Tag Archive for 'Jharkhand'

Recovering Budhni Mejhan from the silted landscape of modern India

Budhni inaugurating the power station at the Panchet dam in December 1959. PHOTO: NEHRU MEMORIAL MUSEUM AND LIBRARY, NEW DELHI. / The Hindu

Chitra Padmanabhan in The Hindu:

A few months ago, the retired schoolteacher’s story became a part of my present when she asked me to gather information on the places she had visited in 1957. I want to write a detailed account of my best trip ever, she said with a glint in her eye.

Sometimes an innocuous request leads you to the past only to snake back into the present as a story sounding like a sigh, waiting for more than 50 years to be told. Who was to know that a straightforward task of collecting dry facts about a dam visited 54 years ago would bring me face-to-face with the story of Budhni Mejhan, a Santhal tribal, whose life became a testament to nation-building in a way that could never have been imagined; who lived all her life like a pebble trapped under a huge boulder?

I chanced upon Budhni while ferreting out information about the Maithon dam in Dhanbad district (Jharkhand) bordering West Bengal, which was a high point of Surjit’s itinerary. The third dam of the ambitious, multipurpose DVC, established in 1948 on the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority, it had been inaugurated around the time of the schoolteachers’ visit.

After Maithon I could have moved on to Surjit’s next destination. However, a predisposition to stray from the highways of search engines lured me towards material on DVC’s fourth dam at Panchet in Dhanbad district, near its border with Purulia (West Bengal). The dam was built across the Damodar river known as the ‘sorrow of Bengal.’ Not only was this Rs.19 crore dam DVC’s biggest until then; its inauguration on December 6, 1959 had been graced by Prime Minister Nehru himself. More:

The murder of Sister Valsa

A WSJ investigation by by Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett:

“Where is Sister Valsa?” they demanded. “Where is Sister Valsa?”

In the dark of night on Nov. 15, the mob surrounded the tiled-roof compound. They carried bows and arrows, spades, axes, iron rods.

“I don’t have that information,” replied a woman who lived in the house, according to a statement she later gave to a local court.

You’re lying, she was told.

In one corner of a tiny windowless room off an inner courtyard, Valsa John Malamel, a Christian nun, hid under a blanket punching numbers into her cellphone.

“Some men have surrounded my house and I am suspecting something foul,” she whispered to a journalist friend who lived several hours’ drive away.

“Escape at any cost,” he says he told her. The call was logged at 10:30 p.m.

She called a friend who lived in the same village.“I have been surrounded on all sides,” she told him, according to his own court statement. Then the line went dead.

Chapter One

Sister Valsa with a bicycle.

The landscape of the Rajmahal Hills in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand unfolds in a scruffy mix of deep-red soil, patchworks of small fields of brown grass, clusters of banana, ficus and palm trees, stands of bamboo, and ponds of murky brown water. It is the heartland of the Santhal and Paharia, two of India’s indigenous tribes.

 There are small signs of modern life here. Tribe members carry cellphones. A satellite dish sits on the occasional roof. But ancient, pastoral ways persist. The men hunt rabbit with bows and arrows.

Pachwara sits in the center of the tribal region. The village of about 3,000 stretches for miles. The houses are small compounds surrounded by rickety wooden fences, laundry scattered across the slats. Roofs of red tile or thatch stretch almost to the ground. The walls, once white or light blue, are spattered with clay. Pigs and piglets, goats and kids, chickens and chicks, cows and calves roam and rummage in the mud and leaves. Children, trousers and shoes optional, play on the pathways. More:

Chapter two here

India’s hidden war

How India’s economic rise turned an obscure communist revolt into a raging resource war. Jason Miklian and Scott Carney in Foreign Policy:

The richest iron mine in India was guarded by 16 men, armed with Army-issued, self-loading rifles and dressed in camouflage fatigues. Only eight survived the night of Feb. 9, 2006, when a crack team of Maoist insurgents cut the power to the Bailadila mining complex and slipped out of the jungle cover in the moonlight. The guerrillas opened fire on the guards with automatic weapons, overrunning them before they had time to take up defensive positions. They didn’t have a chance: The remote outpost was an hour’s drive from the nearest major city, and the firefight to defend it only lasted a few minutes.

The guards were protecting not only $80 billion-plus worth of mineral deposits, but also the mine’s explosives magazine, which held the ammonium nitrate the miners used to pulverize mountainsides and loosen the iron ore. When the fighting was over and the surviving guards rounded up and gagged, about 2,000 villagers who had been hiding behind the commando vanguard clambered over the fence into the compound and began emptying the magazine. Altogether they carried out 20 tons of explosives on their backs — enough firepower to fuel a covert insurgency for a decade.

Four and a half years after the attack in the remote Indian state of Chhattisgarh, the blasting materials have spread across the country, repackaged as 10-pound coffee-can bombs stuffed with ball bearings, screws, and chopped-up rebar. In May, one villager’s haul vaporized a bus filled with civilians and police. Another destroyed a section of railway later that month, sending a passenger train careening off the tracks into a ravine. Smaller ambushes of police forces on booby-trapped roads happen pretty much every week. Almost all of it, local police told us, can be traced back to that February night.

The Bailadila mine raid was one of India’s most profound strategic losses in the country’s protracted battle against its Maoist movement, a militant guerrilla force that has been fighting in one incarnation or another in India’s rural backwaters for more than 40 years. Over the course of the half-dozen visits we’ve made to the region during the past several years, we’ve come to consider the attack on the mine not just one defeat in the long-running war, but a symbolic shift in the conflict: For years, the Maoists had lived in the shadow of India’s breakneck modernization. Now they were thriving off it. More:

A tribal belief that maims — and kills — hungry children

A section of the front page of The Hindustan Times: Children show their scars in the photo by Arvind Kumar Sharma.

B Vijay Murty in The Hindustan Times:

A barbaric method of maiming and inadvertently killing hungry children in tribal India shows how the nation is failing its poorest and furthering the Maoist rebellion.

Children with distended bellies, characteristic of malnutrition and disease, routinely have red-hot iron rods plunged into their sides by superstitious, poverty-stricken tribal parents in the belief it will cure all stomach ailments.

Fatally injured or infected during this primitive procedure, several children die — there are no official figures — in a state where 17 of 24 districts are simultaneously classified by its own government as “food insecure” and “highly affected” by Maoists, who bank on the collapse of governance to aid their growing influence.

This is the belief: A child with a protruding belly has worms, which can be killed by plunging a red-hot iron through the sides of the stomach. More: