By Tarique Anwar and Shishir Tripathi
An old Planning Commission report talking about backward districts categorically states that Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput districts of the highland region in Odisha are “found to be chronically backward and highly underdeveloped and have become vulnerable to recurring droughts and famine-like situations, which lead to distress migration of the poor during non-agricultural season“. They are also considered very backward districts in the country and are popularly known as KBK districts.
The report further states that “The economic development of the state cannot be brought to the takeoff stage, unless this region gets the special attention of the planners and policymakers in terms of sector-specific investments and family-centred poverty intervention measures”
From this highly backward district of Koraput came a pimpled-faced lad to Delhi some four years ago, brimming with excitement and loads of apprehensions. Now this 24-year-old son of a Bengal salesman is one of the five ‘anti-national’ elements adjudged by our insanely hyper-nationalist media. He is the first in his family to attain higher education with an elder brother who studied only till Class VIII and a sister – the eldest among the three – who works at an anganwadi centre.
It is an old story, as crore of students like Rama Naga – a tribal from Ramgiri village in one of the most backward districts of India – have to walk miles to get their basic education and have to struggle. For many like Rama, the pull of a free meal is worth more than the law of gravity taught in one of those Physics classes.
Naga too has a long story of struggle to narrate.
But on many occasions while we spoke, he insisted he want to ‘cut a long story short’. He does not want to play the victim.
Naga is one of five JNU students accused of sedition for raising anti-India slogans at the campus on 9 February. “It is not about how much I struggled; millions like me face the same hardships. The point is whether we can question the State for what we think it is doing wrong and causing the hardships we face,” said Naga.
Naga, who completed his schooling till Class VIII from his hometown and had to walk four kilometres everyday to reach his school, never complained or glorified the struggle, rather felt that it made him what he is today. Learning more about his journey to JNU, one thing became clear; the choices he made on most occasions were dictated by ‘financial constraints’.
He added that he had never heard of JNU until the final semester of his graduation. It was after a suggestion from one his teachers that he ‘dared’ to think of coming to Delhi.
“The centre for the entrance test was at the state capital in Bhubneshwar. I was not sure whether I woud be able to go there as I would need money for travelling to the National Capital,” recounted Naga. But then with the help of his teacher, he went there and appeared for the exam.
Before the JNU result was declared, he cleared the entrance test to Puducherry University. “I would have taken admission there, but admission fees were Rs 13,000, which I could not have afforded. The best choice was JNU as I found out that the fee was very affordable,” said Naga. But getting to JNU was not easy. The fee of Rs 7,000 that Rama’s father took from a self-help group (SHG) in his village, was spent to clear the mess (dining hall) dues to the college from which he graduated.
“While the tuition fees of JNU were around Rs 300, hostel fees were Rs 3,500 and I did not have that much money. Once again, a senior from my area helped me with the amount and he continues to help me,” said Naga. While doing his graduation, he had to stay in the campus hostel – which did not have a mess or electricity – as he could not afford the private hostel. “We had to arrange for our own food and even take electricity illegally,” he said.
Naga could have gone for engineering or even the civil services – which if he had cleared could have changed the fortunes of his family. So why did he choose left politics instead? “You know finances were always the biggest consideration. I knew that preparing for these exams would have required lots of money that I did not have, so I thought I would opt to study humanities,” he said, adding, “This is a place where students like me can survive. The MCM scholarship of Rs 2,000 takes care of our mess bill.”
With plans to write his MPhil dissertation on ‘agrarian relations and the role of the corporate sector’ in his state, Naga said he has no regrets about joining politics. On his attraction to left politics, he said, “When I came to JNU, I felt that it was the All-India Students Association that took up the issue of suppressed sections of society. It raised its voice against any sort of wrongdoing, whether the oppression of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, or of women.” He added, “This place gives us space to think and question what is wrong.”
Speaking about the whole 9 February controversy, he said, “We never raised any anti-national slogans. I just went there as a representative of students because the organisers of the event that day called me after the permission was cancelled. We never raise any political slogans to divide the country. That has never been our politics.”
When asked how his parents reacted to all this, Naga replied with a smile, “They are worried, but they have trust in me and the judicial process of the country.”