‘I am Dalit, how are you?’

Some 250 million people around the world were born untouchable. They live throughout South Asia, as well as in Japan and parts of West Africa. Over 160 million of them are in India, where they make up more than one-sixth of the population, and where over 580 million more people belong to other oppressed castes and tribes.

The Hindu caste system has been called a “hidden apartheid” and the single greatest existing social evil. But outside of the subcontinent few people know much about it, even among leftists.

…from the Anti- Caste Info site

A short movie on the Dalits in India.

Movie Source: International Dalit Solidarity Network

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Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panther Movement

While I write this at night
it’s three o’ clock
Though I want to have a drink
I don’t feel like drinking.
Only I want to sleep peacefully
And tomorrow morning see no varnas

– Namdeo Dhasal

Namdeo Dhasal now makes news only for moving further away from the cause he stood for, that is for moving away from Marxism to the Shiv Sena and now to the Sangh Parivar’s fountainhead- the RSS- organizations that he had once bitterly opposed.

But once Namdeo Dhasal had founded the Dalit Black Panthers movement in 1972, and heralded the era of Dalit poetry, though the term Dalit Poetry had existed since 1958.

Anand Teltumbde places his poetry in the context of his times (the early seventies):

The times were just ripe for the protest movement of dalits to germinate…. The most notable example of this protest came in light in the form of Golpitha- a collection of poems by Namdeo Dhasal. Golpitha – name of a red-light district in Mumbai, depicted the tough life of a dalit there and is considered as Dhasal’s most stellar work. People were shocked by the raw energy exuded by each of its word entirely unfamiliar to the established literary circles. They had never seen quite like it before. Its proletarian lingo, iconoclastic imagery, defiant idiom and terrible anger shook the establishment to its very foundation. A spate of poetry followed

Dhasal’s poetry is powerful and poignant, and very raw.

Dhasal’s poetry is shocking to those who have not experienced the excruciating circumstances of caste exploitation:

In one of his poems Dhasal describes how caste society and male domination deformed his mother, making her into a “machinery for the production of worms.” Identifying with her spiritual butchery at the hands of a bigoted society, he tells her, “Just as I have been stripped bare, so have you.” This identification with his mother, however, doesn’t lead him to inner healing; instead, it hardens him and gives his despair an unpredictable edge. With a baiting bitterness, he asks her, “On the day you cut my umbilical cord, why didn’t you slash my throat with your fingernail?” He then proceeds to rail at her some more, accusingly but also as an act of self-mutilating triumph over any possibility of romanticization —

You didn’t even moo once from the depths.
You didn’t stir the sky with a shrill cry.
The earth didn’t crack.
How easily you lived, wrapped in rhinoceros hide.

In What More Than This Can Be, he wrote:

I am a common man of this contemporary history
I have put down the head guard out of self-humility
I wish to embrace deeply my innermost being
That will end up the essence,
Do not shed the innocent skin of this grammar
After all this heinous world belongs to human beings
Power is not in words but in the desire
This fever-stricken, exaggerated pretention
Will bother the deep relations
Clear away the self-chosen inhuman path
Seasons come and go
Who are you waiting for?

Dhasal has since then moved across the political spectrum from Leftist leanings to now sharing the stage with RSS leaders. It is a left handed tribute to the Dalit Panthers’ movement that even the Shiv Sena, once a backward caste outfit opposed to the Dalit cause, now allies with one or the other splinter groups. Ram Puniyani explains the phenomemon well:

Dalit panthers came up as the most promising organisation for dalit rights and their path was that of alliance with the other oppressed sections of society. They broadened the definition of dalits to include workers, minorities, adivasis and women. This indicated the line of allaince to be followed. This last concerted effort fell to pieces with different leaders of dalit movement getting co-opted by one or the other political power or personality.

Though Dhasal now has his own convoluted explanation:

“But Dalits have come into political power in some places,” Namdeo said. “They are accused of corruption, but they learned it from the Brahmins who ruled before them. The reservations do not work as they now stand. I believe that our people will start to make more demands and the Hindus will be forced to submit to them.”

Dilip Chitre considers him to be one of the towering poets of the 20th century:

Namdeo is a big poet in the sense Whitman, Mayakovsky and Neruda are big. But unlike them, his poetry contains large chunks of a real and dirty world peopled by have-nots and their slang. Henry Miller once said, “I am not creating values; I defecate and nourish.” Namdeo did precisely this for Marathi poetry. He restored its soil-cycle by feeding it the very excrement and garbage that could fertilise it for the future.

The interview with Namdeo Dhasal alone makes VS Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now worth a read.

Poetry is politics, he once stated. Undoubtedly, his current politics will not cast a shadow on his poetry and Dhasal’s poetry will live long after his current politics is dead.


More on Namdeo Dhasal, his poetry and his political drift from Marxism to the Sangh Parivar.

Picture: Dalit poet and leader Namdeo Dhasal shakes hands with RSS chief K Sudarshan at a book release function in New Delhi on Wednesday (Acknowledgement: ToI)

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Lal Singh Dil

Lal Singh Dil one of the few poets in Punjabi who had instictively appealed to the restless teenager in me.

His collections of poems were published by some of the Naxalite publishers (usually a one- man publishing house) in those little pocket book size booklets of thirty or forty pages, with a gray or brown cover that gave them the deceptive look of a bygone age, even when the booklets were printed recently. The inside pages were generally whiter, and smelled fresh.

In the mid- eighties, there was still awe of the Naxalite movement among some of the more socially sensitive students. Its aura had not yet dimmed, though the embers flickered very little, and news of a Nagabhushan Pattanaik being released from incarceration, was of little interest to the major newspapers, then the main source of news. Even though newspapers then were newspapers, and not yet printed television.

Lal Singh Dil’s poems that I read then were generally short, and I knew little of his background. It was even rumoured that he had died and that a news item had been published regarding his death. There was one particular poem that invoked Guru Gobind Singh. I had then wondered why Guru Gobind, and why not Baba Nanak.

Slowly, as I turned away from my armchair fascination for the movement and got embroiled with the ‘softer’ versions of the Left, Lal Singh Dil became another forgotten recess in the labyrinthine passages of growing up.

Paash, a contemporary of Dil, and a poet with much wider appeal, somehow did not appeal initially, though later, when my reading expanded, I could appreciate a poem here and a metaphor there. I found his poetry to be very raw- so was Dil’s in some ways- but I felt more detached from Paash than from Dil. Surjit Pattar was suave compared to any of them.

It was much later that I became aware of the Dalit element in his persona and poetry. I had myself arrived by then at a better appreciation of the need and significance of the Dalit movement, after an long drawn “ideological struggle” with my friends- and a particular father- figure of a teacher– who emphasized the class nature of conflcit denying caste and other factors, but specially caste.

It came as news to me that Dil had fled to Uttar Pradesh after the police reprisals in the seventies, and that he had converted to Islam. And that he was Dalit.

Rahul’s write up therefore invoked a certain personal poignance for me. (Link via Krishworld)

His writings may have been inspired in the heat of the times, in the shadow of the flames of the Naxalbari uprising, but the light from his, and those of others of the “Naxalite trend” in Punjabi poetry continues to remind us of the struggles that have not yet ended.

When the labourer woman
Roasts her heart on the tawa
The moon laughs from behind the tree
The father amuses the younger one
Making music with bowl and plate
The older one tinkles the bells
Tied to his waist
And he dances
These songs do not die
Nor either the dance…


Lal Singh Dil has an insightful observation on the relevance of Sufism for the Dalits in Punjab.

The impact of Sufism in Punjab, as it exists now, is highly debated. Lal Singh `Dil’, a noted writer, said: “Sufism doesn’t solve anything. It favours Dalits, though, because of their need for a place of refuge.” He added: “Sufism can be defined as a critique of society. That was the root. Although Sufi songs are nice to bond over, they must not be de-contextualised. The logic of this Sufi tradition lies in non-Brahmanical culture, and not in secularism.”

More on Lal Singh Dil here, and here.

An article on Dil in Punjabi.

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Hum to jis haal main huye ruswa huye
Hindu bane to kafir huye, Musalmaan bane to mlechha huye[In every (human) form that I was born, was I insulted
When born a Hindu, I was outcaste as an infidel, when born a Muslim, I was outcaste as one polluted]

One wonders how the practical aspects of non- Brahmins being appointed as priests for Vaishnavite and Shaivite temples will work out- my own limited experiences as practically a mlechha in Tamil temples tells me that there are spaces even within the temples (the garbhgrahas) that forbids a non- Brahmin from entering there.

Karunanidhi may be a shadow of Periyar, and one does not have to agree with all that he has done immediately after his return as CM, but this one is as important a step as that of Laloo appointing Dalit preists in Bihar few years ago.

If we define tradition only through texts, then practices such as opening of temples to Dalits and abolition of the Devadasi system can be viewed as going against the agamas. The presence of fans, tube lights, and air conditioners in temples can also be seen as being against agama injunctions. The Maharajan committee too warns us against this.

Opening up of temples and the priesthood to all castes is a fight against discrimination based on birth. What is required is to expand the definition of discrimination and include women in it. It is time for the question: when will women be allowed to become priests?

Link via Krishworld

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Ambedkar on Higher Education and OBCs

I ran into a very interesting quote by Dr. Ambedkar, specially in the context of the recent debates (generally opposing it though) on reservations in institutes of higher education IITs and IIMs (besides other institutes under the Central government):

Higher education, in my opinion, means that education, which can enable you to occupy the strategically important places in State administration. Brahmins had to face a lot of opposition and obstacles, but they are overcoming these and progressing ahead.”

“I can not forget, rather I am sad, that many people do not realize that the Caste system is existing in India for centuries because of inequality and a wide gulf of difference in education, and they have forgotten that it is likely to continue for some centuries to come. This gulf between the education of Brahmins and non-Brahmins will not end just by primary and secondary education. The difference in status between these can only be reduced by higher education. Some non-Brahmins must get highly educated and occupy the strategically important places, which has remained the monopoly of Brahmins since long. I think this is the duty of the State. If the Govt. can not do it, institutions like “Maratha Mandir” must undertake this task.”

The statement “I think it is the duty of the State” is very interesting and can be interpreted in different ways, including advocating reservations.

The moot point, however, that Dr. Ambedkar makes, a la Gramsci, is the importance of capturing places of strategic importance. In our times, this need not only be in the State Administration.

In the era of a globalized marketplace, it also means providing a foothold in that marketplace.

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‘They’ve only got my limbs, I’ve still got my voice – I can still sing!’

Hindu mythology tells the story of Ekalavya – the tribal youth who cut off his thumb on the demand of Dronacharya so that Ekalavya would not be a better archer than the kshatriya boys. Ekalavya, being a tribal, must have been a natural archer – but he was mutilated and robbed of his traditional skill and his right to self-defence and survival. Today, one gets the feeling that the story of Ekalavya is being played out again and again.

Two hands and a leg amputated. The remaining limb yet to heal, has turned gangrenous and may also have to be removed. His kidneys have been damaged due to excessive bleeding and he can hardly eat and digest any food.

And yet defiance still sparkles in the eyes of Bant Singh, a Dalit agricultural labour activist, as he lies in the trauma ward of a state-run hospital in Chandigarh where doctors are battling to save his only remaining leg and even his life.

It is precisely for this defiance, coming from a ‘lower caste’ Dalit, that Bant Singh from Jhabhar village of Mansa district in Punjab was beaten to pulp and left for dead by armed upper caste men around a fortnight ago.

Bant Singh is known in his village and among his comrades as a singer of rousing protest songs.

When his comrades met Bant Singh in hospital, they broke down – but Bant Singh told them, ‘They’ve only got my limbs, I’ve still got my voice – I can still sing!’

Full account here.

Link via Mahmood Farooki.

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Dalit Reservations in Private Sector

Surinder Jodhka reviews a book on the debate on reservations for Dalits in the private sector.He points to the contradictions inherent in the debate against the reservations:

Reservations are being debated in India once again. However, the context/question this time is a little different, viz, should the provisions of reservations for the deprived communities be extended to employment in the private sector against the background of a growing trend towards privatisation and liberalisation of the Indian economy? Under the new regime, the state has begun to withdraw from the economic sector and private enterprise is allowed to expand into areas of economic activity that were hitherto not open to it. As a consequence employment avenues in the state sector have been shrinking, making reservation in employment virtually meaningless. The growing presence of private sector in technical and professional education may also mean the end of the quota system in higher education!


…Several papers in the volume show that invoking theoretical resources from the liberal theory and neoclassical economics could also make a case for reservations in private sector. Sukhadeo Thorat and Ashwini Deshpande refer to classical debates in the discipline of economics, which not only recognise the presence of discrimination in market economies but also underline the need for political interventions to remove such discriminations. Interestingly, these theoretical writings tend to also suggest that such interventions invariably help in making the markets more efficient and stable. In another well-argued paper Aryama argues against the popular view that divides “public” and “private” sectors of employment. There can be no justifiable ground for the private sector to claim immunity from democratic control and deliberation, she argues.

See also this post that presents an opposing point of view.

Inventing Tradition

Suraj Bhan, chairman of the of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, has apparently got the blessings of the Sankaracharya of Sringeri Mutt, to remove disparaging remarks about the Dalits from the scriptures:

Addressing a press conference on Tuesday, Bhan said that references like dhol ganwar shudra pashu nari, sakal tadan ke adhikari (drum, illiterate, Dalit, animal, women, all are fit only to be beaten) in Ramcharitmanas should not be allowed in print in a society with a Constitution giving equal rights to all.

And the following is a telling comment on the prevailing state of affairs- of course, its probably only the tip of the iceberg:

Recalling tales of tsunami survivors from upper castes refusing to share relief camps with Dalits, Bhan lamented, “Untouchability was in their minds despite having come back from the jaws of death.

The BSP turns a Full Circle?

Is the BSP turning full circle by trying to woo the Brahmins in the UP and shifting its objective from ‘bahujan samaj’ to ‘sarvjan samaj’?The rise of the BSP in the last two decades and its achievements cannot be berated- the resurrection of B.R Ambedkar, the installation of a Dalit woman as the chief minister of the largest state in the country, the dislodging of the Congress upper caste + Dalit combine are historic events in independent India.

At the same time, the BSP has also demonstrated the pitfalls and the limitations of its ideological premises as well as that of personality cult politics. Its collaboration with the BJP was its lowest ebb, if a term like that can be used in the context of UP politics.

However, even if the current shift to incorporate the Brahmins into its fold sounds revisionist given the BSP’s past rhetoric, the net result would still be, as AK Verma concludes, an overall strenghthening of the Dalit voice in UP politics.

Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished…

Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family 1947-1997
By Siddharth Dube
Harper Collins Publishers India Rs. 395, Pp. 297, 1998

After the recent CPI(M) Congress, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus: “There has been no social reform movement in the state”. This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet’s words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).

However, even this recognition of the specificity of the state of Uttar Pradesh is a recent phenomenon. For a long time, its endemic poverty was perceived as not very fundamentally different in nature from that prevailing in the rest of the country. It is only very recently that attention has been drawn to the abysmally poor performance of the state in the key areas of literacy and health- care and the large- scale prevalence of casteism and traditionalism.

Jean Dreze has termed the state as India’s “burden of inertia”.

The book under review is an attempt by the young writer Siddharth Dube to understand the vertical implications of this inertia by relating the broader political economy of the state to the actual life experiences of a marginal family. It recounts the memoirs of three generations of a Dalit family from Pratapgarh district. Its narrative is an interweaving of the family’s recollections of their life stories and the writer’s own scholarly interjections. Surprisingly, the result is a stirring jugalbandi and not a cacophony of illiterate voices and noisy economic jargon, which is what it may have become in the hands of a less skilful chronicler.

The central character of the family is Ram Dass (aged about 65) of Baba Ka Gaon village in Pratapgarh district. This district has been the focus of much interest since the publication of Gyan Pandey’s impressive study on the Awadh peasant revolt (published in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies). Zamindari in this district had existed here in its extreme form. It was buttressed by a rigid caste system in which the untouchables were treated as “neither fully Hindu nor fully human”. The upper caste zamindars on the other hand, enjoying the patronage of the British colonial state, extracted many types of taxes and dues from the tenants and labourers, who without exception were untouchables or belonged to the intermediate castes.

Says Ram Dass, ” (when I was a child) If our family got a letter, we had to go and plead with the Thakur or Brahmin to read it for us. We had to wait till they were free. Or we would work extra hard and finish all their work and then beg them. Even then, they would read it if they felt like it or otherwise they would shout, ‘Get out, go away!'”

“The upper castes would treat us untouchables worse than dogs. They would at least accept water served by the middle castes, but from us they would not accept water, nor would they ever sit with us. If by mistake we touched any of their eating vessels they would throw them away, but if a dog licked the vessels they would just wash them”.

Ram Dass’s son today is a primary school teacher, the first scheduled caste teacher from his village. His grandson now faces an uncertain future because though he is the first of the three scheduled caste graduates from his village, he finds that he has to compete in a highly difficult job market. His degree is not of much help in the face of the demand of the few jobs that are available.

Blatant casteism over the years has slowly became less pointed- though even Ram Dass’ son Shrinath had to sit separately from high caste students in school. Nowadays, scheduled caste children even play with upper caste children”, observes Shrinath.

Ram Dass and his family are at a barely sustainable level, they are an example of a family that has risen from the lowest of the lowest to a family that is now hovering around the poverty line. Land reforms over the years have enabled the family to own 2.5 acres. It is only because of his son’s government job which pays Rs.4000/- a month, that the family of 17 manages to eek out an existence, keep hunger at bay and afford two sets of clothes. The next generation faces an uncertain future again. The gains of the seventies have not progressed linearly.

The most prosperous families in the village are, as during Ram Dass’s childhood years, still the 20 Thakur families that own most of the village land and orchards. Besides, most of them have a family member in a job- army, police or the university. Of the land that has been sold by the Thakurs over the last 50 years, the bulk was bought by the intermediate castes, with only a small amount purchased by the scheduled castes. The rest of the families in the village have been too impoverished to purchase any land at all.

The author’s prescription is what may nowadays be termed as Sen- ism (after Amartya Sen): the government should carry out land reforms, promote good health-care, foster social equity and encourage local democracy. Mulayam Singh Yadav’ s 1995 act on the reservation of posts of the village pradhan for intermediate and scheduled castes is an example of empowerment of these castes. Hitherto, Baba Ka Gaon had the same Thakur pradhan since 1952 till 1995.

“The 1995 elections irrevocably changed caste equations in Baba Ka Gaon. The village Thakurs threatened to kill the former army sergeant from the Maurya middle caste who, with the backing of the scheduled castes, decided to stand for the pradhans’s post. They then burnt the crops of a particularly militant scheduled caste man. A week before the elections, in mid afternoon, a group of Thakurs entered the hut of a middle caste family and started thrashing the wife with their staffs while others pinned her down. But for the first time in the history of Baba Ka Gaon, the scheduled castes- including Prayaga Devi (Ram Dass’s wife)- and the middle castes hit back at the Thakurs and chased them away”.

The memoir is a testament against the notion that the illiterate are not capable of participating in electoral politics. The perceptive awareness that Ram Das and his family members have about the reasons responsible for their poverty is amazing.

Besides this, there are two major points that the book establishes.

First, that serious debate in the era of liberalisation is turning towards what Marxists have traditionally termed as the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. The hair splitting debates that dominated the seventies searching for that elusive algebraic equation of the balance of class forces, which in turn would decide the stage of the revolution, now belong to a bygone age. Similarly the euphoria of the liberalizers in the early nineties is giving way to more introspective studies.

The second is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as the most oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness. This has now changed, and rightly so. This was evident in another recent and comparable work that comes to mind: Everyone Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath.

Dube’s misgiving that the Congress represented the interests of the propertied classes only both before and after independence betrays a direct influence of the subaltern school of historians and indirectly that of R.P.Dutt. This is not only contestable but is the result of too narrow a perspective that students of peasant studies have usually held. The only other problem that mars the text is the author’s straight- jacket perspective that sometimes reads like the CPI(M) party programme. That towards the end of the book Ram Dass turns out to be a Communist (if not a CPI(M)) sympathiser is perhaps indicative of this bias.

December 04, 1998

Published: The Tribune 10 Jan 1999

Review of Everyone Loves a Good Drought by P Sainath

Everyone Loves A Good Drought
By P.Sainath
Penguin India 1996, Price : Rs 295/- Pages: 470
ISBN: 0-14-025984-8

Palagummi Sainath is a bitter man.

On a Times of India fellowship in the year 1992, Sainath has toured some of the poorest districts in the country to know how the poorest of the poor citizens of free India live.

Exist might be a better word.

The book under review is a collection of reports that the author filed during his tours. Some of the reports kicked up controversies and in a few cases even led to some action on the part of the authorities. It is another matter that these were a drop in the ocean, and provide only an academic satisfaction in the otherwise grim scenario.

Sainath’s main findings can be summarized in one word- apathy. Apathy towards the victims of rural poverty in the country. Around this core, he weaves the stories about real people who generally lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data. In a way, he has given names to poverty. His stories are provocative, jarring and shocking to the point of being macabre.

The selection of the districts which the author chose to study were the 2 poorest districts each in the 5 poorest states of the country- Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the author, there was near unanimity among the experts regarding their dubious status. Seeing the problem of poverty as a process rather than an event (in the form of outbreaks of epidemics or the infamous ‘sale’ of children in Orissa in the mid- eighties), formed the bigger challenge. The process, it turns out is a ruthless, grinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.

There is a story of the farmer who earns more money by selling water than by agriculture. A super hi- tech project in one of the most backward regions- Godda in Bihar, creates jobs for not more than 1300 people- many of them from outside the region, at the cost of Rs. 65 lakhs per job ! Meanwhile, the foreign consultant has been involved in transactions worth Rs. 645 crores, out of the total outlay of Rs. 966 crores. In the same district, loans have been given to members of a tribe to purchase cows, in some cases two cows per family, little realizing that the tribe does not consume milk products at all, and instead consumes beef in large quantity. At the end of the benign exercise, the cows ended up in the dinner plates of the lucky recipients, and the latter in a life long debt trap.

Sainath discovers that while there are schools without buildings and teachers, there are schools with buildings and teachers too. Except that while the ‘buildings’ are used for storing fodder and tendu leaves and the teachers teach non- existent students. There is a teacher who has not visited the school where he is ‘teaching’ for years, while drawing his salary all the time.

Then there is the case of the residents of a village called Chikpaar. The village was first acquired in 1968 for the MiG jet fighter project for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in 1968, the 400- 500 families were evicted on an “angry monsoon night” . They moved to another location (on the land they owned themselves) and resettled there. Nostalgically, they named the new village as Chikpaar.

In 1987, the families were evicted again for the Kolab multi- purpose project. The villagers again resettled at another place.

However, ‘development’ has chased them to their new place of residence and the residents have received eviction notices for the third time. Needless to say, the displaced persons were either paid a pittance as compensation and in many cases, the money took years to come by.

On the state of the Sekupani village in Gumla, Bihar, a government official himself demands from the author: “What if residents of Malabar Hill in Bombay have to evacuate each time the navy has an exercise ? And are paid Rs. 1.50 a day for their pains ? This is happening here because the people are adivasis. Since this is a backward, cut- off region.”

An adivasi artist, Pema Fatiah is discovered by a bureaucrat and goes on to win laurels for his murals. But that is about all that he earns, after his recognition, come the hordes of SPs, DSPs , SDMs and tehsildars who force paintings out of him free of cost, with a flunky or a havaldar looking over his shoulders all the while he paints.

There are stories upon stories like these- Sainath has captured an entire landscape of people for whom everyone from global agencies downwards to the mohalla politician and bureaucrat has a concern. Often this concern either gets diverted to the pockets of the local strongmen or lands up for the wrong cause, like in the case of the tribes gifted cow in a loan mela. Sainath has, in a fabulous sweep, captured this entire net of linkages in his stories, often peppered with ironic insights.

The book under review can be seen to be operating at a number of levels.

First and foremost is the actual state of affairs in which the poorest in India survive. These are tales of poignant misery, and at the same time of admirable courage. At another level, it is about the needs and aspirations of the “insulted and the humiliated”, to borrow a phase from Dostoyvesky. It is about policies, schemes and programs launched with great fanfare and soon left to take their own wayward course, making a mockery of the intended aims.

At another level, these are stories about the idocity of what has been termed as development. There are dams that have displaced people who will never benefits from the dams anyway. There are dams that are under perpetual construction, with the contractors assured of a perpetual source of income. There are missile ranges which displace village after village like Chikpaar, with the villagers and adivasis losing not only their land but also the very world they belong to. They form the multitudes migrating to big cities, ending up as virtual slaves of contractors in an alien world.

Finally the book is a scathing indictment of the elite in this country. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically comes out in the present work. No debates on the pros and cons of liberalization or Nehruism can substitute for the reasons for such grueling poverty. If the tales in the book sound other- worldly or chillingly macabre, it is because the Indian elite, specially the middle class, which has been reared on this very ‘development’, or in other words on the heads and shoulders of the poor in India, has come a long way from the victims of this ‘development’.

Sainath has given words to the adivasi in Govind Nihalani’s film Aakrosh (the role was played by Om Puri), whose tongue has been cut off and despite being the victim, is actually hauled up in jail.

Palagummi Sainath has reasons to be bitter.

NTC, 15 Aug 1997