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Central India’s ugly fight for environmental justice

If you threw a dart at the heart of India but your aim was off, a little low and to the right, you would hit the village of Matenar, in the administrative division of Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Though the region’s lush forests once found mention in ancient Sanskrit epics, Bastar now evokes for many Indians the threat or fear of the Naxalites, Maoist guerrilla groups that have waged a fifty-year insurgency against the national government. But Bastar also represents the ugly side of India’s Janus-faced democracy. The place where your errant dart fell is fabled for its mineral wealth, especially iron, coal, tin, and bauxite, and yet its inhabitants, most of whom belong to India’s indigenous population, the adivasis, are among the poorest in the country. Visitors to Chhattisgarh see dense jungle, small huts, and immense mines, but few schools, health centers, or hospitals. New construction seems devoted mostly to four-lane highways—the better to transport government troops into the state and minerals out of it.

In the past decade alone, more than two thousand people, most of them ordinary civilians, have died in the conflict between government forces and the Maoists. The aim of the police, who in many cases might more properly be called state-sponsored vigilantes, is to establish, with maximum force, federal sovereignty over Bastar—and to make the land safe for mining companies. In 2011, no less an authority than the Supreme Court of India compared Chhattisgarh to the Congo described in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” With a startling forthrightness, the Justices observed that “predatory forms of capitalism, supported and promoted by the State in direct contravention of constitutional norms and values, often take deep roots around the extractive industries.”

Late last year, I went to Matenar to attend a meeting organized by Soni Sori, an adivasi schoolteacher turned activist. Though Sori and I had never met, I had come to know of her through the news. In 2011, she was arrested and accused of acting as a conduit between the Maoists and a large Indian conglomerate, a charge that she denied. While she was in police custody, she was subjected to horrific treatment—verbal abuse, beatings, electric shocks. At one point, after she refused to sign a confession, her interrogators inserted stones into her vagina and rectum. Sori was granted bail in 2014, not long after the police official who she claimed had overseen her torture was awarded a gallantry medal by the Indian government. Then, last February in Chhattisgarh, she was attacked on the street by three men. They threw a chemical substance in her face that burned her skin, and warned her that her daughter would be assaulted next if Sori didn’t stop talking about police atrocities.

On the day of the meeting, Sori’s face appeared almost healed. As she rushed around helping with arrangements for lunch, visiting journalists and lawyers met in small groups, talking to adivasis from adjoining districts, some of whom had walked for a day or more to get to Matenar. Off to the side, a handful of plainclothes policemen took down names in their notebooks; one shot footage of the crowd on his mobile phone. The meeting, which took place at the village council hall, was to be a jan sunwai, a public hearing, during which anyone could get up and talk. I had chatted earlier with a nineteen-year-old woman named Suneeta Pottam; of her group of young adivasi women, she was the only one who spoke Hindi. When she spoke at the meeting, though, she presented her account in Gondi, her voice rising high and shaking in anger. The word that I heard repeated was “police.” I imagine she was telling the audience what she had told me before—that a number of unarmed civilians around Korcholi, her home village, had lately been killed by security forces, that women were routinely sexually assaulted, that one young couple had been taken away alive and returned dead, the woman’s body stripped of clothing.

Pottam had also told me the story of Sodhi Sannu, a nine-year-old boy who was shot, allegedly by state forces, while picking tomatoes last February. Sodhi’s mother and neighbor had rushed out of their homes at the sound of gunfire. They had seen blood but not been allowed to approach. Was the boy dead? If so, his body was never returned to the family. His father, Sodhi Hurra, was at the meeting, too. He rose to speak, sobbing as he described what had happened. Afterward, I asked him whether he had a message for the authorities. “If they have eaten his flesh, tell me,” he replied. “If not, let them tell me where he has been buried. I’ll collect his bones and perform his last rites.” Later, on the phone, I asked Chhattisgarh’s inspector general of police, Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, about the missing child. He dismissed the relatives’ story as “absolutely rubbish.” Then, knowing that I worked in the United States, he went on. “Why are you bothered about us?” he asked. “Are we bothered about America? You look after your own place. You look after Trump. We are educated, we are competent, and we are capable of taking care of our country.” (On Tuesday, in what appears to have been an administrative rebuke, Kalluri was transferred from Bastar to police headquarters in Raipur.)

Sodhi Sannu’s case is part of a public-interest lawsuit filed last year by Pottam and others in Bilaspur High Court, in Chhattisgarh. The petitioners call for an investigation into several recent killings. But they may never learn what happened to Sodhi and others. It is common for the police to harass and intimidate journalists and lawyers in Chhattisgarh, according to Amnesty International, and some of the lawyers who helped Pottam file her petition have been forced to leave their homes or restrict their practices.

What is it that gives the men in uniform in central India the power to treat their fellow-citizens with such contempt and disregard for law? I cannot help but think that the repression of adivasis is in some fundamental way tied to the instrumentalized purpose through which their surrounding environment is viewed. The land is there for the taking; any and all violence seems to be justified in mining its riches. In 2008, a group constituted by India’s Planning Commission warned against the “rapacious exploitation” of the tribal population of Chhattisgarh, a phrase that seems particularly apt when one considers the behavior of the security forces toward adivasi women. But Sori, for her part, is undeterred. She told me that her supporters keep reminding her of the truth behind her mission. “The world that the corporations want—lights, wealth—will feed one or two generations,” she said. “But, if they save their land from the government, they will feed many more.


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  1. The fight for environment justice may not stop till the mining activitues in the region are not stopped and adivasis are not allowed to live with freedom

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