The Padayatra from Dantewada to Gompad: Liberating the Tricolour from the clasp of violence

On June 13, 2014 Madkam Hidme, a 23 year old adivasi girl was found dead with marks of torture and rape on her body. The body was found near her village Gompad, Block Konta, district Sukma, Chhattisgarh. The very next day, a picture of her corpse, draped in a crisp black uniform of Naxalite guerillas, started appearing in local newspapers, along with an announcement that a notorious Naxalite has been killed.

However, shortly after, it emerged that the police had mistaken her for someone else, some real Naxalite guerilla – possibly a namesake to the victim. Political activists from across Chhattisgarh and India took the matter head-on. The corpse of Madkam Hidme, since exhumed, has been sent for post-mortem twice.  The Chief Justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court has ordered a fresh judicial inquiry into the matter under the guidance of the District Judge of Sukma.

The outrage and anger at this arbitrary violence found a unique expression in the form of Padayatra which began in Dantewada and culminated in Gompad.  The Padayatra happened in August, a month heavy in symbolism in the history of independent India. August was not only celebrated as independence day for the last 69 years but it was also on August 8, 1942 that the Quit India movement was launched.

Conscious of the historical meaning, Soni Sori, Kawasi Hidme, Linga Kodopi and Sukul Nag held the tricolor flag and led a ragtag band of political activists ranging from sangathaks and karyakartas of political parties to trade unionists to teachers to advocates to scribes to artists to filmmakers to academics to seekers of learning and – from Dantewada to Gompad, from the 9th to the 15th of August 2016.

The Padyatra started from the statue of Ambedkar at Dantewada on 9thAugust, 2016, at 5 pm. Over the next six days, the yatris were to cover a stretch of 180 kilometers, across realms where the lives of ancient communities are being shattered in the name of area-domination. The final destination was  Gompad –  the place where 23 year old Madkam Hidme was born, murdered and buried.

The yatris were fortified by nothing other than their commitment to ensuring that Madkam Hidme and others who have suffered her fate  get justice. They marched resolutely along, carrying the tricolour and the Indian Constitution adorned by banners and festoons as totems of peace and justice for the adivasis of the conflict-torn, mineral-rich hills and forests of Bastar.

Soni Sori, who was leading this peaceful yatra was attacked three times in an attempt to ensure that the yatris would abandon their quest for justice. Undeterred, the  yatris marched on  through the heart of strife torn Bastar through villages such as Bhusaras,  Sukma, Dornapal, Errobore  and Ramaras. What was visible thoroughout the journey was the effects of the war declared by the Indian state on the ordinary people of Bastar.

Dornapal is arguably the most notorious camp of the Salwa Judum and its operations are still in full swing with gashts (search in the parlance of the army) and encounters being carried out  to carry forward area-domination over the tribal villages. From an idyllic village by river Shabari, Dornapal has been transformed into a armed camp.. Outside the dharmashala, where the yatris rested, DRG Commandoes walked and waited in alert vigil, guns in hand, all night.

Errabore is yet another notorious camp. As with almost all the camps that the Padayatris marched past through the six days of the Yatra, schools, the infamous ‘Pota’ cabins for children and adivasi hostels were strategically placed around the camps, to serve as human shields against attack.

While the journey was arduous and the risks were real, what sustained the yatris were the indomitable courage and solidarity of their fellow yatris.

Sukul Nag was an unending well of positive vibe and energy throughout the continuation of the Yatra. He would be the first person to wake up in the morning and the last person to sleep. He would walk all day holding high a tricolor flag tied atop a long heavy flagpost and he would lead the padayatris almost all the times. During the night halts, he would sleep only after ensuring that all his fellow-yatris have slept.

Soni Sori’s courage is well known across India and today she is a living symbol of adivasi defiance against a rapacious state. Having survived the worst forms of torture, her commitment to her people is unwavering and awe inspiring.

Kawasi Hidme was another survivor of state brutality. Kawase Hidme led the yatris to the village of Ramaras from where she had been picked up by the SP0’s in 2008 at the tender age of 15 when she had come to visit a fair. She had spent the next seven years of her life  being raped multiple times by agencies of the state sponsored counter-insurgent forces in dark cells and chambers owned and operated by the union of India.

 

Inspired by these brave adivasi,  the yatris  walked  through forests, villages, and armed camps manned by the Indian military.  Finally on the evening of  14th  August, the yatris arrived at their destination, Gompad. Gompad has rarely made the national press.  Gompad has also never experienced the quintessential ceremony of nationalism, the hoisting of the national flag. Gompad has, for the last 21 years, been regarded as a ‘dhur-Naxal-prabhavit-kshetra’ by the sovereign. No roads have, till date, been built up to Gompad. The place has, for long, been regarded as a liberated zone by the Maoists and  had never seen the tricolor being hoisted before.

Throughout the 14th, as more and more yatris began joining the yatra, the PWD guest-house at Konta where the yatris had halted the  night before saw frequent arrivals of several people – including a few members of deep-state and police intelligence, a few commandoes and by a notorious local encounter-specialist Narayan and his four shooters. The intelligence was in frantic search for information. The entry of the tricolor flag and a copy of the Constitution into a place which has been ignored by the sovereign state of India for 48 years after independence and deemed a ‘liberated zone’ ever since 1995 put the deep-state into a  frenzy.

The tricolor was hoisted in village Gompad, block and taluka Konta, district Sukma, Chhattisgarh, India on the 15th of August 2016, at 08:30 am, close to where Madkam Hidme had been buried. (Her corpse has since been exhumed for post-mortem and presently lying in some sarkari morgue somewhere in India.)

Scores of villagers from Gompad and its surrounding villages come to attend the simple ceremony. Having observed two minutes of silence by her burial place, the national flag was mounted, hoisted and unmounted after offering due homage to all that it stands for, following the due process of law established through the Flag Code. Soni Sori spoke passionately of the flag and the Constitution as vital tools in the quest for justice for Madkam Hidme and other counter-insurgency ravished people of Bastar. Then the air resonated with chants of Inquilabi.

Post the ceremony, the persistent question raised by the adivasis was whether the tricolor would bring peace to the region.  Madkam Hidme’s mother Lakshmi insisted that she would consider the flag as a sign of peace.  In the course of many conversations with the adivasis, 19 situations of atrocities perpetrated on the communities from in and around Gompad came to light.

By the afternoon of the 15th, the Yatris, weary with the long trail but filled with hope and inspiration, trekked their way back to Konta. Almost as a cruel and painful reminder that a lot remained to be done, the yatris heard that a young boy named Arjun Madkam, resident of Chindgur village, Bastar was extra judicially executed on 15th of August, 2016 – exactly 69 years after India won independence.

In this way, the Dantewada to Gompad tricolor Padayatra did what it had set out to do – reach Gompad on the 15th of August 2016 and hoist the tricolor close to where Madkam Hidme has been buried. It is up to all of us now to ensure that the Paigam of peace and justice for the adivasis of Bastar, as carried from Dantewada to Gompad in the form of the flag and the Constitution of India, by a bunch of firmly committed diwana-diwangi humans from different walks of life, led by four very determined adivasis of Bastar who themselves have faced much counter-insurgent violence in their lives, is honoured.

The adoption of the tricolor as a symbol of peace and justice, is  a reminder of how true freedom is yet to arrive for the adivasis of Bastar. The adivasis hoisting of the flag is a claim to the ideals of the independence struggle and a defiant assertion that justice, peace and rule of law and not ‘encounters’ and ‘area domination’ are the legacies of the freedom struggle. By adopting the Constitution as the political leitmotif of the Padayatra, the adivasis are demanding that the Indian state fulfill its pledge to ensure a life of dignity, liberty and equality to the advasis of Bastar. These constitutional promises  can only be fulfilled if a vigilant citizenry ensures that the  Tricolor,  and the Constitution are liberated from  the dominant forces of state and capital that have encircled the tricolor and the Constitution  with the discourse of violence.

By Atindriyo Chakrabarty