Finding Khoja

Salam Walekum Maulvi Saab” and “Ram Ram Pandit Ji” were the first sounds in the morning even before the birds woke up in the hamlet Khoja. With a population of fifty families in this shanty hamlet, the two clergymen of their faiths went to dispose of their duties every day. It is said that this land was governed by Gods hence the attention from the Government wasn’t important.

The residents of this hamlet were mostly farmers and depended on the forest for other needs of livelihoods. Most social affairs were presided over by the two clergymen Abdul Rahim Hussain and Kabir Dixit. If one wasn’t available in the hamlet, the folks would approach the other without any hesitation for their advice. The villagers built both these places of worship and hence considered them their own irrespective of the faith they associated themselves with at birth. There was one rule for all! The hamlet celebrated all the festivals per the lunar and solar calendars and all together. Since the first partition in 1905, religious hate has only multiplied over the years. In 1947, 796,095 sq. km of land was separated by an imaginary line based on religion to form another nation. However, it was interesting that none of this had any bearing on the hamlet of Khoja.

This hamlet was hidden in thickets of the dense forest since 1967. It did not even exist per the 12th census of India. People say that these lands were filled with wild animals and no one ever mustered the courage to step inside. The residents were not entitled to vote till the 7th General elections in this country as they did not exist per official records. The 8th and the following general elections had no impact either from this land. This was not the only hamlet in the country that faced a similar fate. There is no official record of these lands or their people. The residents of this hamlet speak 4 different languages and trace back their ancestry to various parts of the country. I am another native speaker in this land now, sitting beside the dry riverbed of Chambal and pondering about this place.

Right! So I reached this place just earlier that morning right when the opening lines of this story were unfolding between Maulvi Sahab and Pandit Ji. It was through spending the day with both these men and many other inquisitive souls that I learned a lot about this place. I was amused by the social fabric that binds this place together. The places I come from thrive on the partisan politics of religion and here is Khoja, untethered by such influence. Over dinner at Maulvi Ji’s place, I understood more about the place. Geographically, this tiny hamlet sits at the confluence of three states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. It is so tiny that it can hardly be located on the map. It is because of this geography, every 5 years local politicians from all three states visit this hamlet. Maulvi Ji said, “Maulvi ki duad masjid tak, ussey aagey koi nai gaya”. We burst out in laughter! Nobody from this village has ever left the peripheries of the hamlet. I became even more curious as I saw Pandit Ji and his wife walk in. “Arey aao aao, der kar di tumne, pardesi babu chunao prachar mein aaye hai”, Maulvi ji said to the couple entering the house. Another, burst of laughter echoed! This was the echo chamber that these people lived in, I thought to myself. “Ek baat batao aap log”, I said while trying to recover from the laugh. Now I had all the attention in the room! “Khoja kisne khoja?”, another round of laughter followed as I inquired. Pandit Ji, Maulvi Ji, and their partners seemed to enjoy the pun I just played. “Is gaon mein sab parivar khoon se nai haalat se apne hai pardesi babu”, said Pandit ji while gathering his thoughts. While I was still trying to comprehend, Maulvi Ji reminded me of the conversation we had in the morning about the history of the hamlet. He continued, “Dixit Ji pitaji aur humare Abba Jaan dost the par aap log unhe Naxal ke naam se jante ho”. I felt the rage and humility in his voice at the same time. He picked up the story from the morning and continued. In 1967, the Naxalbari movement took shape under the leadership of Kanu Sanyal and Charu Mazumdar. “ Humare pitaji log Bangal mein kheto mein majdoori karte the tab”, he continued. As the movement stirred hope for these landless peasants, everyone joined the movement. The movement fractioned. “Humare pitaji aur Rahim ke pitaji dono Charu Mazumdar ke saath aagaye,” interrupted Pandit ji. Charu Mazumdar’s death in 1972 left the group leaderless and Smt. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of the country took stern actions to suppress the uprising. “1975 mein emergency ghoshit kar diya unhone, humare abba aur das log waha se nikal gaye apne pariwaro ke saath,” continued Maulvi Ji. They were just married and had no place to return safely. “Chambal ke bihaad ke baare mein humare pitaji ne suna tha aur sangathan mein rehte kuch baaghi o se unki dosti hogayi thi,” added Pandit ji. I just sat engrossed in the storytelling dual between these two that I almost forgot the dinner was getting cold. So, after a hiatus, we resumed the storytelling session after dinner. Throughout dinner, I was told more about the movement and its struggles while I enjoyed the hospitality.

Chambal aagaye bachte bachate woh log,” continued Maulvi Ji. “Sangharsh ki dosti samaj ki dosti se jyada majboot hoti hai”, added Pandit Ji. “Chambal mein to dacoit hote the”, I promptly responded with my limited knowledge. I could see the eyes in the room staring through me as if I had uttered something demeaning. “Haan sarkar aur unke Jagirdaar, ameer sawarno ke liye dacoit aur humare liye baaghi”, promted Pandit Ji’s wife. This was the very first time that the women in the circle had participated in our conversation. This piece of information was well-registered in my mind. It was primarily because I could hear a strange sense of empowerment in her voice as she spoke. “Bhairo Singh Baaghi naam tha unka”, continued Pandit Ji. Bhairo Singh joined Mahatma Gandhi in the independence struggle. Later, due to some personal disagreement in philosophy with Gandhi Ji on caste and class, he moved out of the movement and joined the armed revolution which he deemed fit. He was only a teenager when he believed that his society could be transformed through the Gandhian philosophy which in his later years failed to address the atrocities faced by his community. He was from the village as Pandit Ji’s father. When Bhairo Singh heard the news from his fellow villager, he offered them asylum. That’s when the hamlet of Khoja found its permanent human residents. Along with Pandit Ji’s father came Maulvi Ji’s father and ten other families to Khoja.

The shadow of the night had fallen on the house by the time we finished this conversation and Pandit Ji was ready to leave. As he was stepping outside, he said “ Iss gaon mein Hindu Musalman nai aaj bhi Naxal aur Baaghi rehte hai”, and laughed. There was a moment of silence in my mind. I stood there speechless bidding them good-bye. Later that night while preparing my bed in the courtyard I asked Maulvi Ji. “Paan Singh Tomar bhi aaye the yaha?”

With a smile on his face, Maulvi Ji said, “Agli baar aaoge humare gaon to batuanga”.

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