Is it best to forget, forgive and move on or should we hold on to our belief that there has to be justice for past wrongs? This question is being asked repeatedly in the context of the forthcoming Gujarat election. Some people argue that the horrific events of 2002 can and should never be forgotten. Others believe that Gujarat and Gujaratis must move on and that economic development will ultimately benefit all and automatically heal the wounds.
Yet, we know that unless there is justice, the wounds don't heal. In Mumbai, for the victims of the March 1993 serial blasts, perhaps there is some closure with the conclusion of the long drawn out case that has convicted 100 people. But the riots that preceded the bomb blasts have left behind a legacy of gaping wounds - the perpetrators of the crimes committed then, specifically named in the Srikrishna Commission report, continue to roam around freely while the victims survive in an increasingly divided society. India's post Independence history is replete with such instances of unresolved communal crimes.
Getting away unscathed
And then there are corporate crimes that also remain unresolved. Remember Bhopal 1984? In one night, 3000 people died because a leaking plant using poisonous chemicals continued to operate with impunity in the vicinity of a crowded locality of urban poor. Until one cold December night when there was an 'accident'. Thousands died, many more lived impaired lives for years and then died and still more continue to carry the burden of poor health for the crime of being near the Union Carbide plant on that fateful night. Yet, the corporation responsible for this 'accident' has escaped virtually unscathed.
For the victims of the Bhopal Gas Disaster, the 23-year-old struggle for justice has been relentless and quite often thankless. For every bit of additional compensation, for basic health facilities, for a clean up of the rotting plant that closed down after raining death on its neighbourhood, they have had to petition, demonstrate and fight.
Leading the struggle have been women. Two of them, Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi were recognised for their efforts when they received the Goldman Environmental Prize (considered an alternate Nobel) in 2004. Now these women have used the prize money of $125,000 to set up the Chingari Trust that will seek out others like them around the country and recognise their efforts.
This year, the first ever Chingari Award for Women Against Corporate Crime was given to a 45-year-old tribal woman from Rayagada district in Orissa, Mukta Jhodia.
I haven't personally met Mukta. But I've met others of her sisters from Orissa, women who have fought long and hard for justice - over rights to collect minor forest produce, against corruption in the forest department, for fair wages, and now for the right to decide whether their beautiful land will be gouged out by ugly bauxite mines leaving them without the forests that have sustained their communities for generations.
Women like Mukta are asking: Who has the right to decide how their land should be used? Who are the real owners of the wealth that lies beneath?
These questions have been raised in many different locations around the world - in Australia by the Aborigines, in the United States and Canada by the native Indians, in South America, Africa and in other parts of Asia by indigenous groups. There are no easy answers. In the name of 'progress' and 'development', activities like mining and industrialisation are justified. Those pushing for such use of the land argue that tribals and indigenous communities cannot and should not remain "backward", that ultimately they will benefit from the "development" and that the wealth beneath the ground will be shared by all.
Understanding the issues
So, if these communities resist, are they idiots who do not know what is best for them? From the response of the State, you would imagine that this is what the government thinks. Illiteracy and intelligence are equated. So, because many of the people are unlettered, it is assumed that they cannot understand issues like development, or what is best for them. But they struggle and resist because they do understand, because they do know that in the end they will be left with nothing, not even the ground beneath their feet. So they fight a life and death struggle.
Ask women like Mukta. In her short life, she has been involved in many struggles. But the most daring has been her participation in the resistance to the Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL) bauxite mining and processing project in Orissa's Kashipur district.
Lack of transparency
What triggers these struggles is quite often the lack of transparency. The tribals of Kashipur wanted to know from the district officials why their land was being acquired and what would become of them. They did not get straight answers. In a democracy people have the right to ask, to agree or disagree and to resist if their voices are not heeded. We see this repeated in so many different locations around India.
If we want development with a human face, then this dichotomy between the demands of so-called development and the needs of the poorest have to be reconciled. But somehow this is not an area of concern or debate in the India of booming growth, burgeoning cities and self-congratulatory rhetoric.
In the long term, women like Mukta might be bullied and cowed down but they will not give up that easily. They are a reminder of that other India, the real India. An India where there is no electricity, where women still walk miles for water, where children die at childbirth or if they survive the first year, die a few years down the line of hunger, where the only real resource that people have is being snatched away from them in the name of 'development'. And where there are many unrecognised heroines like Mukta.