Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Something rotten in Chhattisgarh

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Column in Business Standard, December 5, 2014

In 1940, the British-born anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who spent his working life documenting the customs and defending the rights of tribal communities in India, moved to Bastar in present-day Chhattisgarh. Some of his pioneering studies, such as The Muria and their Ghotul on the social and sexual practices of a tribe, were produced in the several years he spent there. In letters and essays he described the land as “unbelievably peaceful”; its people as “gentle, friendly, with no desire for property or power”. He contrasted the “vigorous and healthy” tribal life of Bastar with the “decay and inertia … reform-stricken and barren” tribal districts of Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh), where he had earlier lived.

There are several reasons for Elwin’s account to ring out loud today: till his death in 1964, the renegade missionary-and-Gandhian-turned-passionate prophet of the oppressed repeatedly warned that sudden, ill-conceived intrusions into tribal lands, their culture and way of life would wreck havoc. His words, his work and life are scrupulously recorded in a new updated and revised edition of Ramachandra Guha’s remarkable biography Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India (Penguin; Rs 599) that is just out.
Dr Guha’s powerful epilogue makes a strong case for why the ongoing Maoist onslaught has turned Bastar (and adjoining districts of Sukma, Dantewada and Bijapur) in southern Chhattisgarh into the epicentre of the insurgency, with 14 more security personnel gunned down this week by “red rebels” who used villagers as human shields. In 2006, former prime minister Manmohan Singh called the Maoists the “single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”. Official data confirm that more security personnel are killed in the Maoist-infested districts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha – at the rate of one every three days – than in Jammu and Kashmir or the Northeast. Over 1,000 civilians have been killed in the last three years, including the attack on Vidya Charan Shukla and 25 others that virtually wiped out the state Congress leadership in the summer of 2013.

That something is really rotten in the state of Chhattisgarh is borne out by the tragic death of 16 women, mostly tribals and Dalits, last month in squalid, ill-equipped sterilisation camps in Bilaspur district, not far from Raipur, the state capital. A 37-page investigation released this week by four independent health organisations led by the Population Foundation of India gives the grim details: the women perished not, as was supposed, because of spurious drugs but because of dismal insanitary conditions (“The sweeper cleaned the walls with a mop,” confirms an eyewitness ), rushed laparoscopic surgeries (83 women were operated in one-and-a-half hours, that is, one-and-a-half minute per surgery as opposed to the prescribed five-six minutes), insufficient medical staff, inadequate equipment and scarce precautions before, during and after the procedures (“… none of the staff changed their hand gloves in between procedures … the same injection needle and syringe, and the suture needles were used for all cases … only one laparoscope was used, while the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare prescribes three for 30 patients”). It is not that the sterilisations were involuntary: the women desired them to control family size. But they seemingly fell into the toils of officials seeking to meet incentive-based sterilisation targets.

Returning to the Chhattisgarh districts in pursuit of the Elwin story (his book was first published in 1999) Dr Guha’s new epilogue gives both sides of the development-versus-exclusion debate that has turned the region into the country’s killing fields. He compares the condition of tribals to Dalits – despite reservations, and even when not displaced by development projects, they do not have access to decent schools, hospitals or gainful employment. Statistical evidence by demographer Arup Maharatna supports the claim that Scheduled Tribes have lower literacy rates, higher school dropout rates and greater numbers under the poverty line than Dalits. Economist Jean Dreze describes their situation as one of “the merciless exploitation of tribal people by non-tribals: landlords, traders, contractors, politicians, forest guards, government officials and others”. In six decades, says Dr Guha, the Bastar adivasi has come to perceive the new sarkar mostly as exploiter.

“Verrier Elwin,” he writes, “found the Bastar tribals at peace, but now they were at war – with each other. He wrote of the Maria of Dantewada that they were ‘communistic people’ who ‘still have a great deal of village solidarity.’ Now each village was split down the middle. Had Elwin seen Bastar today he would have wept. I know I did.”

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