Friday, January 06, 2012

Chhattisgarhnama II: "Keep 16 Suhagans ready"

The twin evils of Displacement and Forced Migration are dogging both  men and women in tribal belt of Chhattisgarh, especially Bastar, but its the women who are the worst affected
So far, I have visited 22 villages in 4 districts of Chhattisgarh that have been officially declared as 'Maoist Affected' (a term used to indicate the intense armed conflict between the government and the Maoist activists). And, everywhere I have heard and seen what I had suspected: its women who are the worst affected by the conflict.

Let me begin with Khemi - a Madia (a primitive trbe) girl who lived in Abujhmarh of the state. Until a year ago, Abujhmadh was a protected area where one needed a special permission from the Government of India to visit. The reason was to protect the unique (and vulnerable) culture of the Madia people.

But as the Maoist vs Govt conflict intensified, the authorities decided to lift the restricted label off Abujhmarh, considered a Maoist stronghold, so the army and other security forces could take action there.

As expected, there has been chaos since then. The Maoists opposed the Government decision, saying it would not fare well either for the government, or for the tribals. But the government was not in a mood to back down.

Caught in this chaos has been Khemi (name changed),

a young woman who, despite being through a lot, still smiles easilly. If life had followed its usual course, Khemi would have been married by now, maybe even on the way to motherhood. Instead, today she is in Kanker, a different district, far away from her family and her near ones who continue to live n Abujhmarh. As marginal farmers, they have no other means to manage a square meal except staying put on their land.

What would have happened if Khemi had stayed on? Consider a number of things: being a forced 'suhagan'/wife (last week, I was told by the residents of a village that they had been asked by the Maoists to 'arrange for 16 young women' who would be 'Suhagan's. Is this a vicious rumor? There is a possibility, but, considering 95% of the people I am speaking with are village women, I would believe what I hear).

If Khemi did not become a Maoist's wife, she would still be troubled. Due to the growing conflict, girls of her age have limited freedom of movement and are confined to their homes. And then there is extreme poverty - a mixed result of climate change and decreased crops (several areas in Bastar have seen drought this year), suspension of all development works, and the extra burden of sharing their food with Maoist cadres.

Today Khemi is learning carpentry and bamboocraft in a government-run workshop. This might help her find a life of economic independence one day. But I doubt if this will ever compensate for what she has lost: her life in the community, the close contact with her loved ones and her roots.

Mano is now a grass root social activist, thanks to Disha, a local org that is bringing in its fold several young men and women like Mano. Such effort is commendable, but there is a need for a comprehensive plan to restore the lost rights of women like Mano and Khemi
Like Khemi, Mano is another young tribal woman who has been uprooted from her village in Bastar. Her village has no motorable road - and will probably not have one either, as the Maoists are opposed to connectivity which they see as a direct assault on their security - and no scope to earn (road projects are one of the few means of rural employment and suspension of  such projects means direct loss of livelihood for the rural people). However, Mano has been lucky: courtesy a social movement called Disha, she has not only found a shelter in another village, but has also been given a job to raise community awareness on health issues.

There are hundreds of Khemis and Manos in the seven conflict-ridden districts of Chhattisgarh. Some live in refugee camps, while some have taken shelters in a faraway village or a town. Young, with little education, no money and no relatives by their side, they are the most vulnerable of all people in this region. They need special attention, but not as propaganda tools to be used against either the Maoists, or the army, but as citizens who have been robbed of their rights. 

***In next blog, despite the difficulties, they are trying to do something good***

No comments: