Himanshu Kumar is a Gandhian activist who, together with his wife, ran the Vanvasi Chetana Ashram in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh for 22 years. He learned the local adivasi language (Gondi) and worked through the Ashram to help adivasis access their rights under the law. Starting in 2005, during the murderous Salwa Judum campaigns of vigilante groups against the adivasis of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, Himanshu worked to try to get villagers back to their homes, get people falsely accused out of jail, and win justice for the victims of police and vigilante crimes. His Ashram was eventually bulldozed and he was forced to move to Delhi, from where he continues to try to follow up with legal cases on the state’s treatment of the adivasis. JUSTIN PODUR interviewed him there in February 2013.
JP: When I first got here, you told me you would probably be in jail shortly. Maybe we should start with that story?
HK: Let me start with another story, actually. A recent story. In 2006, four girls were raped by Special Police Officers (SPOs) who were functioning as Salwa Judum leaders. The girls were brought to the Ashram, to our legal aid center, by youth from the village. We tried to file an FIR (a complaint) at the police station in Dantewada. Because the perpetrators were SPOs, the complaint was never filed. We moved their application to the Superintendent of Police. He never replied. We then moved to the court in Konta, the JMFC. The judge recorded their depositions, took testimonies of eyewitnesses and family members, and issued arrest warrants. The matter was transferred to a Dantewada sessional court.
While this was happening, I met with the Home Minister, P Chidambaram. I invited him to come to Dantewada and meet the victims of Salwa Judum and the SPOs. I told him that it would be important that he come, so that people can believe that the state cares. By coming, he could send the message that the system cares. I gave him a CD, with documentation, with the testimony of these girls. Chidambaram promised to come, but he never came.
Three years later, on December 19, 2009, after seeing no justice in their cases, these girls, who had already been raped, were kidnapped by police. They were kept at the Dornagal Police Station in Sukma district for five days, before they were returned. They were threatened. They were told, how dare you talk to Himanshu.
During those five days, I contacted Chidambaram. He said, it’s not my problem, talk to the officers. I talked to GK Pillai, the Home secretary; I called to the Director General of Police for Chhattisgarh; I called the Superintendent of Police for Dantewada; I called the Collector of Dantewada. No one helped.
After the girls were returned, they refused to talk to us. They were frightened, angry. We had assured them we would get justice. We failed miserably, and put them in more danger. I lost all hope in the system.
JP: In 2010, you gave a talk where you said what you wanted was to make democracy work for tribals. You said, Indian democracy has no value if it can’t work for the tribals. What do experiences like this say about that goal?
HK: If democracy is to survive, it has to work for the most vulnerable citizens. If it doesn’t work, it’s not a democracy.
JP: So if democracy doesn’t work, is the resort to armed struggle understandable?
HK: I started saying, now I understand, now I can tell you why. The state said I was sympathizing with violence. I said no, I am not sympathizing. I am giving my analysis of why these things are happening.
JP: In that 2010 talk you also said that part of the reason that the adivasis were so vulnerable was because they were not aware of their rights under the law. But how much does awareness of the law matter if the state doesn’t follow the law?
HK: The situation changed drastically after Salwa Judum in 2005. Before, the possibility of trying to get the state to follow the law was there. After Salwa Judum, it was a more advanced process of grabbing resources, that became the first task of the ruling classes, and they started to defy all constitutional procedures, laws, covenants, just started grabbing land by violent means. All this awareness that we were trying to spread of people’s rights under the law became irrelevant.
Here’s an example. When Kopa Kunjam, one of our activists from the Ashram, was arrested on international human rights day (December 10 2009), he was being beaten at the police station. A lawyer from the Human Rights Law Network, Alban Topo, tried to get into the interrogation room to accompany him. When Topo insisted, the police beat him up too and kept him all night. In the morning, they got him to sign a paper saying he stayed at the police station of his own free will because he got there late and it was after dark. Then he left.
JP: I guess the destruction of the Ashram was also an example.
HK: Remember we started the Ashram with government permission, on government land. When we started raising questions about Salwa Judum’s attacks, rapes, murders, burning of villages, the government became furious. The first thing they did was send us notice that our Ashram was an illegal construction on government land. We replied by arguing, first, we were given permission to work on the land by the Gram Sabha (the legally-constituted village assembly), and in tribal areas, according to the Constitution, if the Gram Sabha passes a resolution, it is binding on the government. The government cannot call us illegal because we have the approval of the tribal Gram Sabha. Second, the government had no problem with our Ashram’s construction in all the years when we had the state’s approval for our work. How did we suddenly become illegal?
The government replied that the land was forest land and it could not be allotted. We replied that according to the government land records, it was cultivable land. They replied, no, the status of the land was changed in 1996. So I applied under Right to Information for the land records. They said the record was missing. I said, no problem, the second copy must be at the Revenue Office. The revenue officer said that the 1996 record, just that year, was missing. No problem, the third copy should be with the village accountant (called the Patwari). The Patwari wrote back to say that the 1996 record was also missing from his office. So we went to court.
While we were in court, they brought the bulldozers and demolished the Ashram.
JP: Did you try to keep working after that?
HK: Sure. We had a rented house in Dantewada. The collector went to the landlord, who was a government employee, and told him that he would be terminated from his job if he kept renting to us. They cut electricity to our house. So, we set up under a tree and tried to continue working. The police asked villagers to stay away from us, or else.
JP: What was the last moment, when you realized you wouldn’t be able to work there any more?
HK: In Gompad village, a woman named Sodi Sambo, was shot in the leg. Her case is at the Supreme Court now. Sodi is the eyewitness to 16 killings in her village. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Cobras, attacked the village, killed 16 people with knives and swords, chopped the fingers off of an 18-month old child’s hands, stabbed the mother in the head, raped her, chopped the breasts off of a 70-year old, killed a blind 80 year old – 16 people. Sodi was shot in the leg, survived, we took her to Delhi for surgery. The next time we were bringing her to Delhi, the police kidnapped her. They said she was kidnapped by me, that I had absconded, and said they were going to arrest me. I thought – all the cases I have filed, if I am in jail, they have no chance. So on January 4, 2010, at midnight, I left Dantewada.
JP: If we could step back from these events a little bit. Everyone who knows you describes you as a Gandhian. I wonder how you see Gandhi’s teachings applying in a context like the one you’re describing here, how relevant they are for this place and time?
HK: I don’t know if I’m a Gandhian or not, but I believe in some of the things he taught. That villages are an independent unit, that the people are supreme. That villages should be politically and economically self-sufficient, the gram-swaraj, village self-rule. And village self-rule achieved through non-violent means.
JP: Why non-violent only? I mean, you have already said that you understand why people might take up arms.
HK: Because if social change is won through violent means, then power is held by those who hold the arms. Then women, children, the old, they are rendered weak, powerless. We want a society where everyone has equal rights and equal power, the people participate fully.
Also, you need arms and violence when the people aren’t with you. If you have the guns, you don’t have to work for the people’s support, you try to get power through guns.
JP: I’ve never had the chance to talk to a modern day Gandhian, but if I could have argued with Gandhi about one thing, I think it would have been to disagree with the idea that the rich should hold their wealth “in trust” instead of redistribution. What do you think of that doctrine?
HK: I think Gandhi was saying that in each of us there is a capitalist. So we have to become socialists. Even if you have more, you should not use it. You should consume as little as possible and the rest is for society. That’s trusteeship. Whatever they have, the rich should use for the benefit of society.
JP: But a socialist would say, why not just redistribute the wealth?
HK: When the state is there, it is dominated by the rich and powerful, and wherever there is a concentration of power, whether in a socialist or capitalist state, it is bound to those who have power. Look, 70 years after Gandhi, we can analyze everything, we can refine these ideas. Gandhi is not totally wrong. Look at China now, you have elites who have Swiss accounts, a black market, these are people who call themselves communists. Gandhi understood this. He said we have to fight this within ourselves.
I accept Marxist analysis. I think it’s very good. But I think Marx’s blueprint has many defects. It assumes resources are unlimited, it never says simplicity, less consumption, is good. It never said anything about ecology, which Gandhi does. Gandhi said that greed, exploitation, will lead to the destruction of the whole planet. We must accept Gandhi, and Marx, combine them, take the best of everyone and we can make our own way. Why get stuck and become orthodox about Gandhi or about Marx? We shouldn’t be orthodox. My favourite interpretation of Gandhi is by Vinoba Bhave, who called Marx a saint.
JP: How did you go to Chhattisgarh in the first place?
HK: I’m native to Muzaffar Nagar in Delhi. My father worked with Gandhi. He burned the records office in Muzaffar railway station as one of his first protest actions. Then he fled underground. He wrote letters to Gandhi, and went to his Ashram, started living there. Gandhi put him into basic education as a trainee. After independence, my father started working in education at the Gandhi Ashram. He was the mentor of that NGO.
Vinoba Bhave was considered the spiritual disciple of Gandhi, whereas Nehru was the political disciple. Decades after independence, when the Communists started the armed struggle in Andhra Pradesh, they were killing landlords and distributing their lands. Vinoba intervened. He asked landlords in Telengana, in Pochampalli, to solve the problem of land through peaceful distribution. He called a meeting and asked who would give their surplus land up. A landlord named Ramchandra stood up and said, I will give 100 acres. Vinoba started walking, ended up walking thousands of kilometres, and redistributed 4,500,000 acres of land. He told the landlords – I am not begging for land from you, I am trying to save your life.
My father was a full-timer in that campaign. Then, in Uttar Pradesh, Hamirpur district, the villagers of a place called Magarot village donated their land to Vinoba. Vinoba said “the people have put me to the test”. He asked my father to stay and join an agricultural community. He brought my mother to that village. It became a kind of model village.
As a child I remember asking my father, what about unemployment? My father said, there are 700,000 villages in India. We need 700,000 engineers, doctors, teachers, planners – there is more than enough work for everybody. Gandhi said that educated people should go to the villages. I inherited this tradition.
We had visited Dantewada, a group of Gandhians, including my father, in 1988. I felt then that this was a place that needed service the most. So, in 1992, six months after I got married, my wife and I moved to Dantewada. The Maoists had gotten there eight years before I did, which is not very long. In the early years, the Maoists used to tell villagers, we are here to help you, just like the VC Ashram people do.
(Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and professor at York University, currently a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. His blog is www.killingtrain.com and tweets as @JustinPodur )