for many of us it will remain only an image that once caught our attention, it is difficult for Dana Majhi to recover from such an experience. The message from such experiences needs to be remembered—as humans have a right to live with dignity, they also have a right to be respected after death.


Mohanty, Debabrata (2016), The Indian Express, August 25, page 11.

The Hindu, (2016), August 25, page 9.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: suranjitaray_66@yahoo.co.in

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