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The Rediff Special/Sanjay Ghose

Face to face with terror

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One year ago today, social activist Sanjay Ghose was abducted by the United Liberation Front of Asom. A month later, the outlawed organisation confessed that Ghose had died a couple of days after his abduction on July 4, 1997. Days before his abduction, the young crusader was writing a piece in which he recounted the struggle of his colleagues on a remote river island in Assam. We reproduce that piece as a tribute to his memory.

In April 1996, a group of seven development workers moved to Jorhat in Assam. Three of us had worked together earlier in Urmul, a voluntary organisation is western Rajasthan. Of the other four, one was from Arunachal Pradesh, another from Nagaland, a third although originally from Himachal Pradesh, had been living and working in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh for the last two years; and the fourth was an Indian of Chinese origin from Bangalore. All of us had spent time in doing a detailed recce of the place, in different capacities.

The idea behind our move was based on our analysis of voluntary action in the region. We felt that the present context of voluntary action was rooted in the charity mode and had not developed to the extent of allowing it to become a platform for self-expression. If youth could be involved in a full time way in this, it may be possible to find solutions to some of the endemic problems.

Small facts led us to this kind of analysis: There was little protest about the flagrant deforestation in the region, and if the Supreme Court ban finally did get enforced, it was on the strength of litigation filed outside; in spite of the number of malaria deaths every year, there is little by way of concerted voluntary action to research, understand and evolve solutions; while the region was abundant in natural resources, there was little by way of value addition and employment; there had been few attempts to develop markets outside that could increase returns to producers.

Yet there were powerful underground movements, a dynamic student force, high levels of literacy, strong community norms and respect for norms and respect for traditional culture, and on the whole, better status of women -- all possible ingredients for a transformation of the system. It is not that voluntary action does not exist in the North-East, quite the contrary. In fact, most of the group formation for social development activities is totally voluntary, and often membership-based. Powerful examples exist in the women's organisations -- the Meira Peibis in Manipur; the Naga Mother's Association in Mizoram, and the innumerable youth clubs and Mahila Samitis all over the region.

Our idea of working in the North-East was to open up the space for voluntary action in society. Perhaps through a process of strengthening and supporting grassroots groups, and by developing support institutions, we would be able to engender a process in which needs of the people were met, and opportunities provided for young people to experiment with forms of constructive dissent -- raising questions of state and society, as well as coming up with answers.

We decided to work on the island of Majuli. It was the largest river island in the world, the spiritual centre of Assam, yet was one of the most backward and underdeveloped pockets in the state. It was close to Jorhat, but nearly inaccessible, and it faced severe problems during the floods. It had a majority tribal population and other communities, a sort of microcosm of the North-Eastern situation. There was little else by way of organised voluntary action, and it would be easier to measure impact.

Majuli is a beautiful place. Now in the season before the floods, you can see the raindrops bounce off the fast flowing Brahmaputra; the purple flowers of the azhar are in full bloom. Taking the ferry upstream is a Zen-like experience, time passing with the illusion of movement.

We started work in Majuli in April 1996. When we came, we did not know the language, the culture, the problems. So leave alone implementing a development plan, we didn't even have that basic information to prepare a blueprint for action. That was how we had planned it actually. We spent the first three months living in people's houses all over the island. We split up to cover the whole island, picking remote hamlets and people of all backgrounds: tribal farmers, schedule caste fisherpeople, school teachers.

Our well-laid plans for research were, however, put on hold by an act of god. In August, Majuli experienced the worst flood in living memory. Thousands of people moved to the embankments and the dikes to escape from the water. For our group, it was a difficult decision. We had resolved not to get involved in any kind of "development" programme while we were still understanding the area and the people. Yet, if we were to just watch while the flood played itself out, it would be cruel, researching while Majuli drowned.

We couldn't get into food distribution, because that would go against our basic tenet of promoting self-reliance, and even if we wanted to, just the sheer logistics of getting ration across to 150,000 people was going to be too time-consuming and expensive. We thought about trying to provide some kind of temporary shelters, but again the scale and management of that would be too big for us at this stage.

Sorting through alternatives, we finally decided on a mix of two programmes -- making clean drinking water available, in the form of shallow tube wells to displaced communities, and by running a mobile medical camp service. We decided to work through existing organisations on the island -- the All Assam Students Union and the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chattra Parishad. The arrangement had its ups and downs, but we managed in the end to reach 60 communities, signing agreements for the maintenance of the wells with every village.

After the flood, we are involved with two small rehabilitation projects: Organising credit groups of the poorest 20 women in eight villages, and helping them with a winter crop; and in one village, through a local voluntary organisation called Seuj Bandhu (Green Friends), promoting a nursery for indigenous timber species, that will give about 15 women year-round employment.

Over the next six months we worked closely with these groups, trying to understand something about how people related to each other. People within the group, and the group with the community outside.

The other outcome of our "home stays" was a newsletter magazine in Assamese, called Dweep-Alok. We all found that there was a thirst for information, and it could hardly be accessed from anywhere. Dweep-Alok is aimed at an audience of young men and women, and has regular columns on self-employment, news about government programmes, and how to access them, as well as case studies of how these programmes are actually working in the field. The response to Dweep-Alok has been unprecedented, and unexpected.

One minor problem was with the "Anchalik President" of AASU (one of the local units) of Bongaon called Bubul Hathimota. Although we had an agreed list of villages, he kept a tube well for himself. We thought the best way to deal with it was to make the information public and we published a list of all the tube well sites in the next issue of Dweep-Alok, including his. This didn't exactly endear us to him and we made our first powerful enemy in Bongaon.

Coming from Rajasthan, where it was a task to even get people to read what was available, it came as a revelation how seriously the written word was treated here. We also used the magazine for investigative journalism.

The first issue uncovered a scam on the Indira Awas Yojana in Bongaon panchayat, where the local panchayat president, a woman called Parul Bora, had given the contract for building the houses to her son. The work was incomplete, and it featured, with photographs, in Dweep-Alok. The lady in question was livid, and wrote a nasty letter to the editor, but when we met and explained that it was nothing personal, just looking at how the system could be improved, she cooled down a bit. But obviously the wound rankled, as later developments showed. Second enemy in Bongaon.

Shortly after we started work (while we were staying in people's houses, before the floods), we had our first encounter with the ULFA. It was an open-door meeting at which four team members were present, two ULFA cadres, and some miscellaneous hangers-on from the village. It took place in the house of Bhola Boniya, the farmer in whose house I was staying as part of my home-stay period. It was hardly a dialogue. They were carrying weapons openly. More a harangue against the Indian state, and the low mentality of the people of Majuli (for not realising this fact and rebelling against it). We were told that we could continue our work, but that we would be watched.

What happened that day

Kind courtesy: Voluntary Health Association of India

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