Volunteerism: Mirroring Reality

Coalgate was stupefying enough for me to watch Kala Pathar – the Yash Chopra classic about coal miners – again. In the film, a catharsis seeking Amitabh Bachchan tells Rakhee, the resident mining town doctor, “Pain is my destiny and I can’t avoid it.”

Funny that: Pain and Destiny.

I started wondering if pain could be written into someone’s destiny, if some in this world were destined to be ‘sufferers’.

nitin pic 1

And then how do you escape destiny if you were born into a war torn middle India Adivasi house? If prison would be your initiation into adulthood, if the women in your community would be seen as ‘easy’ hence drooled over, groped, raped; if dispossession would be the turnstile for your community’s entry into the media gaze.

As a facilitator on the recently concluded Group Exposures to the Jan Satyagraha and Narmada Bachao Andolan, I had to suspend at times the fury that builds inside, at justice delayed, injustice, juris imprudence.

To wear a hat with mirrors which I could hold up to my volunteers to reflect, learn, get challenged and to find it in themselves to partake in that experience is great. To actually find a whole community of tribals whose traditional headgear is a hat with mirrors is blurring the line between metaphor and real life. Brilliant!

And yet that’s what I found myself doing.

The Walk:

Well, now,

if little by little you stop loving me

I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly

you forget me

do not look for me,

for I shall already have forgotten you…

The government is for us? We don’t want to create any trouble. But what should be ours is not given to us; it is like they’ve forgotten us”

If you think it long and mad,

the wind of banners

that passes through my life,

and you decide

to leave me at the shore

of the heart where I have roots,


that on that day,

at that hour,

I shall lift my arms

and my roots will set off

to seek another land.

Land is everything; it is our identity, our roots, our entire life, where will we go, if there is no land”

Since Independence, generations of rural poor and marginalised farmers have been promised land reform. But what we see across India is the systematic enclosure of what was earlier a common terrain through reversal of land ceilings, mining, SEZs, deregulation of coastal areas.

The Jan Satyagraha was a master class in non-violent direct action where communities across India walked 350 kilometres to raise attention towards land as a key asset as well as the prevailing conditions of landlessness and poverty. [Read more: http://www.ektaparishad.com /en-us/jansatyagraha2012march/aboutjs2012march.aspx ]

I spent three days in the run up to the Jan Satyagraha wondering if we would walk. Having to spend an entire day inside a tent listening to Jyotiraditya, the Scindia of Gwalior, talk about his emancipation plan for some tribal regions by re-opening abandoned mines was hair-raising. The rural development minister Jairam Ramesh trying to worm his way out by appeasing, pleading, parenting the 100000 people to not jam the streets of Delhi was amusing.

So we walked. And we talked. I listened.

Through historical cities, mofussil towns, farmland, and the Chambal, sleeping by the highway, singing, dancing, getting to know how 50,000 people walking to Delhi to whisper into the Sarkaar’s ears that their Raj was found wanting proved to be an uplifting experience.

I interacted with tribal communities across India, who by choosing to walk, were re-writing their destiny and overcoming the inheritance of loss by playing a different power game; the politics of reclaiming, of non-violence, of challenging hegemony by in-turning themselves; the politics of Satyagraha.

The Jan Satyagraha community tempo-kitchens were preparing meals for about 60,000-70,000 people on the move. The grains and finances contributed by scores of villages:

well-wishers over a period of a year. Every town we walked to, locals would shower us with flowers, cheers and warm wishes- instruments to fight a Parliament, a system.

And while one Jan Satyagraha inched towards Delhi fighting for land, another set of Satyagrahis had just done the opposite. They were standing, immovable from where they first stood; in neck deep waters.

The Submergence

For 17 days, the oustees of the Omkareshwar dam stood in the waters that threatened to surround their village Goghul Gaon demanding proper rehabilitation as well as a lowering of levels of the dam water. [READ: http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/other-states/police-crack-down-on-jal-satyagraha-protesters-in-harda/article3889396.ece]

For some the Narmada Bachao Andolan is a failed movement. Perhaps from the metros, from a lens that seeks all sides of a story, perhaps for those who want objectivity.

I believe in the Narmada. And the Andolan.

So this is what we did. We sat and ate with the community at the site of the Jan Satyagraha. Spoke to the ladies who braved the rising waters, blistered, bitten and proud about what it meant to defend their land. We went to other villages in the upstream and downstream of the Omkareshwar and Maheshwar dams. We visited Dharaji, an old pilgrim site now tottering amongst mud mounds, rising waters, police posts and the prized memory of a submerged sacred 50 foot waterfall.

Group Exposure Nitin

Dhawdi-kund: A treasure lost forever

It [standing in the water] did hurt. But this pain is less than seeing my village submerge.”

A signboard marks the entry to Goghul Gaon – it bars any government official from entering the village without permission. I wondered how stopping entry of officials would have worked. After 17 days in the water, the Satyagraha in Khandwa was called off after the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government accepted all the demands. [Harda protesters were arrested and forcefully removed from the water].

Spending time in NBA has given me insights into how to leverage systemic positions to a campaign’s advantage. That to reclaim rights, one’s appetite for conflict needs to increase. That one needs to create a ‘living’ politics – that it arises from the needs and challenges of daily life, is easily understood and that everyone needs to share that understanding of strategies and tactics. (The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel Ch: Living Politics of the City and Ch: Making Democracy Work).

The Group Exposure to NBA has planted the seeds of a new politic in my young volunteers. To be able to see a movement for rights and justice struggle against the dominant narrative of India’s emergence as a superpower has not only inspired them to look beyond their own sometimes self limiting stories of who they are, but what they can achieve and who they can become. They have decided to raise awareness about the village of Dharaji which will be under submergence soon and have formed a group – V for Dharaji.

Resistance comes in different sizes and age groups.

~ Nitin V George


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