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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 26

To Acquiesce

Tuesday 19 June 2007, by Sagari Chhabra


Some years ago, I went to Pararia in Bihar. The women there had been brutally gang-raped by police-men. The judgement in the courts had gone against the women and as Nimmi Devi said: “The police went scot-free, some even got promoted.” I was shooting a film on rape, ‘Now, I Will Speak’, and one of the rapists came to intimidate the women and myself at the site; obviously to stop the story from breaking out. I continued to film the testimonies of several women, each of whom told me how they were sleeping inside their huts when the police broke in “by breaking the kaccha roof”. One said: “They came in uniform. They were not one but six who raped me.” Her mother in-law confided: “She couldn’t sit or eat for days. She cried so much; it was as if blood was flowing from her eyes.” Then she fell silent.

After filming I wandered around the area; the village was a remote one, by a river. I chanced upon a large site, dug up, with earth-moving equipment lying idle. What is this, I asked? I was told that a dam was being built and that Pararia was going under water. It was obvious to me, that there was a resistance to moving from the area and the police raping the women in uniform were teaching them a lesson to acquiesce. Who was that man who came to where we were filming, I asked? “He is the contractor of this dam and one of the accused,” I was told. I asked if any compensation had been received so far; “none,” replied a young man, “sarkar ki aise halat hein, to kya kahen? (the government is like this, so what can one say?)”.

I then walked through the forests of Sagbara district in Gujarat to meet Guntaben, a young tribal woman who had been raped by two policemen and then brutalised. Her case had been taken up by Amnesty International and the two policemen had been sentenced to ten years of rigorous imprisonment. Guntaben was a tribal who had been displaced by the Ukai dam. I am still unsure of the motives of the police who raped her, but I am certain that Guntaben, being a displaced tribal, was vulnerable as she was far away from her own village and people. Displaced people have nothing they can call their own.

Violence, particularly against women, is a tactic to smash the morale of any movement. It not only shatters the psyche of the women, it traumatises their men-folk as the old man in Pararia who had a stick stuck up his backside when he protested the rape—“mere se raha nahi gaya (I couldn’t bear to see what was happening)”.

Since 1947 a study estimates nearly 60 million people have been internally displaced as projected affected people. (Walter Fernandes, January 20, 2007, Economic and Political Weekly) Not all are victims of physical violence, but what about psychological violence? How heart-breaking is it to see your home torn down and being moved to an area far away, without your consent? The figures make Auschwitz and Birkenau come real on to our own home-ground; a mass graveyard of the poor, which we have trampled upon.

SOMETIME back I visited the Narmada valley. I went by boat on the river Narmada through Madhya Pradesh to a tribal area, Nandubar in Maharashtra, which I had been told had been submerged. If it is submerged, how are the huts still there, I had wondered? “We have moved four times,” pointed out a tribal, and I could see the little islands submerged in water. But did they not want to leave, there was after all no electricity and no schools, just a little ‘jeevanshala’ run by activists? “No,” they said, “what will we get elsewhere? Here we catch our fish from the river and make our homes from the forest. We know every tree, every bush in the woods.” But, move they must as the Gujarat Government has decided to raise the height of the dam still further. The colossal money for river valley projects or big dams, overtakes some budgets of the State governments; yet those allocated for rehabilitation is abysmal. The poor must make way for the rich and come to the urban centres as destitutes. If you think things get better with time, this is what the Centre of Science and Environment report (1999) says about the Hirakud dam oustees, the first major river valley project: “They occupy open lands, not legally theirs and are harassed to vacate by forest officials.” In Singrauli the oustees have been displaced three or four times in three decades, due to lack of co-ordination by the different departments. A spiral of impoverishment sets into motion.

Tribals have been living close to nature and could teach the climate change and global warming experts a few things about sustainable living. But when you deprive them of the natural resources they live by, you do so by savaging the civilised. Sixty per cent of those displaced are tribals and unlike Dalits they do not have a political party or any political representation. One person who has taken up the cause of the tribals is Medha Patkar, who has presently been charged with “sedition” by a contractor and someone who allegedly assaulted her in Sabarmati ashram. If this sounds murky, what can be more heart-breaking than the capitalists who made a killing over the land and the Communists who did the killing in Nandigram?

Surely it is time to call a halt and set up a well- thought-out rehabilitation policy, for those who are being displaced through ‘development’. This policy will have to take the informed consent of the project affected people well in advance. The new areas will have to be set up and running well in advance; not empty shells that haunt like ghost towns. But most of all, we will have to challenge the mainstream discourse on development. Whom is this development for? The tribals desperately need representation in mainstream politics, but they are not a cohesive group. Despite the armed constabulary, we are increasingly finding Naxalism spreading in more and more districts like wildfire. Social justice will have to go hand in hand with development.

[An edited and abridged version of this article appeared in The Times of India (April 23, 2007)]

The author is a independent film-maker and writer.

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