Remembering a man who committed his life for the tribal of Sonbhadra
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
He was a mobile Information Centre of Sonbhadra district in eastern part of Uttar-Pradesh, whose work during the past thirty years was utilized by those who do not have time to visit the villages and follow up the stories after they started. M.A.Khan was always cheerful related to his work, his love for the Adivasis and his conviction against the child labour, brought him close touch of the ground reality. His only concern was that ‘agencies outside Sonbhadra were using the ignorance and poverty of the poor people for their own purposes and not with an aim to lift the tribals and end poverty which they can very much do. Once the project was over, these agencies left the tribal for their own good.’ For the past few years, Khan in his every interaction with me displayed his disappointment of how the international donor agencies find their people and agencies in these regions but never found Khan and his Chaupal which had been fairly active in the region.
In a two days human rights consultation in Delhi, when I was informing a friend about Khan and his impeccable credentials for fighting the rights of the common man in Sonbhadra district, a shocking news was revealed by another friend that M.A.Khan passed away, a day before, on 27th of January 2007, in Varanasi. I was dumb and shocked to hear this. Just a fortnight ago, I spoke to him on his mobile when he told me that Doctors have found symptoms of cancer in him and that he wish to be transferred to AIIMS in Delhi. That time, the first thought in my mind was that this news would be wrong and hence I said ‘ Khan Saheb, you will get well soon. AIIMS is not the same as it used to be. If people like you are here who speak for the poor Dalits and marginalized, I do not know whether the doctors who do politics and not the treatment, would treat you well or not.’
M.A.Khan was quintessentially a secular activist with strong left leaning. He was not fit in the glamour world of NGOs where you are fixed in certain style of format and report as per it. Though, his documentation of events, custodial deaths, cases of torture of Adivasis and forest dwellers in Sonbhadra would remain unparallel. At a time, when NGOs masquerading to be human rights organization splash information with the purpose of publicity and not to really help the poor, Khan was refreshingly different with his people centric approach. He would walk down the villages, record the narratives of the victims and finally take them to the related authorities in the district and even file petition in the court. In fact, he had formed a group of lawyers in Sonbhadra who used to take such cases of illegal detentions of the tribal in the name of naxalism.
Born in 1946 in a Zamindar family of Robertsganj, Khan went to Deoband to earn a degree in Fazil and then he completed his masters. He worked very hard during the 1967 famine in the region. In 1968 he joined Communist Party of India and started Pragatisheel Kisan Manch (progressive farmer’s forum). He continued to travel around the villages and help the needy. In 1985 he founded Jan Sewa Kendra to assist the poor of his region.
It was his concern about the growing landless situation in Sonbhadra that he traveled around 500 villages of his district to understand the condition and found that tribal were living in utter misery. Their land being occupied by others and that they did not have two-time meal to eat. He felt that they lacked information regarding their rights. He found that the ignorance of the people was the biggest obstacle in their development and the officers were misusing it. In fact, one of his candid remarks was that despite huge funds flowing to NGOs in Sonbhadra and Varanasi, the condition of the poor and their rights remain the same. He would laugh and say that the NGOs have not come to remove the poverty of the people but their own poverty. ‘Chaupal’, a village initiative to discuss and resolve their problem by the villagers took shape during this period. He would form a team of 8 members in every village who would discuss their issues and carry the information to the central office in Robertsganj. Chaupal worked in 80 villages. Khan Saheb new it very well that it was difficult to run an organization without resources. Often, the big fishes would catch the members of Chaupal for their own purposes. He started getting depressed because of the growing commercialization of the civil society movement where the powerful elite had gathered all the NGOs in the name of ‘poor’. In the region of eastern Uttar-Pradesh where dirty tricks among the NGOs are the best practices, where NGOs are run by powerful connections and castes, Khan remain a grounded man. Very much down trodden who with the help of a few committed lawyers tried to do help the tribal.
Despite hailing from a Zamaindar family, Khan did not have much land and property at the end. He had a small typewriter where he would type reports of malfunctioning of the government department. If a tribal girl or woman would come to him, he would type their application and go along with them to submit it to the relevant authorities. He would nicely take a copy of the same in his file. And this was his regular practice. The habit resulted in one of the best documentation, which was hardly recognized and which remain thoroughly unpaid, that I had ever seen. It was this information, which proved volatile for police once upon a time and his office was burnt and valuable information got lost. Nevertheless, after that, he started working from him home and still had huge piles of files, meticulously maintained in his drawer.
For me he was a great source of information. He would send his well-written reports on issues as important as custodial deaths, National Rural Employment Guarantee programme, land and forest issues to be send to national and international agencies for lobbying. He felt betrayed that his work was not recognized by the international community leave along the donor agencies who have their own criteria for support.
Apart from sending these reports, which Khan was really very committed, the thing, which was very admirable about him, was his concern for the natural resources of the people and how they lost it to big companies and local feudal elements! His stories, many of which remain unpublished would be treasure to learn how the state and its apparatus have sucked the blood of tribal over the year. He had detailed information about how forest department captured the land of the tribal and how the NGOs from outside did not have enough information about it and they flash information and leave the place making the lives of the tribal more vulnerable to exploitation. I had promised to him to get them published in future. In fact, I introduced him to Hum Dalit, a monthly journal, which regularly published his well thought out articles.
I still remember the day when the villagers had come to protest in front of the district collector and all of them showed the food product they had been eating. The district Magistrate did not turn up but send his deputy and several forest officials. Seeing the tribal displaying their food produce the SDM became angry and said ‘ you sale our poverty abroad. You have no business do that. Go back.’ The forest department officers were equally angry and blamed Khan that he was responsible for misguiding them, a charge which Khan openly denied. Khan stood by the people all the time.
Being a local citizen of Sonbhadra, his house was always open for the tribal and Dalits of the region. Women would come to his house, get their work done and go back satisfying. In fact, for many of them, he was their father, who had performed the ‘kanyadaan’ during the marriage.
Once, I asked him why doesn’t he work on the ‘communal issues’. As usual he said ‘ I always feel my heart with the Adivasis of Sonbhadra. I never feel that I am different from them. They have been cheated by the regularly. The government has done very little for them. If they retaliate they are charged with being Naxalites and cases are filed against them.’ In fact one of the work that Khan did was to fight for a young 12 years old boy who was charged under POTA. This is tragic how police behave. Sonbhadra district is notorious for police highhandedness since they are unable to take on the Naxal, they exploit the helpless villagers.
It was therefore not surprising that the man who was arrested many time as well as whose office was burnt by the police in the name of alleged link with naxalites, did not find any favor from the donor agencies in their work for the region.
He would always say that the village needs to connect with international community. The idea of his Chaupal was to flood the authorities with complaints and information about the villages and the people and their problems. He would always ask me that internet and computers should linked to village and they would empower the poor people and reduce their dependency others to write letters for them as well as it will also enable the international community to see things at their own rather then being shown.
M A Khan remains simple all through his life. He was an anguished man that he could not communicate and write in English language and felt that it was the reason why people like him remain outside the net of those who matter. While, not many have had opportunity to hear him internationally, for the thousands of tribal people, he was one of their own, very own father figure, who went out of his way to help them and gave them a sense of dignity and honour. Like a lone man struggling in utterly difficult circumstances, he left a legacy of his work but no second rank leadership since he himself remained penniless till his end, struggling to get resources for his medication. That is the biggest irony of those work in the grassroots that they work for all and at the end they remain aloof from the world. None care to listen their problems and perhaps very few to bother that a committed man is no more. Since nobody care to inquire about each other particularly those come from not powerful families, there remain no news about them. It is tragic and it should end. The best tribute to MA Khan would be to strengthen the ideas that he gave and carry on his message of Chaupal so that the rural poor is saved from the a contemptuous bureaucracy as well as local middlemen who thrive on their ignorance.