Tuesday, Aug 6, 2013, 7:00 IST | Agency: DNA


Garga Chatterjee

You lifted one fistful of salt
And an empire was shamed.
Lift One fistful of rubble
Now And pour it on our shameless heads.
(by Gopal Gandhi on the day of Babri demolition)

In North America, Thanksgiving Day is a successful attempt in creating a popular and false impression of a harmonious past — one of peaceful coexistence between white Christian colonisers and the colonized indigenous people.

With decades of state endorsement, school indoctrination and mass-market celebration, genocide has been whitewashed into a love-in of sorts. But the few descendants of the survivors, who live, have not forgotten.

On one such day, years ago, strolling in the Harvard campus, I saw a small group of native Americans huddling around a temporary structure that whispered — ‘this is a special space’.

The invocations exuded an unmistakable aura of sacredness. To the onlooker, it was a bunch of weirdos in strange gear doing their own thing in a campus that celebrates ‘diversity’ — adding to that vaunted cosmopolitan urbanscape that so many hold up as a model of all human futures, that pinnacle of rootless aspirations.

Before the genocide, this was public culture. Now it is a curious performance, an act in the corner. How does it feel? I do not know. But I do know that less than three months from now the debi-paksha (the lunar fortnight of Durga) will start and my clan-home in a village called Patuligram in Hooghly district of West Bengal will come alive to welcome the mother goddess, like every year.

What if we had to do this hesitantly, and were looked upon curiously? Is that how those young people at Harvard felt? I would not be accounting for the loss of language, community, clan-people, independence. And still they remember. For it is not that easy for everyone to give up other ways of being human.

It is partly an appreciation of this stubbornness that drew some activists, students and ragamuffins to a protest last week in front of the Odisha Bhavan at New Delhi. Niyamgiri, the holy hill abode of god Niyamraja, produced the valiant Dongria Kondh who have challenged the collective might of some of the most powerful money-gatherers and fixers of the world. What obscene cost-benefit calculation can put a price on a god and his abode?

To us Bengali Shaktos (worshipper of goddess Shakti), what would be the ‘right price’ to dig up the Kali temple at Kalighat if bauxite were to be found underneath? The Dongria Kondh have stuck to their main man, Niyamraja, who also has been sticking to them. Ijurupa, Phuldumer, Batudi, Palberi, Kunakadu, Tadijhola, Kesarpadi and Serkapadi are eight villages that have rejected bauxite-mining in Niyamgiri.

These are eight tight slaps to an entire industry of consensus building that includes corporates, lobbyists, politicians, columnists, economists, ad-agencies, ‘development’-wallahs, CSR-wallahs, FabIndia-DSLR-NGOwallahs and probably your and my dad.

Such has been the force of these slaps that the forces-that-be have pushed into action their spin-machine to concoct some ‘depth of Indian democracy’ type of bedtime story out of it. For all their love of swadeshi gods, like others, the saffron-party has been exposed. Their love for alumina can easily make them sell gods on the sly.

In February, in Lakutia, near Barisal in East Bengal, I saw the ruins of a series of shiv-mandirs — corpses of places of worship. I remember muttering under my breath, ‘never again’. Many have surrendered to those words, so simple yet so decisive — “it is too late now.” The Dongria Kondh seem to have different ideas about time and action.

The author is a brain scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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