The amicable relationship some villagers have with the Maoists, panchayat institutions, as well as large NGOs operating in the vicinity of the villages seems an unusual co-existence in Jharkhand.

It was a weekday when I got a call from Manohar* (name changed), an invite to attend a shahaadat diwas in Chotanagpur region the next day. Two months back, Manohar had helped us get in touch with the CPI(Maoist) for an interview. As he said, shahadat diwas was a day to commemorate martyrdom. I was unsure if it was the rebels' leaders' lives the ceremony was meant to recount, but had little opportunity to ask till I was on the road with him the next day.

A few hours out of Ranchi as we reached the forest, the road gave way to a dirt track winding through rocky outcrops. Mahua trees were in bloom, its yellow seeds scattered on the ground. Sal was sprouting fresh green leaves.

"Vote ke jariye sarkaar ke rang badalta hai, shoshan-shaashan bandh nahin hota hai – Bhakpa (Maowadi)" (“Voting will change shades of governance, not repression”), the banned CPI(Maoist)'s message for boycotting elections scrawled in large brown letters on the wall of a hut painted white. The hut's inhabitants went about their routine.

The path soon gave way to a large clearing. Here, at the base of a hill, the villagers – men dressed in white shirts and dhoti, women in sarees, musicians with drums, dancers with plastic flowers in their hair - were under one tent, and in front of them were two six feet-high statues under a bright blue and yellow canopy.

It was only then that it became clear the farmers from several villages around the hills had gathered to celebrate the lives of two of their ancestors, whom they described as the first from Jharkhand to fight the British. They recounted that Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh had been executed, defeated by the British in April 1812 – nearly 45 years before what I had learned in textbooks to remember as the first year of Indians' rebellion against the British, the Mutiny of 1857. “Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh of Navagarh and Panari Pargana amar rahein,” began Govardhan Singh of the village path pradarshak samiti that has been organizing the function every April.

Who were the two? What had they done? Was their any direct link between the Maoists' presence in the area and this public ceremony? And how did this affect the politics, voting of these interior villages? I wondered as I watched ceremony those gathered had organized to honour their first freedom fighters.

The story I never knew

This is how the organizers described the story of Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh's lives.

Bakhtar Say and Mundal Singh, two landowners, fought against the British in Chottanagpur region 1812 onwards. When the British government ordered Govind Nath Shahdeo, the king of Chotanagpur, to pay Rs.12,000 as tax to the East India Company, Bakthar Say refused on behalf of the peasants of the Navagarh Raidih area. This provoked a fight in which Bakhtar Say killed Hira Ram, the Ratu courtier sent to collect this tax.

The magistrate of Ramgarh then sent an army from Hazaribagh under Lieutenant H. Odonel, while reaching out to the kings of Jashpur and Sarguja (in present-day Chhattisgarh) to surround Say from all sides. At this time, Mundal Singh reached Navagarh to help Bakhtar Say. The battle lasted two days. Say's army made up of farmers of the area held off the British, something the kings and rulers of Navagarh, Panari and Gumla had failed to do.

But a month later, E. Rafreez of Ramgarh Battalion planned a second charge against both, leading a large army. This battle lasted three days. Say and Singh were forced to seek shelter with Jashpur ruler Ranjeet Singh. The latter betrayed their confidence and they were arrested and taken to Calcutta where they were executed on 4 April, 1812.

A Google search for the two's names to read or corroborate for oneself yields nothing.

A carnival

The sun climbed higher but the people kept coming in hundreds. By late afternoon, the numbers had increased to thousands. Those who took turns to speak paid homage, and compared Say and Singh's revolt to the struggle of tribal villagers who spent several years in jail in Latehar and Chaibasa prisons charged by forest officials for collecting firewood from forests. Others compared the struggle of Say and Singh against the British in the 19th century to the displacement of lakhs of Jharkhand's tribals in the last hundred years, reflecting the feeling many describe as Jharkhand's “repeated colonisation” - first by the Biritish, then the ruling governments, and now by large mining firms.

“Political leaders visit and try as they may to talk sweet, they will have to answer about our displacement,” Munna Kisan, the village shahadat diwas committee convenor, a frail old man wearing a white shirt over dhoti and canvas shoes, spoke animatedly.

Manohar, who has spent some time in jail on charges of being a Maoist, asked questions that have been absent from the political and TV debates preceding elections: Why do a majority of women in the country still have khoon ki kami (anaemia)? If even a single school or wells had been built in the village every year since Independence, would things not be different? Why were gram sabha resolutions on use of land and trees flouted despite Constitutional provisions? Were leaders living in Delhi capable of ever understanding the lives and priorities of Jharkhand's villagers?

As the villagers watched, several young men dressed in shirts and trousers came and watched from afar. The organizing committee members identified the men as from the local squad of the CPI(Maoist). The carnival grew bigger. The karam dances grew more vibrant. The festivities would go on all night. Nagpuri artists were expected to perform at night. The villagers said they had collected over Rs.1 lakh to organize the meeting. The “party” (Maoists) had contributed additional funds. To celebrate two martyrs the villagers associated with the Indian freedom movement, I wondered...

A peculiar relationship

“The maoists are samaaj sewi (social workers), except they carry guns,” offered the panchayat's young woman mukhiya when I asked her about the presence of armed squads in the hills surrounding the village as we shared a big lunch of dal, rice, tomato chutney, and washed it down with sattu (gram flour and water). When I asked if the rebels had tried to constitute committees within the village as is common in pockets of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, she said the krantikari kisaan samiti had existed since several years but had made no active effort to carry out public works in the village.

The perfectly amicable relationship the villagers seemed to have with the Maoists, panchayat institutions, as well as large NGOs operating in the vicinity of the villages seemed an unusual co-existence, peculiar to Jharkhand. Would the alliances of those with similar aims though different strategies here survive and evolve to question future rulers and governments?