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Millennium Post

Slippery slopes of development

Progress is a curious word. Of the many conceptions of progress, the one I have found most useful was framed by that great shaman of our times, Ashis Nandy. ‘An expansion in the awareness of oppression.’ This expansion, ostensibly taking place with time, has to build in the element of retroactive realisation of the violation of human rights. An evolving human rights discourse has to insure against those words, so simple yet so decisive – ‘it is too late now.’ Far away, in southern Orissa, an explosive experiment in grassroots democracy is shaking the world. If it has not shaken your world, it better had.

In the United States of America, Thanksgiving Day is an example of a rather successful attempt in creating a popular and false impression of a harmonious past of North America – one of peaceful coexistence between White Christian colonisers and the colonised indigenous people. With decades of state endorsement, school indoctrination and mass-market celebration, genocide has been whitewashed into a love-in of sorts. But the descendants of the survivors still live and there is no forgetting. Certain truths cannot be buried by concrete and asbestos.

On one such day, some years ago, strolling in the Harvard campus, I saw a small group of Native American youth standing in a semi-circle around a temporary structure that whispered, ‘this is a special space’. Someone elder led the invocations that exuded an unmistakable aura of sacredness to me. Before the genocide, this used to be a community celebration. Now, to the onlooker, it is a bunch of weirdoes in strange gear doing their own thing in a campus that celebrates ‘diversity’ – adding to that vaunted cosmopolitan urbanscape that so many hold up as a model of all human futures, that pinnacle of rootless aspirations. Before the genocide, this was public culture. Today, it is a curious performance, an act in the corner. How does it feel? I do not know. But I do know that less than three months from now the debipaksha (the lunar fortnight of goddess Durga) will start and my clan-home in a village called Patuligram in Hooghly district of West Bengal, which will come alive to welcome the mother goddess, like every year.

What if we had to do this invocation on the sly, and looked upon curiously? Could I then feel how those young people at Harvard were feeling that day? Probably, not. I would not be accounting for the loss of language, community, clan-people, independence. And, still they survive. For it is not that easy for everyone to give up other ways of being human. It is partly an appreciation of this stubbornness that drew some activists, students and ragamuffins to a protest last week in front of the Orissa Bhavan at New Delhi. Niyamgiri, the holy hill, produced the valiant Dongria Kondh who have not only challenged the collective might of some of the most powerful money-gatherers and fixers of the world, but have also tripped up the trajectory of ‘progress’. What obscene cost-benefit calculation can put a price on a god and his abode?

To us Bengali Shaktos (worshipper of goddess Shakti), what would be the ‘right price’ to dig up the Kali temple at Kalighat if bauxite were to be found underneath? The Dongria Kondh people have stuck to their main man, their principal deity Niyamraja, for Niyamraja (the giver of law) has been sticking to them forever. Ijurupa, Phuldumer, Batudi, Palberi, Kunakadu, Tadijhola, Kesarpadi and Serkapadi are eight villages whose gram-sabhas have rejected a proposed bauxite-mining plan in Niyamgiri. In effect, these are eight tight slaps to an entire industry of consensus building that includes corporate houses, lobbyists, politicians, columnists, economists, ad-agencies, ‘development’ wallahs. CSR-wallahs, FabIndia-DSLR-NGO wallahs and probably your and my dad. Such has been the force of these slaps that the forces-that-be have pushed into action their spin-machine to concoct some ‘depth of Indian democracy’ type of bedtime story out of it.

The force of the eight slaps (and there may be more) come precisely from forms of socio-political legitimacy and communitarian rights, which are the bane of the forces-that-be. For all their love
of swadeshi gods, like others, the saffron-party too has been exposed – that their love for alumina can easily make them sell gods on the sly.
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