They don't need a war to get Internally Displaced!

[The Hindu published a shorter version of this article with the title Of Human Bondage on 4th May 2012]

Imagine a community with no place to belong to, in a country that cherishes the idea of motherland. Imagine a community forced to live a life perennially in flux, continuously on the move not in quest of greener pastures but for ensuring mere physical survival. Imagine one which can claim no village as its own, and is condemned to leave their hamlets once in a few years. Not in our country, at least in the ‘normal’ parts, one would tend to think but for a few scattered across the ‘disturbed’ territories.

Unfortunately, that is far from being true. For example, Baghelkhand, in Madhya Pradesh, has not one, but many such communities. Their plight does not reach us despite our persistent pursuit of the deepening crisis in agriculture. We might be aware , thanks to the relentless work of P Sainath, of the frightening flight from rural areas in the form of footloose migration yet that does not really prepare us to grasp the extent of the distress in actual, human terms.

“The walls of Kol houses do never get blackened by the smoke of the hearth, they have to move out much before that!” said Mamta Kol, a 30 year old resident of Gonta hamlet in Jawa block of district Rewa. The statement was so devoid of pathos, melancholy or anything that could get associated with grief or anger. It was no nonsense statement of fact coming out of a person, nay a community resigned to its ‘fate’ of getting displaced every few years.

Yet, the pathos intrinsic to the sentence was unmistakable. She was born in village Chamarahua, in Mau block of district Banda of Uttar Pradesh. Her father had got ‘patta’ or the landlease but never the possession. Despite repeated attempts, the revenue officials never informed the family of the exact location of ‘their’ lands. Failed in their quest and condemned to living the life of a bonded labour, they fled the village one night and landed in Katiya-Dandi a village in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh. The story repeated itself there as well and the family escaped to Gonta where a few community elders have settled to escape brutal exploitation by their upper caste landlords. This was in 1984. Gonta proved to be quite an unlikely village for the Kols for its continued existence ever since. Not anymore though, for the government is gearing up to acquire the lands for a proposed thermal power plant. The miracle of continued existence of a Kol hamlet cannot be allowed, it seems.

Mamta’s story was in no ways atypical as I were to find during my field investigations for a study aimed at mapping the distress migration patterns. I met Sadhulal in Bishar, a hamlet deep within now denuded forests, who was born in Suhawal, had to move to Barahula followed by Daharan before finally ending up here. He is 62. He likes it here for the inaccessibility of the hamlet provides a sort of refuse from the dadulog, landlords in local parlance and gives him a shot at stability. Quite a genuine justification for people trying to escape generations of bondage, isn’t it?

He, with 56 other residents of the hamlet got a patta as well. Then, the fairy tale ended with and upper caste landlord turning up. He forcibly usurped some land and started litigation claiming that the distributed lands were his private property. Being ‘subjudice’, the lands are left uncultivated ever since. “If the governments give us land leases, does it give us for fighting court cases? Why would we have had to beg for the lands if only we had that much ‘power’?” asked Hiralal, a community elder.

The story remains the same even if the names of the hamlets change from Mohanaiyya plot of Seeganwtola to Nonariof Jawari and from Dondar Colony to Dhakara! The evictions come in different forms; sometimes self-inflicted in search of freedom from bondage, and by getting thrown out by the forest department for ‘illegally encroaching’ the forest lands at other. Displaced from their hamlets, they would find a new place, often inhabitable, for the risk of getting chased out increases with the habitability of the hamlet.

They would make the place liveable, call in their kith and kin wanting to escape structures of bonded labour. This would go on for a while and then, they will fall prey to a new development project or a new diktat of the forest department. Another eviction will come, and the same story will play itself out. In fact, the number of displacements, I found, would often be directly proportional to the age of the protagonist! Older you are, more the number of displacements suffered, sometimes spanning almost all of Baghelkhand!

Ironically, no evictions hint at a fate even worse, for that means that the inhabitant of the hamlet failed to flee from bondage as is the case with Loni, the only hamlet I came across that did not get displaced even once. The predicament of the residents of Loni explains, partly, the reasons behind people putting everything at stake for that elusive freedom. Ramkhelawan of Mohanaiyya seems to buttress the fact when he asserts that “What could be better than being the master of one’s own self. Whether there is livelihood or not, one is independent at least.”

Evidently, the quest for freedom and a life with dignity is not killed by all the hardships their circumstances have unleashed on these people. This is the same quest brought out by lifelong struggles of Shailesh Verma, a Dalit by caste, of Dhakara who chose to adopt a surname belonging to OBCs despite all odds. For him, it was not merely a way of escaping all those ‘insults’ his caste-name brought to him in a feudal society, but also an act of defiance by subverting the system that perpetuates their misery. Being the first ever graduate from his community in that area and then taking up their fight as his own must have done him proud. The defiance glowed all over his face when he told me that ‘Those who make it big become Rawat, while the failed ones remain Kol all their lives’.

Similar is the story of struggles of Ramkripal Namdev, 65, of Nonari, a crusader for hope against all hopes. Though hailing from ‘darji, or tailor community and thus not belonging to Kols or Dalits, he has made establishing villages for the dispossessed a mission of his life. Whenever he would see empty government lands he would invite the Kols, the Dalits or any such deprived group he could find and turn it into a new hamlet. He would, then, become the self-appointed mentor of the hamlet. He would lodge legal cases against the Forest department stopping them from reclaiming the lands and engage in the political struggles including indefinite hunger strikes. Ask him why and all he would, smilingly, offer is that ‘people have a right to live, don’t they?

Yet, stories of such defiance are few and far between as against those of evictions and displacements. The miseries of these communities should be treated at par with that of the Internally Displaced People, for the continuous movement deny them access to all fundamental rights ranging from a right to life with dignity to that of access to education. Is someone listening?