Sunday, April 8, 2012

Iqbal (12.12.1945 - 27.3.2012), Kala and Puniwati, c 1982

Memories of a good man: MA Iqbal (1945-2012)
There was a time, not so long ago, before the hardnosed journalists in search of a story, before the smug security experts and the victim focused human rights activists, when the only visitors to Bastar were anthropologists and environmentalists.  And for them, the first stop was always Asna village, on the northern bank of the Indrawati just across from Jagdalpur. If you got off the bus and asked for the house of the Patrakar, you were directed to a low lying compound, off the highway, in the midst of which was an old fashioned white two-storeyed building.  On the second floor of this lived Iqbal and Kala, with their three small children, Puniwati, Shabnam and Birsa, a small fawn called Jhumki, a dove and a dog called Bhalu Rani (and later, a friendly cat, some chickens and a whole variety of unusual plants, which Iqbal identified and tended with care). 

There were always relatives and friends visiting – for advice, for succor, for a chat. Conversations were frequently interrupted by villagers who needed help in filling out an official form, or navigating some bureaucratic hurdle. When I first visited in the summer of 1990, I found a young adivasi couple from Narayanpur, who had eloped and were taking shelter there.  Artists and foresters would come by to discuss subjects as varied as the Bastar maina, the techniques for making memorial stones, or how the pata (saree) weave differs among Bhatras and Dhurwas.  When he died, Iqbal was making plans with his nephew, Shad, to make an illustrated poster of poisonous snakes and distribute it in the villages of the Kanger forest.  
Armed with an introduction from the anthropologist Savyasaachi, who spent years doing fieldwork on shifting cultivation in Abujhmarh, I was soon added to Iqbal’s extended family. In 1992, for about six months, when doing archival work in the Jagdalpur record room, I lived in rooms on the ground floor, and ate upstairs with them.  Later, when I shifted to Kukanar some seventy km away, I would come ‘home’ every three weeks or so, to phone my parents from Jagdalpur, to pick up mail, and to discuss with Iqbal all the new things I had learnt. Madhu, another anthropologist, had left his racing bike at Iqbal’s house, which was then loaned to me. It was almost as if Iqbal and Kala were a clearing house for young anthropological souls. As long as Iqbal was there, my parents felt safe letting me go to what even in the early 1990s was considered a dangerous place, even if in comparison to the present, those seem positively bucolic times.  And even though in recent years, obsessed by the horrors of Salwa Judum, I had not spent much time in Asna, always going beyond to Dantewada or Bijapur, I knew that wherever I wandered and whatever happened to me, he would rescue me. Theirs was a home I could visit without prior intimation, and even if it was three am, the door would be opened, Iqbal or Kala would hug me warmly, and I would curl into my usual place to sleep. In the morning, he would complain about my fleeting visits, and demand I spend some proper time with them. The day he died, I visited him in hospital. He was gasping for breath, but smiled and said softly, “ghumo, ghumo, ghumo.” It felt like a benediction. As Nagji, a lawyer and their closest family friend, said that night, “a chapter in our lives has closed.” The hard part of growing old is not just watching people you love die, but knowing there is now no back-stop. 


In 1978, a handsome young man from Nagpur, six foot tall, from the audit and accounts service, was posted to the Dandakaranya Development Authority in Jagdalpur. He had worked in Gujarat and Goa before, but here in Bastar, he quickly found that there was much to life beyond accounts. Every weekend he would be off with his camera to the forests, capturing the life of birds and trees, and people in the villages. Iqbal was then a tenant in the house of well known lawyer, Arun Thakur, but his friends included people like the rickshaw puller, Shankar, to whom he gave a loan of Rs. 500 to start a small trade in onions and potatoes. Shankar disappeared with the money but that experience never stopped Iqbal from similar experiments throughout his life.

During Dussehra, a Bhatra couple from Kumargaon who were then living in Asna, would set up a tea shop near the palace, close to where Iqbal lived. They had a beautiful young daughter, Kalavati, who helped out in the shop when she was not working as a wage labourer filling sand into trucks. Iqbal would visit the family often in Asna, and he and Kala fell in love. In 1982, when Kala was heavily pregnant, Iqbal went to Nagpur to tell his parents and leave his job. Everyone warned Kala that he would never come back – like all the other officers who had relationships with local women and then left them. But she had faith, and when he came back, they started living together, a relationship that lasted for thirty two years, resulting in three children, and two grandchildren. In the meantime, Iqbal and Kala also played loco parentis to all of Kala’s younger siblings.

Iqbal came from a large conservative Muslim family in Nagpur, and an adivasi daughter-in-law, who refused to wear a blouse or footwear, cannot have been easy for them to accept. But Iqbal worked it out in his own way. One of his most moving poems is about going to his mother’s funeral and being told to ask for the customary relief from the debt of mother’s milk. How is this a debt that can ever be written off, he asks? When she died in 1997, one link was broken, but others remained, especially with some of his young nieces and nephews, for whom he was an inspiring role model, encouraging them to live their own lives. His nephew Shad, with whom he shared an interest in wildlife and photography, never forgot his own debt to his uncle, and was with him till the end, trying his best financially and emotionally to keep Iqbal alive.  

In his professional life too, the late 1970s was a time when Iqbal was forming new and lasting relationships. In the DK office, he had met Arjun Singh Nag, a quiet, reserved Halba accountant from Jaitgiri, who drank neither tea nor mahua, went straight home after work, and refused to go out even during the lunch break. Unlikely as it seemed, the two soon became good friends, both instigating and cautioning each other in their desire to help salvage adivasi society before it disappeared under the crush of exploitation and consumerism.  When Iqbal decided to quit the IAAS after he was repatriated to Nagpur in 1983, Nagji tried to persuade him to stick it out for a few more years, till he was eligible for a pension, but Iqbal said: “In five or six years everything will change, the forests will have gone, the people will have changed. I won’t get to know it.”   When Nagji got a coveted posting in Delhi, Iqbal told him that he would do well in Delhi but forget where he was from. But then refused to influence him further lest he destroy his life. In the last few years of his accounts service, Nagji had also studied law, coming from Malkangiri to Jagdalpur every weekend to take classes, and it was mainly due to Iqbal’s encouragement, he says, that he worked up the courage to turn down the Delhi job and become a lawyer.  The decision was right, at least as far as Bastar was concerned -  apart from the wide circle of grateful clients, his dedicated lawyering and environmental work was recently recognized by a Swiss Foundation, with the Paul K Feyerabend  Foundation award.  

Having decided to quit the service in 1983, life was financially very hard for Iqbal and Kala. Writing for the newspapers did not provide enough to live on, and Iqbal was picky about what kind of projects he would do. There were days when there was nothing to eat in the house, and even morning tea was too expensive. If times were good, Iqbal would go over to the tea shop next door to chat and read the morning papers. In fact, Iqbal knew at least a year ago, after collapsing at a conference in Lucknow, that he had irreversible kidney damage due to diabetes. But he chose not to tell anyone, and discontinued the medicine after a month – there was simply no money.  But all through, Iqbal and Kala maintained an open house.  There was no conscious effort at de-classing, Iqbal simply related to people as humans. Whether it was Renu, a local Bhatra tailor and carpenter, Chendru the Mahara Kotwar,  Kach saab who was in government service, Nagji and his family, Sharad Chandra Vermaji the respected veteran journalist and  environmentalist, Narendra Jadhav the DFO, or anyone else, they all got the same attention. There were occasional trips to visit friends like Belgur in Narayanpur, who became a world travelled adivasi sculptor in wood with Iqbal’s encouragement; picnics, and endless evenings of mahua and laughter.  Even if Iqbal’s clothes became a little worn, he tried to ensure that Kala got beautiful traditional sarees to wear, classic designs for which he sought out Panka weavers from distant villages. Photography (in those days reels and printing were expensive) and fishing equipment were the only luxuries he allowed himself.

The children somehow grew themselves up – more Bhatra than Muslim. From a middle class point of view, their mediocre performances at school and early drop-out, were perhaps one of Iqbal’s greatest failures. He simply did not have the time or desire to sit with them and do homework. But he took them with him into the forest, laughed with them as equals, and painted with them. He and Shabnam were once planning an exhibition of their art work. He encouraged Punee to learn bell metal from the well known artist, Jaidev Baghel. Later, conscious that they would need to fend for themselves, he tried to involve them in his own work – in setting up self help groups, in promoting tourism – but with varying degrees of success. In the last few years, Birsa, their youngest, had become a cause of worry – abandoning his first wife and son, to take up with another woman, and rarely coming home. All this preyed on Iqbal’s mind. A couple of years ago, he had a bad accident on the highway in which the driver died, and it took a long time to heal because of his diabetes. We all noticed that he was declining, but refused to accept that he was mortal.

In 1984, Iqbal and Nagji set up the Adivasi Harijan Kalyan Samiti (AHKS), one of the first and only NGOs in Bastar at the time. They could have expanded hugely, but Iqbal insisted that they take no funds, especially foreign funds, relying instead on local contributions by members or small NABARD grants. Nagji described, laughing, how Oxfam had once asked them to implement a project to conserve traditional seeds, but they fled to Jaitgiri to avoid meeting them and when the donors chased them to Jaitgiri, fled again. As a result the organization never really got off the ground, remaining largely identified with whatever activity Iqbal happened to be doing at the time. Perhaps his experience as an auditor had left Iqbal with a lasting dislike of large bureaucracies and deadlines. Moreover, unlike many NGO leaders who attempt to do good work for others, defined as a ‘target population”, Iqbal lived with his ‘beneficiaries’ as friends and enemies. He started by organizing his own wife and her friends.

In 1987, the forest department decided to close off the village forests with barbed wire to start plantations. Led by Mitki Bai, who sold vegetables in the Jagdalpur haat by day and held meetings with the others at night, the women took to direct action to reclaim access, stopping the hired labour from digging the trenches. Iqbal was their main counselor and guide. The women promised to guard the forests themselves, and finally succeeded in convincing the local authorities. For about nine months, they spread the message of forest protection energetically to neighbouring villages. A group of 400-500 women from Asna would walk upto 25-30 kms to be received by similar numbers at the other end.

Iqbal’s next step was to form a co-operative of adivasi women under the DWCRA scheme, to purchase sal seeds and tendu leaves for the forest dept, to get fishing rights in the village ponds, and to raise a nursery under the Forest Department's social forestry schemes. The women’s co-operative faced political opposition from local BJP politicians who were keen to get these contracts for their own people, mostly men and upper caste, but while it lasted, it was the main source of income for many of these women, including Kala and Iqbal’s own family. Kala was later elected to the block level committee for minor forest produce, and did considerable leg work getting people to join as members and making sure that bonuses were fairly distributed. Both these experiments were relayed at conferences, while two documentary films were made on the 1987 forest protection movement.

I sometimes worried that Kala was Iqbal’s main “project”, but need not have, for Kala was an individual in her own right.  People sometimes wondered what kept Iqbal and Kala together, given their very different interests, but as the three of us discussed in January this year, over what turned out to be our last drink together, they shared a deep companionship that was both physical and emotional.  More Leela than Kosi, Elwin’s second Pardhan wife, Kala cared for Iqbal the way few others could or would have, especially in the last month or so, when he lay ill in the ICU of an unfamiliar Raipur hospital.

Sometime in the mid 1990s, after the co-operative had run its course, the AHKS took on a CARE project to set up self help groups.  Iqbal moved to Chindgarh. The project finished on a sad note – the office was set on fire, and a disgruntled employee was suspected. AHKS incurred considerable loss. From there, Iqbal went to Chitrakote, where he was involved in a project to promote eco-friendly tourism with the participation of local villagers. There too, Iqbal had an uphill struggle in the face of local BJP and panchayat politics.  I remember a meeting in 1998 to discuss forest rights with villagers in Chitrakote.  It happened, quite co-incidentally, to be Christmas, and soon enough, some lumpen elements from the nearby Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram turned up accusing us of proselytizing. Chitrakote had been a long term dream – to live where Elwin lived, and spend his time fishing in the rapids of the Indrawati – but it was not to be.  In the last years of his life, Iqbal returned to Asna. By this time, he had managed to build a little house in the village.

In between, Iqbal was involved in numerous schemes – like encouraging local artisans, and running a primary school in Bhadri Mahu, a village deep in the Kanger reserved forest, which stopped when the local school teacher died.  I remember the joy with which he thought of local elements to add to the school curriculum.  Apart from AHKS, his most lasting involvement was with BASCON, Bastar Society for the Conservation of Nature, a group of individuals in Jagdalpur who were concerned about Bastar’s environment.  Meetings were usually held in Vermaji’s house. Iqbal once described how he took Indira Gandhi around in a helicopter to survey the area that would be submerged by the Bodhghat dam, and stunned by its beauty and the value of the biodiversity she stopped the project. How different from the current Congress government whose main concern seems to be shift everyone out of the forests into city slums.  In recent years, BASCON had taken up the diversion of the Indrawati to Orissa, and its reduced flow in Bastar. Iqbal and the others tried to enlist more members, but BASCON is aging, and the need to preserve the environment has few takers these days when the main story is war and mining. As Brecht said, “What kind of times are these when to talk about trees seems almost a crime?”

When Iqbal died, there was a little discussion on whether he should be buried according to Muslim rites, as his mother had wanted, or by the sweet imli tree in his yard, as he had wanted. His second choice had been to be buried in the Bhatra graveyard by the river.  Since a grave in the middle of an inhabited village might come to haunt the residents, it was decided to give him a full Bhatra burial. A little plot of land was exchanged for some token money, and now Iqbal is officially part of the soil of Asna village. But in my mind, I will always see him sitting on a shady river bank, doing what he loved best but rarely had the time to do when alive - fishing.  And some evening we will sit together, sprinkle a drop of mahua on the earth, and say: Johar. 

This article was published in EPW VOL 47 No. 16 April 21 - April 27, 2012