Dear Mr President,
It was another October in the year 2006, when a vehicle bearing the national emblem instead of a license plate (as is the norm for vehicles transporting the President) stopped at B R Hills in Chamarajanagar district of southern Karnataka. It was an exciting time for the Solega people who were among those who welcomed him. And why not? It was after all their lands and forests that the (then) President was visiting, and it was with pride and anticipation that they received President Kalam. School girls from Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) school welcomed him. In complete breach of the blue book which is prescriptive of protocols and behaviours during Presidential visit replete with colonial referencing to visits by (then) royalty, President Kalam insisted on going everywhere that the local district administration had forbidden. He met patients at the tribal hospital that he inaugurated, shared thoughts in his speech on his vision for rural and remote areas, and later on hugged and was hugged by scores of Solega Adivasi children. As a doctor at the hospital, I watched in awe as he demonstrated his familiarity with the name of the local Adivasi community and asked me about the status of Sickle Cell Disease (known to be prevalent among several of these communities). He even naively promised that in a decade genetic engineering would find a treatment for it (which is not yet the case).
This was in sharp contrast, sir, to your own visit to BR Hills on October 7th this year. Having witnessed an earlier visit, I couldn’t but reflect on the starkly different nature of your own engagement with the place. Your program announced that you are visiting the BR Hills temple, a historically and culturally important temple. Given that the temple is surrounded by forests with several thousdans of the Solega Adivasi people, many of us working with Adivasi communities imagined that there would be some interaction that your office might plan to at least meet them even if you may not have the time to visit their podus (hamlets). Letters of request from the Sangha (collective association of the Solega community) and oral request submitted by them to the district administration and the distrcint-in-charge Minster went unanswered. I was in fact shocked when an elected representative informed an Adivasi collaborator of mine that this was a private visit. Is it possible sir for a State visit with full protocol to be a private visit? Indeed, the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra, an organisation that has been working with the Solega people too wrote to your office in vain.
Today, we just witnessed your cavalcade pass by, as police prevented me and several other colleagues from even standing by the road. We stood ground of course since we were standing on private ground and some of us felt that witnessing the visit of the head of State is not only a privilege but also our right. That said, for kilometres together barricades were constructed across tribal settlements. While there was possibly no ill intention but only your own safety that was kept in mind, it does bring a question on the nature of engagement of Presidents with communities. More so, when Presidents visit areas with this kind of history of land rights and marginalisation that Adivasi communities have witnessed.
Perhaps I was being too naive that public consciousness-raising on Adivasi issues has progressed over the last two decades since the Forest Rights Act. However, the nature of engagement I witnessed today at BR Hills only reinforces an age-old paternalistic engagement of the State with the Adivasi. As I browsed through the photos of the previous President visit with my colleagues here, I can’t help imagine how different this would have been had you requested your office to set up one visit to an Adivasi Podu. Like they re-built road and put-up toilets and infrastructure overnight around the temple for your visit, perhaps they might have built roads to the settlement you chose to visit? I am reminded for example of the Solega settlement of Purani nearby which is still struggling for a road, or the remote settlement of Bedaguli where too there is neither electricity nor water supply. Is it too foolish to imagine that one day at least because a President is visiting, they might build roads to these places, if not for restoring their rights to these? Perhaps one day….
Sir, yours is a high office and a big responsibility and I am sure there are considerations far beyond my comprehension that dictate choices that you make. However, in my view as a researcher and a doctor working with Adivasi communities, and having seen the rising consciousness towards historical injustice meted out to them by colonial and post-colonial societies, State visits to their lands, locations and areas must respectfully engage with the communities and their traditions and culture. Indeed, Presidential visits to their lands and homes could become symbols of more respectful and dignified engagement with the Adivasi communities. Even a short interaction with their traditional leadership or visits to their homes and settlements, a powerful symbolism could have in fact been leveraged in their favour. Alas, your visit not only missed this opportunity. Perhaps, another President decades later?
Prashanth N Srinivas, written in my capacity as a resident of BR Hills
PS: I do plan to send this letter to you by post although I wonder if it will reach your desk at all, and if then, you would find it worthy to reflect on choices that you/your advisors made with respect to your visits to such areas