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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

For the Chenchus, polls are a time for fear

K. Venkateshwarlu

Hyderabad

For people in the plains, elections may symbolise the heartbeat of a vibrant democracy. But for the primitive Chenchu tribals, the real aborigines of the Deccan, living deep in the dense forests of the Nallamalai hill ranges of south Mahabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh, it kicks up a heart-numbing fear — an instinct they thought they had comprehensively conquered long ago sharing space with creatures of the wild.

To say that elections are a recipe for disaster for these Australoids (as they are grouped in the language of racial anthropology) is an understatement. For it is during the polls that the "Greyhounds," the anti-naxalite teams of the State police, and the Central police forces, armed to the teeth, step up their combing operations to flush out People's War naxalites and literally hound the Chenchus out of their pentas (clusters of tiny bamboo huts).

Suspecting them of providing food and shelter to "annalu" (as the naxalites are called), the police drive them away lock, stock and barrel, to the plains, as far away as possible. The law-enforcers' refrain is: "You cannot stay here anymore. You are sustaining the naxalites. If we cut off the food supply, they will come out and we can catch them easily and ensure that the elections pass off peacefully."

In the run-up to the coming elections, the "operation displacement" has become more intensive. About 130 Chenchu families from 16 pentas were driven out of their homes and threatened with dire consequences. To ensure that the order was not disobeyed, a young Chenchu was allegedly killed and several others beaten up.

Far from being given voting rights, the Chenchus, who survive on picking gum, honey, berries and roots from the forests, were left to fend for themselves in Mulichintapalli village of Kollapur mandal in the plains. For several days they remained exposed to the elements till public-spirited NGOs brought their plight to the notice of the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), which has now rushed to provide succour belatedly.

"Armed with guns they came and suddenly asked us to vacate the place. They questioned us why we wanted to stay inside the forest when we could lead a better life outside. They did not listen to our appeal that forest produce was our lifeline and that we cannot survive outside. Some of the huts were set on fire," says a sobbing Udathala Laxmiah of Bhattachintala penta.

"They did not spare even women and children. We were driven away cruelly. They did not allow us to even take clothes and utensils for cooking. When we came here we had no work here and we had to starve for several days," says his daughter-in-law, Udathala Lingamma. One of the Udathala family members, 20-year-old Balaswamy, was allegedly shot dead by police.

"He was whisked away from our penta, a day before Ugadi, (Telugu New Year on March 21) and two days later we found his body," says Lingamma, recalling how Balaswamy's wife continues to be in a daze. The incident has left them scared and it requires quite a bit of prodding to make them talk about it.

"They were treated worse than pigs. They were taken in tractors and dropped in Mulichintapalli in open fields. Till we intervened they had nothing to eat, no second pair of clothes to wear and lived in unhygienic conditions," says B. Venkat Reddy of Sahajeevan, the NGO, which has taken up their cause. It raises several questions. For all the pompous talk of getting such tribes into the democratic mainstream, they are deprived of their basic human rights. Far from making special arrangements to enable them to cast their vote, a policy of exclusion is being followed, in the process denying them even their right to livelihood.

Says Mirapala Venkataiah: "We were not only booted out but they did not allow us to take our fishing nets which we bought by raising huge loans. First they tried to snatch away our forest right. Anyhow we did not have any voting right. Now they want to deprive us of our livelihood too." Like that of Venkataiah, 34 other families depend on fishing in the Krishna river and it is the season now. "We are sure to run into huge debts."

For the fleet-footed Chenchus, known for their physical endurance and for carrying loads on their heads while negotiating steep gradients with ease, it is a challenge finding work and coming to terms with life in the plains. It reminds them of their past. Habituated to living in seclusion in the wild, it is said the Chenchus feared the "wily man from the plains" more than the tiger or the leopard with which they had many close encounters. Their fears have come true yet again.

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