Thursday, March 04, 2010

Rebelling against rebels; bonhomie against bullets

Soumittra S Bose, TNN, Mar 4, 2010, 06.11am IST

LAHERI (Gadchiroli): ‘Re Re Rela Rela ...’ goes the joyous tribal tune as the steps of the dancers in their traditional outfits and colourful headgears matches the rhythm of the drums they themselves are playing. It creates a festive mood at the government ashram school at Laheri, around 200-km from Gadchiroli, on Wednesday.

The songs, dances, mass marriages, gifts and cash rewards and benefits make the revival of the interactive and cultural programme, locally called the ‘Jan Jagran Melawa’ or public awareness congregation, a lively affair. The lush forested hills of the enchanting Beenagonda provide the perfect backdrop.

The cops seemed to have thrown a challenge before the Naxals by organizing the meet at a place which is not very far from their stronghold of Abujhmarh situated on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border. The event took place around 30 km from the venue. No wonder, around 90-km stretch between Aheri and Laheri was lined with police vehicles, commandos and patrolling parties in bullet-proof and anti-mine vehicles to ensure that this renewed effort of the district administration and police does not face any hurdle.

Less than a kilometre away from the village is the spot where the Naxals brutally gunned down 17 state cops — the highest loss for the securitymen — before the state elections last year.

After a tumultuous 2009 when the cops lost more than 51 of their colleagues in Naxal violence, the practice of organizing such gatherings in the remote villages of Gadchiroli, to highlight government schemes and facilities to the tribals, took a break. After three such gatherings in January last year, Laheri on Wednesday brought about a welcome change.

"We don’t expect you to give us information about the Naxals and their movements. But, at least give us a place in your heart," Sandeep Bhajibhakde, subdivisional officer of Gadchiroli, told the villagers.

"You be with us and we will take care of the Naxals." Like him, memories of the fateful day (8/10) are still fresh in the minds of many cops, especially those who were among the 42-man squad that took on the Naxals.

"Our muscles and mind had almost given up. After night-long patrolling, the Naxals had ambushed us in the morning and the fight continued for hours before help came," said constable Suresh Atram of Laheri sub-police station.

In the fun-filled ambience, there was ample scope for the local population to interact with officials of health, agriculture, veterinary, education and rural employment departments.

"Education is the most important aspect of the tribal development. Government has opened several ashram schools
in remote places. Please send your children to such places," said project officer Ashok Kumar of Integrated Tribal Development Projects while stressing that education can help tribals fight for their rights.

The officials of the government’s Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan scheme also spoke to the villagers who thronged their stalls. "Send your children to schools and ensure that they do not drop out," said an official.

A huge crowd was spotted at the health department’s stall where Dr VV Dharmadhikari and his team remained
busy distributing free-of-cost medicines and conducting check-ups of the children and adults who had lined up. "This is a malaria-prone area and we need to be cautious about the health of the villagers. We also have special programmes for post and prenatal care under National Rural Health Mission," said Dr Dharmadhikari, adding that nearly 400 villagers had taken advantage of the stalls.

To fight the malnutrition prevalent among tribals, the team of SD Thool, supervisor of the Integrated Child Development Scheme, remained busy with the villagers who visited her stall. She also ensured that her team members speak to the villagers who had come with their children at the gathering.

Several youths were found queuing up at the stall of the tribal development project enquiring about their caste and
birth certificates. "I need certain documents made for further education and employment," said a youth who was
among few to return disheartened.

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