Recovering Budhni Mejhan from the silted landscape of modern India

It's important that the Santhali worker who inaugurated one of Nehru's temples of modern India is resurrected in the national memory. She is a reminder that this land can be separated from its people only with tragic consequences

June 02, 2012 12:10 am | Updated February 01, 2021 12:59 am IST

SWITCHED ON, SWITCHED OFF: Budhni inaugurating the power station at the Panchet dam in December 1959. Photo: Nehru Memorial Museum And Library, New Delhi

SWITCHED ON, SWITCHED OFF: Budhni inaugurating the power station at the Panchet dam in December 1959. Photo: Nehru Memorial Museum And Library, New Delhi

Of late, a childhood friend's 80-year-old mother has taken to writing. Emboldened by her single-mindedness, memories dulled by a lifetime of contingencies now respond readily to the daily rustle of pen on paper.

One memory stands out in Surjit Kaur's mind. In 1957, as a fresh eyed schoolteacher from Delhi she went on an educational tour to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. It was 10 years after Independence and she was 25 years old.

As she rattled off her vintage itinerary for my benefit, I glimpsed in her account the fascinating glimmer of a narrative that we now soberly dust off the history shelves as India's Nehruvian past.

The teachers' orientation trip included predictable destinations such as Kanpur, Allahabad, Lucknow, Banaras, Ayodhya, Sarnath, Kolkata and Gwalior which conjured old, civilisational trails of history, culture, commerce and faith.

But some other halts pointed to a new map, a new trail of faith: a dam of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) projected to transform the face of eastern India — then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand; the Chittaranjan locomotive works in West Bengal; a cement refractory plant in Katni and the limestone mines in Satna, both in Madhya Pradesh — all adding up to an image of nation-building through Nehru's temples of modern India in the young schoolteacher's mind.

It was to individuals like her that the image of a boyish Sunil Dutt striding across a dam site in ‘Hum Hindustani' (1960) appealed through an evocative background song: ‘Chhodo kal ki baatein, kal ki baat purani, naye daur mein likhenge mil ke nayi kahani, hum Hindustani (let go of the past; yesterday's talk is old; in this new age, we Indians we shall write a new story together'). The core of this nayi kahani was an idea of progress and development resting on an urban-industrial vision of a socialist society. It was powered by an abiding faith in science and technology, including the most significant element of scientific economic planning.

For Surjit, whose life had been marked by the splinters of Partition, there was perhaps something assuring — and non-threatening — about perceiving development as the yardstick of a new nationalism and modernity.

A few months ago, the retired schoolteacher's story became a part of my present when she asked me to gather information on the places she had visited in 1957. I want to write a detailed account of my best trip ever, she said with a glint in her eye.

Sometimes an innocuous request leads you to the past only to snake back into the present as a story sounding like a sigh, waiting for more than 50 years to be told. Who was to know that a straightforward task of collecting dry facts about a dam visited 54 years ago would bring me face-to-face with the story of Budhni Mejhan, a Santhal tribal, whose life became a testament to nation-building in a way that could never have been imagined; who lived all her life like a pebble trapped under a huge boulder?

I chanced upon Budhni while ferreting out information about the Maithon dam in Dhanbad district (Jharkhand) bordering West Bengal, which was a high point of Surjit's itinerary. The third dam of the ambitious, multipurpose DVC, established in 1948 on the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority, it had been inaugurated around the time of the schoolteachers' visit.

After Maithon I could have moved on to Surjit's next destination. However, a predisposition to stray from the highways of search engines lured me towards material on DVC's fourth dam at Panchet in Dhanbad district, near its border with Purulia (West Bengal). The dam was built across the Damodar river known as the ‘sorrow of Bengal.' Not only was this Rs.19 crore dam DVC's biggest until then; its inauguration on December 6, 1959 had been graced by Prime Minister Nehru himself.

After his own fashion, Nehru had insisted that 15-year-old Budhni Mejhan, a worker on the site, press the button at the power station to signal the start of operations. Many search words later, I found a tiny photograph of this occasion sourced to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Delhi. The mustiness of time had not managed to quell the palpable excitement of the moment in that blackened, indistinct image; it showed the teenager pressing the button, flanked by a broadly smiling Nehru and others.

However, when Budhni returned to her village, Karbona, the village elders told her that by garlanding Nehru at the function she had in effect married him. Since the Prime Minister was not a Santhal, she was no longer a part of the community. She was told to leave the village. The inflexibility of the community ensured that the excommunication was complete.

The youngster was given shelter by a resident of Panchet, Sudhir Dutta, from whom it was said she had a daughter, born to a destiny of exile like her mother. In 1962, Budhni was fired from her job at DVC and reduced to doing odd jobs.

In the 1980s, she travelled to Delhi. She met the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of the Prime Minister she had garlanded, with a request: she wanted to be reinstated at DVC.

The last trace of Budhni was found in a 2001 news report uploaded on the website Headlined ‘Tribal ‘ wife' of Nehru is outcast, driven to poverty' it recounted these details of Budhni's life. Stating that the 58-year-old was working at DVC, the report quoted Budhni as saying, “I wish they would allow me to go back to Karbona.”

Assailed by a feeling of unreality I decided that Surjit's task would have to wait while I searched for Budhni in old newspaper records and photo archives at the NMML.

I wanted to see her face. The clarity of the inauguration photograph granted me that opportunity. I noticed the ornaments in her hair and the fine silver bangles on the burnished ebony of wrist. Most of all I was struck by the look of intense concentration in Budhni's eyes as her hand grasped the switch, the soft contours of innocence suffusing her face.

The Panchet dam inauguration had notched a euphoric lead in many newspapers. ‘Nehru: India marching to prosperity; Big projects a symbol of our resolve,' went the National Herald . The Statesman gave Budhni top billing along with the dam: ‘DVC's biggest dam in commission'; ‘Ceremony at Panchet; ‘Worker switches on power house.' Its reporter started on a breathless note: “Mr. Nehru, as he invited Mrs Budhni Majhi (sic), a young Santhal worker, to switch on the power station here, said it was right that those who had worked on a project should have the honour of declaring it open.” In doing so “Mrs. Majhi became the first worker in the country to declare a dam in commission when she switched on the power station.”

The same report added that “She spoke in Santhali, dedicating the 134-feet-high dam to the nation …” The image of a 15-year-old tribal girl dedicating a dam to the nation in a tongue not even officially recognised by the nation was somewhat ironic, but that detail seemed not to bother the writer. (Santhali was included as an official language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution only in 2003.)

But try as I might, I could not locate even a passing reference to the split second turn in Budhni's life which sucked out the very meaning of her existence. The headlines of the month moved from one high to another: from the Panchet dam to the inauguration of the Durgapur steel plant blast furnace by President Rajendra Prasad, with a momentous visit of U.S. President Ike Eisenhower in-between.

At another level, a constant flow of reports showed up an all-pervasive sense of mission: ‘India needs 49,000 engineers for Third Plan,' ‘Scientific farming of potatoes,' ‘Progress in fertilisers,' ‘Self sufficiency in steel by 1961' and ‘Progress of Bhakra operations,' among others.

Against this spate of cold print, Budhni's fate almost seemed a figment of one's imagination. Her story sank in the media, just like the Santhal villages and historic old temples which got submerged by the waters of the Damodar river impounded by the Panchet dam. (Tribals constituted 56.46 per cent of the population displaced by the Panchet and Maithon dams, says a 1999 paper on ‘Dams, Displacement, Policy and Law in India,' authored by Harsh Mander, Ravi Hemadri and Vijay Nagaraj for the World Commission on Dams.)

Interestingly, in 1959-60, the term displaced persons referred more to the refugees of Partition; the uprooting caused by dams started becoming an issue of debate a decade later.

Of the many links fanning out from the Panchet dam page, one led to an article by well-known political psychologist Ashis Nandy on South Asia's first modern environmental activist Kapil Bhattacharjee. In his time the activist was dubbed a traitor in some quarters for speaking out against the immensely popular DVC project.

Yet, paradoxically, the displacement and impoverishment of tribal populations caused by the DVC did not figure in the writings of Bhattacharjee, who became a human rights activist in his later years, writes Nandy. He is of the view that this anomaly perhaps resulted from the environmental activist's basic faith in the idea of large scale industrialisation and science-based progress.

On reading this, a gust of childhood memory stirred my mind. I remembered an institution known as G.K (general knowledge) tests which loomed large in schools in the 1970s. From G.K digests printed on splotchy paper and sold at neighbourhood shops and roadside newspaper stalls, my generation religiously memorised a map of India characterised by exotic, faraway sounding names. Each name signified a factory or plant promising self-reliance, or heavy industries and multipurpose projects epitomising the sinews of development. The most awe-inspiring names conjured a vast concentration of mineral deposits; they held aloft the vision of industrialisation. Their bounty placed India among the top five or 10 nations boasting one or the other mineral resource in the world.

There was a measure of solemnity with which we committed these names to memory: Sindri (fertiliser), Pimpri (penicillin), Chittaranjan (locomotive), Perambur (coach factory); Rourkela, Bhilai (steel); Bhakra Nangal, Hirakud, Damodar Valley, Kosi, Tungabhadra, Koel Karo, Sardar Sarovar (multipurpose projects and dams); Ankleswar (petroleum); Narora (heavy water), Tarapur (atomic power plant)… so they went.

Then there were the sing-song names which flagged India's mineral wealth: Jharia (coal), Hazaribagh (mica), Singhbhum, Bailadila, Gadchiroli (iron ore), Neyveli (lignite), Keonjhar (manganese), Koraput, Gandhamardan (bauxite)… Questions on mineral resource areas were a huge hit with the teachers. An image of a teacher like Surjit talking animatedly about her visits to such places crossed my mind.

In an age of few distractions, the act of memorising embeds a grid in the mind which is not easy to dismantle. For years, the mention of one location would automatically revive the entire list in the mind — like they were one.

A thought came from nowhere that my classmates and I had grown up thinking of these places as heroic territories full of resources the nation needed to power ahead — huge expanses awaiting that magic prospecting touch to fulfil their destinies, and curiously devoid of any human presence. Not once had it occurred to us to ask if these areas were inhabited by people, which indeed they were.

Perplexed by this flashback, I mentioned it to an academician friend. She tossed a name at me — sociologist Satish Deshpande — saying that an essay whose title she did not remember, from his book Contemporary India: A Sociological View (Penguin, 2003), might help me grasp the pattern of my observations.

She was right. In his essay, ‘The nation as an imagined economy,' Deshpande outlines Nehru's visualisation of the nation primarily as an economic space. Disseminated through schools and state media, the nation became “a space of production … imagined via economic associations” — be it through a clear mapping of resources or projected targets through economic planning. That sounded so familiar.

The sociologist also tells you why this was so. The idea of “enshrining the economy as that part of the nation which stands for the whole” was one of Nehru's “distinctive personal contributions” to the nationalist cause — a way of overcoming the centrifugal pulls of “culture, language, religion, caste or ethnicity.”

The mystery of the powerful emotions aroused by the word development in our minds as youngsters was also solved for me by the don. The physical planning for development made it easier to anthropomorphise or to attribute human form to the economy — “… and to treat it as a sort of person writ large, in much the same way as Hindu gods and goddesses are thought of…”. Naturally, the nation was the most clearly and dramatically visible in giant projects such as dams and steel plants. After all it was from the Bhakra Nangal site that Nehru asked, “where can be a greater and holier place than this'.

No wonder The Statesman's report on President Rajendra Prasad's convocation address at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (December 28, 1959), was headlined ‘Too much stress on rights deplored'; ‘Dr. Prasad warns against neglecting the call of duty.' (About 50 million people were displaced by big projects in 50 years of independence, according to N.C. Saxena, then Secretary, Planning Commission, quoted in ‘Dams, Displacement, Policy and Law in India', 1999.)

Further, these “sites of development invited the citizens to see themselves reflected in the mirror of technological progress and development.” That was us — Surjit, Budhni, and I as a representative of my generation which through the compass of G.K. had memorised the nation as a geography of developmental shrines.

A historical juncture had brought the schoolteacher and the young Santhal tribal selling her labour on the same plane of Nehru's vision, but at different ends of the spectrum. The vision was of a modern economy “paired,” as Deshpande puts it, with a modernised culture unshackled from its conservative and moribund beliefs of the past. Except, the reality was vastly different at the grassroots and Budhni fell through the gaps in this vision with searing consequences. Surjit and I had never known of her existence.

In a way it was fitting that a simple enough assignment to collect information about a 50-year-old inspiring developmental trail should throw up a shadowy presence: a tribal girl who remained outside the radar of an entire generation attuned to the idea of building the nation through development as the highest act of patriotism.

Certain ways of seeing remain convenient even after the fading of a dream, such as the temptation to perceive areas solely in terms of its resources. For instance, on the occasion of Republic Day some years ago, Chhattisgarh created a tableau of the breathtaking Kotumsar caves with abundant limestone deposits in the mineral rich tribal region of Bastar. Only, the Bastar tribal was missing from that landscape. This gaze has only strengthened with the shifts of time — aided by an ideology of growth fuelled by private enterprise in a globalised world.

As lessons in citizenship have given way to lessons in consumerism for many of us, the temptation to dwell on economic geographies has intensified. But here's the change: these very economic geographies have metamorphosed into cultural and political topographies. There are people everywhere and that complicates things. For the hills we see as bauxite reserves they intimately know as the abode of their gods, the lineage of their ancestors and grove of medicinal plants. Wherever people live, they create intensely compressed layers of experience, expressed through a delicate ecology of connectedness. One needs to ‘see' them; that much I have learnt after becoming aware of Budhni's presence in an older narrative.

All this while, I had debated the merits of meeting Budhni. Last week, through a friend's friend in Ranchi I got news that Budhni died last year, disconsolate to the end. She was in her late 60s.

The Panchet dam that Budhni operationalised with the flick of a switch, too, has gone through its own vicissitudes. During my online parikrama around the dam I came upon an article written by Bulu Imam of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Hazaribagh chapter) for the 2006-07 report of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Imam describes how the ruins of at least one historic temple of Telkupi, submerged for decades under the waters of the dammed Damodar, have become visible due to the silting up of the Panchet reservoir. To my fanciful mind, the timing of Surjit's request, the retrieval of Budhni's story, her death and the re-emergence of temple ruins are a strong signal for a new G.K. of collective imagination which sings a land as well as its people into existence.

It would be interesting to know what Surjit makes of this narrative. I am yet to gather the courage to meet her gimlet gaze having delayed her work considerably. Though, knowing her feisty temperament she might want to revisit the landscape of her memories once she hears me out. This time I shall accompany her.

(Chitra Padmanabhan is a writer based in Delhi.Email: )

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