As I’m travelling a lot at the moment I’m putting up a few rough and partial transcriptions of interviews I’ve done over the last couple weeks with human rights activists that are being targeted by the government for allegedly being Maoist sympathisers.
First up is Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist who spent 18 years working with tribes in the troubled Dandewara region of Chattisgarh. The region gradually became a hotbed of Maoist activity and atrocities by the state-sponsored Salwa Judum militia. When Himanshu started taking up the human rights cases against the police and militia, the state responded by bulldozing down his ashram and even accused him of kidnapping a witness, Sodi Sambo, who had come to him for protection.
I started by getting his reaction to claims in a recent Supreme Court case in which the prosecution basically claimed he was a Maoist.
The prosecution are trying to confuse the court. We told them: ‘We are nothing to do with your fight.’ Fortunately, the judges were not listening to them this time. It is just good luck that we got these judges on this occasion.
However, I do not expect any revolution to happen as a result of this case – I don’t think they’ll put [Home Minister] Chidambaram in jail because of this. The courts are very hesitant to pass judgement even against a cop, let alone the government. The whole system is designed to control people by force.
Himanshu then told me about an incident in the village of Sindaram in January 2009 in which 19 tribals were dragged out of their homes, hands tied behind their backs, forced to stand in a queue and then shot. “Only the girls were stabbed,” he said. “You can see in the photos that their intestines are coming out.” The case is still in the High Court, having been postponed a number of times.
We moved on to his background.
My father was a revolutionary. He set fire to the railway station in his home town in UP [Uttar Pradesh] in 1942. He went underground after that. He wrote a letter to Gandhi, who asked him to come to his ashram in Shivagram and he ended up staying there for 3 years. My father continued the social work after Gandhi was shot. He was in AP [Andhra Pradesh] where the communists began, as part of the land movement and he stayed there for 20 years.
He was very committed to non-violence. He believes violence takes place in the mind only, and that can be changed through peaceful processes. [The real threat is when violence is] a pre-thought strategy, when you believe or have faith in violence. If you are a normal person you won’t like violence anyway. If you are caught in a position where you feel helpless and you are to save your life, that is not violence. But if you decide to opt for violence voluntarily without strong reason, without looking at other options before you, that will lead you to somewhere else. Violence becomes the main task – just to fight. Both the government and the Maoists both believe in violence and counter-violence.
[As a Gandhian] we can see the whole history of humanity. We have a notion that if we kill our enemy we are secure and safe. This notion is a problem because the enemy in this notion never dies. In a modern, scientific age we should be able to address our problems collectively. Fighting with each other in the name of people’s good is a primitive and irrational response.
How do politicians react when you tell them this?
No one listens. No one understands. They see me as a man with his head flying in the clouds.
We were pressuring the government to implement the Supreme Court order on rehabilitating those displaced by the Salwa Judum. We filed FIRs against people who rape girls, kill people and burned houses. We started rehabilitating people ourselves when they did nothing – giving them food, medicine and so forth.
The government were very unhappy with us. They found it counter to their strategy. Their strategy is to get these villages empty. They bulldozed our ashram, put my colleagues in jail, stopped all financial support we had. They asked my landlord to vacate our makeshift house and put a charge on me for abducting a girl [Sodi Sambo].
[The witnesses in the recent trial about a massacre in the village of Gompar] are all still in police custody. Sodi is in a very bad condition. [At the trial] the witnesses confirmed the massacre but not who did it. This was more than the police ever admitted. They said to me: ‘How can we say who did it. They’ll kill our children’. I cannot ask more of them. I cannot protect them.
I dream to go back [to Chattisgarh], but I don’t know when. I was the only link between those tribals and this world [he waves around the fancy Delhi hotel lobby we are sitting in]. I spent 18 years in their village.
I went there in 1992. We lived in a cottage in a very remote village. We gave the people medicine, taught their children, visited their houses, talked to them, helped them with land entitlement. We raised their voice for whatever they were not getting. Our strength increased. We had 250 full-time volunteers working on community health. We had 270 bare-foot tribal health workers and 40,000 people in our network in four districts. We were strengthening democracy at the grass-roots level. This is their system – they can make it functional. We were doing what the government should have done.
After all this work, the government finished it in just a few weeks. Me, my wife and my two daughters were there when they bulldozed the ashram. My 7 year-old turned to me and said: “It’s because the police want the villagers’ land.” Even at that age, she understood.
How did that make you feel? How do you move on from something like that?
[All this] is a test of our democracy, of how deep-rooted it is. The structure is there – we can say there is a parliamentary system. But democracy is a value. The soul is not there, just a dead body of democracy. If you cannot tolerate the voice of dissent, then how can you improve it?
There are others doing work out there. But the moment they raise human rights issues, the government starts harassing them. Most of the time, they do not bother. I have met Rahul Gandhi and Mr Chidambaram and many others over the last three years. I have narrated the whole situation to them. It seems they aren’t concerned. They know what they are doing. Chidambaram promised to come to Dandewara. Some of the people who went to protest against his visit are still missing.
I told the lawyers [in the recent trial]: ‘I cannot lose. It is your judiciary system that will lose. Next time, these people will go to the Naxalites for justice.’
I asked him when he got involved in human rights cases.
It started with one girl – Sonia. She was beaten up by the Central Reserve Police Force. They tied he hair to cop’s leg and dragged by her hair. These forces become manic around girls – they get some sort of satisfaction from these things.
I asked my wife if I should take this case. I told her our lives will change from this day. She said: ‘You call yourself a social worker, then do something.’ We have never regretted the decision. After that, we helped thousands of people.
We are on the right track, whatever the end result might be. You see, sometimes we feel that we are losing but history ends up narrating it as a victory. When Socrates was poisoned and died, it seemed like he had lost. When Jesus was alone carrying his cross on his shoulder, it seemed like he was losing. But history tells us he was winning.
[The threats human rights groups are facing from the government at the moment:] This is the real test of our conviction, our faith in certain values. Success is not the test of whether we are on the right path.
Do you worry about what is happening in Chattisgarh in your absence?
People are in need of my presence there. We always told the police: “We are not against you. It’s not you doing this. Someone else asked you. They will be benefitted and you will lose your life.”
This modern model of development is resource-intensive. But metals and resources are not sufficient for everyone. It can fulfil the greed of only a few people to grab those resources. We push a large number of people away and that gives birth to social conflict. Gandhi knew that this would lead to ecological disaster.
Don’t we have the intelligence to map out a model of inclusive development in which other people can also live and sustain themselves? How can we live in a society where one man buys his wife a Rs. 250 crore jet plane and tribals are eating only two decent meals in a week? The disparity is a crime. The problem is distribution.
The Maoists are not themselves the threat. They are the symptom of the disease in our society.