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The Rediff Special/Prem Panicker

The Price of Loyalty

E-Mail this special report to a friend "When you get there, there is no THERE, there!" Thus ran Dorothy Parker's trenchant dismissal of a one-horse town in the American mid-West sans even the one horse.

The nuclear test site at Pokhran -- or rather, a bird's eye view of it, from my vantage point -- reminds you of that assessment. For, considering that I am standing about a kilometre and a half from the epicentre of the nuclear blasts of May 11 and 13, considering that the isolated spot on the edge of the Thar desert gave the world an apopletic fit it is still to recover from, the vista is curiously featureless.

I'm atop a large, grassy knoll. At my feet, the ground dips into an undulating plain, dotted with clumps of hardy desert bush. A few buck -- black, and otherwise -- roam around in the middle distance. And on the horizon are a small cluster of buildings dominated by a domed construction in golden granite that is the nuclear test facility.

Around me are strewn the detritus of an army outpost now abandoned. Charred black planks on the ground, demarcating the floor of the house. A mound of brittle coal and ash -- the remnants of thatched roofs that have been torched. A few empty liquor bottles -- rum and gin -- flung carelessly under a nearby bush.

The hut -- and others like it -- once marked the periphery of the test site. My guide, Budh Ram Bishnoi, tells me that mid-April through July, even the locals weren't permitted to graze their goats there. Boys -- Budh Ram and his friends, my companions at the time, are all in their middle to late teens -- being boys, a few apparently did defy the proscription, especially after the blasts provoked their curiosity. For their pains, they were beaten up by the army personnel guarding the periphery. "Bahut pitai hui (we were thrashed)," Budh Ram grins, like it is all a big joke.

Budh Ram is a native of Khetolai, closest of four villages scattered around the nuclear test facility. It was his idea, bringing me to this knoll. When I landed up in the village, he went, "Aap visphot jahaan hua udhar jayenge (Would you like to visit the test site)?"

Earlier, I'd been turned back -- rather rudely --by an army type, part of an outpost securing the entrance to the road that services the nuclear installation. No visitors, I was curtly told, my press pass counting for zilch.

So I took up Budh Ram on his offer. He and half a dozen of his friends piled unnecessarily into my hired jeep and directed the driver out of the village, along the trackless semi-desert for a further two kilometres, till we got to the knoll. "Do you have a press pass?" Budh Ram, wise to the ways of the media, asked. "If there are soldiers, you will have to show it."

As it turned out, there were no soldiers. The camps on the periphery of the site have been abandoned -- indication, perhaps, that nothing major is happening at the facility.

We drive back to Khetolai. To the home of village elder Narsing Rao Bishnoi. Khetolai, incidentally, is completely dominated by the Bishnois, with just a few goat-herding Magawals making up the rest of an estimated population of 4,000.

And it is a Congress village.

I've seen what, in political parlance, is a 'stronghold' before, but I've never seen one like this, or its neighbour, Dholia. In areas where one party commands support, the locals are only too willing to tell you, at times heatedly, why their party is the best, the most deserving of their support. If you bring up negatives, they are equally willing to argue the toss.

Not here. Not in Khetolai. "Hum Congress ke hain, azaadi se lekar ab tak,' says Narsing Rao.

I try probing. Why? What has the Congress done for you? Why do you support that party?

"Hum Congress ke hain!" It is a wall as impenetrable as the granite wall of his home. Theirs, apparently, not to reason why. Theirs, merely, to vote for the 'hand'.

"We would have 100 per cent polling, but the government won't accept that, so we take care to have only 95 per cent," the venerable elder says simply, while a clutch of locals nod and murmur assent.

Loyalty, I learn, both from him and from people I talk to in Pokhran proper, has come at a price. Narsing Rao points to a corner of his hut, with an irregular crack running down the length of the granite wall. Later, as I walk around the village, I notice similar cracks on almost all the walls. Mementoes, I'm told, of the May blasts.

Cracking granite takes some doing. But then, a series of nuclear blasts is some force, when you are just 4 km from the epicentre. And the real damage, I am told, is the cracks in their water tanks.

In Khetolai, there are granite tanks in each home to hold precious drinking water, bought at Rs 300 per 3,000 litres, from tankers that come to the village thrice a week. That, by quick calculation, makes for less than a litre of potable water per head -- and now, even that is jeopardised.

Didn't the government repair the damage, I wonder. That opens the floodgates -- the locals all talk at once, till Narsing Rao looks angrily at them, the mien of village elder very much in evidence. He then tells the tale:

May 11, the first blasts, the first cracks. May 13, more blasts, and a couple of homes collapse, though no one is hurt. Five days later, they were told of the impending visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to their village, on May 20.

The village got ready -- but Vajpayee did not come.


"Idhar ke BJP-walon ne mana kiya -- unko maloom hai ke hum Congress ke hain... Isliye Vajpayee seedhe Pokhran gaye (about 30 km away) aur udhar bhashan diye, chale gaye."

Did the people of the village go to Pokhran to meet him? "Koshish to kiya, lekin mana kiya gaya. The police were posted on the road, we were turned back, not allowed to meet him."

Why? "Hum to Congress ke hain aur sarkar BJP ki," the answer, in a matter-of-fact tone.

How about compensation, I ask, since I remember reading that the central government planned to make good the losses.

"Haanh, kuch government-wale aaye the, they offered amounts between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000 for each house. All of us refused."

Why? "It is too little, we can't even buy enough bricks with those amounts, let alone afford the labour. So in our panchayat, we decided to refuse; we said we will spend our own savings to repair the damage."

Manohar Joshi, local correspondent for Dainik Bhaskar, and Rajesh Bhatia, owner of Pokhran's only petrol-filling station, and hence a person of seemingly immense consequence, fill me in on the rest of the story.

Apparently the government, flustered by the refusal of the villagers of Khetolai and Dholia to accept the handouts -- I mean, whoever heard of people on the poverty line refusing money? -- sent in engineers of the Rajasthan Awas Vikas Sansthan to assess the actual damage. They came, they saw -- and in an official report estimated that it would cost Rs 1.5 million to repair the damaged walls and water tanks of Khetolai alone.

The report hasn't been heard of since, says Joshi. The government gave it a quiet burial.

"Haanh, engineerwale aaye the, they agreed it will take a lot of money to repair our walls, but we didn't hear anything about it afterwards," says Narsing Rao Bishnoi. "Is gaon mein to hum Congress ke hain, BJP sarkar hamein itna paisa kyon dega?"

Did you, for survival's sake, think of switching loyalties? Or at least pretending to?

My question draws a guffaw from the elder. "Beta, BJP ka candidate idhar to aata tak nahin," he laughs. "Kuch chote neta aate hain, bhashan dete hain, aur chale jaate hain. Yadi hum unko bol dein ke hum BJP ko vote denge, to woh vishwas nahi karenge. Arre, yadi hum such mein BJP ko vote dein, to bhi koyi vishwaas na karega -- sub log jaante hain ke hum to Congress ke hain."

Captain (retired) Akhai Singh, who from a commandeered shop in Pokhran directs the BJP campaign in the region, concurs when pressed, "Yes, those two villages, Khelotai and Dholia, are hard-core Congress, they won't vote for anyone else."

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