Nandini Sundar: The Politics of Prizes and Silencing of Adivasi Voice

Last weekend, I attended a wonderful rally by the Adivasi Mahasabha in Raipur – some 10-15 busloads of people came from Dantewada and Bastar alone, while large numbers came from other parts of Chhattisgarh and even other states like Maharashtra, Orissa and West Bengal. The procession was flagged off by Dhurwa dancers while the rear end was brought up by Marias with their large dhols and bison horns. In between were thousands of militant marchers shouting slogans against militarization, demanding peace talks, the release of their arrested leaders, the implementation of the Supreme Court judgement on Salwa Judum, and all their constitutional rights with respect to land, forest and water.  These were men and women who had lost everything to arson and loot by Salwa Judum, who had been interned in camps but managed to return home and pick up their ploughs again, who face the daily threat of arrests, beatings and encounters by the security forces, who have to negotiate with the Maoists everytime they wanted to access panchayat funds, who live a life on the razor edge of survival.  And yet here they were, laughing, cheering and vowing to fight till the last breath, fight for their constitutional rights and in a constitutional way.

This remarkable struggle has been waged, not just over one weekend, but over years.  Indeed, the Salwa Judum leaders themselves credit the CPI with the destruction of their movement – both through mass actions and through legal means.

The first reliable account of what Salwa Judum was doing came from a CPI fact-finding in November 2005. It was at an Adivasi Mahasabha rally held in Cherla in June 2007 that villagers broke the silence which had engulfed them since Salwa Judum began and gave written accounts of what had happened to them – accounts which later formed the basis of a writ petition before the Supreme Court by Manish Kunjam, Kartam Joga and Dudhi Joga.  Kartam Joga has since been jailed for his efforts, along with several other CPI leaders all of whom have anywhere between 5- 7 heinous cases against them.  In the Tadmetla case of April 2010 when 76 CRPF men were killed, for example, there is a fungible and expansive list of accused where anyone inconvenient can be grandfathered in, regardless of how far they were from the actual site or their political persuasion.

Subsequent rallies organized by the CPI have each been historic – one in Jagdalpur in November 2007 which was attended by over a lakh of people, broke the fear of returning home and led to the slow and gradual emptying out of camps.  Much public attention has been focused on a few villages where NGOs have worked to resettle IDPs, and important and brave though that was, the much larger scale and quiet impact of the CPI work  - as well as the Maoists own efforts at restoration – has gone unremarked. The CPI has also been fighting against Tata and Essar’s plans to displace people for their steel plants. Despite the fact that the CPI cannot compete with the money power of the Congress and BJP and win elections, Manish Kunjam is easily the most popular adivasi leader in the undivided district of Bastar.  The CPI is also the only party in a field which includes the Maoists, which is led and peopled entirely by adivasis in the area. This is of no mean significance. Indeed, speaking at the adivasi mahasabha meeting on the 16th, PA Sangma recalled how on a visit to Jagdalpur, he was introduced by the Congress leaders to their local functionaries. In a tribal dominated district, with all seats reserved (Jagdalpur has since been dereserved), not one of them was an adivasi!

So when I read a Tehelka article which describes Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi as “the last men left standing in Dantewada district” after Binayak and Himanshu were arrested or evicted, or Shoma Chaudhury’s quote from some unnamed (and obviously ignorant) CRPF commander that “earlier the tribals didn’t have a voice, but these two people changed that”, I had to rub my eyes in disbelief. It is evident to everyone on the ground and outside that Soni and Linga are being framed, but in Chhattisgarh, whether you are a hero or a zero, you have equal chances of being arrested.  Some would argue that it is perhaps not surprising that a party like the CPI which has consistently fought against Essar and Tata – which coincidentally are funding a major Tehelka event- is off its radar. But the Tehelka article displays a deeper malaise.

For far too long, the dominant activist mode of engaging with Dantewada has been in the language of ‘sole spokesmanship’ or “saviourism” by “human rights defenders”, who are usually non-adivasis. This is not to belittle their important work in bringing attention to the issue or the very real sacrifices that Binayak  Sen and Himanshu Kumar have undergone in being arrested or having their house demolished – but simply to remind readers that were it not for the bravery of the adivasis who tell their stories to fact-finding teams, the media or lawyers and adivasis who guide outsiders to their burnt villages – none of these stories would ever have come out.  I have had students in Delhi university refuse to even fill out anonymous  teacher evaluation forms for fear that they would be found out and victimized.  It is clear that if anyone deserves a prize for defending human rights, it is the very people whose human rights are being violated, but who have refused to take it lying down.

When it comes to the CPI, there are of course, political reasons why their sterling contribution to the ongoing struggle in Chhattisgarh is not recognized... Read more:

See also: Take a Different Route:

and ‘The Government Will Kill Me’ : Will there be justice for Soni Sori, the schoolteacher from Chhattisgarh?

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