India: Nandini Sundar, Booked For Murder Of A Villager In Chhattisgarh, Recalls Her Work With Tribals

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bastar

When I first visited Bastar in 1990 as a PhD student researching colonialism and resistance, the newspapers occasionally reported ‘Naxalite incidents’ such as police–guerrilla encounters, along with accounts of murders and human sacrifices. But all these were ‘far away’, in places like Bijapur or Golapalli or Kistaram at the western and southern extremities of the state. In the Dhurwa belt where I lived, the Maoists were still exotic. There was little in the newspapers then about who the Naxalites were or what villagers thought about them. This kind of reporting that obliterates, even as it names, has remained constant over the decades.

From the bureaucratic redoubts of Delhi and Bhopal (Bastar was still part of undivided Madhya Pradesh), the government ruled over a vast tract in principle if not in practice, replacing the ritualism of the old kingdoms of Bastar and Kanker with an indifferent administration. The main problem I saw was exploitation by immigrant traders, mostly Thakurs from Uttar Pradesh, who ran the trade in minor forest produce and illegal tin mining. Together, the traders and local officials devised ways in which they could profit from government schemes meant for adivasi welfare. But thanks to the parliamentary Communist Party of India (CPI) which had been active in this area for a few years, the days when the forest guard or the patwari (revenue agent) would demand chickens and free labour from the villagers had gone, and land was still mostly in the hands of adivasis. Across the region, children went to village schools, regularly if the teacher came, and irregularly when the teacher absconded; government health services were few and far between, and people’s only hope -– both then and now -– was the wadde or local healer. On soundless summer evenings, the wadde‘s long, low incantations can be heard from afar, rising suddenly to a crescendo and then falling again to an intimate mutter, as he implores the Mata, the Mother Goddess, to spare the patient she has infected. Read more
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