Sunday, May 31, 2015

A journey through the shifting battlegrounds of land and human souls

The road from Jagdalpur to Lohandiguda is a smooth 30 km, turning off into some of the most beautiful and unusual villages in the region. High stone walls fence off large compounds around houses of mud, thatch and shale.  Chind or date palm trees grow along the bunds of the fields, and the tabletop hills rise flat and low in the background. The ravages of a couple of limestone quarries apart, this is fertile agricultural land.

Madhu, one of the men I met in Sirisguda, recounted a conversation he had with a shopkeeper in Jagdalpur, who asked him where he was from. “Lohandiguda”, he replied. “Then you are the maliks of Tata,” the shopkeeper said, “They will give you all the facilities you need, especially since your fields produce nothing.” Madhu replied, “Thanks, but I am earning fine now, and grow three crops a year, and don’t need the Tatas.”

Tata to Tata?

The government MOU with Tata Steel to acquire the land of 10 villages for a steel plant was first announced in 2005. The villagers protested, they formed sangharsh samitis and even came to Delhi to meet the Commissioner for Scheduled Tribes. The SDM came with the police and beat up villagers. Eight women were sexually assaulted in 2007.  The villagers were kept out of the environmental public hearing held at Jagdalpur, and the Bastar Chambers of Commerce set lumpen youth to prevent the Communist Party of India holding an alternative one in the villages. Dalals, or middlemen, got active and forced people to take compensation – but there are still some 500 families who have refused to take any money. And there are at least 280 cases where money was taken but the real owners knew nothing about it. In 2009-10, the Maoists killed Bimal Meshram, the block upadhyaksh, who the villagers claim was the biggest dalal of all.

The Tatas have since been lying low, content to run corporate social responsibility programs like sowing classes, a clinic and sports events, but the villagers are not being told anything. Hidma, the bespectacled sarpanch of Takraguda said, “We are cultivating our lands as before, but when we try and apply for kisan cards or loans, the government tells us we are not entitled to them, since our land is acquired. We have applied to the government saying that as it’s been over 5 years since our land was acquired, under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, it should be returned to us.” The government is quiet. 

Right now, the villagers are quiet too, absorbed by party divisions. Now that the immediate threat from the Tata project has receded, support for the CPI has gone down, and the usual blandishments of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress are working. The previous BJP MLA, Baidu Kashyap, had opposed the steel plant, and there has been no opportunity to test the stance of the current one, Deepak Bais of the Congress. But, said one local, “if Tata starts again, we will oppose it again”, regardless of who the MLA is.

Religious divisions are an old feature

The Tatas are not the only ones causing uncertainty in the area. Last year, the press reported the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s claim that 50 villages of Bastar had banned the entry of non-Hindu propaganda under the gram panchayat rules. The Christians complained that they were being denied rations.  Christian and rights groups attributed it to the “fascist designs of the state”, bent on dividing the villagers to push through corporatization, comparing it to Salwa Judum. One commentator claimed, “anti-Maoism, anti-Christianity and application of Land Acquisition would appear to be part of the same scheme of things.” 

The history of the region tells us, however, that there is no contradiction in villagers being against religious conversion and against land acquisition too. Indeed, this streak goes back a long way in Lohandiguda. Many people from here joined Pravir Chandra’s movement against forcible rice levies in the 1960s – a movement that was both revivalist in its worship of the king, and anti-state. On March 31, 1961, thirteen people were killed and several injured when the police fired at a gathering on market day. People had believed the bullets would turn into water.

Religious divisions are also an old problem in Bastar – and not just when it comes to Christians. Over the years, several religious sects have set up shop in Bastar - Baba Bihari Das with his tulsi bead wearing followers or kanthi wale, Brahmakumaris locally known as the Om Shanti wales, the Gayatri Parivar, Sadguru, Kumbhi Buchaiyas and so on. All of them involve turning followers into temperate vegetarians – and treating those who follow the traditional religion like untouchables. This, as one can imagine, riles the latter no end, and over the years, I have heard of several everyday acts of resistance – like pouring liquor into the wells of the kanthi wale, or burying beef under their crops. 

In villages like Kukanar, where I lived in the early 1990s, initial strife led to some agreement and the kanthi wale were given sherbet (sugar water) and uncooked rice at village events, which they cooked separately.  Those who later converted to Om Shanti had stopped marrying even the kanthi-wale, and there was a lot of mocking all around of how Brahmakumari couples were forced to live as brother and sister. But by and large, relations stayed amicable, including with those who had become Christian. 

In the last three or four years, evangelical churches have proliferated, especially in the adivasi areas of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.  In many
places, villagers following their traditional religion and Christian converts live peacefully. In February this year, I visited a settlement of internally displaced persons from Sukma in Andhra. As I was talking to the headman, Durga Rao, a plump pastor, M. Joshua, of the Bible Baptist Goodness Church turned up.  Joshua insisted on showing me the church – complete with bright red drums and a big poster outside, declaring ‘Living Sacrifice Ministries presents Love Feast, Free feeding program in Thellarigudem, January 15, 2015.” He also exhibited photos of the two large American men who had visited then, smiling in the midst of their small and brown Christian brethren.  When I asked the headman if there were problems between the villagers, he said they were free to join whatever religion they wanted, and mostly they converted because of illness.  The Americans were installing boring pumps in the area, so Durga Rao had cleverly got them to install one here too. As I was leaving, the loudspeakers started blaring hymns, the assembled women started singing vigorously and I fled lest the kindly pastor take any more photos of me and post it in his evangelical reports.

Chanda not conversion is the real issue

In Lohandiguda, too, conversions would have been a manageable affair had it not been for the VHP first, and later, the Christian groups. About half the Madia families in Belar, a village of some 500 households, have converted; the Muria and Halbi speakers have not. There are five churches in this village alone - two churches in Dengpara of different denominations, two in Godampara and one in Patelpara.

Dharmu, the former sarpanch of Belar, said that the Christians had stopped attending jatras (when sacrifices are offered to the mother goddess to keep away illness) and the mati tyohar (the main agricultural festival of the year when seeds are sown). Everyone brings some seeds, and it is sown in a common place. Then, after the sacrifice, each family takes its portion home and sows the seeds in their own fields. But the Christians sow their seeds after prayers in the church. In Belar, the Sadguru and Om Shanti households both come to the mati tyohar and give contributions.

Dharmu said that after the dispute last year, all the Christian families had resumed contributing to the festivals, though they paid only Rs. 100 and not Rs. 150 like the other families. But since they refused to take any portion of the sacrifices, that was fine. But Ramvati, the wife of the Pastor of the ‘Betel church’ (the Bethal Faith Ministries International) in godampara of Belar, said they did not give any money even now.

Ramvati’s husband, the pastor, was away, but she let my friend, Kala and I sit in the cement church to escape the afternoon heat and we talked.  Their family had contributed the land, while money to build the church came from a pastor in Rajnandgaon. Thin and clearly burdened by child bearing, she was more interested in finding out about contraception from Kala than in ecumenical matters, but she gave us booklets in Hindi, ‘Freedom from Fear’ and ‘A guide to happiness’ published by the Seva Bharat Ashirwad Global Learning Centre in Andhra. Ramvati said that her family had converted 15-16 years ago when her husband was very ill. They tried joining Sadguru and when that didn’t work, went to a pastor, and he recovered. There are 10 Christian families who attend the church here.

In Sirisguda, where there had been a fight last year between the traditionalists and the Christians, the villagers I met were more strident. We sat under the trees outside a beautiful old stone house, chatting – three middle aged men, Jairam,  Nalpat, Madhu (all names changed), three women and two young boys.  They said they had gone to the VHP because they knew them – the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been active in this area for a long time - but the real dispute was over chanda (contributions). “The chanda is for staging Oriya nats (travelling troupes from Orissa who are hugely popular) and holding the haat at jatra time.  It costs Rs. 10-12,000 a night to host the Oriya nats. The Christians attend, and they also set up stalls in the haat, but they refuse to contribute.”

Jairam said that they also needed the money for sacrifices. “We sacrifice a buffalo every three years and a black calf at another devgudi in the same year. Bhima Dev gets a white goat and Bhandarin Mata gets a pig.” Whenever we do a buffalo sacrifice, it rains heavily. Since the Christians live off the earth of this village, they also need to keep the gods happy.”

I asked “doesn’t the VHP object to your eating cows?” to which Nalpat replied in a resigned sort of way, “I suppose if sacrifice has stopped in the Danteswari temple in Dantewada, then it will stop here too.” But then he added, “The Christians eat buffalos and cows too. At least we sacrifice and eat them, they just eat them.” Much as the VHP may huff and puff and wreak its violence, it will be a long time before cattle sacrifice will fully disappear from these parts.

The Sirisguda villagers had other complaints, many of which sounded suspiciously like they came from some VHP arsenal. ‘The Christians abuse our gods saying they are ‘bhut pret’, they say Ganesh is a ladoo chor.  

As for denying rice to the Christians, they said, “the chanda is collected against each ration card. The sarpanch – a woman called Jamuna Baghel – simply said she wouldn’t verify the cards till they coughed up their contribution.”

The road to Kandkipara where Pastor Shibo lives is lined with menhirs. Pastor Shibo’s house, next to a hill, is painted bright yellow with trees embossed on it in red and pink. It has a blue door. His wife greeted us with ‘Jai Masih’, and we marveled at the tiny black sitaphal, or custard apples, hanging like bats from a tree just outside the house.  The round faced Pastor evidently has a taste for colour  - the Emannuel Brethren Church, a five minute walk away, is festooned with red streamers.

Shibo said that when the 52 Christian families of Sirisguda didn’t get rations for May-June last year, they complained to the food adhikari. He came and explained to the sarpanch and others that the rations belonged to the government and not to the panchayat. When the traditionalist villagers complained that the Christians were refusing to contribute to festivals, the adhikari asked them to give it in writing. So the villagers got angry and picked up chairs to beat up the adhikari, who managed to run away. Then the villagers turned on the Christians with sticks and hand blows. Ten Christians were in hospital for a week.

The next day, the villagers passed a resolution in the gram sabha – the Christians said they couldn’t attend since they were in hospital and injured. The resolution – which is obviously intended for wide use since it has blanks for the name of the panchayat – says they have resolved under Article 129 3 (7) of the Chhattisgarh Gram Panchayat that they will celebrate all festivals in the traditional manner, will not allow non-Hindu proselytisers in the village, will not allow any religious structure to come up without the gram panchayat’s permission etc. The preamble to this is all about the havoc that proselytization by outsiders has brought to the customs of the innocent adivasi Hindus. There is no mention in this VHP inspired resolution – as there is in the every day conversation of the villagers – of the havoc that Hindu proselytizing groups have also wrought.

A breach of peace case was filed. But since the Hindu villagers had stopped attending, the Christians also stopped after 2-3 hearings, saying: “Why should we go when we were the ones beaten?”

Shibo said they had been considering contributing half the chanda, but after they were beaten, they decided to go to the High Court instead (helped by Christian groups). “We contribute for weddings and deaths, but not for puja path, and as for the debt to the earth, we pay taxes to the patwari.”

Then he added, “We don’t pay chanda because the panchayat maintains no accounts of the money that comes in from the Seths who mine limestone in the area.” He also accused one of the Hindu villagers who led the attack on them of selling the nilgiri trees that were growing on common land and keeping the money to himself.

Hidma of Takraguda rebutted this, saying, “the Christians don’t attend the panchayat meetings where the accounts are shared, so how will they know?” The money given by the Seths was for festivals, over and above the royalties they paid to the government.  But the real problem with mining leases, he said, was in running their own. The villagers had got together and formed the ‘Adivasi Khanij Kama Sahakari Samiti Takraguda’ in the hope of getting employment for their youngsters,  and had even got one out of three mining leases for limestone. But they were being given the run around by officials, who wanted money to give them ‘NOCs’. The seths, by contrast, managed to get their leases cleared within 2-3 months. The Mines inspector was now telling them to produce 10 lakhs or give up the lease.

The villagers of Lohandiguda are trying to make their own way in a world that is battering them from every side. They feel there is no need for a steel plant that will take away all the water and destroy the area.  They are not fully opposed to mining, but want to do it in a way that will provide some employment and not uproot them totally. They want to retain their own religious identity - both those who have stuck to their traditional religion and those who have converted - and they want to co-exist with each other. The question is whether the forces of organized religion, politics and economic greed, will let them.