A first-time visitor to the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP) will be struck at the sight of men openly carrying guns.

Explains Vidyasagar Bajpeyi, a long-time worker of the Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS), a leading CSO in Bundelkhand: “This is a very feudal area. Guns are status symbols.”

The guns are also frequently used.

In Rawatpura village of Naugaon, a region of UP which juts into MP, 30 landless dalit families have been allotted land by the government. However, the land is cultivated by gun-wielding upper-caste landlords and the dalits are forced to work as labourers on their own land. In February 2005, a dalit youth who protested against the cutting of Mahua trees on his land was severely beaten up and had to be hospitalised. When a field worker of Arunoday Sansthan, a PACS Programme-supported network partner of ABSSS, went to the village, he was shown the gun and told to keep away.

Apart from several hundred such dabangs – a common Hindi heartland word for someone who lords it over others without respect for the law – Bundelkhand has at least a dozen gangs of dacoits. Known as dadus, they usually target businessmen, rich farmers and contractors.

The dacoits also occasionally terrorise the poor. Bundelkhand has many villages deserted after attacks by dadus.

In this scenario of terror and fear, the language of rights sounds remote and unconnected to ground reality.

However, some courageous CSOs and individuals are using this language, with positive results.

On December 4, 2003, Sakila Khatoon, a field worker of Arunoday Sansthan, was abused and taunted by the sachiv and son of the pradhan of Baura gram panchayat in Jaitpur block of Mahoba district. Sakila fled from the scene. The Arunoday Sansthan lodged a police complaint. No action was taken.

The Sansthan complained to the district magistrate (DM), collector, and superintendent of police, and also alerted the local press. There were immediate results. The man was suspended. He gave a written apology and was transferred.

Reveals Abhishesh Mishra, head of the Sansthan, “Women now walk in that area without fear. The transferred sachiv has himself become an active supporter of our programmes.”

The Sansthan also used the intervention of the DM to free 39 dalit families in Ganj village (Kulpahad block, Mahoba district) from the clutches of dabangs who had taken over land allotted to them in 1996. Unlike the dalit families of Rawatpura, these dalits were willing to assert their rights, and despite formidable obstacles the Sansthan was able to pursue the matter till the families began tilling their land. Reveals Abhishesh, “The dabangs even came to our office and threatened us.”

There are also cases of individuals refusing to be cowed down. In Dhaurisagar village of Lalitpur ditrict, a woman panchayat member, Surjubai, has been taking part in many training programmes organised by the Bundelkhand Sewa Sansthan (BSS), a PACS Programme-supported network partner of ABSSS. In August 2004, her son drove out some cattle belonging to a dabang which were grazing in their fields. The dabang struck back with violence.

As Surjubai and her son travelled back from a training programme in a local bus, they were thrashed by the dabang’s henchmen. “No one tried to stop them,” Surjubai says. “I was so badly beaten in the chest that I could not speak.”

Yet she went to the Dhaurisagar police station to lodge a complaint. The police, who also ‘respect’ the local strongmen, turned a deaf ear.

With the help of the BSS, Surjubai took up the matter with the SP of Lalitpur. He issued arrest orders and the strongman and his son were led away handcuffed.

There are, however, limits to assertiveness.

Surjubai has many complaints about the manner in which the pradhan of Dhaurisagar gram panchayat runs the panchayat. But like the other people in the village, she is reluctant to protest publicly. The pradhan is a powerful person, whose might is feared.

CSOs too work within limits. Says Abhishesh Mishra, “There are many villages in Naugaon we cannot enter.”