Monday, December 14, 2009

Remembering my Padyatra : How disabled are isolated in the family

A Night of horror: Isolation of a disabled in the family

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

On December 13th, 2008, we started a Padyatra i.e March on foot, on the issue of land and forest rights in the Tarai region of Uttar-Pradesh and Uttarakhand. We were about 25 land rights activists from both Uttar-Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the padyatra started from Gulbojhi village in palia tehsil of lakhimpur khiri district Uttar-Pradesh. Gulbojhi is a forest village and on the verge of extinction because of the threat posed by the forest department. Every individual is being monitored and each activity of the Tharu Advisis are considered as a challenge to the state. The village people were frustrated by the continuous exploitation by both the forest department and police which is bordering the border with Nepal.

About 4 in the afternoon, we started our walk as the villagers finished the meeting. Amidst darkness of December, about 100 villagers walked with us, shouting slogans, ‘ Give Justice to Tharus, Forest department stop exploitation of tribals, Land distribution must be done in the Tarai areas and many other related slogans. As the Padyatra was being done in the deeply dense forests, and completely isolated tribal areas, it was natural that the issue of debate may not be same as among the Dalits. When we entered in the forests, the tribal women on each turn would pick up a dry stick and throw it in to into a common place. I was quite amazed and asked what they were doing. The answer was that it was their way of praying the goddess to keep them safe. Once you pass through the deep forest, it is a ritual to pray goddess for their safe return.

We walked nearly 20 kilometer that night. It was tough but never tiring. The sky was absolutely dark and the stars were greeting us. There was no mobile access anywhere. In fact, all those who were carrying mobile, had to stand over a ‘teela’ to get access. WE were worried as none of us could contact our family members. Amidst, this complete natural darkness we were warned that wild animals roam around but I was definitely waiting to see the tiger. I had my camera ready to capture any eventual situation. The entire forest was being enveloped by cold waves and fog. We reached the village of Beldandi where we were supposed to have our night halt.

The house was like a palace. Hugely build compound with nicely cleaned mud floors painted by cowdung, as Tharus live in joint families and one family consist of more than 40 people in most of the time. While the food was being prepared, at one side of the house, people were sitting in round enjoying the fire. You can enjoy fire at such place which was deeply cold and one can see expensive wood being used for this, the wood that would be a luxury for most of us in cities.

After much difficulty, all our friends were able to get some space. At one room, about 20 activists were asked to adjust for sleeping. As it was the winter of December, it was nearly impossible to sleep outside. Most of us had come prepared with blanket and woolens as we knew that it would be difficult to move around in this chilled cold for the next 15 days. We had used the ‘Pual’ leaves as our bedding, apart from a common durry. Any peep outside was horrible and fearsome as the darkness would haunt you. I slept near the door in the adjacent room with nearly six seven people. It was about 10 pm and as usual in the villages by 7 pm it is night and by 9 it is like mid night, when everything must have been sleeping in the dead night, a voice came from the room. In the room, most of the friends had been joking and talking so I thought they had not slept yet. Again, the voice came, the man was trying to say something, but there was no response. Our friends were unable to understand that. After some time, the man started shouting virtually abusing. I felt that may be he was not happy with our friends sleeping in his room. I was unable to understand but I felt deeply pained as why the family people were unable to respond to him. I was not aware about the person, but I could realize that man was unable to speak but he was in desperate need. To my utter horror, none in the big family thought of attending the need of the person. I inquired from my colleagues as why is no body responding. I found that the man was deaf and dumb, he was an elderly person in the family, one of the uncles of these family people who was suffering from disability and was virtually unable to walk. He needed support. He was desperate to pee yet none in the family thought that he should be helped. In utter disgust he peed on the bed only. He was crying and shouting all the night. After, the first pee, he kept quiet. I suppose he did not have enough quilt and hence was shivering. I asked the family people to take care of him. After an hour and a half, a girl woke up and went to him. Perhaps helped him go to pee and came back. There were no words. The elderly men in the house were contemptuous towards him and nobody had any botheration about his needs and issues. I was really wondering as why the family has such atrocious attitude towards its elder.

Around 3 pm in the night, the old man again cried. He started shouting again, virtually abusing to every one. I thought that the man is about to die. He voice was terrible. In the mid night of forest, when there is no human being other then your family, when there is complete dark outside, no electricity. For us, it was not good to intervene except to inform the family people to please take care of him. Yet, so brutal were the members of the family that they were just abusing him in night rather than helping him.

So, the entire night passed off without a proper sleep, ofcourse, we all had a good sleep as every body was too tired by walking nearly 20 kilometer and that too not plain road but concreted semi completed roads. In the morning the man was sleeping. I tried to find out as what happened and why none was coming to him. My friends who have been working with the tribal narrated a horrible tale. He said that the man was suffering from various problems and these people refuses to take him to the doctor and feel that he has some evil spirit in him. Actually, in these forests, you will not find doctors. Government has not reached here except that the police and intelligence people might roam around, eat and sit with villagers and forest people might ask for the cut. Hence in the absence of doctor, the people only believe in the local ‘tantriks’ and witchcraft hunters. So, this man who had become invalid because of his physical position, who could not walk around, could not talk anything was considered to have been possessing evil spirit. And that was the reason, he was kept in ‘isolation ward’. Since, we were outsiders and did not know anything, each one of us was put in that room with him without informing us the condition of the man. I asked to the family people as why don’t they help him. Every one say that if they go to the room they too would be possessed by the same evil spirit.

But that was terrible for me to hear. As the sun came out, I found the same man sitting outside with family women sitting with him. Why was it that the same evil spirit not possessing them during the day? Actually, this is an excuse to help the people. This is the condition of physically challenged and older people at home. Since they need special attention and unfortunately none has time and patience to help them, we end up in developing different stories about them. The ghost, the evil spirit is just pretence to get rid of the person. In traditional societies, these people remain unwanted. They have sin of previous birth and hence not to be looked after.

During our fifteen days foot march, we came across numerous such incidents when we found how the modern value system remain far and outside the reach of communities and how the local feudal elements, anti people leaders dominate the society. Though Tharus are relatively a bitterly govern matrilineal system yet their isolation from the rest of the world has put them in the hands of these witchcraft hunters and local village priests, who exploit. Every where, whenever we talked of equality and treating every one equal, showing our care for physically challenged children, people would bring more from their home to show us, in the hope of help. It was tragic that you would not like to treat them equally but if you get some money in lieu of their ‘picture’, you will bring them out from the ‘leftout’ boxes to say please help him, he or she can not do anything.

We all know that poverty is the biggest crime but in our villages it is poverty of ideas that exists today. I remember Dr Ambedkar’s prophetic words as why village need a change, a revolution to look forward. Why he was angry with the whole village system which caste based and brutal in terms of its treatment to its own people. Those who are romantic of this life, should try to understand this isolation of the people. It is time for all of us to fight this internal discrimination existing in our society where prejudices based on your caste and physical disability put you in isolation. In the caste discrimination, you are violated by the others but being a physically challenged, your own family leaves you to fetch yourself. Such brutal system must be condemned with. The answer lies in our social movements to work for social change in the villages. It is not that I am condemning them but we must realize that in terms of preserving rigid social structure, villages are very particular. The issue of ‘ijjat’, i.e. honor is the highest in the village. And honor come from big land holding, smart children with fair colour, marriages and so many things. Among these the most honorable thing is having sons and belonging to a particular caste. Hence if you have a son or a daughter with a disability then you will always find people coming to you and taking pity at your son or daughter who ever has some disability. Rather than fighting against these prejudices, people preserve them, try to justify them under various excuses and kill the spirit of these people by showing pity at them. There is no encouragement and they are completely isolated in social customs, marriages and other functions. Therefore, we need social movements against evils in our society. I d not say that these prejudices are not there in cities but they are reducing also. We need to fight against them and not keep them under the carpet. These movements should emerge with in but with a wind of freedom and not in the caves of isolation. The world has changed a lot for better, so we too need to change for better.

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