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Dare to Dissent

A coal blackened board welcomes us as we drive through ‘Desh ki Koyla Rajdhani – Dhanbad.’ Coal and Capital. Our country’s current obsession. Just a few people shy of complete coverage of human rights issues in all of Jharkhand’s 24 districts, a colleague (at the time snoozing on the back seat) and I were travel-tripping across the state, reconnecting with the many friends and associates we have acquired in our many years of IndiaUnheard in Jharkhand. The road from Ranchi took us through Hazaribag, onto the broken roads of Bengal, past the “prestigious” Maithon dam (which by the way, displaced thousands of the native people, most of whom are still homeless migrants), right on through the steady, stoic hills of the Santhal Pargana, into Dumka.
Dumka is one of many Coal Cities across Jharkhand, complete with its unique kind of inadequate infrastructure suffering from wave after wave of migrants. Every chai tapri at the main bus stop has filthy, malnourished little boys serving up chai and sweets to tired, daily wagers. The usual labourers trudge through their daily drudgery, as the heat adds to the tentacles of nausea creeping through your stomach…the eyes acclimatize to garbage choked gutters, packs of scrawny, scarred dogs narrowly tottering out of the way of speeding, careless cars, their tails tucked under, much like human shoulders, cowering under the relentless sun.
I think of ‘Kalyug’, a ‘Black Age.’  It’s been ten days. Roughly two thousand kilometres of travel, and I see Jharkhand’s Coal Capitals reluctantly give way to green fields. The highway swings dangerously through Reserved Forests. Railway lines meander through elephant corridors of the dense, rocky jungles. I feel a little lost in this world, a world so different, yet so alike the world I live in, high on the hills of rain soaked Goa. As we steal moments of silence, the solitude is marred by autos with “bhojpuria dabanng” scrawled across the back, reminding us where we are. I think of an old man’s stories of a forgotten Bombay where Malad was once overfull with orchards, the age prior to the vulgarization of democracy and before the beginnings of bourgeoisie politics.
It’s now Mumbai, with a glass cased airport, the epitome of bustling modernity, queues snaking into the buses that roll a few hundred metres, up to the aircraft, as baggage handlers catch their breath on the steaming sidewalks, while on the other side, children clutch coke bottles in their small hands as their press their noses to the glass walls, air-conditioning condensing their breath into little droplets. The music on the bus wails 80’s Bollywood laments of times a-changing, and the doors of the bus sigh open, almost in agreement. The aircraft bounces on to and off different tarmacs, Goa > Mumbai > Patna, and finally, Birsa Munda International Airport, Ranchi. Funny, they named it after the tribal icon who led his people to freedom. And I wonder how many of his people were displaced forcibly to build this airport.
Jharkhand has been on my mind a while. The people have a fascinating history and intriguing culture, much akin to our good ol’ Goa hippies – a pragmatic reverence of the delicate balance of the environment and the necessity of our dependence on that balance. Embracing the Earth and her elements has been a long-loved lifestyle for these people, and the current race to capital has shattered many a fragile forest, home to many. I’m discovering these similarities during multiple meetings in the midst of mind-boggling confusion of circumstances.
We find ourselves slowly driving down the same stretch of National Highway multiple times looking out for a man in a “pink shirt, carrying a plastic bag”. Driving back and forth, we realize he’s wearing a white shirt, pale pink stripes barely visible to our tired eyes, and the plastic bag is actually rolled up under his arm. We bump across broken fields, which are pretending to be roads, to come up to a peepul tree, the farthest any vehicle is allowed to go.
We’re in Chhittarpur.  Frank, open eyes stare at us as we troop through the village, with solemn sows ensconced in the mud. Children stop frolicking on seeing us. The broken school building meant to host our meeting is stuffy, and plastic chairs pulled out in our honour are uncomfortable, and we prefer to move to chatais under the sprawling  Banyan tree at the centre of the village. Curiosity overcomes the general distrust of ‘outsiders’ as we start pulling out our laptops and ask details about their protest against mining in their Bauxite rich land. Curious cows and children join the rag-tag bunch of shepherds and farmers as we balance a laptop on a broken chair.
They carefully arrange a gamcha to shield the laptop from direct sunlight, and we settle down to watch some IndiaUnheard videos. Approval shimmies through the crowd as two young teachers tearfully thank Chunnu Hansda and the local District Magistrate for helping them receive arrears for many years of dedicated work.
Children perch precariously on the tree, and Nirmala didi tells the people of Chhittarpur of her experiences as a Community Correspondent in fluent Oraon. Hesitant questions soon turn tumultuous as they recognize Mohan Bhuiyan on the screen. They know of him, have met him, and greatly respect his untiring efforts to raise awareness about his development damned village in Ramgarh. Sumren’s slow style of speaking thinly veils the determination in her voice, and Anastasia’s eyes sparkle at the prospect of representing her people. Quickly recognizing kindred spirits, Nirmala convinces the village to do a baithak to decide who should be their Community Correspondent. We take their leave and move further north. We are denied access to other villages where outsiders are simply not tolerated, and drive on towards Daltonganj in disappointment. Subsequent meetings include squatting outside a lota-paani (a marriage ritual) screening videos to the bride’s brother, who is the village chief. We cannot disturb the ceremonies, but he’s intrigued by our work, and calls some of his companions to meet us.
It’s hard to believe that many of these people have been attacked, beaten, arrested and some have even been killed as they have protested for over a decade against attempts to usurp these very fields we’re squatting in. My knees ache, and I marvel at their tenacity, slow smiles that reflect in their eyes, few words that always translate into action. I learn a lasting lesson: the tribal way of life is to keep a low profile, and ensure that necessary work is completed as required.

 I also learn really fast the dangers of making romanchak the sad little situations narrated to us. A preferential attachment to certain ideals obviously clouds my imagination, for Nirmala scoffs as I sentimentalize lack of electricity in a particular village we’d been told about earlier in the day. She echoes an old hippie spirit’s pragmatic approach to life, that attachment often makes people forget their moral duties, sometimes even forget who they essentially are.
Keeping an open mind is my biggest challenge on this search for female correspondents. Actually, our biggest challenge is to find such women! While many women are engaged in different empowerment schemes, many are limited by their families. Many find it fascinating that Nirmala and I are “allowed” by our husband/father to be traipsing across the countryside, and I often have to bite back caustic comments in retaliation. People are late for appointments, and some of our meetings are scheduled only for 10:30 pm. There was a day when all technology simply gave up, just like Kayo and I have fantasized about while indulging in our nightly ritual of staring at the ceiling. It wasn’t as fun as in our fantasies.  There were days spent gasping in the heat, and nights spent dreaming about a mosquito free world.
As we traveled through myriad and morose human habitations, what struck me the most was the general air of dissent. What is it that makes these people completely fearless to get down and dirty when working for their rights? It’s not the money, because many do this without any kind of finances involved. It’s not the recognition, because many told me how they are hounded by the police and politicians alike. Some have been issued death threats by the new-age Naxalites, who no longer believe in the age-old ideals of people first. Maybe it’s the weather, or the air they breathe or the water they drink. Maybe I’m simply trivializing it to keep you guys reading so far. Perhaps it’s just the culture. It’s definitely different. And it’s infectious.
As I chat with these “dissenters”, I learn more about their lives and loves. I learn more about their love for their land, their forests. I learn that hunting is still prevalent, but only based on need. I learn that many tribal communities do not drink milk, believing that a cow’s milk is meant only for its calf. I learn that when my beloved Chotu was bitten by a rabid dog, he’d been poisoned to spare him the ravage of rabies. It broke my heart, and yes, I sobbed silently in the bathroom in the dark of night, but it was the kindest way out. Of course, I heard some frankly ridiculous beliefs too, like the one where if a dog’s saliva “infects” you, you will urinate puppies!
In that haze of sleepless nights and frenetic days, what I learnt, read and heard about dissent was mind-boggling. To hold or express an opinion at variance with those commonly or officially held is liable to have you arrested in most parts of the world today. By the definitions of our beloved, benevolent government, all of you who believe in freedom, all of you are dissenters. You, who writes music, speaking of the nature of democracy. And you, who draws cartoons depicting politicians in poor light. You are a dissenter. And a plague on our nation. And you, who speaks out or writes against human rights violations, did you know your work causes a massive loss in GDP to our nation? And you,you who dare to belong to a religious minority, or God forbid, don’t believe in religion…you’re nothing better than the woman who believes she deserves equal access. And if you are from a sexual minority, you my friend, are plain and simple illegal. And as for you, who believe that people are allowed to move freely, and have equal access to food, clean water and homes, stop indulging in ridiculous dreams and please begin to kow-tow to the Corporates. If you’re still confused about whether you are a dissenter simply because you exist, do go check out this website which will tell you exactly what our beloved, benevolent state thinks of you.
Jokes apart, let me tell you this — to dissent doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to take to streets, brave water cannons or indulge in vigorous flag waving. Not that that aspect is trivial or unnecessary, but I believe that is best left to the more courageous ones.
I visited a commune recently. I know you’re thinking “Hippies!” It was exactly what my heart has craved every single time I’ve searched for this elusive clan. A small, two room house with a wide open veranda, crouched over a seasonal stream, with a wide, shady banyan tree with thick roots forming the main support against which leaned an old man, wearing impossibly thick glasses, peering into a computer. A little girl, lovingly bullied a puppy, as her father brewed fresh Italian coffee. The rooms were their workshop. The motley bunch from different parts of the world slept on simple mats, with cushions and patchwork sheets for comfort. They described to me how they have mastered reconverting plastic into fuel, all the while playing with the little girl, teaching her life’s tough lessons about bullying, with love and refreshing honesty. Their home exuded the fresh, clean, simple love that the five inhabitants of the house had for the environment.
They recycled, generated no waste, lived simply, and loved their nightly chillum sessions. There is a woman, who has, over the last one year, singled out Goa’sgarbage problem as the one issue she wants to solve for her state. A German lady I met, told me of her barter system, in busy Berlin, where people can leave unwanted things (clothes, shoes, books, toys), and anyone who might want these things, can come collect it. All in barter. There are many who have gone back to old school sustainable farming, and every time I meet these people, I can’t help but think, that this is dissent. A refusal to kow-tow to “normal” systems set up for us by those who continue to believe that bikini-clad women on the beaches of Goa are the reason for rape.
We are living in an age when the media has sold its soul to the politicians and power. Where the world believes war is a solution. Where humans maim animals for fun, and rape little children to play out their twisted fantasies. We pay toll taxes for broken roads and where we come from is what will decide whether someone wants to rent out a house to us. Thankfully, travel-tripping allows me an alternate world. A mysterious, magical world, where I can see your soul. So many people have opened their hearts, minds and homes to me, believing the work we do might perhaps bring a difference to their dissent. Where ever we go, we are invited into people’s homes, asked to share the simple, meagre meals meant for them and their families.
We get messages from across the country, congratulating and encouraging how we speak of being part of the solution. A stranger walked me back to my hotel through the darkest lanes of Ranchi, hoping that his gesture will enable me to have faith in mankind again.  Many of you reading will scoff at my words, thinking of how you’ve told me I’ve sold my soul. Perhaps I did give in to the glamour of living in Goa. Perhaps part of me truly believes in these single-minded, ridiculously idealistic, yet worldly wise souls who continue to believe that every deed counts. Part of me believes I should just give up, and run away. I usually don’t know which instinct to follow, so choose to believe that it is better to live with wonderment than be beleaguered with bewilderment.

You see, all of us hope for a better tomorrow. All of us dream of our future – some of us dream of more money, and some hope for love. Some simply want the truth. Like the little, old bent woman in Latehar said to me, “Hume Vikaas nahin chahiye, sachai chahiye.” (We don’t want development, we want the truth.)
**I dream of the day when we will realize that freedom is the ultimate truth. To lose ourselves in the sounds of freedom, the birds, the bees, the strong, silent trees. We are all born to be free, to spread our arms, and lie in the grass, or spin silly circles under the starlit sky. It’s only when each of us know the truth of freedom, it’s only then we can truly connect with the concepts of creation. It is only then we can love the leaf fluttering against the morning skies, as the purple night fades into the pink-yellow of sunrise. It is only then that the tongue can truly taste sea-spray, or smell fresh earth as toes curl into the green, green grass.
It was a dark and stormy night, and as we spoke of how our nation has only ever declared war on its own people, Amita looked me square in eye, and said to me, “Sometimes, there’s no point talking endlessly about the same thing. Sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do to get something done.” The crackles of storm static in the air made her statement more enigmatic than she perhaps meant. Her simplicity and zen calm has taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve brought back with me from Jharkhand: We are not alone.
**Our lives and loves are simply bubbles of space collapsing and coalescing with each other. “When you know how to use it, disobedience can be a virtue.” So go ahead, dare to dissent. You just gotta dream different.
Radhika is a Travel Tripper, Dog Lover, Hippie Blogger, & Trance Dancer currently engaged in advocacy & awareness for animal welfare & human rights. She believes in body art, the power of karma, pure freedom & the possibility of a happier world. When she’s not playing with puppies on the beach, she can be found at Video Volunteers in Goa. She blogs at http://dogblogsrandomtrips.blogspot.in/


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