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From rural Gujarat to Naxal support base: Bela's view from the margins

By Harsh Thakor* 

"India's Forgotten Country: A View From the Margins" by acclaimed author Bela Bhatia is an investigative and grounded exploration of the suppressed. It captures Bela’s early years as an activist in rural Gujarat, her research on the Naxalite movement, her investigations of violations of democratic rights in different regions, and her recent years dealing with the ongoing communal violence.
Few have so extensively travelled amongst oppressed regions of India to conduct research and instill he spirit of freedom.
In my lifetime I have rarely interacted with a more sensitive, open-minded, honest and committed human rights activist as Bela, who treated every person on their merit, with a wondrous human touch.
In Chhattisgarh amidst the harshest conditions and precarious circumstances, she relentlessly battled the oppressors and stood by the Adivasis. She has done most commendable work in recent times in Chhattisgarh as a crusader for human rights, refuting the horrific abuses committed on Adivasis by police forces, intervening in the most precarious situations.
With its blend of empathy, insight and advocacy, this book epitomises the resilience and dignity of those who have been victimised.
In this landmark book, Bela does justice to the lives and struggles of those who have been marginalized, oppressed, and forgotten within the scenario or background of so called progress and development. Through a series of thought-evoking essays, she enables readers to explore or probe the loopholes of society, where poverty, caste discrimination, gender inequality, and environmental degradation endanger the daily lives of millions of people.
Overall, Bela illustrates that in essence India does not function as a genuine democracy, with trampling of human rights an everyday occurrence and in actual reality people not governing their own lives.
Bela write that lack of money is only one aspect of it; there are other worries like indebtedness, illness, powerlessness, humiliation and violence that “follow them around like shadows.”
Uncovering the period of more than three decades, Bela’s work and concerns have made her a first-hand witness of the harsh nature of people’s lives in India’s ‘forgotten country’ -- the hamlets, villages and slums -- and the oppressive forces that govern or dictate the lives of Dalits, Adivasis, bonded labourers, women and other downtrodden groups.
It includes personal narratives that portray the lives of individuals and communities grappling with poverty, injustice, and social exclusion.
It contains detailed and lucid analysis of key issues such as land rights, displacement, environmental degradation, and social justice, banking on extensive research and first-hand experiences to dig or investigate the root causes of marginalization and inequality in contemporary India.
Thought-provoking reflections on the complexities of identity, belonging and power dynamics in a diverse and rapidly changing society, It paves way for readers to overcome their own assumptions and prejudices, open out avenues and alternate mode of thinking or perspectives.
The book narrates inspirational stories of resistance, resilience, and grassroots activism that personify the striking capacity and will of marginalized communities to assert their rights, reclaim their dignity, and construct a better future for themselves and their children.
Whether you're a social activist, a concerned citizen, or simply inquisitive about the unseen corners of India, "India's Forgotten Country" puts readers on a journey to witness to the struggles and triumphs of those who have been virtually ignored by mainstream society.
With its blend of empathy, insight, and advocacy, this book epitomises the resilience and dignity of those who have been victimised.
I admire her sympathetic, balanced and insightful study through a microscope in Bihar and Jharkhand. Here she does ample justice to the groundwork of the organisations of landless labour led by Left groups, particularly that of the late CPI (ML) Unity group led Mazdoor Kisan Sangrami Samiti, unravelling the essence of their revolutionary democratic content and how they made dramatic changes in the lives of the oppressed peasantry and landless labourers.
Bela testifies that Naxals and other extremist elements have considerable support of the communities within which they operate
Bela maintains a balanced approach to the armed squads by not glorifying anarchic or vanguardist aspects but still not denying their role in shaping democratic movements combating injustice. She also recognises that it is imperative for the Adivasis in Chhattisgarh to arm themselves to procure self defence from attacks from state.

Essays

The essays build on first-hand investigations conducted in states ranging from Bihar and Telangana to Rajasthan and Nagaland, besides Kashmir. These essays are stories of life, death and despair, but also serve as inspiring accounts of resistance. These essays are grappling stories of life, death and despair, but also pulsating accounts of resistance, resilience, courage and hope.
Bela’s writings in this volume have current and future relevance. Almost all her essays have well-documented accounts of individuals and communities who have been tormented by state violence and arbitrariness. These essays are grappling stories of life, death and despair, but also pulsating accounts of resistance, resilience, courage and hope.
Her essay “Forced Evictions in Narmada” brings out the oppressive nature of resettlement programmes associated with large dam projects that rarely get sustained attention in the media. Bhatia’s piece on bonded labour in Baran, Rajasthan, “Of Human Bondage in Baran”, first published in 2012, reveals that bonded labour prevails in the country to this day, with more than a crore of labourers yet not released and rehabilitated from the clutches bondage.
The deplorable plight of the poor in Bihar and especially its agricultural labourers is illustrated sensitively in her essay “The Mazdoors of Bihar”. It is based on her doctoral thesis. It illustrates the zamindars who have successfully evaded and subverted land reforms or the near-slave like conditions of the Dalits and landless agricultural labourers of that state.
Bhatia’s essays such as the one on violence in Kashmir, the insurgencies in different parts of India, including the Naxalite movements, manifest a rational approach towards the far-Left. Her piece “A Stone in My Hand” on violence in Kashmir is a case in point projects it as “a struggle for self-determination,” tracing it to “the early days of India’s independence,” and highlighting the political background in the years just preceding 1947 and the plebiscite with Sheikh Abdullah.
In her essays “On Revolutionary Violence and Salwa Judum and After” Bela testifies that Naxals and other extremist elements have considerable support of the communities within which they operate, with their solidarity a reaction to state interventions. Bhatia’s book is lucidly highlights how influential social, economic, and political forces in India have harnessed the powers of the state to direct violence against the poor and the marginalised to ignore.
India’s police and armed forces have mercilessly crushed or suppressed insurgencies ever since Independence in the name of protecting a diverse country like ours. Even if it has cost thousands of lives of young policemen and soldiers from all parts of the country over 76 years the outcomes of such sacrifices have resulted in elevating autocratic nature of social order, with economic disparity soaring and fabric of social democracy being dismantled.
Most illustriously, she demonstrates how inequity and overexploitation are, thus, twin aspects of the groundwater crisis in Gujarat, with their common cause based in the anti-social appropriation of groundwater by a minority of large farmers.
Bela summarises how in Gujarat growing inequity in groundwater use is both a critical consequence and a major cause of overexploitation. 
Methodically she evaluates that growing inequity compounds earlier economic inequalities based on land ownership, with the result that the agricultural community in Gujarat is increasingly sharply polarised between a minority of prosperous farmers who monopolize most of the land and water and a majority of small farmers and agricultural labourers who are increasingly alienated from both of these.
---
*Freelance journalist

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