You have two daughters. Does that not make you feel vulnerable?
My father was part of the freedom movement. My uncle was a senior colleague of Nehru’s. I knew men like the scientist Dayanidhi Patnaik, who came back with a PhD from America but gave up everything to join Vinobha Bhave’s Bhoomidan movement. I didn’t even notice when their values were stamped on me. From them, I came to believe that the material world is immaterial. Why should I compromise for my girls? What would I achieve? Two more girls — among lakhs of others — would be brought up to lead a cloistered life. Veena could have pulled me back, but she has never done that. She herself was terrified of wearing bangles and synthetic clothes and being trapped in a marriage that would shut her behind closed doors. She was a social worker before she married me.
What is at the heart of the State’s neglect and abuse of tribals?
I don’t think either the State or the police see them as human. How many officials have even bothered to learn their language? One day a CRPF officer was complaining to me about them. He said, “Oh, these ULFA-Nagas-adivasis — whatever they’re called…” That’s how faceless they were to him. There is such an arrogance in the way the State approaches them. They will not consult them, not communicate with them.
P Chidambaram has said he will militarily destroy the Naxals, then bring development in the region.
He can do that. He can kill thousands of his own countrymen attempting that. He has greater might, he is a superior race. And as one Naxal leader said in an interview to TEHELKA, “We do not control all areas. Why don’t they bring development to places we don’t control?”
How do you think the problem in this area can be sorted out?
By increasing the kind of rights-based work we are doing. By strengthening tribals’ awareness, making them know and demand their entitlements, by using their anger to make the state accountable to them. Slowly, democratic values are developing in their society. I believe Naxalism will get outdated because it is against the natural flow of life. We ask about their children, their health, their future. On the Naxals’ side, there is fear, death and a life on the run. The tribals are getting tired. But the State’s policies are against the flow of life too. The Salwa Judum has pushed the tribals into an imposed war. It has pushed many more to join the Naxals in sheer self-defence.
What has been the most frustrating part of your work so far?
The determination of the State to stamp out democratic dissent. They refuse to leave any space for it. You call that a democracy? Arre, we are asking for justice within your system, we are not picking up the gun. We are writing you letters, petitioning your offices, holding jan sunwais. And that rouses the State’s ire? Are they going to leave room only for the Naxals and a violent brand of protest? When the adivasis go to register complaints, the police lock them up in jail. There are hundreds of adivasis in jail on false charges or killed in false encounters, branded as Naxals when all they were doing was collecting wood in the forest or grazing goats. The Supreme Court had ordered the State to set up committees to assess damage and examine all the atrocities by the Salwa Judum and pay compensation. Not one committee has been set up till date. And they talk of destroying Naxals through a military operation? If they want to take over this land and give it to corporations to extract minerals, there is a Constitutional way of going about it. Why this war waged by subterfuge?
We are not picking up the gun but are asking for justice within the system. Why does that rouse the State’s ire?
What gives you the strength to be this cheerful, so free of bitterness? There is not one trace of anger in you.
(Laughs) We never look back. I believe Nature is a living, active thing. It creates catalysts to improve things, create new beginnings. So it’s good that we have been made to return to where we began. New things will come of it. I also look at all this very spiritually. Reading J Krishnamurthy has helped me. The physical body has no fear. It is our thought bodies that develop the idea of fear. If you can control your thought body, it loses its hold on you. Also, it is good the ashram was demolished. Now we have been brought to par with the tribals. We know what they have been feeling when their houses have been burnt down again and again.