Two Roads Parted in the Woods Print
Written by Priyesha Nair   
Wednesday, 29 May 2013 13:10
Citizens for Peace condemns the killing of Mahendra Karma and his team.
We mourn the continuing cycle of violence that has plagued the people
of Chattisgarh, as well as
surrounding states. We appeal for the strengthening
of efforts to find
both peace and justice in this region.

Re-published below is a moving article by the Gandhian activist
Himanshu Kumar, about his long standing friendship with Mr. Karma. Himanshuji,
who worked in this area for 17 areas, has spoken on our PeaceTalks platform on the
complexity of this problem.

Two Roads Parted in the Woods
by Himanshu Kumar

I first met Mahendra Karma in 1992. We had organised a training programme
for farmers at our NGO, Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, in Kanwalnar village in Dantewada,
which was still part of Madhya Pradesh then. Karmaji came over and spoke to the
farmers. I became his admirer in my very first meeting with him. He was a very good orator.
I have never heard anyone employ the Gondi language as powerfully as he did. I learned
a lot from his use of the language.

At the time, Karmaji did not have an official position. He had a lot of free time. We spent a
lot of our time together. He borrowed and read nearly every book in my personal library.
He showed an immense interest in the working of our organisation. He often attended our
meetings, too. Subsequently he became the head of the district panchayat. Our friendship
deepened. Karmaji often called me to his office to seek my views on various matters of policy.
When elections were called Karmaji became an independent member of parliament. Later he
became an MLA and the jail minister in the cabinet of then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister
Digvijay Singh.

Meanwhile, a movement was launched to demand that Dantewada be made a separate district.
Mahendra Karma was the chairman of the committee set up for the struggle and I was made its
secretary. Later I piloted the programme where Dantewada was made a district. After that, the
entire administration came down toour ashram. We had a meeting where we discussed all the
then existing problems of Dantewada district and their likely solutions.

When Chhattisgarh became a separate state in November 2000 Mahendra Karma became
its industry minister. My friendship with Karmaji was getting ever deeper. The administration
would nominate me to every committee in the district. So much so that BJP leaders started
calling me a Congress man.

In 2003, the BJP won the assembly elections. Karmaji became the leader of the opposition
in the assembly. We were still friends as before. He would often talk with me about the
BJP’s communalism. I gave him Prabhash Joshi’s book, “Hindu Hone Ka Dharma”
(The Dharma of being a Hindu), to read.

As industry minister, he had told me that he was going to invite the industrial houses
of Mittals and Jindals for mining in the Bailadila area to bring development. Karmaji told
me that he would ask the industrialists to begin by building a township in Bijapur district,
which is to the west of Dantewada, so that it, too, can develop.

In 2005 Mahendra Karma had a word with me when the Salwa Judum, a militia of the tribals
to counter the Naxals, was being started. It was possibly only a coincidence, but a dangerous
one nonetheless, that the Salwa Judum was to be started in the same Bijapur where licenses
were given out for mining. Karmaji told me that tribal villagers were planning a rally against
the Naxals and he was going to join it. He said that I, too, should participate in it. I told him
that I am always in solidarity with the people and if they are against the Naxals then I would
stand with them. But I said I would join the rally only if it was free of weapons because I just
cannot participate in a movement that has weapons in it.

Mahendra Karma assured me that the rally would be without any weapons. I asked if his
bodyguards would be there. Mahendra Karma had been given Z category security and 55
commandos were always with him. I know this figure because every time he visited our
ashram I would be asked to count how many cups of tea needed to brewed. I had to count
all the people with him.

Karmaji told me that his bodyguard would indeed be present with him and that Chhattisgarh
Chief Minister Raman Singh had said he would send the police to provide security at the
public meeting. Upon learning that I declined to participate in the rally.
In a few days news
of violence began to come in. I still kept quiet. Now various human rights activists and national
and international journalists began visiting ourashram to investigate the role of the
Salwa Judum. Binayak Sen, Balagopal, Nandini Sundar, Ramchandra Guha, Harivanshji and
many others visited our ashram and subsequently published their reports on the Salwa Judum.
Mahendra Karma and I continued to meet each other. But we did not talk as openly as before.
Although I hadn’t yet publicly spoken out against the Salwa Judum.

Around that time Vanvasi Chetna Ashram started working with UNICEF.
That was when Salwa Judum men attacked our workers for the first time. They kidnapped
our volunteers and thrashed them badly. That was when I spoke against the Salwa Judum
for the first time publicly. By now, the tribal people had begun coming to us to seek help.
Most incidents were about the police murdering tribals, or kidnapping and raping tribal
women. We wrote to the government on these matters. But the government did not take
any action. So we started approaching the courts. We had now begun speaking out against
the Salwa Judum in the news media even though Mahendra Karma was its leader.

Karmaji, too, had now obliquely started attacking me. Any time we came face to face we still
talked to each other but only about our children. He doted on my two daughters. His young
daughters would often drop by at our ashram to play there. His wife, Devti, too, would visit
often to meet with my wife, Veena. Karmaji continued to borrow books from me. But we had
stopped talking politics altogether.

Then in 2009 the state government demolished our ashram. We tried to continue ourwork
through a rented house. I wrote to the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and invited
him to visit Dantewada to hold a hearing on the atrocities being committed on the tribals.
This greatly troubled the state government and Mahendra Karma. The police began to put our
workers into the prison, or threaten them with murder. On my last day in Dantewada one of
my volunteers came to me and said that Mahendra Karma was sitting in the office of the
district collector and screaming that he wanted freedom from Himanshu Kumar right away.
The volunteer told me that I would be killed that night. Immediately thereafter that worker
fled Dantewada with his wife and daughter. Within a half hour of that the police attacked
his house and, among others, took away the motorcycle that the ashram owned and that
was parked outside.

I thought about all this for long. I realised that if I died that night it would be of no profit to
the tribals. My coworkers were in prison. I was fighting court cases on behalf of so many
tribals. That night I jumped the wall in the backyard and escaped into the forest. The police
had surrounded the entire house. I somehow reached the main road. A taxi was waiting for
me there. I sat in it and left for Delhi. Since then I have not gone back to Dantewada that
had been my home for 17 years.

Mahendra Karma’s killing today has revived my memories of the time I had spent
with him. His ambition and his fears had forced him to get caught in a trap that Raman
Singh had laid for him. In 2005 the police had been closing in on him over his alleged
role in an illegal sale of teak wood from the forests. He had faced imminent arrest. It was
to escape that and the subsequent ignominy that he gave in to Raman Singh’s demand
that he head the Salwa Judum. I may or may not have agreed with whatever Mahendra Karma
did, but I must concede that he always impressed me with his intelligence and courage.

I am deeply saddened by his killing today. I bid farewell to my loving friend with a heavy heart.

(Translated into English by Ajit Sahi)
First Published in
Last Updated on Saturday, 06 July 2013 06:40