Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dancing to the Official Tune

Pendhri, Gadchiroli:

The shadow of gun was inescapable, the contrast sharp.

As a motley group of adivasis danced to the enigmatic rhythm of the traditional ‘Rela’ drum-beat in the heat and dust, Pendhri village felt the tension and unease.

Tens of eyes stared at each other, as the armed troops in the olive green fatigues manned every nook and corner of this small village on Thursday, 75 km from the district headquarters of Gadchiroli in the thickly forested tribal hinterland, about 250 km away from the bustling urban trappings of Nagpur.

But when the police are holding a Jan-Jagaran Melawa, or the public awareness rally, in the strong Maoist-reigned area, the contrast is only natural if somewhat ironic.

This rally, the police said, was held against the backdrop of a strong Maoist threat. Only days ahead of the event, the armed rebels had threatened to foil it, warning the tribal villagers to desist from going to the venue. But as the crowds poured in, either under the police duress or on their own volition, officials smiled with a sense of relief. Holding it looked like a statement. What did it achieve, hardly mattered.

Originally designed to be the police propaganda and later converted into all-department information fair for the villagers, the ‘Jan-Jagaran Mewalas’ in naxal-prone Gadchiroli are resuming after a long lull.

The previous one was held in the month of March in hinterland of Laheri, where Maoists had killed 19 policemen in October, last. But the police said that one was a much-subdued event.

“Idea is to reach out to the people,” district superintendent of police S Veeresh Prabhu said. “It’s like breaking the ice with the people, and saying we are here for you.”

Several stalls put up by the various government departments meant that the district administration got a chance to meet the tribal people they are supposed to serve.

The stalls displayed information in Marathi, the volunteers explained the government schemes to the visitors, but the belying message was: shun supporting the Maoists if you want progress in your area. The stall that drew most attention was once where the police had on display the names and pictures of the top Maoist leaders and the list of violent incidents in the district over the past decade.

It’s an area where people hardly ever speak for fear of retribution, said an intelligence officer. “There is obviously some pressure from the police to attend the rally,” he said. “But it is for their good.”

Maoists don’t believe it. They describe the Jan-Jagran rallies as a “propaganda” ploy against them.

The state government though has persisted with the rallies as a means to hold dialogue with the people, in the absence of any political process. “We know it won’t yield immediate results,” said an officer, “but it is important that we engage with the people and reach the benefits of the government programmes.”

Gadchiroli Zilla Parishad CEO Amit Saini told the gathering: “Unless you participate in the Gram Sabha, how will you know where and how the government funds are being spent by your representatives.” He asked the villagers to ask their panchayat representatives how they were spending the village funds.

The rally also provides a rare opportunity to the villagers to get their work done on the spot: whether it is related to the revenue or agriculture or tribal welfare department.

An aging Chamaru Bai Atla came from an interior village to apply for the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana, seeking the old age pension at Pendhri rally. Many others quietly glanced through the schemes offered by the agriculture, animal husbandry, tribal welfare or health departments.

Holding a Jan-Jagaran Melawa in the Maoist territory isn’t easy though.

“We postponed the event twice last month due to the Maoist threat,” the SP said. “It took us some time to re-plan it.” For a month, he said, his men undertook the area domination exercises to keep the rebels at bay and convince the villagers to attend the rally. On Thursday, tens of armed commandoes and CRPF jawans guarded the road that led to Pendhri through the thickly forested belt of Chatgaon.

Yet, the outcome may not always be as desired.

“It’s hard not only to convince people to come to the fair since they fear retribution from the Maoists,” said a police officer on the condition of anonymity, “but also the administration and other offices.”

Among the most backward districts in the country, Gadchiroli is also among the lowest in the human development index, with high infant mortality and hunger. It’s also a district where both the police and the government officials refuse to serve. Many a post lie vacant in the police and other departments.

The district police say they look to hold such rallies regularly now – at least once every two months. “This will allow the district administration to have a dialogue with the people living cut off from the world in the interior,” Prabhu said.

Pendhri was closed for all other activities though. The weekly market was shut for the afternoon, shops closed, and the armed troops kept an eye on incomers. As the poor adivasis poured in at the venue, been forced, prodded, or coerced by the police, the day long rally served one purpose: That a strong Maoist threat did not deter them to hold the event, seen as an important government initiative.

Despite a stern warning from the Maoists, the turnout was good, given that the fair coincided with the weekly market where villagers from the neigbouring 40-odd hamlets come to buy their groceries. It provides them with a reason to come to the rally; otherwise they face the wrath of the naxalites, one officer said.

Cultural dances, a discourse by Nilkanth Maharaj on the government schemes and the development issues, and a group skit on the Maoist-problem, marked the event.

What do the tribals gain out of such an exercise? As a tribal youth, Anil Usendi, of the neighbouring village put it diplomatically: “Those who can make a sense of it will know. It really depends on the individual.”

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