Notes from Another India

Uttar Pradesh: In the Badlands of Banda

Images of India as a land of ancient and unchanging tradition persists in the popular Western imagination. When India appears in the Western media, it is frequently as the site of communal violence, atrocities against women, casteism, backwardness, poverty and disease.

Challenging stereotypic images, Notes from Another India is a journey through an India rarely seen by the visitor, Part-travel writing and part-reportage, by a journalist who knows the country well. Notes from Another India explores positive initiatives taken by the people’s movements and grassroots organisations in present-day India. Evoking place both rural and urban and drawing on the personal accounts of activists, development practitioners and others from across the country, Jeremy Seabrook provides the general reader, the traveller and all those interested in India with a unique and positive insight to contemporary India.

Jeremy Seabrook is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman and the Pioneer in New Delhi. He is the author of the Victims of Development (1994) and co-author (with Trevor Blackwell) of The Revolt Against Change (Vintage, 1993). (ISBN 0 7453 0839 2)

The coming to power of the BSP/ SP (Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party) coalition – an alliance of the poor, Muslims, Dalits and Other Backward Castes – in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in November 1993 came as a total surprise to many commentators, who had expected the Hindu communalist BJP to consolidate its hold upon the State. The BJP government had been summarily dismissed by the Centre after the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya in December 1992. It seemed to many that, in spite the efforts of the parties resisting the BJP, with its upper-caste domination and Hindu supremacist views, there was little prospect of preventing it from coming back to power. In the event, the result was a virtually equal number of seats for the BJP and for BSP/ SP coalition, with a rump of Congress and Janata Dal holding the balance.

Behind this electoral upset lay the revolt of the poorest of India’s most populous state after centuries of oppression, violence and expropriation. It seemed that, at last, the poorest had come to realise both that their fate is not inevitable and that the only way it can be changed is by themselves. Indeed, since November 1993, India has been in what can best be decided as a state of suppressed ferment, with the minorities demanding justice, and the upper castes, aided by the ‘enrichissez-yous’ atmosphere of the liberation of the economy, equally determined to maintain their monopoly of wealth and power. The state elections of 1995 have shown increasing polarization between rich and poor. The BJP is now the dominant force in Maharashtra and Gujarat – the two most industrialized states in west India; while the left of centre Janata Dal gained Karnataka in the South and consolidated its hold in Bihar, India’s poorest state.

Nowhere is the condition of the tribals more starkly revealed than in the Patha region of eastern Uttar Pradesh, a rocky, infertile area with inadequate water, and the physical as cruel as the social landscape. The early morning sun turns the jagged outcrops of rock a pale rose colour; patches of bajra and jowar grow in the fertile crevices between the barren slopes.Some stands of forest remain, especially around the pilgrimage area of Chitrakoot, where the forest people sheltered Lord Rama during his exile from Ayodhya: but the overall impression is of a mixture of Wuthering Heights and Arizona.

This ‘remote’ area contains all the horrors of rural India: bonded labour, seizure of land belonging to the tribal, Kols by the rich landlord classes, the failure of all efforts at land reform and redistribution which successive UP governments have carried out on paper, insufficient resources, which the powerful have appropriate corruption, armed bands of dacoits – bandits- terrorizing the poor, often on the pay of politicians, and a police force demoralized, supine and corrupt.

And yet Manikpur, at the heart of the region, is a major railway junction. Each day trains from Delhi to Jabalpur pass through. The Bombay-Gauhati express stops here. Trains en route to Calcutta halt. Only, it seems, no one alights. No one of significance gets off. Few care to look into the depths of misery concealed in the folds of this strange barren landscape.

Gaya Prasad Gopal – a Gandhian – has been working here for 15 years with the kol tribal people on a project in pursuit of social justice and education for the exclude. This has led to frequent collisions with the structures of rural power. (In fact, in UP the Kols are classified as Scheduled Castes; in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh they are Scheduled Tribes. Scheduled Castes and Tribes are supposed to be the beneficiaries of certain benign legislation to protect the most disadvantaged. For the people themselves, this distinction is academic, and the benefits remain in the realm of theory).

A small bungalow beside the railway line, sparsely furnished, is office, home and centre for the activities of Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS, which works under constant threat from the landlords who have always dominated this part of UP and have no intention of relinquishing their privileges. The bungalow is the centre for the administration of a number of schools in the area where hundreds of kol children receive an education which they would never know if they depended on the government, and is also seen as a refuge for kol people abused, beaten, threatened, both by police and dacoits.

On my very first evening in Manikpur, I returned to the bungalow towards dusk, to see a large group of people huddled on the grass behind the building. They were standing close together, as though posing for a photograph. The men stood behind, with women crouching in front, holding their children, and on the grass before them, the flimsy bundles of their most valuable possessions – mostly cooking vessels, blankets, a few ornaments. But they were not smiling. Their proximity to one another was an expression of fear.

A whole village has come to ask for asylum here. Some are crying. The image is strangely familiar; these people are refugees, presenting the kind of TV picture you see of those displaced from their homes by earthquakes, floods or war.

War, it is war: the war of the dacoits of the Patha region and the police, their mirror-image and symbiotic dependants. The villagers are victims of both, in this local skirmish of what we must now regard as a wider war, the Third World War, the aggression of the rich against the poor.

Lal Bahadur, a 23-year-old, with deep, mobile eyes which themselves tell of the insecurity and unhappiness of his people, explains what happened. He shows a series of weals on his arm. Earlier that morning, a group of bandits had arrived, and forced the villagers to give them food. Terrified, the village people had no choice but to do the bidding of the dacoits: there have been too many examples of reprisals, beatings, rape and killings for them to refuse.

The police had come some time after the departure of the bandits. they had laid about the people indiscriminately, beating up men, women and children with lathis. Three men had been taken away by the police, including Lal Bahadur, an older man and Sukanandan, a 12-year-old goat boy. Lal bahadur had been ill recently. He came with the villagers to seek protection against what are supposed to be the forces of the law, a law that imposes nothing but disorder and violence in this place. This village is only about 5 kilometers from the town of Manikpur.

This is no new experience for the villagers. Ever since anyone can remember, the dacoits have come, beaten them, robbed them of food and belongings. In – not very zealous – pursuit of them, the police arrive and demand to be told where the badmash, or criminals, went. The people tell them as much as they know, which is actually very little, because the dacoits do not confide in them. The police return empty-handed, unable to find the dacoits. They then accuse the villagers of misleading them, of being in collusion with the bandits, and beat and abuse them. Then, when the police have gone, the dacoits return and accuse the villagers of betraying them to the police. There follow yet more beatings.

If and when the police and dacoits do meet, what do they say to each other, the villagers wonder. Who pays money to whom? Or who is paying both sides? Are they all in the pay of the landlords?

The people met with Gaya Prasad Gopal and some of the members of the ABSSS, and discussed a strategy. It was decided to sit on a dharna at the police station in the biggest town in the region, about 40 kilometers away, to demand protection from senior police officers against their own men. In the meantime, they will sleep in sheds and in tents that have been erected for a school celebration that weekend. It is a cold night at the end of October. The people light fires and make food, huddle together for warmth under threadbare shawls and blankets.

The landlords of the area are numerically few, no more than 5 percent of the population. They live in quite luxurious houses in and around the little town of Manikpur; structures with ornamental gates, shady terraces, two storeys high with ample courtyards, jeeps in the driveway. Theirs is a life of quite brazen luxury, which clearly expresses their lack of fear of those they have oppressed openly for generations. They have been able effortlessly to divert to their own use the resources intended by government for improvements in the life conditions of the poorest.

The Scheduled Castes and Tribes from the vast majority of the people, but there are also a number from higher castes who are impoverished. These, too, have been exploited by the rich feudal families. Life has worsened for the poor because of government corruption as well as drought, a consequence of diminishing forest cover. Because most officials are also dependent upon the dominant classes, many government initiatives remain as paper reforms.

Landlords own tracts of land of several hundred bighas (1 acre=2.5 bighas), some of it usurped from the poor, some appropriated as a consequence of land reform schemes which were intended to provide land for the landless. Sometimes landlords have registered the land in the name of their labourers, without the ‘beneficiaries’ knowing anything about it. These continue to labour as they always have done. Some of the poor work as sharecroppers, which means they pay for half the inputs and receive half the produce of the land. Because the sharecroppers are so poor they often have to borrow from the landlord, and this must be repaid with interest when the harvest comes, perpetuating a cycle of impoverishment and sub-ordination.

The majority work as day labourers, receive about 2 kilos of grain in payment. A permanent employee may get a small piece of land for his own cultivation, but the daily wage worker is vulnerable to unemployment. Bobded labourers are those who have been indebted and have been unable to pay back loans, they will

never be free of the debt, since the labour they offer barely covers the interest, let alone the principal, even though this may be a trifling sum. In the event of sickness, the bonded labourer must send someone else in his place, his son or sometimes wife. Bondage can be inherited, and cases are known where it has come through two or three generations.

But this weekend, in October 1993, there is something to celebrate in Manikpur. For the ABSSS has organised a Baal Mela, a festival of children, at which ten children from each of the 40 schools it supports in Patha will be present. Government schools do not function here. Indeed, the institutions of the State reach the kol people principally as punishment.

This is to be a festival of dance, music and singing. The children are accommodated in the biggest building in town – a hospital, unoccupied and unused. In the grounds of the hospital, the tumble-down leprosy eradication clinic is in ruins. But at least, for once, the empty building is serving some useful purpose. In every room, each group is preparing its presentation for the festival: a play, a tableau, some songs and poems, dances, storytelling. A high level of excitement; children whose lives have been shadowed by oppression, loss and violence, are to appear before their parents, friends, well wishers, visitors; some human rights lawyers, academics and even a High Court judge from Allahabad will be present.

On the Sunday morning of the weekend’s programme, a procession is organised through the streets of the town. Past the little shops, the vegetable vendors, the handful of rich houses, across the railway line and the rough land surrounding the station, 400 children, teachers, workers of the ABSSS, and the members of AWAZ, a radical street-theatre group who have come from Lucknow to perform for the children; behind them, some of the parents – labourers, bigar (corvee labourers) and bonded workers, landless agricultural and domestic servants – a spectacle of some of the most injured and humiliated people on earth, walking slowly through the rough, unmade streets; for one day escaping from their labour, so that they may share in the pleasure of their children’s visible social advancement. The sense of raised pride is tangible, you can almost hear the dilation of hope in their hearts, see the look of cautious elation in their tired eyes, raised for the first time from the horizon of the earth they work so laboriously, the courage to hope that the long night of darkness and bondage may be nearing its end. Here, made manifest, are all the abstractions of oppression and subordination; here is the living flesh and blood, the worn faces and the hands, those scarred dexterous instruments of labour which, for once, are not serving others. As they walk through the streets, the words ‘Sangathan mein shakti hai’, strength through unity, have a real resonance. At first, they speak the words out in unison, as though shyly. But as they walk through the autumn sunshine, same people stop to watch the ragged procession. Others find the courage to join them, and their voices become stronger. A moment of rare affirmation, an assertion of a humanity denied and injured. At the station, staff and tea-drinkers stand on the threshold, and look with respect on the procession.

The kol tribals are people whose lives have been devastated, just as their forests have been laid waste. What is more, they have been criminalized by their exclusion from the forests, of which their life has always been an integral part. In theory, they are now forbidden to gather the fruits, the amla fruits, honey and nuts which used to supplement their diet, and the surplus of which they used to sell in the market. Only gathering dead wood and the controlled collecting of tendu leaves (broad leaves used in the manufacture of bidis, Indian cigarettes) are now open to them. Even then, the middlemen take most of the money given by government for the collection of tendu leaves.

Most kols who have land have only the most rocky and barren places. Wherever improvements have been made or irrigation has come, the landlord seized the lands, by issuing false patta (deeds) in the name of friends and relatives, in order to gain possession. Others have transferred useless land to kols. This is sometimes done at gunpoint, by what is euhpemistically referred to as ‘muscle power’.

Suvagarda village is about 2 kilometre walk from Manikpur. The scene is one of complete tranquility and rural beauty, characteristic of much of India: the cones of ripening jowar nod in the breeze on their long stalks, the cattle pass slowly through the fields, languidly eating straw or leaves. The air is full of the sweet smell of dry grass, gobar (cow dung) and wild flowers. Only the people in this landscape speak of the social desolation that lies beneath the deceptive appearance of calm: little girls of seven or eight are carrying broad shallow baskets of earth to mix with dung to renew the floors of houses; others follow cattle, prodding them with rough sticks; one boy of about seven carries a cane in one hand and a baby of about one year in his arms. Women are bearing impossible headloads of fuel wood, their neck and back erect, knees bent, almost running, on their way to the station, where they will take the train to Karvi or even Allahabad, 80 kilometers away.

Suvagarda village. Ram Gopal sits beneath the veranda of his miiti and wood house. The red tiles on the roof he made and baked himself. His wife is pounding rice in a little cavity in the floor just in front of the house. The house is long and low, and it forms one side of a square, an informal compound. I the adjacent houses live other members of the family; two of Ram Gopal’s brothers with their wives and children, and another brother whose leg has been withered by polio. One of the Ram Gopal’s three children, a girl of about eleven, also has had polio; one leg is perceptibly thinner than the other. There is no immunization of children in this Kol village. There is no ration-shop – there isn’t even one in Manikpur itself. There is water, but no electricity.

Yet the village does not present a spectacle of degradation. The enclosure is bordered by a fence, with the bright yellow trumpets of creepers, while the pumpkin vines climb vigorously over the rooftops, the great orange moons of their fruit ready for plucking. The floor of Ram Gopal’s house is fragrant with a fresh application of gobar and mitti. Inside, the air is cool and fresh It is not village life itself that is brutalising; only the social relationships, which cheat the poor of the fruits of their labour, and treat them as less than human, as objects for use by their social ‘betters;’ people who ultimately, are more brutalised than the poor they despise, for they rape and abuse women as they see fit. Even those villagers successfully released from bonded labour must frequently do bigar labour, for which they are paid only the breakfast that will furnish them with the energy to complete the day’s work. If anything, bigar is even worse than bondage, for at least the bonded labourer gets a panchpav of rice (about 1.2 kilos).

Ram Gopal has no land. He works as a sharecropper, but even that work is not guaranteed. Each year, when he hears of some land that is available for cultivation, he will go to the landlord and undertake the work of sowing and tending until harvest. His reward will be half the produce of the land, to which he and his family will have contributed all the labour. Ram Gopal’s mother, a woman in her late fifties, also works to help the family income. She goes into the forest to collect wood. It will take her up to seven hours to make up a proper headload. She brings this home, then, next day, travels by train – without a ticket – to the market at Banda, to sell. She will make between Rs. 12 and 15 (40-50 cents) per headloads, the reward for two days’ labour. The headload weighs about 60 kilograms. She invites me to feel the weight of the bundle she collected yesterday. I cannot even raise it above my waist, let alone carry it on my head.

Ram Gopal invites us into his house. It is dark and cool. The walls are whitewashed. There are a few clothes on a bamboo pole stretched across the room, a clay chulha, or cooking stove, built into the floor itself. There are half a dozen vessels, a bicycle, one charpay or string bed on a bamboo frame, and a big clay pot for holding rice. Nothing else. The wooden rafters are festooned with cobwebs in which flies and mosquitoes are caught.

Poverty is not inherent in this way of life; it is the violence that produces the poverty, the expropriation of the rewards of labour by the rich and powerful, by their monopoly of land. Dignity lies in the people reclaiming what is rightfully theirs, so that they may lead a life of secure sufficiency. They know what they want; it is an achievable and sustainable contentment, the most modest of human aspirations; yet, in this context, fiercely, violently contested by the vested interests of the possessing classes.

That this is their aim was made explicit by Semia, who lives in an adjoining compound, much larger than that of Ram Gopal; a more irregular space, with houses at less symmetrical angles; all one story, of earth and wood, where very few objects in use – apart from a plastic bowl or two – could not have been in place two or even five hundred years ago.

The scene is a busy one; a girl of about 12 is reinforcing the mud base of the area under the veranda of her house. Some women are pounding rice, seated with their legs half-crossed around the hole in the earth where they work. They move with a quick deft rhythm. They raise the wooden pestle with one hand, and with the other scoop the rice back into the cavity in the earth where it is being dehusked. A hypnotic, regular movement, the movement of the Adivasi dances. Later, they will winnow the rice in a bamboo tray, throwing it into the air so that the husks are carried away on the wind, while a cascade of white grain falls back into the pan.

Semia’s parents once owned 45 bighas of land (about 16 acres). Semia is one of five daughters. There were no boys in the family. When the daughters married, they went to the home of their husbands, as it is the custom. Semia was the youngest. Her father and mother died within a few months of each other. When her father died, Semia went home to look after her mother.

For some time after the death of her parents, the land remained uncultivated. Then it was simply taken by a local bania, or businessman. This man is prominent in Manikpur; we saw him one day, calmly riding a bullock-cart on top of a load of rice straw. When Semia and her sisters saw that the land had been stolen, they, with the help of the ABSSS, filed a case in the High Court at Allahabad, and once again began to cultivate their land. The court found in favour of the rightful owners. When they went to harvest the produce, the bania had denounced the whole family to the police as notorious dacoits, and filed his case against them in Karvi, a town some 30 kilometers away. That was seven years ago. The case is still continuing.

When we went to harvest the crop, says Semia, they came with guns. Even after we had filed the case, they came with anti-socials to chase us from our own land. At present, there is a stay order, and the land remains uncultivated. Despite this, the bania is still cultivating. Last year he took his crop of sarsoon (mustard), wheat and jowar.

The Adivasis, the original inhabitants of India, are outlaws of the market economy. This is why they are criminalised. They represent, however vestigially, like the kols whose habitat has been degraded and invaded since British times, a way of life that resists, and is a living critique of the imperatives of the market economy and its attendant money-driven culture; and that critique is lived in the most sensitive area of all; at the level of the material resource-base. The ‘mainstream’ blames the tribals, those who live on the produce of the forest, for degradation of the environment. The truth is that the use of the forests by those who depend upon it for survival has always been restrained and sustainable quite unlike the violent predations of the market economy.

Kekaramar, a village some 8 kilometers from Manikpur, is almost completely inhabited by released bonded labourers. The terrain around the village is a high rocky plain, where small farmers are cutting their patches of rice which, this year, have been spoiled by drought. Some are cutting and winnowing the rice; their is almost no grain in the empty husks, which blow away in the wind. In the immediate vicinity of the village, the land is more fertile; sunflowers, jowar, tamarind trees, and palas trees from the broad leaves of which children make plates which are used in the small snack and tea-stalls.

The land falls gently towards a check dam, constructed by the Scandinavian charity Noraid, which has brought irrigation facilities to about a hundred kol families. When land becomes fertile, land deeds are issued to the kols in adjacent barren areas, while the rich landlords produce deeds claiming the irrigated land as their own.

Sardar, a man of about 40, was released from bondage four years ago. Until that time, he was forces to work at the whim of his master from six in the morning until eight at night. His wage was one panchpav of rice a day. The bondage had been inherited from his father, who had defaulted in his repayment of a small debt.

The labourers were organised with the help of ABSSS, and released according to the law of India. There are, says Sardar, many still in bondage in the area, although not in this village. Most of them are doing bigar labour for nothing but one meal a day. The money which government gives as compensation and for the purpose of rehabilitating those released from bondage was, in some cases, taken by the police. The land they were allotted was mostly roughly, difficult to plough. Sardar has about 12 bighas, but it is rocky and of poor quality, and does not produce enough for him, his wife and four children.

Chandan, who had been working for ABSSS, was taken into custody by the police during the agitation for the release of the labourers. He was tied head down from a tree and beaten up, in an effort to intimidate him. Defiantly, he says nothing will stop the fight for justice.

Kekaramar, if a little less poor, would be a good place to live. It is calm and peaceful, and the people have a degree of independence. The houses, self-built, are substantial, cool, created out of the environment, indeed are an emanation of the earth itself. Inside, the dark wooden ceilings are hung with silvery cobwebs; beyond is a small compound with a charpoy; some cones of bajra are lying in the sun to dry, the pale violet-grey of urad beans, giant yellow pumpkins on the roof of the veranda; orange and lemon-coloured butterflies dart beneath the trees. In spite of release from bondage; the people of Kekaramar remain poor. Access to good land is denied them. Without structural change, without engaging with the wider social forces, these small islands of independence remain always threatened.

As we go back across the rough track – marked on maps as a tarred road, for which government money was given, but diverted into the pockets of the rich – we pass the house of the landlord whom the bonded labourers served. The little houses in the compound are now occupied by those doing bigar labour, which, says Chandan, is in many ways worse than bondage; everything still belongs to the landlord, and there is not even the guarantee of a given quantity of rice at the end of each day.

Chunnu Ram is 24. He is the first kol ever to enter university. His father is terminally sick with TB, and there are three younger children in the family. Yet he has been enabled to study with the help of ABSSS, and serves as a role model to kol children for the future. He says the kols believe that they are descendants of the rishis and maharishis who attended the places of learning in the jungles, and as the jungles were felled, or enclosed, or declared reserve forest, they were forced to become cultivators, even though they still yearn for the despoiled forests; their expulsion from the jungle is actually an eviction and remains, for them, exile.

Gopalbhai says that the people over 40 have been brutalised, but the younger people are now ready to resist. This is one of the functions of the schools run by the ABSSS; to ensure that the next generation will not tolerate the intolerable; and the purpose of this weekend’s festival is to help restore the damaged self-esteem of the kols.

It is an intensely moving experience. Parents, older brothers and sisters come and sit on the chairs under the huge shamiana, or tent of painted canvas, and listen to the songs, the poems, the speeches, entranced by the performance of their young relatives, some of whom show both extraordinary talent and growing self-confidence.

In India, those who work on behalf of the poor often find their lives are threatened. Recently, as Gopalbhai was driving back to Manikpur late at night, he found boulders had been placed in the road. The jeep stopped, and out of the shadows came five men with guns. He was ordered out of the car. When one of the assailants recognised him, he touched his feet; his child was at one of the schools. They had been paid to kill him, but not told who he was. Gopalbhai says, “I have seen exploitation, but never so bad as it is here.”

One night, I stayed at the Forest Guest House in Manikpur. On the back of the chitti which gave authorisation to stay there was a list of regulations governing the behaviour of guests. It says, under a statue cited and dated 1902, ‘All visitors shall conform to the European style of living.’

I met Gaya Prasad Gopal later, after the November elections which has resulted in the victory of the BSP/ SP government in Uttar Pradesh. He said : Any type of change that will not help the poor, those below the poverty line, those bonded and exploited by landlords and politicians, is no change at all. Although we should be thankful for small changes, in many ways the political situation is worse now, because the leaders of our country and their activities are all designed to benefit themselves and their friends. They are not bothered about society, the nation or humanity.

Today’s events in UP foreshadow what is to come: a more intensive caste war. Last month, I joined a public meeting in which a Minister of the new UP government was supposed to come and speak. The landlords and the upper castes occupied the platform. They captured and destroyed our banners, and the organisers ran away from that place. When I reached there with my friends, that organiser was waiting and he said, ‘We have no platform. They have captured it.’ I told him, ‘keep calm, and slowly we will march towards the platform and with sweet language speak to the people occupying.’ We captured it back. How? I said ‘ It is your village. We have come as guests. It is an insult to you if this meeting is not happening. We shall go’. Then they said, ‘Oh no,’ and they permitted the meeting to go ahead. The State Minister came.

But these people will do everything to prevent political and social change. For so many years only they have been there. In my speech, I challenged them. I say to them, ‘Baba, sit for a few years, let them work, they are your sons, observe what happens.’ They imagine that those now in power will prove themselves incompetent. We can take advantage of that conviction.

When we come to know that the rich also have differences, I say that we, too, must learn to divide and rule, just as they have done. There are two powerful groups in our area, so we support one group. Every year, there are two or three murders on both sides; and while they fight for control of resources, we go about our work of awareness and solidarity among the poor. We have to form this kind of plan in every sector. Sometimes our friends think otherwise. When they see I am sitting with upper-caste people, they do not know what I’m doing, they do not see my plan. We have to get the support of some upper castes through our Brahmin friends. With the support of tribals, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes alone, we cannot win. We also need support from outside, we need our struggle to be observed by the media, by those who will monitor what happens.

They are very powerful, and we must win some of them to our side. In Indian struggles, Naxalite and others, we came to see that after a few years, they divide into factions and the struggle is nullified. We must avoid that fate. After learning from those experiences, we decided that if we have 20,000 people with us in a march, it is not our duty that shooting and firing should occur. I Always avoid direct fights. Our group continues a peaceful struggle, even while in other parts of the country, in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, there are murders, fires, violence. We are for society, not our own personality, not any faction. In India, many work for their own image and personality, their desire to become leaders.

In Patha region; from Mughal and British times, the Brahmins were always advanced in education and power, and money and land and political power, all these go with them. Families of the Scheduled Castes and Tribals were always exploited by them. They had become just like a dead community; no reaction to any amount of indignity or injustice. They never expected to get political or social support; girls, wives and daughters were used by the upper castes for their pleasure only. And the kols were relatively few in number. Now that the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Muslims and poor have come together for political change, this gives hope and courage to join in.

Because of Chitrakoot and the holy places, where kitchens and charities had been set up, this made the kols feel they were beggars. This is not good for self-esteem; they think someone will provide for us; it leads to a culture of mendicancy and resignation.

We started to take lunch and dinner with the kols in their buts. ‘Baba’, they would say, ‘you provide. Malik, we have nothing, what can we do?’ We said, ‘We will take roti and curd, whatever you eat, we will take also.’ Now they are happy. No one ever asked them before. If you accept their bread, that has a deep significance for them. We would sit in a group with them. At our baal mela, they provided all the food. They are proud. This has a profound psychological effect. While they sit and say, ‘I am poor, how can I invite him, he is a big man, where will he sit, where will he eat?’ nothing will be achieved. We have sought to get rid of these feelings of inferiority.

When the leadership is in political hands, this can lead only to violence. And violence is not useful for the lower castes in society. The upper castes want the Kanshi Ram-Mulayam Singh connection to be destroyed. They will seek to create fights between the Other Backward Castes and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. They will excite quarrels. How they will do it? My field has a good crop. If a buffalo belonging to a Backward Caste family enters the field of a Scheduled Caste, then by late evening, the Brahmin will call me and say, ‘It is not going well. Your crop is spoiled.’ ‘What to do?’ ‘Go and lodge the FIR (first instance report) against this fellow.’ They are watching. They have newspapers, money, manpower. This type of change is good and useful, but we are not sure how many days, months or years it will survive.

All other parties, the BJP, but also Congress, all the upper-caste alliance are trying to separate and destroy. That is now our struggle, to build solidarity, non-violence and unity among the poor.

At first sight, Banda and Manikpur look like a feudal backwater, an archaic survival under the reign of the landlords and upper castes who have appropriated the resources, land and water, at the expense of the Kols and the poor. A network of collusion between these powerful forces and the poor who are compelled to do forced or bonded labour for the price of clothing, shelter and food, while declaring to outsiders that they are free labourers.

But this struggle over resources is not simply a declining remnant of feudal conflict in the world. It is a reflection, a microcosm of the major global battle now engaged between rich and poor, the greatest war of all, the battle for survival of the poor pitted against the maintenance of privilege in a wasting, wanting world.

Indeed, there is more. The feudal elements in place like Banda join hands with the new liberation policy for this places yet more pressure upon the resource-base and the people who depend on it. The imperatives to export the wealth of India in order to pay back the debt to the Western financial institutions and to underwrite the requirements of the privileged, mean that more and more people will experience the fate of the Kols, must expect to be evicted, marginalised, dispossessed. Atrocities against tribals and women, exploitation and oppression receive a new impetus and become the unspoken allies of new forms of extraction, plunder and violence – the imposition upon India of what is essentially a colonial economy and model of development.

This is the background against which the stirrings of new people’s movements must be understood – a wide range of movements, by no means all successful in their struggle: Narmada, Chhattisgarh, The Fishermen’s Forum Tehri, the continuing struggle for justice at Bhopal, and thousands of other, smaller efforts across India of which the ABSSS is only one brave example.