Decades ago when young "Seethakka" was a Maoist leader fighting against feudalism Andhra Pradesh, she had learned how to travel long and dangerous distances with a gun in hand under the cover of the night and past the noses of authorities in order to make her way through the forest.
Now an MLA in Telangana, the coronavirus pandemic has brought Danasari Anasuya, aka "Seethakka" back on those same routes. Only difference? This time she isn't carrying a gun but stocks of vegetables and grains.
Akka to the rescue
In Telugu, "Seethakka" means "Sister Sita". And that is just what two-time congress MLA Dansari Anasuya is to local Adivasis in her constituency of Mulug in Telangana.
She's no ordinary leader though. The two-time MLA has been a Maoist for over fifteen years before joining politics. Since being elected as a people's representative to the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly first in 2009 and then again in 2018 (then Telangana), Seethakka has been at the beck and call of the residents of her constituency, a majority of which is made up of Adivasis or Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.
As the coronavirus pandemic threatens to spread across the country and the lockdown cripples the economy, Seethakka has been overtaking long and arduous journeys since March 26, often on bullock carts and even on foot, to reach villages in the forested swatches of Mulug with essential supplies.
Rising early at dawn, every day, she and her team cover nearly seven villages where they deliver rice, wheat, pulses, and other essentials. So far, the 48-year-old MLA has managed to cover over 150 villages and hamlets.
"Many of the people in Mulug have no idea what is happening or why we are in lockdown. But due to restrictions on roads and supply lines, some villages have been completely cut off. And no one, not even the Telangana state government, is trying to help these villages." Seethakka told News18 over the phone.
Being a former Naxal, Seethakka is well aware of inside roads and secret routes that cut through dense forests. Using a network of local municipal liaisons, Seethakka has managed to keep abreast of the needs of her constituency, even amid the lockdown. In case of a food or medicine shortage, or in case of medical emergencies such as pregnancy, Seethakka has been trying to provide instant relief.
'No government aid'
Nearly 72 of the 650-odd villages that make up the constituency have no road connectivity. Having served as a former comrade in the Naxal movement for years, however, Seethakka knew her way. For the past 28 days, the MLA has been touring through her constituency in cars, buses, tractors, bullock carts and on foot to take food and medicine supplies to Adivasi villages.
"I raised the issue of coronavirus during the last Telangana Assembly session earlier in March. But the ruling party (TRS) laughed me out at the time," Seethakka said. "Today, when governments across the world are taking measures to safeguard its citizens, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government seems totally unsympathetic of Telanagana's Adivasi population," she said.
Seethakka also claimed that the state's announcement to pay Rs 1500 along with 12 kg grain to those with ration cards and Rs 500 to those without as compensation was impractical in a constituency like hers where large swathes of land were covered by forests.
"Firstly, Rs 1500 is not enough for a family to survive. Secondly, the money is supposed to come directly to the beneficiary's bank account. But many Adivasis don't have one, neither do they have access to internet banking or even ATM. What good is the money then?" Seethakka fumed.
Additionally, Seethakka pointed out that Mulug also faced a migrant crisis that remained unaddressed by the state. Migrants belonging to the Gutti Koya tribe seasonally migrated to Mulug to cultivate red chillies. Owing to the lockdown, these workers now found themselves stuck without work.
As per the MLA, the government response toward issues faced by members of the community were often dismissed. "The TRS government considers these migrants outsiders and refuses to acknowledge their needs," she said.
In the past week, the Telangana government has provided food, shelter, and supplies to crisis-struck migrants fleeing cities such as Hyderabad amid lockdown. However, Seethakka alleged that none of the aid had reached migrants or locals living in the forested interiors of Mulug.
The MLA also pointed out that while coronavirus awareness messaging from Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as the central government had been apt and timely, much of it failed to reach the inner reaches of the forest, thus making it her job to educate members of her constituency about coronavirus and its prevention.
She and her team have been raising awareness for the plight of the Adivasi community in these remote areas through social media. The expenses for the relief work are being borne by Seethakka herself and through donations of benefactors residing locally as well as from abroad.
A history of mistrust
Anger and mistrust for the government, the police and other agents of the state is common among Adivasis of Mulug and other parts of Telangana, which was once a hotbed for Naxal activity.
In 2017, a group of Adivasi men and women were allegedly tied to poles and stripped by forest officials in Jalagalancha, a village in Tadvai district under the Mulug constituency. The Telangana government under KCR did nothing to redress the issue. According to Seethakka, bitterness has festered since. But in reality, Adivasis of the area have for years favoured and continue to favour Naxal leaders over politicians and elected leaders.
Seethakka herself was a 16-year-old student of class 10 when she joined the Naxal party in 1988. Inspired by the writings of Phoolan Devi and angry with the economic exploitation and casteist discrimination Adivasis faced at the hands of feudal landlords and Zamindars in the state, Seethakka took up arms against the system and the state. At the time, Telangana, which was then part of AP, was ruled by Congress, a party that continues to exercise a high deree of influence in parts of rural Telangana.
A Congress MLA herself now, Seethakka clarified that even in her Maoist days, she was never against the government or those in power. Her struggle was instead against the systemic corruption and exploitation of the underprivileged by those in power, even as governments looked the other way. "We were not fighting any particular regime but the system," she said.
From guns to governance
Seethakka spent nearly two decades as a comrade during which she married an influential Naxal leader and birthed a son. At the time, she had surrendered herself to the police but after the birth of her son, Seethakka went back to join the party. It was only in 2004, following certain ideological disputes and personal disagreements within party members that Seethakka gave up the Naxal movement for good and surrendered to security forces.
"When all the legal proceedings were over, I studied to become a lawyer in Hyderabad," she said, adding that it was only after studying law that she got interested in public policy and governance. Since Seethakka was active in social work and locally loved as a leader, then AP Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu decided to give her a ticket.
"The idea is to make a difference. People in my constituency love me, they trust me and listen to me," Seethakka said. "This kind of faith in public representatives is important in an area where insurgents can easily take advantage of vacuums created due to the government's inadequacy in addressing the needs of the Adivasi population".
Seethakka, who is also also the All India Mahila Congress General Secretary, claimed that though Mulug was free of active insurgency now, many locals still revered Naxal leaders as heroes as opposed to the government and security forces. Forest officials are often in tenterhooks with locals who claim corrupt officials often discriminate against Adivasi families in the name of environmental conservation or anti-insurgency.
An avid reader, Seethakka, who is currently pursuing her PhD from Osmania University, said that at a time of crisis, it was important for the government buckled down and take responsibility of its citizens, even the ones hidden away in forests and away from mainstream media.
"It is easy to pass off zones as prone to insurgency but that much harder to get on ground and work for the benefit of the people to prevent them from turning to insurgency," Seethakka, who sais she funds the education of about 1500 students in Mulug through a network of about 42 teachers, concluded.
Seethakka said that the current public health emergency is an excellent opportunity for the Telangana government to undo past wrongs against the Adivasi community and include their safety as part of the national agenda.