Sunday, 29 April 2007

Parable of 20th Century Blacksmith

Parable of 20th Century Blacksmith of Bhal
by Remigius de Souza

ONCE UPON A TIME there lived a blacksmith in a village. He belonged to the Indic Civilisation in the second half of 20th century of Christian Calendar. He lived in a region called Bhal in Saurashtra of Gujarat State in India. In the same region nearby is the place called Lothal; there existed the Indus Civilization in Bronze Age. ‘Bhal’ meant desert in Gujarati language. In Sanskrit it meant forehead. In Indian tongues forehead also indicated ‘fate’.

The caste of blacksmith, untouchable though, had been part of ecology of the Indic civilisation for centuries. They made things (weapons) for the state, and (implements – tools – equipments) for the households, houses, farms and transport. Perhaps the story of smithy goes beyond, even before, the Indo-European race – the Aryans – invaded India.

The people of India were very proud of their past heritage. However in the lasts decades of 20th century, the mining corporation in Damodar Valley almost destroyed the archaeological evidence that an Iron Age perhaps existed in India before the Bronze Age in Indus Civilization. The mining operations partially destroyed the cave and the cave paintings, and whatever remained was left to further destruction due to ‘exposure’ and ‘tremors’ caused by mining.

The blacksmith in the village in Bhal region had no work, for the villagers had resorted to the mechanized farming. They were also using hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. By the end of 20th Century the people of Bhal had successfully destroyed the soil, insects in the soil – water – air. By using imported advance technology of farming, they had successfully stopped further regeneration of flora and fauna which depended on, and helped each other, and accelerated the rate of desertification of their region.

Thus perhaps the region got its name Bhal – desert – in the modernization process; they also destroyed the indigenous seeds which could grow in the prevailing hot dry climate and topography of the region. They were facing a severe water crisis. When all over India the rural – urban population ratio was 76.7:23.3, in Bhal the rural population was 28.2 percent in the beginning of the 1980s.

Moneylenders called the World Bank from Western Civilisation came forward to give a loan to build a mighty dam over River Narmada. It was to enable water supply to Bhal region by irrigation canals. By this action two things were certain: (1) whatever useful top soil was left in the Bhal region would finally turn saline, and the process of desertification would be completed; and (2) the destruction of the tribal culture and the forest – rich in flora and fauna – in the catchments of Narmada valley.

Civilized, superior societies, in earlier times, had killed – annihilated local, ethnic and tribal communities wherever they reached, or take them as slaves, or as service class ― or Shudras (untouchable caste) ― as in Indic civilisation. Our blacksmith belonged to the untouchable caste.
Our blacksmith was jobless while industries of mass production got tax concessions, subsidies, financial aid, services, etc. All that this petite bourgeoisie had: his simple hand tools, his rickety hut, his poverty and his skill. He was excellent craftsman in making guns – as well as for museum pieces. He was a master craftsman.

So he would make a gun. The police – the Law – would pounce on him, catch him for the crime of making a gun, and put him in a jail. When released he would start again to make a gun (perhaps he had customers from the affluent elite Indian society). He was caught again by the law. He was put again in the jail… And this continued until he died rotting in poverty, privation, between the jail and his rickety hut.

This may have been a prelude to the riots, terrorists’ attacks, proliferation of goons and illegal possessions of guns – not only in Gujarat State, but also all over the country; even the Parliament of India was not spared from terrorist attack.

Why should any state/ nation force, face, or fear the threat of war or terrorism from inside or outside if it had cared for the poor and the afflicted due to the capitalist antics, and took right action to rehabilitate them in the changing environment, not theoretically or verbally but actually? On the contrary it should have had friends everywhere.

The Indian State governed the nation by mimetic imitation of their (past) colonial master and (present) neo-colonial masters. The politicians enacted melodrama common in Bollywood movies and Tellywood mega soaps, under the garbs of patriotism and nationalism, to sway the citizens.

However, the large majority – the illiterate, backward, underdeveloped and the people living below poverty line – in their repeated verdicts led them to face hung parliaments. Predictably they brought their various colours and brands together into alliances ‘to hold power’ but consistently failed ‘to learn from the people.’

One, Bertold Brecht, from the Western Civilisation in the contemporary times (in 1953), wondered with mock innocence:

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?*

Perhaps this was then a worldwide phenomenon in the era of Industrial Civilisation.

Neither the Indian State, nor the Constitution of India, nor the great Indian Democracy had any instrument, any tool, or could evolve any, which could help and rehabilitate our Blacksmith of Bhal to live with dignity, leave aside to shower on him the state honours for his craft. They had Acts of Law but NO ACTION to maintain equality.

Until recent times the blacksmiths made arrowheads. The Blacksmith of Bhal changed over to making guns with changing times. But like farming and other traditional crafts, his craft also had no official recognition. Similarly the tribal lost their millennia-old skill in archery being illegal; the blockhead bureaucrats thinking in box had no imagination to convert it into sports, hence Indians hardly represented archery at the Olympics.

The Blacksmith, in this story, was a freedom fighter for his right to work and survival; qualitatively no less than Gandhi’s protest in South Africa earlier. But he did not belong to the elite class or high caste. He struggled, fought alone, held his head high in self-respect: He stood taller than any celebrated writers of Constitutions and Laws of any States.

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Remigius de Souza
  • This story was told by the author on the concluding day of the workshop on “Environment, People and Law” organized by the “Centre for Science and Environment” (CSE), New Delhi during 12-16 October 1992. 
  • The story was published in the “Development network”, CDSA, Pune, Jan-March 1994. 
  • This story is of a real person told to the author by a social worker who was working with the farmers in Dholaka – Dhandhuka area in the Gujarat State. This is an updated text.
  • * Quote "Bertold Brecht" is by Michael Wood, ‘At the Movies’, London Review of Books, Vol. 29 No. 6, 22 March 2007. 
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©Remigius de Souza, all rights reserved.

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