By Dr Narendra Nayak
For those readers who may wonder at this headline "Republic of Bellary", I have to remind them that I am not the one who coined it. The term is the coinage of Justice Santosh Hegde, the former Lokayukta of Karnataka. He had named this area so because the writ of the government of Karnataka was not applicable there.
It was mentioned in the Lokayukta report that when one of his officials had gone there to make enquirers about the mining scandal, he was asked by a senior IAS officer whether he had taken the permission the President of the republic, oops... the owners of the district, the now (in)famous Gali Reddys of Bellary who have hit the headlines all over the country for their involvement in the mining scandal.
This area was their personal fiefdom and all activities there had to be done with their permission. Having been instrumental in bringing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to power by means of their money and muscle power, they had been extracting their pound of flesh from the ruling combination, rather tonnes of money by various mining scandals.
After it became a national-level issue, the CBI was forced to investigate and with the President of the erstwhile (banana) republic behind bars, it has recently has come back into the fold of the Republic of India! If this had not happened, our programme would have had to be conducted there after seeking his permission!
Jokes apart, our interactions there were organized by a group called 'Arivu' which means knowledge in Kannada, most of whose members had been opposed to this exploitation of the resources by these people.
This group has been very active in organizing programmes in various areas like environmental degradation, dissemination of scientific knowledge etc. They have also been promoting rational thinking in their area and have also conducted programmes for the people of Bellary city, which was the capital of the now-defunct republic, that too without the permission of the powers-that-be at that time!
The author being interviewed by Alison for the Australian TV's 60-minute programme
This time, one of the members, a Chartered accountant called Pannaraj wanted me to come over to his village where he had organized a day-long function in memory of his late mother and had also launched a trust for the same to be run by the members of his family.
He wanted me to administer an oath to them that they would carry on his work after he was no more. Arivu is not an organization run by a single individual. There are three couples in command - Dr Arvind Patel, a surgeon, and his wife who is a gynaecologist, Dr Havildar who is a banker and his wife who is a teacher and the family of Pannaraj.
My contact with Dr Havildar's family is from two decades ago. His wife had taken my training in one of my first miracle-exposing workshops held at a nearby place. The husband had also accompanied her and had become my uninvited student and had started conducting this activity himself!
In fact he had done more of them than his wife who had taken my training formally. This time it was going to be a well-attended programme with people from the surrounding villages too joining in and spending the day in Sirigere, Panna Raj’s village, attending the various activities for the promotion of rational thinking which included the more spectacular ones like pulling a car with a hook fixed into the skin of one's back, standing on swords, lying on a bed of nails etc.
For these they had invited a special team from Tamil Nadu, of which Aruchamy and his comrades who are our specialists in the field and have been doing these things for the past two decades.
Taking advantage of my trip, they arranged some other interactions also. In the meanwhile, the producer of the Australian TV programme, Gareth who had been filming me in the past, wanted to complete it with an interview with his reporter Alison, who is av very famous TV personality.
I suggested that they come to Bellary to do that and they readily agreed. It was therefore a three-in-one programme! The fourth was the incidental one giving me a first hand experience of how things were in Bellary. So, the last first - Bellary is one of the most economically backward, superstition-ridden areas of Karnataka which had a large amount of iron ore. This was exploited by the mining lobby led by the Gali Reddys who started making huge profits when the demand shot up and the prices too.
They were operating the adjoining state of Andhra too with the active connivance of the ruling party there. In fact they had gone to the extent of altering state boundaries to encroach into Karnataka and having licences in Andhra Pradesh. After making billions by dubious means they started subverting the whole systems of laws of the nation regarding mining, transport, environment and the rest.
Finally, they became so powerful that the others who wanted to do any mining activity had to pay a ‘royalty’ to them. They became such megalomaniacs that they started sitting on golden thrones wearing crowns of gold and diamonds.
Their superstitions went to such an extent that a golden crown studded with diamonds worth about 350 million rupees was also offered to the temple at Tirupati.
They were so stinking rich that they had several choppers which they used even for purposes like coming home for lunch from Bangalore which around 300 kms away and then going back!
But their affairs created such national-level scandal that the high court of Andhra Pradesh ordered a CBI investigation which resulted in the arrest of the leader of the Republic of Bellary, His Highness Janardhan Reddy.
As he cooled his heels in the jail at Hyderabad, his allies started deserting him and so did his gang of a couple of thousand unemployed youngsters who used to move round the town of Bellary on their motorbikes at his cost, spying on people to see if there was any revolt brewing against their lords and masters.
The rulers were so paranoid about the ruled that they have even taken on several acres of land around their residence to convert it into a sort of fortress. We were even told that the plans for this structure were taken from the one built by Saddam Hussain!
Those who had property in that area were either paid a pittance or unceremoniously evicted and the structures razed to the ground in front of them. They were so paranoid about their security that I saw a five-storied hospital in front of their fortress which could have provided a sniper a chance to shoot at them! When it was brought to their attention, I was told, it was purchased immediately at the price fixed by the great ruler himself without giving any choice to the owner!
Such was their power that no official dared to take any action against them. Another reason for that was most of them were on his payroll! Now, after the scam surfaced many of them are said to be running for cover. The economically backward sections of the population were in support, because for each vote cast in their favour, they would be paid a handsome amount.
But, after the decline of the republic and takeover by the union of India - mind you, not the government of of Karnataka - because that seems to have a soft spot for them even now. The construction of the fort has been held up.
The subjects of the erstwhile kingdom have now started rebelling against their former rulers. The economy of the whole place which was heavily reliant on the illegal exports of iron ore is now in ruins.
Those who tried to organize a Bellary bundh against the arrest of the Reddys and had dared to barge into the district commissioner’s office have been arrested. They had been so accustomed to the influence of their lords and masters, they had barged into this office and destroyed computers and records and all that been recorded by CCTV cameras.
After identifying the culprits from that the police arrested the leaders, which would have been unthinkable in their heyday, as the whole police department was subservient to him. Anyone who was not would have been summarily transferred. When their wishes were not acceded to by the then-chief minister, they had even made plans to bring down the very government!
Coming to the programmes that we had at Bellary, starting from October 8, we first held a press conference in which we explained to the reporters as to what the aim and objectives of FIRA were. Then we moved to the village of Sirigere, which was the native place of Pannaraj, one of the trustees of Arivu.
He had organized these activities i memory of his later mother. He told me that being a non-believer he had not performed any religious ceremonies for her but used to conduct a lot of charitable work with the money which would have been spent on such useless rituals.
The whole programme started with my administering an oath to the younger generation of his family which included his nephew and nieces - the children of his brothers and sisters.
The usual trend in India is to treat only brother’s children as members of the family and those of the sister. Dr Havildar and I performed many of these so-called ‘miracles’ explaining to the people the various scientific principles behind them.
When this was happening, the members of the Australian TV crew arrived along with the producer and the anchor. That was a great diversion for the several thousand people assembled there. They broke into thunderous applause when the reporter Alison bravely volunteered to be the subject for two fire experiments placing burning camphor on the tongue and passing a burning torch over the body!
After a sumptuous lunch, the people of the villages assembled to see some seemingly impossible physical feats. Aruchamy and comrades from Tamil Nadu were the performers who passed skewers through their cheeks and tongues shouting 'no god', 'no god' to show to the people, that there was no need for the intervention of any divine power for that.
Then they passed hooks through the skin of their backs and pulled a car, hung from ropes tied to these hooks, stood on sword blades, lay down on beds of nails without suffering any injury.
However, the over enthusiasm of the crowd, or maybe his own weakness, caused one of the TV cameramen who was with the Australian team to fall flat on his face which caused him some abrasions.
The programmes had to be terminated as the crowd was seemingly getting out of control. But it was a great experience for the villagers who had always thought that such things can be done only by those who either possessed supernatural powers or could invoke them!
Some pointed out to me the open ground where this practice called sidi used to be performed on a particular day of the year when those who had taken vows to that effect would be suspended by hooks passed through the skin of their backs and swung around after bring suspended from poles by ropes tied to these hooks. It was a sort of shock for these people that this could be done without the need for any divine intervention and by people who were smiling!
On the next day it was started with a shoot by the Australian TV. The reporter asked me a number of questions about our movement and how it could change the people of our country. They also wanted a 'walk the talk' on the typical dusty street of India and that too was done. Some of scenes had to be shot with a particular dress on to maintain continuity!
The final shooting was done under the shade of a tree at a temple in the city. Then it was time for them to go and for me to go on! For, Dr Patel one of the trustees of Arivu had fixed an interaction for the students of the college of Business Administration where he had been recently elected as chairman.
It was his first introduction to the students and he wanted to do that through our awareness programme on rational thinking. We had to come out hurriedly from his college because the next interaction was for the students of the local medical college and the topic was – modus operandi of quacks.
But, for reasons not known to us, the attendance was extremely thin. This came as a surprise to me as our presentations are very well received at Medical colleges. But those present made up for the lack of numbers by asking lots of questions.
So, that was the end of my trip to the ex-Republic of Bellary. I had taken the photos of the fortress of the Reddys and the hospital which was seen as a security threat without much risk. But, I was told that those who had done that before the ruler was dethroned had their limbs broken.
I was also told about the reporter of the one of TV channels of Karnataka, most famous for spreading superstitions, was assaulted and then knocked down by a speeding car and was not supported by the top brass of the channel. He had resigned from that and is now a freelancer!
Mind you, they are all members of the party whose elderly leader is now leading a national campaign against corruption. The money power of the Reddys was instrumental in bringing this party to power in Karnataka where they formed their first government in the South. The leader of the opposition in the Parliament was their ‘mother’ but she dropped them like a hot brick when the charges became too hot to brush under the carpet.
Their main supporter in Andhra was YSR Reddy the late chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who it was said to be instrumental in bringing Congress to power in his state! So, it is evident that there are two things in India which have no political barriers - one is corruption and the other superstition!