Inside Chhattisgarh book review: The state within

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Updated: April 5, 2015 1:21:18 AM

From poverty-stricken tribals to Naxalism, Inside Chhattisgarh touches upon all issues concerning the state, but ends up reading like a one-sided account.

Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir
Ilina Sen
Rs 399
Pp 306

WHEN ONE picks up a book called Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir, it does not sound inspiring, as it does not have the glamour or fizz that usually goes into a title to evince interest in a potential reader. However, the fact that it has been written by Ilina Sen, wife of the controversial Binayak Sen, rouses some interest. When you start reading the book, it starts with Ilina presenting the case of her husband and the travails the family went through in the case of sedition against Binayak. Being a narrative penned by the wife, it is naturally sympathetic towards the husband, even though the government and courts think otherwise in a case that is still lingering.

However, quite refreshingly, the book is not really about Ilina’s husband, even though she presents her case in the first 44 pages. While the courts will decide on the merits of the case, what strikes the reader is the trauma that a family goes through once caught in the web. Neighbours refuse to acknowledge such families for fear of being associated with them, while shopkeepers are loathe to sell them goods. It was so bad, says Ilina, that she had to move herself and her children out of Chhattisgarh. She also recounts how the courts decided on the case within minutes and laments the fact that the common man has nowhere to turn to in times of trouble. The fact that Binayak Sen is a popular figure helped bring his case to the forefront, but one can only imagine the plight of several undertrials who have little support and languish in prison without ever being heard out.

The author, though an affected party in this episode, has written a very honest book on the state she loves and the people she and her family worked with over the years. She takes us through life in Chhattisgarh before it got statehood, as well as the present years. The author’s group reached out to the oppressed and worked towards providing access to basic social facilities like health and education to the poor, most of whom came under the category of scheduled tribes. New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) formed the educational background of these activists, which probably explains their Leftist leanings and the decision to work in the area. Ilina goes on to explain what she, her husband and Rupantar, the organisation they started, have done to make the lives of people better in Chhattisgarh.

To begin with, they started a hospital for the locals and were closely associated with mine workers. So we get a close view of how miners lived and the rather abysmal conditions in which they worked. By providing access to basic health facilities and education to their children, the Sens did make a difference to the quality of life of this community. In between, there are several pages on the trade union movement and their dealings with the very controversial Shankar Niyogi, founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Their attempts to enhance the lives of people by providing access to health and education continued, as they moved from Dalli to Tilda near Raipur and then later when they intermingled with the Gonds in the interiors. These measures, the author says, did help in a small way and should be scaled up substantially to bring people out of poverty.

The narrative would probably pass off as being just another version of an autobiography, but for the fact that it points to an important aspect of the development process in Chhattisgarh. The focus has been on land and its acquisition, so that industry can grow and take people along with it. However, it has ended up as a constant struggle between development and displacement. How does one rehabilitate the displaced poor to bring about growth and prosperity in a state where there are plenty of resources? This is a question that haunts several of our development debates—the rise of Maoism has also been traced to this phenomenon, a real danger to society.

The author points out that Chhattisgarh, unlike Jharkhand and Uttarakhand, was never very vocal about becoming independent and hence its statehood was more a case of chance. She laments the fact that when the state got its identity, people who actually worked for its development were left out and the successive governments turned to the more formal NGOs and other related organisations to develop their plans. While she and her group had worked a lot for women empowerment, the new government tended to interfere in all their activities. Maybe this is where it hurt people like the Sens the most, for they have been working in this area for over two decades. Given that we have passed a new land reforms act by ordinance, this aspect will have to be addressed because the version presented by Ilina Sen, if unbiased, does point to the danger of state acquisition of land. Her take has been that the state has forcibly taken away land without rehabilitating tribal people, which has been to the advantage of the corporates. She also gives names of these companies behind the acquisitions made in a rather unfair manner.

At another level, she talks of the saffronisation of the state ever since the new government took over. A point both disturbing and amusing is the town of Rajim officially becoming the fifth centre for the Kumbh Mela, adding a new dimension to history. It is disturbing because it shows the growth of saffronisation and amusing because it indicates to what length fanatics can go in the name of religion. She also talks of conversions and reconversions in the state, which have become more common due to the low levels of development among tribal society.

Even while the book is a memoir, the issues highlighted are quite deep, as, at some stage, various forms of government need to address them. Fighting Naxalites with fire or through Salwa Judum are short-term solutions—fighting violence with violence only perpetrates discontent. While the only answer is development, the challenge is how one should build a model that takes along everyone and that is the basic takeaway from this book.

The author has done a good job in presenting her views. However, the book is based only on her experiences and could be presenting just one side of the story. It would be interesting to read other people’s experiences on this subject as well, as these issues are not only confined to Chhattisgarh, but can be found in any state in the country that is prosperous in natural resources, but has a poor populace. Some of the narrations are hard-hitting and even readers who are normally sceptical of anything that involves politics will find themselves siding with the author, confirming the general impression we have of the social and political dynamics of these regions.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

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