Symbi student, 18, narrates her first-hand experience of state repression in conflict-torn Dantewada in Chhattisgarh
By Veronica Kalpana Gautam
|Pictures of the non-profit Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada, Chattisgarh, before and after demolition by the state authorities on May 17|
As part of my Media and Communication programme of Symbiosis International University, I have been interning with Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, a Gandhian non-profit organisation, based in the conflict zone of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh.
For the last few years, the ashram has increasingly raised its voice against state atrocities upon civilians. I have been involved in the projects to rehabilitate villagers who fled due to atrocities inflicted on them by both warring parties.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 40,000 people have left their homes due to the conflict between the Naxalites and the state-sponsored, counter-insurgency of the Salwa Judum.
The legitimacy of the Salwa Judum yet to be decided before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Court has passed orders to rehabilitate the 644 villages of the conflict zone, but the administration has ignored them.
Only Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and other local NGOs from Andhra Pradesh have been active in the rehabilitation of these villages and are often hindered by the government.
I was involved with the rehabilitation of the villages of Basaguda block during the second week of May. Most villages in these areas have no access to electricity, transport, and the only source of rice and ration is the Ashram itself. About 90 per cent of all homes in these areas have been destroyed.
Two days after the initial rehabilitation of more than 100 people, I returned to the village of Kawalnar where the Ashram’s main office and housing facilities have been located for the last 17 years.
Eventually, a notice issued on May 13, delivered on May 16, stated that everyone must vacate the premises by 7 am on May 17. I learnt that the legal matter of encroachment itself was sub-judice and thus, no legal action could have been taken.
The land itself comes under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and it gives sole authority to the Gram Sabha — the villagers. And not a single building can be built or destroyed on that land without their permission.
In 1994, the Gram Sabha of Kawalnar had already allotted the land to the Ashram for carrying out their service work. The day before, the same villagers confirmed that they do not want the Ashram to go.
On May 17, at 6.30 am, about 50 CRPF Jawans arrived and took positions around the Ashram’s premises, ensuring not a single villager could get to the main buildings. After a while, some 500 security personnel and sub-divisional magistrate Ankit Anand had arrived.
Kopa Kunjam, a social worker and an employee of the ashram, asked the magistrate for the letter granting permission from the Gram Sabha authorising the demolition. The Magistrate blatantly ignored this imperative procedure and ordered the demolition to proceed by 8 am.
As the demolition began, a photojournalist, two students from IISc Bangalore, another from Gujarat, and I were manhandled and detained in a van.
Our cameras and our bags were confiscated and two of us were beaten with malice. The photojournalist Javed Iqbal was deliberately singled out for his reports on police atrocities and beaten.
Later, we were all taken to the Dantewada police station, and made to give statements on our motives, our identities and our perceptions of the work of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram.
We were then taken to the hospital for a medical check-up under police supervision where no one really checked for physical injuries. We were eventually released after the check-up.
Regarding the continuation of my internship, I have no compulsions to leave. If I didn’t have two more years of college to finish, I would have stayed back and continued to be a part of the struggle for social justice, being in the company of incredible people and social workers like Himanshu Kumar, Kopa Kunjam, Akkalbatti Naag, Sukhdev Kadiyam, Abhay Sinh Rathwa along with researcher Bela Bhatia and photojournalist Javed Iqbal.
These are the people who are still upholding the principles of Gandhian idealogy against an increasingly brutal state machinery, that shows no signs of giving up.