Monday, June 08, 2009

INTERVIEW: 'Adivasis want to be left alone by Naxals and security forces'

8 Jun 2009, 0003 hrs IST

The demolition of Gandhian Himanshu Kumar's 17-year-old Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada on May 17 shocked everyone acquainted with its work in
the backward tribal area of Chhattisgarh. Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, who led an all-India fact-finding team to Dantewada, tells Jyoti Punwani what his team found:

Why was the Vanvasi Ashram demolished?

Himanshu had become an irritant for the Chhattisgarh government. He was doing a lot of development work, which is really the job of the government. In fact, the SP himself told us that they used to take Himanshu's help on various occasions. But the ashram was also providing legal aid to the adivasis oppressed by Salwa Judum. In the last two years, Himanshu has filed 500 FIRs on their behalf. His most recent activity was to help resettle in their original villages, those adivasis who had been forcibly displaced by Salwa Judum.

What did the authorities tell your team?

The Chhattisgarh government is quite shameless. It's immune to pressure otherwise the appeal by 22 Nobel laureates to free Binayak Sen wouldn't have gone unheard. The SP told us Himanshu was using the ashram for his personal work. The police claimed that there was a prostitution racket being run there because during the demolition,

condoms were found! It appears that more than the chief minister, it is the governor, E S L Narasimhan, a former IB chief, and the DGP, Vishwa Ranjan, who decide strategy in Chhattisgarh. What's more alarming is that they have the full support of the government of India, obvious from home minister P Chidambaram's praise for Raman Singh. The Chhattisgarh model is being projected as the successful model to deal with Naxalites.

What can be done now?

The demolition was done on the ground that the ashram had encroached on forest land. But the matter was already being heard in court. There is a Gram Sabha resolution approving of the ashram using this land. So we hope the ashram will win the case. We shall then ask the government to rebuild it.

We have learnt that the government plans a Sri Lanka-type offensive against the Maoists there. We were told they were going to 'reclaim' the area. They definitely don't want any NGOs operating there. It is, therefore, all the more crucial that Himanshu continue his work, for in Dantewada, he is our only hope. His is the only voice that lets people know what is happening there. There are plans to collect money to rebuild the ashram. We have also planned an all-India solidarity meeting in Dantewada.

What did the adivasis tell you?

They really want to be left alone, by the Naxalites on the one hand and the security forces and Salwa Judum on the other, so that they may lead normal, peaceful lives. Himanshu is playing an important role in this. The villagers, who have come back to resettle after three years, clearly gave credit to Himanshu for this.

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