Tilak was doing a good job of increasing my awareness about the region. He had also become quite keen on finding out more about Pipariya region, since he had known about our project.
Till now, Bhopal had been the center of financial and political power. But now he had changed his mind. He said, “Bhaiya, here we only have property dealings, gambling, a bit of drugs, alcohol, a bit of prostitution, arms; all within limits prescribed by the police. But outside lie the golden fields and Pipariya is an attractive one. No wonder, most politicians who controlled the state came from these rural areas.”
Pipariya was in the eastern part of Hoshangabad division. Most of the division’s north was part of Narmada valley and gifted with fertile soil and good weather. The south of the division was think teak forests and Satpura mountain ranges. There were some mines of Iron ore inside the forests but the estimates were not in public knowledge. Beyond the ranges and to the east lay the coal mines of Parasia. Pipariya was also the entry point for Pachmarhi, the highest peak in central India. But more importantly, many of the prized wild animals like bisons, tigers and black bucks were most easily spotted in this region. It had been the favorite hunting ground for the British. The forests and mountains of the region still evoked fear. Most of the terrain was unknown in modern times till British mapped most of it in the nineteenth century.
The western part of the division was fertile land and was part of the north south trade route. As a result, Itarsi, though a tiny hamlet, had become an important road and rail junction even in British times. The region originally only had tribals, but with British rule, many settlements had started.
The region had been a good supplier of teak, wildlife, coal, and food grains, huge enough to bring in groups trying to take control of these resources. The British realized this and ensured strict enforcement of law and order and many great projects had been done by them. The forest guest houses, interior bridges and canals and cement roads were still present and in use.
In our discussions, Tilak gave many different and contradictory statements, but I had the following impression of Pipariya and Hoshangabad region, based on his reading:
‘With the help of the British, a clan chieftain from Rajasthan moved here and quickly showed how barbaric he can be. He gave the Pachmarhi region to a Pathan family, they being more skilled in poaching, and gave the forest and tribal region to Traders from Punjab, as they were more skilled in teak trade and theft. In return, he got their communities also behind him. But he remained weak because though he was barbaric, he was not organized and wanted everything for himself.
Once the British went, splinter groups of armed men and families joined the main political party and had bloody street fights to take control of the resources. The tribals and the small farmers watched as new orders were formed. The chieftain also became a major leader of the region, joined politics and became a devout follower of the Mahatma Gandhi.
But in the early days of independence, the central leadership only went for true nationalists. One such person was Dau Patel’s father. He got the political power. He was an honest and principled man, but had the weakness of overlooking which direction his son, Dau Patel was taking.
During this period, the graft in the administration and police and judiciary steadily increased. It was also easy to infiltrate ranks of governance with known folks. The hiring processes were rudimentary, and went by personal choice of officers.
On a separate front, traders and traditional money lenders were not happy with the Rajput chieftain family, which still had a lot of clout in sale of farm produce. They believed there was much more money in controlling through commodity mandis. It was ethical and widespread loot, while the Chieftain was used to openly asking for his share of crop. He wanted to be seen as the savior. Such ambition made him unpopular.
Dau Patel steadily rose in power in collusion with the traders, money lenders, and his officials. He took on the erstwhile established mafias with equal or more brutality. By now, the political wind of the country had also changed and had become greedy. The trader lobby’s interests matched with the newly arising political forces. Soon mandis became the dominant crop collection channels.
By early 80s, the financial power of the Rajput chieftain was also broken and three other groups came up to share the territory – the Gujjars from Rajasthan in west part, and the Dau Patels in east including Pipariya and coal mine, and Sardars controlling the forest areas in the central part. Each of them controlled the private businesses in their areas, sold the natural resources and grabbed the government contracts. The chieftain semi retired leaving it to his son; he still seemed in awe of his erstwhile image.
The Rajput chieftain passed away but his son continued to dream of their old glory days. They had become weak and inconsequential to the powers that be. But in their foolishness, they were prone to violence and ever ready to take up risky assignments. The ordinary population still feared and respected them, due to hundreds of years of history of their clan.
In early 90s, the Sardars also focused on political ambitions and aligned with a regional party. It won and as a result, they brought new fights.
In mid 90s, the Dau started becoming blatantly ruthless as the only answer to guile of Sardars. Gujjars gave up and came under the patronage of Dau Patels. Sardars and Dau Patels lived in an violent equilibrium throughout the 90s.
While Sardars aligned with a strong regional party, Dau Patel got the patronage of a central party. It had lost the popular vote when Dau’s father was at helm and was again trying to find its hold in the region. They still controlled coal black marketing, the most lucrative trade and one driven by central forces. They were bold enough to assassinate a few prominent businessmen aligned to Sardars. Many predicted their doom, but they survived and reaped the rewards.
Then Sardars evolved to become a nameless and faceless organization. They were no longer the smart traders who had come from North India, but had folks from all regions and beliefs. Their physical presence was very less but they had a foothold in every business.
While all this was going on, the administration had looked the other way, letting the warring parties settle the territories and businesses amongst themselves. They had learnt to do so in last fifty years of independent India and internet age made no difference.
The political parties own cash models had matured. The group in control of coal illegal trade or Mandi trade or Sand mining had to pay a fixed sum to the ruling party every month and a similar arrangement was put in place with the Party headquarters in Delhi.
Looking at this arrangement and the futility of their roles, and the prospect of being left out of the cash scheme, the Police, Administrative services and the media houses had made their percentage enforcement plans.
I guessed such plans had left the judiciary dry. It waited to punish the offenders once it got a chance. Even the most honest judges knew that with these functions of the state in a compromising mode, it was near impossible to enforce the legal system and justice. For others in judiciary, there was nothing much to do except make money when they had luck i.e. a case involving the Sardars or Patels came up. The onus of buying out or threatening witnesses and managing the civil and police administration lay with the warring parties.
By the time twenty first century arrived in Pipariya, everything was peaceful. Both groups had settled positions. Dau was the undisputed Mandi controller, and had a stake in sugar mills, storages and distribution. On the other hand, Sardars had direct say in state level contracts from road to mining and logging. They had recently got the mining license for iron ore deposits in the forest south of Pipariya, close to where Nagbaba lived.
For Dau, it was a big threat. With mining contracts, Sardars could gain enough cash to make Dau irrelevant. All that was needed was moving out the tribals legally or illegally in a manner that didn’t attract trouble. They had tried it for last five years but the task had proved much tougher.
I asked Raju Mama about these groups and their fights. Raju Mama believed that they were fights for the honor of the families. He did not link it to their business interests. I was not surprised to know how the farmers and ordinary folks were made to interpret the events. In any case, they would not have understood any complex reasons; they needed simple and spicy stories that were within the realm of their imagination.’
I did not agree to everything Tilak thought as facts, and kept many things as assumptions. But it was a new world to me. Having grown up in a middle class government servant’s home, such persons and their manipulations looked alien. All I knew was to compete and win in examinations and then in technical designs and then project plans.
I had spent a long time lying idle in the hospital. I wanted normalcy and getting back to following my old ways. I thought long and hard about the attack, the attitude of Police, Agarwal and then my parents and the plans I had for my own self. Somewhere, my plans and my whole upbringing didn’t fit with this environment.
I had wondered if I could run away leaving the case to others; I could always monitor the progress from a distance. But Mr.Lal had warned against such thoughts. If I went away, Sooraj would quickly be broken down, false witnesses could prove true and true witnesses may not show up. That meant I would be brought back for good or would have to become a fugitive. And I had not even thought what my parents would go through. So that option was ruled out.
Yet I wanted more clarity, and stability about future. I burned myself with these thoughts and came to the decision that I will not get anything unless I fight.
And then I turned my thoughts to fighting out of this situation. What skills did I have?
‘Project planning, Marketing, Finance, Economics, Business Strategy, Chemical engineering’ - that’s what the resume read with a proud list of achievements. Also I had been an average but passionate sportsperson with thin built and average height. My arms didn’t have the tendency of a fistfight, nor did my nature.
What strengths did I have then? When I thought about it again, I ignored my resume entirely.
A strength that I always counted upon was a long list of friends. But the hospital days took that away. I had mentioned the case and the event to a few and after wishing me all success, most hadn’t turned back. I realized they were far away, had their settled lives and it was too much to expect them to devote more attention.
It was a rude stripping of sorts; one that was required.
I also gave a long thought to the possibility of this assault being a case of mistaken identity and that we were wrongly targeted. That possibility did not find much ground; there was a long chase to figure out if it was a wrong car and the cross talk of the assaulters rang in my head. They exactly knew what they were after.
Then I also looked at what I was standing against? I did not have a name of the person behind the assault but understood that whatever force it was, it was brutal enough to execute anyone and carry it out without even the person suspecting it.
Then I had to face a system that was ready to work only if it could be bought and I didn’t have the money to pay the price.
Was I willing to pay the price if I had money, against all values I had believed in? Honestly, I was willing in those days. I had been losing confidence that my value system can take me out of this situation. I was willing to shelve my values for ensuring survival and escape.
I had been silently getting frustrated with my parents, and my initial gratitude to them for being with me in this tough time was slowly changing into a mixed bag of gratitude, disregard and burden. They had far too much respect and fear for likes of Agarwal, the police and the unknown enemy. Instead of being any help in the form of calm strategy, they were just a sight of tension. I acknowledged that they were what they had been; limited by their experience, but what frustrated me was their pattern of change. Quite opposite to my mind, they had gone into a fearful and surrender mode.
Amidst all these thoughts, I was always looking at the future and wanted it to be the way the past was. All my days spent touring the world and living in US were calling me. I had resolved to get out of this situation and shun this land of malice forever. My past became my future dream; it seemed a better outcome for all those I cared for. But then the present situation came in between.
I was trying to go around the blind turn again, not even looking at the beauty of the new unfolding scenery on the path.
During that time, I also read from Mao to Gandhi, Marx to Luther King. Those books combined with Tilak’s description of the system and its beneficiaries made me go very quiet. I do not know what all churns happened inside before I slowly started putting some ground rules in my head.
One was that my goodness cannot win over the likes of Agarwal and unknown enemies and the graft loving system; they were too far into malice.
Second was that the malice had deep roots – I could take help from weaker folks but those who matter were powerful and most of the powerful were the roots of this system. Even if a powerful person helps, there will be a cost to pay and I had to assess it carefully.
Third was that my resources and force was miniscule compared to what was required; I could not afford any waste. I would not compete with anyone with my limited resources. Where I could outdo them would be softer aspects from ruthlessness to generosity, planning to madness - those aspects that didn’t need resources.
The fourth was that the fact that I wanted to exit this environment had to be hidden from everyone. That was my real purpose and it could not be disclosed. Superficially, I was here to stay. It was a huge contradiction but nonetheless it was there.
There were many such rules that I made but I did not follow many of those in the course of time. Some of them backfired too. But they gave me a starting point and brought some peace of mind along with the transformation.
In the process of these thoughts, I realized my biggest strength that had been there ever since - I would analyze and overcome any situation much faster than others.