West Champaran

Cruel Contrasts

Ravi Rai, a student of DU, reports from Bagha in W. Champaran.

As our campaign jeep criss-crossed several streams and rivers daily, we were struck by the starkness of the contrasts. The contrast between the rare richness of natural assets (lush greenery, ample water thanks to the river Gandak and its tributaries, fertile land which bears paddy crops twice a year) and the abject poverty and destitution of the mass of people. The contrast between the beauty and brightness of the region and the darkness in which its people are forced to live their lives. For the last 10 years, the darkness of the night, whether in the towns or villages, remains unbroken by electricity. Electricity is available, for those who can afford it; private contractors will sell it to you at arbitrary rates. Privatisation of electricity seems to have reached Champaran ahead of the rest of the country, however ‘backward’ it may be in other ways!

Many point out the ironic contrast – in the land which is synonymous with the freedom struggle, its people are most unfree. There is a saying in this region: “No matter who rules in Delhi or Patna, here only the rule of feudal ‘estates’ is recognised.” The open defiance of land reform laws by a handful of feudal estates who have a stranglehold over thousands of acres of land, the fact that this region has the greatest concentration of agrarian labour and landless poor(66% of the population), the tremendous repression by feudals, criminals and police alike – these are facts that the teams of investigators and observers will recount in greater detail. For us – Markandey Pathak, a student activist from Patna, and I - there was another contrast which struck us with tremendous force. The greatest contrast of all was between the brutality of the repression and the bravery of resistance, at which one could only marvel.

We saw entire bastis which had been burnt down and looted, their people forced to flee and migrate for survival. Words cannot describe the desolation and devastation of those empty settlements. Words tend to be treacherous anyway; the poet Bashir Badr who wrote ‘People spend a lifetime building one home: You don’t hesitate to burn entire settlements’ recently dedicated this couplet to Vajpayee and joined the camp of the communal and feudal forces who burn down people’s lives, be it in Champaran or Gujarat.

But the will of these people for political assertion and struggle must be seen to be believed. With the elections drawing closer, those who had fled began to return – to put the broken pieces of their homes and lives together, but also to begin the task of rebuilding their struggle. These people first made teams to collect funds for CPI(ML)’s election campaign, and soon began to organise the campaign itself. Women formed teams to campaign tirelessly from village to village. Thousands travelled long distances on foot or on cycles to participate in CPI(ML) rallies or mass meetings.

Markandey and I spent the days travelling in the jeep with a group of local comrades, addressing local bazaars and street corners in small towns. At night, we would stay in the villages. One night we arrived at a comrade’s home in a village past 11 at night. The entire village was asleep, and no one was expecting us. There were no rations in the house where we were to spend the night. But the women welcomed us even at that late hour, went from house to house collecting material, and then enthusiastically began to cook a meal for us.

The weeks spent in Western Champaran were, for me an “encounter with the indomitable will of the masses to survive”. It left me with a lasting conviction of the relentless struggle and political assertion of the poorest of the poor in the face of the worst repression. I was forcefully reminded of the words of the Hindi poet Kedarnath Agarwal –

He who grew up tasting the dust of life,

Who battled storms and then stood up again,

Who dug up gold and bent iron,

Who is the steed of the Sun’s chariot,

That person – kill him as often as you like, he cannot die.