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The sacrifices of modernity in a Soviet-built steel town in central India

[Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in Frances Pine & João De Pina-Cabral (eds.), On the margins of religion. It is reprinted here, in slightly modified form, with the permission of the editors and the publisher, Berghahn.]

Daily they would vainly storm,
Pick and shovel, stroke for stroke;
Where flames would nightly swarm,
Was a dam when we awoke.
Human sacrifices bled,
Tortured screams would pierce the night,
And where blazes seaward spread
A canal would greet the light.
(Goethe, Faust, 11123-30, as translated in Berman 1983:64).


Until the mid-1950s, Bhilai was a small village in Durg district, in the Chhattisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh, central India. Chhattisgarh has since become a separate state and Bhilai is now a large ‘company town’, the site of one of the biggest steel plants in Asia. The construction of the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) was amongst those mega-projects of the post-Independence era that were key to Nehru’s strategy for leaping over centuries of backwardness and kick-starting the Indian economy along the highway of rapid industrialisation. But the Nehruvian modernisers well understood that the creation of such a gargantuan industrial complex would require much sacrifice, as did the local peasantry whose land and labour were to be appropriated for the realisation of their vision. The suppositions of the planners and peasants about the kind of sacrifice involved were, however, different – and it is with this difference that my paper is largely concerned.

‘Sacrifice’ for the sake of the nation had been a leitmotif of the Independence struggle, the ‘freedom fighters’ offering their lives as bali dan that India might shake off the imperialist yoke. Bali is the standard term for animal sacrifice in Hindu ritual discourse, and specifically for sacrifices intended (in the manner of Hubert and Mauss [1964]) to get rid of the ‘bad sacred’ – for which the British perhaps plausibly stood.[1] Alternatively, nationalist rhetoric deployed the word kurbani or some variant on yagya (respectively Urdu and Sanskrit for sacrifice), or the term tyag which specifically evokes the renunciation of the Hindu ascetic. Being jailed in the nationalist cause became deshyagna (‘sacrifice for the country’) and in Surat answering the Congress Party’s call to withhold municipal taxes – and thus risk the confiscation of property – was dignified as bali dan (Haynes 1991: 235, 227). Later, under the influence of Gandhi’s disciple, Vinoba Bhave, the Rajasthan State Government was to optimistically establish its Bhoodan Yajna Board (‘Board for the sacrificial donation of land’) to oversee the voluntary redistribution of surplus land from an over-endowed rural elite to the landless poor (Oomen 1972: 45).

But despite its pervasive appropriation of the language of sacrifice, the nationalist movement in general, and Gandhi’s style of religiosity in particular, were closely identified with a Hindu reformism that was hostile to blood offerings. True sacrifice is internal, a voluntary renunciation of the transient self for some transcendent goal. Through its association with reformist Hinduism, the modern Indian nation state is commonly assumed to discountenance the killing of animals (Fuller 1992: 101f). At the time that the Bhilai Steel Plant was constructed, however, and as a paradoxical counter-current to this ‘new wind’, the Chhattisgarhi peasantry were widely convinced that their government’s development programme would require sacrifices of a more tangible kind on a massive scale – sacrifices not just of surrogate animals, but of the human beings for which they have always stood. From where, I want to ask, did such ideas arise and from where did they derive their rhetorical force? From a prescient perception of the evils of industrial modernity, or from an older strata of beliefs about agricultural fertility and state-sponsored construction sacrifices?

The answer, I believe, is both. There is a family resemblance between this discourse about the sacrificial destruction demanded by modern industry and what in a different kind of setting the Comaroffs (1999) call the ‘occult economy’, which paradigmatically proposes a magico-religious explanation for the accumulation of capital in the hands of the few as the many are steadily impoverished. At least since Ardener’s (1970) analysis of the changing witchcraft beliefs of the Cameroonian Bakweri (cf. Geschiere 1997), and Taussig’s (1980) discussion of The devil and commodity fetishism in South America, much anthropological writing has concentrated on the way in which these occult economies reflect contemporary politico-economic circumstance. Often – as with Taussig and the Comaroffs – the commentary they provide is held to reveal the way in which capitalism impinges on subaltern lives. Some elements of the sacrificial discourse I describe make sense, I suggest, in such terms; but (shades of Ardener) the template that underlies them does not. This seems to be made up of a set of core ideas that are strikingly similar to ones found in a wide variety of other cultural settings with very different types of political economy. The wide world over, for example, people have imagined it necessary to immure soft, mushy and transient human bodies in ostensibly solid stone or concrete foundations in order to render the latter permanent – to the modern mind at least a seemingly strange premise on which to base a construction business. Given the widespread distribution of such ideas across time and space, it seems plausible to suppose that they say at least as much about preoccupations of an existential sort that confront human beings more or less everywhere as about particular politico-economic conditions. Though I do not pretend that I am in a position to identify the ultimate source of such notions, in conclusion I offer some tentative suggestions about the kinds of concerns that inform them.

Bhilai as a beacon of modernity

Gandhi’s antipathy to urban industrial modernity – which ‘with its glittering baubles and trinkets (was) exactly what had first enslaved Indians to the British’ (Khilnani 1997:73) – is well known. So, too, is the eclipse of his ideological legacy by the economic policies championed by Nehru and his associates (ibid. chap. 2). Investment in basic industrial infrastructure would allow India to pursue a course independent of more powerful nations. By absorbing surplus labour, rapid industrialisation would, moreover, relieve some of the pressure on the countryside; and would contribute to the reform of Indian society by blowing away some of the nastier cobwebs of the past, one of the thickest and nastiest of which was caste. Urban industrialism would act, that is, as a solvent to the old religiously enchanted world of status and collective identities, and usher in a more secular order based on the individual. In order to ‘catch up’ with ‘advanced’ industrial countries, India must ‘modernise’, and the shining new discipline of development economics would pilot its ‘take-off’ into a brave new world from which hunger, poverty and illiteracy would be extirpated. This is the ‘modernity’ to which my title alludes. In the spirit of it, the crucial Second Five Year Plan, drafted in 1954-5, gave clear priority to the development of heavy industry, and – in particular – to the construction of three large-scale public sector steel plants. The one at Bhilai has in the long term proved the most consistently profitable and has had the most harmonious record of industrial relations.

Click to enlarge

Photo by Ajay T. G.

Now run by the Steel Authority of India, BSP was built with Soviet aid and technology under an agreement signed in 1955, and began production four years later. Originally designed for an output of one million tons, its capacity was steadily upgraded to four million tons over the next twenty years. Considerations of a social as well as technical kind had determined its location. Profits were secondary to employment in the planning priorities of the time, and Bhilai was situated in what was then regarded as a remote and ‘backward’ rural area. By 1987, BSP – along with its subsidiary mines – had 63,400 workers on its direct pay-roll.  By 2003 that figure had fallen to 39,000 (though the plant was also providing employment to around 10,000 temporary contract workers each day on terms, conditions and rates of pay that were vastly inferior). ‘Liberalisation’ had begun to bite, and in sixteen years the jobs of some 24,400 permanent workers had been sacrificed to market ‘imperatives’.

The plant itself covers an area of nearly 17 square kilometres. In order to make way for it, for the spacious BSP township, for the mines and their townships, and for the private sector Industrial Estate, land from 96 villages was compulsorily purchased by Government. Some of these villages disappeared altogether. Some have coke oven batteries or blast furnaces standing on top of them; others the BSP township. Yet others on its periphery lost some or all of their agricultural land, but the residential site was left intact. Most of the villagers remained and many eventually took jobs in the plant. Large numbers of outsiders moved in, and gradually most of these villages were swallowed up by urban sprawl. My fieldwork has focused on three of them.

As was intended, the plant has acted as a magnet for a good deal of private sector industrial development, initially in the form of small-scale ancillary industries directly dependent on it. Some have grown into fairly large-scale enterprises, and the dedicated industrial estate to which many of them were relocated in the mid-1960s now houses around 200 factories. Aside from this development, the 40 kilometre belt between the district headquarters in Durg to the west and Raipur to the east is today a more or less continuous ribbon development of factories and housing colonies.

The modernising rhetoric of the pioneer days has taken deep root, not only in the managerial mind, but also in the minds of many of the managed. Initiated just a few years after Independence and built with the fraternal aid of the ‘anti-imperialist’ Soviet Union, Bhilai epitomised the Nehruvian dream. A trail-blazer for the rapid development of the country, it was to serve as a beacon for modern India; ‘a symbol and portent’, as Nehru described it, ‘of the India of the future’, ‘a temple of modern India’[2] (Srinivasan 1984:58). A catalyst for a rejuvenated civilisation, it would provide a springboard for a giant leap into industrial modernity. No less than Stalin’s Magnitogorsk (Kotkin 1994), its purpose was not only to forge steel but also to forge a new kind of man in a new kind of society. But as those who had participated in India’s struggle for Independence had made great sacrifices in the nation’s cause, so new sacrifices were now necessary that it might enter this twentieth century Shangri-la. If that meant the villagers sacrificing their land, then the plant would be ‘mother and father’ to them, and would provide its children with a new and brighter future.

One male member of every village household from which land had been compulsorily purchased was entitled to claim a BSP job. Initially, however, the take-up was disconcertingly small. The locals were notably reluctant to enter the industrial labour force, and the plant was in fact largely constructed and manned by long distance migrant labour from other corners of the country, at least some of whom had the industrial skills and experience it needed so badly. Many of these immigrant workers eventually brought their families to join them and have put down permanent roots in the town.

Today, however, the local Chhattisgarhis bitterly complain about the disproportionate share of BSP jobs that these outsiders have taken. Organised sector industrial workers are an extremely privileged segment of the Indian labour force – in Bhilai none more so than those employed by the plant who are its aristocracy of labour. The job is secure, the wages are high, the bonuses good, and – despite recent in-roads on them – the fringe benefits still excellent. There is plenty of scope for illicit earnings ‘on top’ from innumerable scams and rackets and significant numbers of workers make a not inconsiderable supplementary income from moonlighting occupations to which they devote as much time as they do to their jobs in the plant. As to the ex-villages on the periphery of the plant, say the Chhattisgarhis, just see how they have now become slums, and how all these ‘foreigners’ have corrupted our kids and run off with our women. And indeed there are significant numbers of unions between men of outside – and especially ‘Bihari’ – origin and local Chhattisgarhi women. Alcoholism does destroy many families, violence does hang in the air, satta (a numbers racket) has become an addiction, and gangs of unemployed youths do mooch aimlessly about the streets at every hour of the day and night.[3]

In spite of all this, however, very few of my Chhattisgarhi informants appear to conclude that the Nehruvian dream of industrial modernity was really a chimera; or that Gandhi was right to suppose that all that it ever promised was baubles and trinkets. The resentment is rather that its self-evident benefits have not, in adequate measure, come their way; that it is they who made the sacrifices, but others who gathered their fruits. There is surprisingly little nostalgia for old village ways; and agricultural labour – even on fields of one’s own – is for the most part regarded with complete disdain by those raised largely in town (Parry 1999a, 2003).

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Photo by Ajay T. G.

Sacrifices for steel

When the construction of BSP started, there was little overt or organised resistance to it. Admittedly, some villages quibbled about soil qualities on which their rate of compensation depended. In Girvi and Patripar they grumbled loudly when their fields were taken in tranches making it difficult to reinvest rationally, and the Nijigaon villagers blocked the main highway in protest when much of their previously requisitioned land was made over to the private sector industrial estate.[4] But these were little local brush fires, and there was no coherent and unified opposition to the plant – far less one that stood on a principled objection to the project of modernity. So soon after the British, they now explain, people were not yet accustomed to the idea that they might gainsay their sarkar (government). And anyway this sarkar was a new and as yet largely unblemished sarkar – led, if not by knights in shining armour, then at least by saintly heroes in homespun with an unimpeachable record of self-sacrifice. When they called on the Chhattisgarhi peasantry to now play their part, it was only theirs to obey.

In local newspaper articles, political speeches and BSP Public Relations’ propaganda of the period, the theme of sacrifice (of bali dan and kurbani) is endlessly repeated. ‘Sacrifice’ is required to construct the plant. When it is constructed, it is in the name of their ‘sacrifices’ (kurbani) – and the obligation that government incurred on account of them – that local MPs demand a greater representation of Chhattisgarhis in its workforce.[5] When Nehru dies, BSP workers take a solemn pledge ‘to consider no sacrifice great enough’ to realise his dream of an ‘economically self-sufficient India’ and to bind ‘our people together in secular bonds’ (Mehta 1993:316 [1970]). Though I do not suppose that the majority of villagers took this metaphorical discourse of sacrifice literally, it seems to me likely that the barrage of nationalist-inspired, and no doubt managerially orchestrated, rhetoric encouraged them to counterpose to it their own more familiar notions. They were in any event predisposed to believe that a project of this sort and scale required sacrifice; and they understood that to mean something other than the modernisers intended, and concluded quite logically that if there was sacrifice there had to be victims.

The Chhattisgarhis were, as we have seen, initially reluctant recruits to the plant. It is true that this was the era before the inflation of public sector wages, and that they could often earn as much, or more, working for a private contractor putting up quarters in the township. It is also true that, by the second half of the 1960s, many had overcome their qualms. They saw the outsiders returning from their shifts, saw the size of their now increasing pay-packets too, and had learned to desire consumption goods they had never dreamt of before. Then there were several years of chronic drought, and those still living off the land were forced to consider the alternatives. Crucially, however, the most immediate dangers of a job in the plant were by this stage deemed to have passed.

From my very first day of fieldwork, I was repeatedly offered – like a litany – the same two part explanation for their original wariness. It is a discourse that seems over-determined; and – though apparently disconnected – I will suggest that there is a sense in which the two parts of the answer serve the same rhetorical purpose. I will also suggest that the fear of modern industry that constitutes the second half of the answer was more generalised, and that its exclusive attribution to the locals is motivated.

The first reason offered is that the local villagers’ consumption demands were extremely limited, and that they saw no point in working harder than was required to meet them. Those who still had land preferred to farm it; those who now only had compensation money from BSP preferred to eat and drink at leisure and let tomorrow take care of itself, and those who were forced to work for wages preferred to earn them outside the plant. That is explained by the second part of the answer. To get such a massive plant started, thousands of sacrifices (balis; in dialect pujvan [or pujai])[6] would be necessary. New recruits were being set to work for a few days and then surreptitiously sacrificed – thrown into the foundations to make them bear the weight of such massive erections, into the furnaces to make them function. People were, of course, frightened for other more obvious reasons – frightened of the huge monster-like earth-moving machinery that they would watch from afar with fascinated awe but never approach. They said that the poklin (caterpillar tractors fitted with giant scoops) and dozars (bulldozers) were demons (rakshas) because they could shift more dirt in a day than a whole village could shift in a month. But chiefly they were frightened that they would be literally sacrificed to Nehru’s dream of modernity; that their children would disappear into concrete if they did not hide them when long-trousered strangers came to the village.

Though it is hard to measure, all my evidence suggests that these stories had a real impact on actual behaviour. One index of it is that the Satnamis – the largest Untouchable caste in the region – have greatly benefited from what turned out to be such privileged employment (Parry 1999b). An important reason for this – though there are others – is that at the start they were generally less frightened of a job in the plant than their caste superiors, and therefore got into the BSP workforce early. As the poorest and most put upon segment of local society, in pre-BSP days Satnamis had constituted a large proportion of the Chhattisgarhi labour that had migrated to the jute mills around Calcutta, the rail centre at Kharagpur, the collieries of southern Bihar and the Tata steel town of Jamshedpur. When the plant was under construction, many returned to work on the site. For them modern industry held fewer terrors and they were apt to view these sacrifice rumours with more scepticism.

Others – like Khorbara, a Ravat-Herdsman by caste – were easier to rattle. He remembers standing in line at Power House to sign on for a BSP job. While he was waiting, a passer-by started screaming that they were like dumb animals queuing up to be pujwan. Two of the four lines simply melted away, and with them Khorbara himself. He would be safer hawking channa-murra (a mixture of chickpeas and puffed rice). ‘But those who remained waiting’, he ruefully reflects, ‘have now become rajas, while I live on rent in this one-roomed hut…. But yes, some died. They were pushed into pits. Several thousand ended that way.’

There is at least a sense in which these stories are true. During those early days – and especially during its construction phase – working for BSP was very dangerous and the number of workers killed in industrial accidents was very large. Just how large is hard to be sure. A crude estimate, based on fatality figures published in The Statesman in early 1960, would suggest that for every thousand workers there were on average between one and two fatal accidents per year.[7] As if that is not chilling enough, what this average conceals is that the dangers were very much greater in some kinds of work than in others, and that there were undoubtedly segments of the workforce for whom the risks were several times higher.

Not that old-timers put much faith in press or plant statistics. Twenty or thirty would die, they say, and the company would claim that it was just two or three. And there was nobody to argue the toss since no proper records were kept of construction workers, and most were long distance migrants with no family at hand to ask questions. It was easy to disappear. One characteristic story has seven or eight workers buried alive in the foundations of the Power Plant. On the order of the officers in charge, they dug out the corpse of the Russian engineer, but such was the urgency the job that the rest were left where they were. A good deal of hyperbole has doubtless crept in, but I was endlessly offered supposedly eyewitness accounts of such accidents. Several dozen were immured when the banks of a huge reservoir that was being excavated by the side of the plant caved in. A score or so were crushed by falling masonry when the roof and lining walls of an open-hearth furnace came down while it was under repair. My friend Somvaru was one of those sent in to retrieve the last of the bodies. The next day they summoned a Brahman priest who performed puja, smashed coconuts as balis to placate the furnace, and the job was re-started. The catalogue could go on, and – though on a much reduced scale – continues to be added to today. BSP is not a karkhana (a factory) but a kal-khana (‘an abode of death’[8]), ‘a well of mortality’ (maut ki kuan), people still say. Nearly every worker from those pioneer days has stories about accidents witnessed or experienced, and not a few bear the scars. Some young dare-devils signed up in defiance of their families; some joined out of economic necessity, only to quit after a near-miss or two; but many more were discouraged from joining at all.

So it was that an accident rate that was dismal enough in reality assumed truly epic proportions on the village rumour mill[9] – feeding the conviction that there was more to these disasters than the Public Relations Department put out. Fact further ‘confirmed’ fantasy in that, at the time of construction, excavation-work was responsible for the largest loss of life.[10] Thereafter the highest incidence of serious accidents was in those shops that have the biggest furnaces (the Coke Ovens, the older of the two Steel Melting Shops and the Blast Furnaces). In other words, it was just where sacrifices were conventionally supposed to occur that actual fatalities were greatest.

In the light of all this it is hardly surprising that when Manohar Babu, who had just matriculated and got his first job with the Durg Employment Exchange in 1957, was sent round the villages in a jeep with a loud-hailer to encourage enlistment in the plant labour force, he lasted only a few days before desperately seeking a transfer to other duties. Marne ke liye kaun jaega? Vehan to bali dete hein …. pujvan hovat rahise, ‘Who will go there to die? They give sacrifices there’, they would jeer, accusing him of being a dalal (commission agent) who ate the government’s money in order to get them killed.

But becoming a bali was just one of the dangers. Though now long since departed, though then corralled in their high-walled compound, and though some of their ways were surpassingly strange – they would eat what I was assured was ‘ant chutney’ (chinti ki chatni, I assume caviar) – most of my BSP informants remember the Russians with affectionate awe for their Herculean capacity for labour, their disregard for distinctions of status, and for leaving behind a plant of which India could be proud. Amongst bottom-of-the-heap casual workers, however, there was a more sinister side to their reputation. Pale-skinned, and ‘with cheeks like tomatoes’, they were known as russi gorsa (‘Russian swallowers’) because they devoured lone workers alive. True, it was a story to frighten the children from wandering too far from home; but it was also one with which adult contract labourers in the plant would frighten themselves.[11]

Though usually put down to ‘illiteracy’, local explanations of how these rumours gained credence sometimes now have a political twist. My Communist friends, but others too, often assert that they were deliberately fostered by the malguzars – the former landlords and revenue collectors of their villages, in which they exercised a truly autocratic power. The motives of these ‘kulaks’, as one well-versed union leader described them, were obvious. Their labour supply was threatened by the employment opportunities the plant provided. In support of this allegation I could find no evidence – though it seems a little more probable (and rather less repellent) than the analysis offered by a senior clerk in one of the Tehsil offices. His theory was that, in the early days when they were all outsiders, almost every BSP officer sought to strengthen the representation of his own region in the plant. The officer would truck in his countrymen, and set them to work alongside local labour. He would then chuck handfuls of coins into the excavations below, and while the Chhattisgarhis scrabbled for them, these outsiders would bury them alive. It wasn’t a matter of sacrifice, but of ‘ethnically cleansing’ the labour force.

When I first encountered these ideas about bali, I was always given the impression that ‘that was the way in which we simple Chhattisgarhi folk used to think, but now we know better and can see these superstitions for what they really are’. This history of redemption from the benighted ignorance of a less enlightened world is, I am sure, the way in which many people really think, and I do not doubt that today the majority take these sacrifices stories less seriously than they did in the past. But as what follows will show, there remain many others who still believe that sacrifices are necessary to start a new factory; some who think that even now they persist in a sublimated form in BSP itself, and a few who claim that they continue to be offered in much the same way.

Of this last school is D. K. Das, a refugee from East Bengal, who when I first met him was working as a carpenter on a large construction site on the Raipur road.

‘Whenever they (re-)build one of BSP’s tall chimneys, there has to be an inauguration ceremony (udghatan) at which they give blood. The Managing Director instructs that Rs 10,000 – 12,000 is left on the top of stack and some worker is told to retrieve it. But when he has reached the banknotes, they turn on the current – which flows through the metal lining of the chimney of course – and he falls to his death. The money they give to his family. But all that is known only to the MD and management. Even now, four to ten workers die every day. They fall from above, are ‘cut’ by a train …. whatever. But none of this news ever comes out. On BSP’s order, they do not write it in the papers. They don’t allow reporters in the plant. The CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) stand at the gate.’

So had there been sacrifices on his present site? I wondered. It’s not big enough to need them, he said. Anything that happens will be the fault of the engineers and the architect.

In explaining what I mean by ‘sublimated’ sacrifice, I begin with a brief digression. Sometime in 1959, a Telugu worker in the Rail Transport Department had been crushed to death between two waggons at a spot near what is believed to be the old Shiva shrine of the village of Sonth, on which the Coke Oven batteries now stand. The shrine itself had been spared only by what was plainly divine intervention (the usual story, bulldozers that refused to go into forward gear, giant snakes that wrapped themselves around its steering column and so forth).[12] The accident was attributed to the deity’s anger at the invasion of his space, and his shrine was now regularly tended. Then, on the 6th January 1986, there was a massive explosion on the Coke Oven batteries in which nine people were killed and 45 injured (25 of them seriously). This disaster is commemorated annually by Coke Oven personnel in an elaborate havan (‘fire sacrifice’) and abhishek (‘consecration ritual’) at the shrine, which has now been expanded and re-built. The worshippers are divided over whether this more recent accident was caused by the deity’s continued displeasure, or whether he is now worshipped just as a prophylactic against future disaster.

What is clear is that Kali causes accidents when she is offended and should be properly placated by sacrifice. In Chhattisgarh – as in some other parts (e.g. Brouwer 1988:230) – the forge of the smith and the kiln of the potter is a form (rup) of the goddess. Unsurprisingly, so too are the giant furnaces of the steel plant. That is why, I was told, there is no danger in BSP of being molested by the ghosts of those who have died an untimely death in the plant. ‘What ghost would have the audacity to remain in her presence?’ As the hottest and fiercest of deities, Kali’s association with furnaces seems symbolically appropriate, as does her routine demand for blood sacrifice.[13] But – as I said at the start – blood sacrifice was under major ideological threat, and in rapid decline, by the time that the plant was supposedly claiming so many sacrificial victims. Some measure of the aversion that many now have to it is that during the ‘Nine Nights of the Goddess’, Kanhaiya – a Patripar Satnami of conspicuous piety – refuses even to cut lemons as balis. This is because it is irresponsible to encourage her bad habits and cravings. But an addiction denied can have dangerous consequences to even innocent bystanders, and ‘deities denied the sacrifices they want will wreak terrible revenge’ (Fuller 1992: 102). It is not, then, surprising that people now say that Kali takes for herself – and probably with increment – what is no longer given her voluntarily. Industrial accidents, that is, are the result of her wrath (devi ka prakop) and her way of asserting her claims. In all likelihood, reformist zeal has therefore exacerbated the slaughter.

Though in the Hindi spoken on the industrial belt, bali refers both to sacrifices voluntarily offered, and to the victims seized by disappointed deities who have been denied their due, the local dialect makes a clear distinction. The former are pujwan and the latter are bhakh. Bhakh, that is, are victims forcefully taken by resentful deities because their worshippers have failed to fulfil their obligations[14] – as when a vow (mannat) has been made to provide a certain offering in exchange for a certain boon, and the supplicant fails to deliver on the bargain. ‘Who takes the bhakh?’ I would ask. The factory itself, or ‘Earth Mother’ (Dharati Mayya), I was generally told. ‘But if so many pujvan were given when BSP was built, why are bhakh taken?’ The answer I got was that there could never be enough offerings; and that is because the plant is so big and its machines are so many.[15]

This theory of sublimated sacrifice at least partly disposes of an obvious difficulty. Real sacrifices are accompanied by appropriate rites, including the ritual consecration of the victim, which should be physically unblemished, should give some signal that it is a willing offering, and should belong to the sacrifier – be something of his to renounce. Though in one of the stories to come, the consecration of an intended victim did supposedly occur, I never heard it suggested that the mass sacrifices that are held to have accompanied the construction of BSP were in any way ritualised. We are, of course, dealing with rumours and it is perhaps not surprising if they are short on detail about ritual procedures. But as D. K. Das’s testimony illustrates, the stories my informants tell suggest these are minimal. No priest presides; no rites of entry or exit appear to be prescribed (Hubert and Mauss 1964), and the focus is exclusively on the immolation of a generally anonymous victim.[16] All that counts is that a life (jiv) is extinguished, and the method matters little – whether the victim falls from a height, is buried alive or its blood is shed. Nor is there any attempt to ensure that these balis are perfect physical specimens, and there is not the slightest suggestion that they were anything other than unwitting dupes or that the sacrifier relinquishes something he owns. If, however, they were in reality victims of the goddess’s revenge for not receiving sacrifice, the absence of ritual – and indeed of consent or ownership – is no longer a problem.

Before I go further I should make it clear that most of the time most current BSP workers treat the space of the plant in religiously ‘disenchanted’ terms. Today, at any rate, they are far more likely to explain industrial accidents as the consequence of the callous incompetence or arrogance of their officers, of the ignorance and inexperience of the contract labourers, or – increasingly – of the production pressures imposed by economic ‘liberalisation’ and globalised competition in the steel market. We cannot assume, however, that these more secular explanations are any less ideological, or more ‘objective’, than the sacrifice theory. They are at least partly a product of partisan political agendas; and we should not discount the possibility that the bali version also contains a kernel of truth – the possibility that somewhere some industrial manager has supposed such measures to work. After all, the Indian press regularly carries reports of alleged cases of human sacrifice (25 from western U.P. alone during the past six months, according to an article in the Hindustan Times in November 2003). [17]And even if every one were a fantasy[18], there remain many accounts of kidnapped children being set to work in industries so hazardous that they die. They may not be offered as balis, but it is not hard to imagine how their deaths might come to be construed in such terms. Like rumours about the kidnapping of children as a source of organs for transplant that circulate among the poor of many countries, these sacrifice stories ‘are true at that intermediate level between fact and metaphor’ (Scheper-Hughes 1995:5). They convey something real about the way in which the lives and bodies of the most vulnerable are seen as disposable.

The more secular explanations of accidents fit, of course, with a self-presentation in which all such superstitions have been left far behind. In May 1994, however, an interesting rumour spread rapidly through Girvi; and it made me realise that this repudiation of past credulity cannot always be taken entirely at face value. A stranger had appeared in the ‘village’ and had tried to ingratiate himself with three village children by feeding them samosas. He promised to return next day with sweets – but it was to remain their secret. It didn’t; and when the stranger reappeared he was beaten unconscious by an angry crowd of villagers who then called the police. They demanded to speak to the children, but nobody could – or would – identify them; so the prisoner was released. Thus far consensus. Thereafter accounts diverge – most significantly with regard to the stranger’s origins and motives.

One striking feature of such rumours is the extraordinary velocity with which they circulate. Another is their timing. They appear to peak in Jyesth, the hottest month in the year when Kali is presumably thirstiest for blood, when the goddess is at her most hyperactive (see Babb 1975:28), and when the earth is ploughed and violence is done to Dharati Mayya (the goddess with which it is identified). Most striking, however, is the supposed identity of this perhaps entirely imaginary malefactor, and his purpose. He was definitely a ‘foreigner’. One possibility was that – like others of his kind – he was intent on taking advantage of a simple Chhattisgarhi maiden – indeed of an actual simpleton. He was trying, it was said, to use the children to entice a mentally retarded village girl on whom he had sexual designs. The background to this has already been hinted at. Many male migrants with wives and children at home – a significant proportion of them ‘Biharis’[19] – have contracted secondary unions with local women. The more prevalent version, however, was that the stranger was searching for sacrificial victims for a new factory that was being built in the area. That on this theory the Girvi kidnapper was perhaps a ‘Bihari’ is significant, in that – in the Chhattisgarhi mind – ‘Bihari’ is more or less synonymous with ‘gangster’.  That he was perhaps a south Indian from Patripar caused me some discomfort in that my research assistant was a conspicuously dark-skinned south Indian from that neighbourhood. In either event, the ne’er-do-well was an archetypal outsider – perhaps even the anthropologist’s alter ego.

Generally, the kidnappers are imagined to be merely agents – for the factory owners, for the big contractors or even for the government itself. I was sitting one day with Santu Satnami, his wife and their neighbour Dukalu. The former had just returned to Patripar from the village in which they own land, and the wife was complaining about a recent crime wave in that area. ‘Don’t the police do anything?’ I innocently asked. ‘What will they do?’ said the wife. ‘They are all thieves for the government.’ And she went on to explain that they scour the countryside in their jeeps, kidnapping children to cull in the cause of population control. ‘No, no’, protested Dukalu (who had just retired from BSP), ‘they take them as balis for some new company, or for a bridge or a dam’. When I then asked why companies need them, I was told – with much circumstantial evidence – that it is ‘because you can’t set up a good one without …… Without balis you cannot make anything at all. You make a bridge and it falls down. You build a dam and it bursts. You install a machine and it will not run. And if you do not give, “these people” (he meant the deities) will take. And that was how it was in BSP. Thousands of people were buried in the earth’.

Government complicity is again clear from the following fragment from my fieldnotes. It is Jagdish’s mother who does the talking. We had been discussing the many deaths caused by the local deity, Rajarav, when his territory was taken for the iron-ore mines at Rajhara, and she had been describing a meeting the villagers had called. The god had possessed one of them and through him announced that he would have no kudali (small  pick-axes) or dozars (bulldozers) on his land. Though they had removed his image from the village, he was still living on the hillside from which ore was to be extracted, so nobody should work there. After performing bhumi pujan (‘worship of the ground’), however, some outsiders did. To a man all of them died – ‘all six kauri (120). Not immediately, but slowly slowly. Even those who just went to watch also died. A family from Arjunda …. all six dead.’ And when they started to dig the foundations for BSP itself, she went on, the government again organised a big bhumi pujan.

‘There was a big fire sacrifice (havan) there, into which they offered many fistfuls of sesame seed. But even then, people did not believe what would happen.’

‘What did happen?’

‘Somewhere some fell to their deaths. Somewhere people were buried. Think how many seeds there were in all those fistfuls. That many died.’

‘You mean that the number of sesame seeds offered was the number of balis that had to be given?’

‘If you resolve in your heart and offer one flower in the sacred fire, then you will have to give one bali.’

‘Who offered the sesame?’

‘Who would offer it? Nehru came from Delhi. The Russians came.’

‘You mean Nehru Ji offered the seed?’

‘Nehru would hardly offer himself. With him came big, big pandits. Those people would have seen that without so many balis the factory would not stand up.’[20]

‘Who takes these balis?’

The devi-devatas (gods and goddesses). Who else? Durga, Sitala, Kali ….. those people’.

‘But people say that the goddess is our mother. How can a mother kill her own children?’

She launches into a heartrending story about a priest at the Mahamaya temple whose small son got accidentally locked in the temple one night. They had found him dead in the morning. ‘If the goddess had thought, “this is my child”, would she not have saved him? Would she have taken his life? Crying, crying the priest went mad’.

‘So does it mean that we are not God’s children?’

Everybody laughs. ‘Get away with you, brother. I cannot give you an answer’.  She gets up to resume her interrupted chores.

But the public sector and the government do not maintain a monopoly. Private enterprise too has its needs, even if these are not on such a large scale. In February 1998, a local newspaper published a long investigative report under the banner headline, ‘Suspicious Death of Young Worker: Village Discusses Secret Sacrifice’.[21] It relates to a large rice mill near Samoda, on the main road between Dhamdha and Durg. A thirteen year old Satnami boy had gone there to work, but had never returned. His distraught mother enquired after him throughout the bazaar, but to no avail. A sympathetic crowd gathered and decided that they should check out the mill. The owner was shifty, said the boy had left hours ago but was eventually persuaded to let two delegates in for a cursory check. There was no sign of Santosh Kumar, but one of them did spot some clothing they thought might be his. When they demanded that they should be allowed to look in the big storage bunker, the owner refused and saw them off the premises. The crowd made its way to the local police station, who were at first unconcerned; and it was not until they had blocked the traffic on the main road outside that the police took an interest. And when they did return with the villagers to the rice mill and opened the bunker, there sure enough was the body. The crowd’s first reaction was to demand compensation, and clutching the corpse they gherao-ed (‘encircled’) the factory owner until he had promised the mother Rs 50,000.

But was it an accident? Not in the view of the villagers, nor – judging by the tone of the article – in that of the journalists either. Now other young boys from the village had come forward to tell how the rice mill owner had tried to persuade them to come to his factory at night. And one deaf-mute lad (of whom a large inset photograph) managed to tell the reporters – partly through signs and partly through writing – that when he had gone there to work, the owner had placed a tilak (mark of consecration) on his forehead. He immediately fled in terror, and never went back. Added to this damning testimony was the circumstantial evidence that there had been problems with that bunker from the start.

The article had implied that the police were complicit in a cover-up, and when I returned to Bhilai in 2000 I learned that the two reporters were now themselves facing a couple of court cases on account of it. Through the good offices of friends on a rival newspaper – which had more soberly carried the story as a case of child labour that had ended in tragedy – I tried to arrange an interview with the senior reporter involved. But he had got wind of what I wanted to talk about and never showed up for our appointments. My friends, however, assured me that though the villagers may well have genuinely believed it to be a case of bali, it was very unlikely that the journalists did so. One loyal colleague on the same paper claimed that the bali slant was a strategy to force the police to investigate the case properly and the owner to pay adequate compensation; though others supposed that it was just another instance of freelance blackmail from which only the journalists’ would benefit. But while my middle class friends could credit the credulity of the crowd, I am not convinced that we should take that for granted. Their reaction, remember, was to demand financial recompense from the capitalist rather than lynch him – suggesting, perhaps, that a sacrificial victim would better loosen his purse-strings than other possible constructions on the death.

In any event, the story played on an entirely conventional theme – recalcitrant machinery that refuses to function because it has been disabled by deities hungry for sacrifice. ‘The deities ride the machines and won’t let them work’. ‘They demand balis‘, which have to be provided ‘to keep the gods happy’. Often, they make their requirements known by appearing in the dreams of the owner. And sometimes they demand a price he is unwilling to pay. There was a paint factory on the Bhilai industrial estate that had to close down because its owner had learned that the offering required was his only son. But the deities are usually more reasonable, and it is probably wise to indulge them. If their demands are unmet, one fatal accident follows another. In bali there is usually just one victim, so in the end human sacrifice is more economical of human life. It’s almost a safety measure. At least that was the view that one group of workers in a large private sector engineering firm explicitly put to me. ‘So have there been balis in all of the 200 factories on the industrial estate?’ I asked.  It seems not. They mostly take place in those that have very big boilers, furnaces, and chimneys.

The Samoda rice mill case, the Girvi kidnap rumour and the reception that Manohar Babu received when he went round the villages with a loudhailer all suggest a real sense of outrage. But this rather phlegmatic view of industrial sacrifices as sensible risk management and an inevitable price of progress is at least as characteristic of the tone my informants would adopt when we talked of such matters (cf. Fürer-Haimendorf 1944). As Madan Lal nonchalantly put it (playing cleverly on the word kal that can mean both), ‘no machine came without death’. Their passivity I attribute largely to the fact that nobody I know claims to personally know anybody who was actually offered as a bali (as opposed to a bhakh, see f.n.17). But perhaps it also stems partly from a philosophical resignation to the ambiguity of power. Rulers properly make sacrifices on behalf of their subjects, but that often turns out to mean offering their subjects as sacrifices. That’s the way of the world, and what can we do?

Click to enlarge

Photo by Ajay T. G.

Sacrifices – ancient and modern

Much of this data is uncannily familiar from ethnography elsewhere in the world. For example, Drake (1989) identifies for Borneo a complex in which kidnapping panics are associated with construction sacrifices in which the state, acting through the agency of frightening outsiders who prey on local victims, is complicit. Dayak groups, believed by outsiders to hunt heads, in turn believe that outside agents of the state take their heads for dams, bridges and oil wells (Tsing 1993: chapter 2). In much the same way, ‘tribal’ Chhattisgarh has – as we shall see – a fearsome reputation for human sacrifice while Chhattisgarhis suppose themselves likely victims of state-sponsored sacrifice. A pattern very similar to the Borneo one recurs in Flores (Erb 1991, Forth 1991 and Barnes 1993) and has close parallels on other continents. I will return to these cross-cultural continuities at the end; but for now my question is more limited. Do these bali rumours reflect a deep unease with industrial modernity and a profound distaste for the modern state, which appears all too ready to sacrifice its citizens? Are they, in others words, and as Drake claims for Borneo, a kind of ‘ideological warfare’ in a situation of ‘socio-political stress and cultural conflict’; a manifestation of ‘brooding resentment’ at the loss of autonomy, and a set of stories ‘good-to-tell’ because they powerfully express the way that people feel about the state? Or are they – as Barnes (1993) argues – a transposition to a new context of a set of old ideas and associations that find credence amongst those who are otherwise largely uncritical of their rulers?

Posed in this way, the answer at first sight seems obvious. Only the context is new. Foundation sacrifices in India are conventionally blood sacrifices. As one Saurashtra Brahman told Pocock (1973: 73), ‘You can’t have a foundation ceremony without a blood sacrifice, it’s essential and that’s that’. And when the foundations are sufficiently important, it is an ancient idea that a human victim is called for. Thus the stories of bali I have recounted evoke a set of very old legends involving rajas immuring innocent children in the foundations of forts and bridges in order to give them strength. In Chhattisgarh, and neighbouring regions, such tales abound and these sacrificial practices are held to have continued throughout the British period and into the present. Two years back, there was – as the workers interpreted it – a sublimated sacrifice on one of the larger construction sites on which I spent time. Three drunken BSP workers returning home at night had been roaring down the road on a powerful motorbike, missed the bend on the corner and smashed right through the wrought-iron grill on the gate to the site. Bhakh had been taken. As many of my informants tell it, however, there is hardly a bridge, a dam or an irrigation canal within a hundred kilometres of Bhilai which can have been constructed without a real bali[22], and the new fly-over by Durg station required several, as Prakash confirmed. He works with the survey department of the municipal authority and should know. For other parts of India too, there are many reports from the colonial period: human sacrifices for the sinking of the Burmah Oil Company’s wells; rumours of kidnappings in Bombay for a bridge in Baroda, resulting in violence in which there were more than twenty deaths; reports of Calcutta taxi-drivers killed on suspicion of procuring victims for the Kidderpore docks (Hutton 1946: 249f).

Animal sacrifices for the fertility of the fields are routine in remoter parts of rural Chhattisgarh, and – though my informants are now reluctant to admit it – were until recently offered in the area around the plant. Today coconuts are smashed and fire sacrifice given in lieu. In the village on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border in which Amit Desai worked, however, the offering of a human victim – paradigmatically of a lamsena, an uxorilocally resident son-in-law who is unprotected by his own kin – is widely supposed still to be practised in the more jungli villages around to release the blocked up fertility of the fields.[23] Again in Bastar, to the south, where it is uncertain whether human sacrifice was actually practised,[24] it was nevertheless supposedly sponsored by the state in order to secure the harvest, and at key moments in the history of the kingdom, as when an heir to the throne was born (Sundar 1994:164). The danger was greatest during the month of Jyesth before the crops were sown – remember the Girvi rumour. Many of the same elements recur in Hill Reddy country (Fürer-Haimendorf 1944); and in the Kond areas of Orissa on Chhattisgarh’s eastern border where human sacrifice almost certainly was practised, and where it was again associated with agricultural fertility, as well as with soldifying the earth at the beginning of time and with averting calamities.[25] The victim of Kond sacrifice – an outsider – was kidnapped by outsiders; and the pusaha (a child stealer) who haunts the imagination of many of my Chhattisgarhi informants of rural origin is stereotypically also a stranger. Indeed, he sometimes appears in the guise of that archetypal outsider – the wandering ascetic.

In the myths of some tribal groups in central India, iron-working had its origins in human sacrifice, and mining and metallurgy have – as in many other parts of the world (e.g. Nash 1979) – been held to require it (Eliade 1978:65-6). Around Bhilai, animals were – and still sometimes are – sacrificed for other purposes as well: for the birth of a child, for unloosening the tongue of a son who appeared to be dumb, or for promotion in the police. When small-pox threatened, goats were ‘cut’ for the goddess Sitala; and at the Divali festival pigs are buried alive in the cattle byre to ensure the wellbeing of the household’s milch animals.[26] Sacrifice, in short, has long been a central channel of communication and influence in Chhattisgarhi dealings with the divine, and the requirement for human victims when the objectives are greatest is a long-standing assumption.

It therefore seems plainly implausible to see contemporary recensions of the same theme as a direct commentary on, let alone as a direct product of, the new relations of production towards which a reluctant Chhattisgarhi peasantry are propelled. The reference here is to Taussig’s (1980) celebrated interpretation of the Faustian pact with the devil, into which some Columbian peasants supposedly enter, as an indigenous commentary on the evils of proletarianisation; and of their folklore about the magical fecundity of baptised banknotes as a proto-Marxian theory about the mystery of capital accumulation. The bali stories we are dealing with here would be hard to represent as the fruit of folk philosophising on the commodity form from the perspective of gift morality. Long before ‘free’ labour and ‘capitalistic’ profit existed on any scale in the region, victims were supposedly being sacrificed to the purposes of the powerful. That is not, of course, to say that these beliefs about balis and industry have nothing to tell us about the villagers’ views of the forces that confront them. But what they seem to say is that whatever the productive regime, creative power is forced out of sacrificial destruction – and that it is the little fish who pay the price as victims.

It would I think be a mistake, however, to see only a seamless continuity with the past. There is something valuable to retain from the lead of those – like Taussig, Drake, Erb and others – who stress the way in which such stories are made compelling by current politico-economic circumstances, and who encourage us to focus on the way in which the new world is revealed through the play of old symbols. In the new world that the Chhattisgarhi ex-peasants-turned-proletarians of the Bhilai industrial belt inhabit, bali is no longer quite what it was. At least in its phantasmagorical ‘industrial’ form, it seems to have been almost totally stripped of any sense of proper ritual procedure. It has also become a highly secret practice; but at the same time is held to take place on a quite unprecedented scale. Is it too fanciful to see in these shifts a reflection of the actual experience of the neophyte proletariat? The old ritualism has indeed lost much of its grip. The world does seem a less transparent place and even to those who perform them industrial processes are often opaque. Machines do have an extraordinary productive power that must come from somewhere, and the mass production of steel in such a gargantuan complex does suggest a need for sacrifice on an entirely new scale. That these stories re-locate the power of modern industry in a timeless ritual practice – indeed one that created the cosmos – should not obscure the fact that its procedures have actually been transformed.

It is certainly the case that while, in the villages around Bhilai, other forms of sacrifice – for crops, cattle or the restoration of health – have steadily declined since the steel plant was started, the idea that factories require victims persists with some stubbornness. It is as if the powers of dangerous creativity have been re-located from the countryside to the town, and from agriculture to industry. Sacrifice, as Eliade (1954; 1959) insisted, repeats cosmogony. It therefore occurs at, and re-makes, the centre of the world. Today it is concentrated in the industrial areas, and – as seen from Bhilai – that reflects the contemporary reality. It is now they who live at the centre.

But what is perhaps most revealing is that if sacrifice is a way of coercing the deities and gaining access to divine power, then in the old world of the peasant economy each peasant did sacrifice for himself (even if the raja also – and on a grander compass – performed it on behalf of his kingdom). In the new world of industry it is done by the government or the capitalist, and never by the worker who is its most likely victim.  If, that is, it is done at all. And if it is not, the deities will ungraciously seize for themselves – and with increment – what men should have given up graciously, and again it is the workers who suffer. Either way, it seems like an allegory of their loss of control over their own personal destinies, of the price they pay for modernity.

In classical variants of sacrifice, moreover, the victim must represent something of value to the sacrifier, his possession or purchase (Biardeau 1984). In modern industrial sacrifices, however, he is kidnapped or tricked. It seems like a sad reflection on the relationship between men and masters in the contemporary world and on the way in which the lives of the former have been devalued.

As a qualifying footnote to this, however, it needs to be said that the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, in the recent past the most radical union in the region, has sought to re-appropriate and – as it were – ‘proletarianise’ the power of sacrifice. Shankar Guha Niyogi, its charismatic Bengali leader, continually invoked the self-sacrifice of the nineteenth century ‘Tribal’ insurrectionary, Vir Narayan, who was hanged by the British; and well before his own assassination predicted that he too would be made a bali by the local Bhilai industrialists. The victims of the police firing at the captive BSP Rajhara mines in 1977, and at Bhilai Power House in 1992, are commemorated in songs and speeches as balis or kurbanis to the working class movement, and the union hospital at Rajhara is the Shahid (‘Martyrs’) Hospital. Capital and the state have not had a complete monopoly on the creative potential of sacrifice, and the rhetoric of the Mukti Morcha is shot through with its imagery.

Sacrifices – true and false

What must not be lost sight of is that most of the time most of my informants – both locals and outsiders – now insist that the stories about the sacrifices that supposedly started the plant are untrue. Their scepticism takes several forms. At the less radical end of the spectrum is the claim that though the government never gave balis to build BSP, the deities took bhakh on that account. Alternatively, many – under the influence of Hindu reformist ideas – insist that theses rumours must be false since the deities do not really desire blood sacrifice. Though a government led by the heroes of the Independence movement would certainly know that, some concede the possibility that a few deluded owners of private factories might suppose otherwise. A twist on this view is that although ‘real’ devi-devatas are repelled by blood offerings, there are plenty of ghosts (bhut-pret) who are not. The deities do not want balis, even if these are sometimes solicited by the low-grade supernaturals who impersonate them. But such fence-sitting theories are less common than outright rejection. What most sceptics say (in a Nehruvian secularist spirit) is that there was no substance at all to these rumours and that victims were neither given nor taken when the plant was built.

What is striking, however, is that even those who scoff most at these tales invoke them constantly. They almost invariably do so, moreover, in tandem with the other conventional explanation for the Chhattisgarhis’ reluctance to join the BSP labour force – their limited grasp on the law of scarcity and restricted consumption demands. Is there some logic that links these two apparently disparate theories? Why, anyway, do the bali stories have such a hold on even those who profess to disbelieve them, and why is the fear of sacrifice so firmly attributed to the locals when the idea that large-scale engineering and industrial projects call for human offerings is common throughout the country? When kidnapping rumours blaze through the slum neighbourhoods that surround Bhilai, the panic is by no means confined to Chhattisgarhi parents. Indeed, when I first discussed them with Adhikari, a Telugu Catholic of ‘untouchable’ caste, a mission school graduate and now a railway worker, it was to him a novel idea that they might be anything other than true.

For many of the long distance migrants who arrived in Bhilai in the pioneer days, Chhattisgarh was a remote and savage land of jungles inhabited by ‘primitive’ Tribal peoples.[27] And their lurid stereotypes pre-eminently associated such people with the fearful practice of human sacrifice, and with a childlike propensity to live in the present and be content with little. The two theories that are held to explain the locals’ unwillingness to work in the plant thus evoke the two key signifiers of ‘Tribal’ backwardness. Whatever these outsiders’ own misgivings about the price that such a large project might exact from its labour force, they had come to earn a wage from a job on the site. But the locals had options provided by their fields or their compensation money; and – given the prevalence of human sacrifice in the region – could reasonably be expected to share their fears in magnified form. It is, in short, plausible to suppose that a terror of modern industry was a displacement of fears that were more generally shared onto a population that was imagined to be predisposed to them and pragmatically able to act on them.

Today these stories serve, I believe, other more significant ideological purposes. The idea of ‘progress’, of having embraced modernity and left rural darkness behind them, of belonging to a more ‘educated’ and ‘civilised’ world, has a powerful hold on the minds of BSP workers. For the Chhattisgarhis amongst them, what these now obviously childish fantasies about sacrifice show is the distance they have travelled along a path – illuminated by Nehru’s beacon – that led from an illiterate and superstitious past to an enlightened and rational present. For such people, in short, it is the falsity of past beliefs that has real ideological salience and that needs to be continually asserted; and it is this that at least partly explains the continued currency that these tales of sacrifice have. And it is possibly here that their insistence on the present orientation of past beliefs also fits as the rhetorical antithesis to the future orientation of their present preoccupations with their children’s career prospects and education. An inability to think for the morrow is, as we have seen, a defining attribute of ‘jungli primitives’, and the gulf that now separates them from their past is emphasised by acknowledging (and probably exaggerating) the extent to which they had formerly lived for the moment.

As to the non-Chhattisgarhi outsiders, what both of these stories underscore is why they deserve the credit for dragging Chhattisgarh into the modern world. While those who now insist on their rights as the sons-of-the-Chhattisgarh-soil were cowering in their cottages for fear of balis and bulldozers,[28] and were boozing away their compensation money, it was their blood and sweat that was building Bhilai. The entirely imaginary sacrifices of which the superstitious locals were so frightened thus serve to highlight the real sacrifices that these outsiders made on the altar of Nehru’s dream of modernity, and to explain why they have more right than anybody to enjoy its fruits and to fix jobs in the plant for their boys.

There is even, perhaps, a sense in which scepticism about these stories of bali may buttress belief in them. The more loudly the enlightened proclaim their falsity, the more plausible it is to conclude that there must be many others who give them credence, and a few who are likely to act on their superstitious beliefs. Take, for example, an alleged case of human sacrifice reported by the Hindustan Times in June 2001 from a part of Maharashtra not far from the Chhattisgarh border.[29] The death of the child-victim had at first been accepted as accidental, and it was not until an organisation called the Andha-Shradha Nirmoolan Samiti (‘The Blind Faith Eradication Council’) got the bit between its teeth that the ‘truth’ emerged. As a result of their painstaking investigations, an eleven year-old girl would testify that the boy had been sacrificed by his grandmother. It further transpired that her own father had previously sacrificed a child. Reading between the lines of the press report, it is not hard to imagine how the complicity of a suggestible child might be secured. Nor is it difficult to see how the zeal of a ‘secular’ organisation dedicated to the extirpation of ‘superstition’, and to exposing the inhuman practices to which it gives rise, might have the unintended consequence of reinforcing the popular conviction that such practices really take place.

In summary, then, there are some who openly claim that large-scale factory production requires the literal sacrifice of human lives, but many more who – however watchful of their children when strangers appear in the neighbourhood – dismiss such stories as simply a myth. Though I am not in a position to offer a systematic epidemiology of such proclaimed beliefs, my impressionistic evidence would strongly suggest that it is younger, better educated workers with organised sector (and especially BSP) employment who are the most likely sceptics. Of a piece with that is that they are the ones most concerned to distance themselves from the antiquated notions of their illiterate ‘thumb impression’ (angutha-chhap) fathers. Those lower down the industrial hierarchy – many of whom have at some stage worked as contract labourers in the plant – are those most likely to admit to believing such stories. That is perhaps consistent with the fact that they are generally less schooled, less experienced and have a more limited understanding of industrial processes. Nor is it irrelevant that today – and by some considerable margin – a disproportionate number of fatal accidents in the plant involve contract workers. Most importantly, however, the pattern is exactly what one would predict on the premise that such stories represent – in the manner of Taussig – a kind of reflection on the character of modernity. Those who have benefited from it least are naturally prone to emphasise the price in human life that is paid for it; while those who have prospered most invoke the very same stories to proclaim its benefits by showing how it has done away with such nonsensical beliefs. From their own perspective, both are of course right.

The big issue – London Bridge is falling down

We have seen that there is a significant continuity between the human sacrifices that have in this region supposedly guaranteed the abundance of the harvest and those that supposedly enable large factories to function today. What is even more striking, however, is the close kinship between the latter and the construction sacrifices that have been reported from many other parts of the world. It is to these parallels that I turn in conclusion.

At least since Tylor (1871:1:104-8), the wide distribution of foundation sacrifices – apparently premised on very similar ideas in very different cultures – had caught the attention of our anthropological forbears. Legends and rumours of such sacrifices in connection with the building of bridges, dams, forts, monasteries, royal and chiefly dwellings, or city walls and gates were recorded from almost every continent.[30] ‘London bridge is falling down’ and its foundations must be bathed in the blood of small children (Opie and Opie 1951:270f). A young girl is immured in the walls of Copenhagen, one of St Columba’s monks in the foundations of his cathedral on Iona, and when a new bridge was constructed at Halle in 1843 it was popularly supposed that it would only stand if a child was built into it. The Balkan countries have a ballad tradition of great poetic quality that celebrates such stories (Dundes 1996), and they provide the backdrop to compelling novels by two of the region’s most celebrated twentieth century writers (Andrić 1995 [1945]; Kadare 1993 [1978]). Even beavers, according to some native American groups, build one of their young into a new dam. Though modern anthropology has had little to say about such cross-cultural continuities,[31] it has continued to multiply examples (e.g. Hernandez 2002:216-7) – including many that involve modern factories and mines.[32]

It is true that the details of the supposed sacrificial procedure vary – with regard, for example, to the preferred age and sex of the victim (there is often a preference for children or women, especially pregnant ones), and to the manner of immolation (most characteristically burial alive in the foundations). Often – though I never encountered this notion in Bhilai – the spirit of the victim stands perpetual guard over the building for which it was sacrificed. Almost invariably, however, human sacrifices are associated with mega-construction projects that smack of hubris and that rival the work of the gods. Unless such a sacrifice is offered the construction will collapse. Though the engineering problem seems transparent enough, what is less transparent – to the ‘modern’ mind – is the ‘solution’ proposed. How come, as I asked at the outset, that people from so many cultures have arrived at the apparently counter-intuitive conclusion that squelchy and corruptible human bodies make stone and concrete durable? Though it may make sense to argue that religious representations ‘catch on’ precisely because they are counter-intuitive and therefore attention-grabbing (Boyer 1994), that does not explain why this particular proposition recurs with such frequency.

Nor does politico-economic circumstance. One illustration of the operations of the occult economy that the Comaroffs (1999) offer is that of ‘skulls built into the foundation of a new building to ensure a good business.’ Such (real or imaginary) ritual practices, they acknowledge, have long been part of the ritual repertoire, but ‘appear to have been relatively rare in the past’. Today they take epidemic form in response to the way that ‘millenial capitalism’ and ‘the culture of neo-liberalism’ impinge on the lives of the poor. At other points in their analysis, the Comaroffs stress that new situations produce new forms of magic, and that witchcraft beliefs mutate under ‘the impact of large-scale transformations on local worlds.’ Similarly, Geschiere stresses their volatility and the ‘continuous innovation’ to which they are subject (1997:59). The general thrust of these analyses, then, is to suggest that cultural representations surrounding the occult economy are highly protean, and within rather wide margins malleable to politico-economic circumstance.

In the case I have documented, however, these margins seem narrow. True, I have argued that sacrifice is not what it was, and that the direction in which it has changed reflects the way in which neophyte proletarians experience the new world they encounter. But as I have also shown, there is a set of core ideas – including the idea that power is created by sacrifice and that major constructions stand on account of it – that remain remarkably constant. This core, moreover, is found in a wide range of different cultures and in the context of very different types of political-economy. It does not therefore seem sufficient to say that these stories are ‘good-to-tell’ on account of that context (though that may be part of it). A significant part of their appeal – to say nothing of their core content – transcends specific material and political circumstance (cf. Niehaus 2005).  I therefore assume that these stories also address problems of a more existential sort that confront people almost everywhere. It is this that explains their recurrence in such similar forms in such dissimilar material conditions, and much of their attention grabbing quality.

At one level, I concede, both the ‘existential’ problem and its solution seem obvious. Life is risky, buildings fall down, workers get killed. In a religiously enchanted world, what better strategy than to get powerful deities on your side? The commonest way of doing that is to offer them sacrifice. In many such worlds, moreover, sacrifice is the supremely creative force and it is no surprise that its power is summoned in the building of buildings of major importance. It is furthermore obvious that the more ambitious the objective, the more valuable the offering must be. Human sacrifice is just sensible risk management, and deploys the standard technology of ritual power. It is therefore no mystery that people suppose it a necessary precursor to major public works.

What this fails to explain, however, is why these stories have a hold on the popular imagination even in circumstances in which the ideology of sacrifice is attenuated – as in much of Europe where such legends abound but where the ritual slaughter of animals  (let alone of human beings) has not for many centuries been seen as a proper method of entering into contact with the divine. The problem is not so easy to dispose of. Not that I claim that I can satisfactorily do so, and the tentative suggestions with which I end are intended as no more than a beginning. I have two.

The first is that one of the conundrums such stories address is the effect of duration on the world we make. Without human sacrifice, the dam is breached, the bridge washed away, the factory chimney topples. In legend, what is built by day is destroyed by night. In reality that is true on a time-scale that is still unsatisfactorily short. An obvious solution is to suspend time and that is what construction sacrifice does. In such sacrifices, as Hubert and Mauss (1964:10-11) saw, instead of being symbolically equated with, and standing in for the person sponsoring the sacrifice, the victim is identified with the object to which the benefits of the sacrifice accrue. Indeed, the two are so inseparably fused that the victim literally becomes part of the building. Since now they are one, and since duration ends for the victim with his or her death, time stops for both. It does so, moreover, at precisely the point at which the power that sacrifice unleashes is at its most intense and the victim is maximally sacred. It is as if, by walling it up, that power is bottled up in the building. Immured forever within it, the victim is the remains of the sacrifice, its characteristically regenerative element that is the seed of new life and a guarantee of continuity.[33] The building is not only the tomb of the victim but also a womb that contains it as a kind of embryo in a state of perpetual gestation – making it symbolically appropriate that small children and pregnant women are often the ideal oblations. This power is what gives the bridge or the dam its seemingly supernatural capacity to withstand natural forces, or (as in the case of a blast furnace that turns ore into metal) to transform nature in a seemingly magical way. The deities associated with nature are not unnaturally apt to be angered by such hubris, and sacrifice is represented not only as a quasi-automatic mechanism that allows such marvels to be accomplished but also as the propitiatory price that must be paid for them.

This hubristic quality of the engineering projects for which human sacrifice is imagined to be essential is, I think, crucial. Through such constructions, mortals attempt to defy and master nature, appropriate divine powers of creation and immortalise themselves by accomplishing immortal feats. What these stories tell us – and the second unpalatable truth that I suggest they address – is that none of this can be done by mortal men unless they are willing to sacrifice human lives in their quest to objectify human creativity. Immortal deeds have a price; superhuman accomplishments only come at human cost. In sum, human beings everywhere face the ephemeral and transient character of their own creativity and recognise that ordinary mortals can only accomplish immortal deeds by transcending their mortal limits and making an oblation of human life. On that at least the two different discourses with which I started this paper share common ground.


Supported by the Nuffield Foundation, the Economic and Social Research Council and the London School of Economics, the field research on which this paper is based has extended over approximately 24 months and was undertaken at various intervals between September 1993 and November 2004. I am deeply indebted to Ajay T. G. for invaluable research assistance.


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  1. [1]In local parlance at least, the composite term bali dan – literally, ‘the gift (dan) of a sacrificial victim (bali)’ – generally evokes the notion of self-sacrifice in a way that by itself bali does not.
  2. [2]The phrase is a conscious or unconscious echo perhaps of The Communist Manifesto – bourgeois industry ‘has accomplished wonders far surpassing … Gothic cathedrals’ (Marx 1977:24 [1848]).  It acquired considerable currency and was generically applied to the state-sponsored mega-industrial projects of the period – like Bhakra-Nagal dam (on which see Khilnani 1997: chap 2) and the Damodar Valley project (on which see Kligensmith 2003). Its authorship is generally attributed to Nehru himself, though it was actually the then Congress President, Sanjiva Reddy, who is recorded as having described Bhilai as ‘a modern temple of Indian prosperity’ (Srinivasan 1984:54).
  3. [3]I have elaborated elsewhere on the various points contained in this paragraph (Parry 1999a, 1999b, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2005).
  4. [4]Girvi, Patripar and Nijigaon are pseudonyms for the three ex-villages-cum-labour colonies on which much of my fieldwork has concentrated. I also use pseudonyms for individual informants.
  5. [5]See, for example, Deshbandhu for 26th October, 1966.
  6. [6]Throughout the industrial area, the Hindi word bali is today routinely used to refer to such sacrifices. My older Chhattisgarhi informants tell me, however, that in pre-BSP days only the dialect terms had currency. As I understand it, however, bali and pujwan are not quite synonymous. While bali might refer to the sacrifice of a non-sentient surrogate (like a lemon), the latter always involves the taking of ‘a life’ (jiv).
  7. [7]The Statesman, February 22nd, 1960, which reported 36 fatalities in the previous ten months, and an estimated 167 since the plant began. Of these almost all would have occurred since the start of 1956. My estimate of the rate per thousand is necessarily crude because the precise number of construction workers on site is unknown. In 1960, there were calculated to have been around 30, 000 of them, and at that time the number of directly employed company production workers was in the region of 10,000 – 12,000. In earlier years, however, the combined total would have been appreciably smaller. Unfortunately, the only official plant accident rate statistics that I have been able to obtain for the first fifteen years of BSP’s operation are for a later period (1966- 9), and are from this point of view anyway unilluminating. What they record is an ‘accident frequency rate’ and a ‘severity rate’. The first is a measure of the number of injuries per 100, 000 man hours worked, by which yardstick BSP’s safety record was poorer than those of the two directly comparable public sector steel plants at Rourkela and Durgapur. The second is a measure of the number of man hours lost due to accidents.
  8. [8]Kal not only means ‘death’ but ‘time’. Though there is, as we are about to discover, a strong association between the BSP furnaces and the fierily destructive goddess Kali, no explicit link is made between the factory and the kali yuga (our present degenerate world epoch) of the sort that Pinney (1999) has so elegantly unravelled for another company town in central India.
  9. [9]Even today, false rumours of some serious accident in the plant spread like wildfire.
  10. [10]One reason, I have been told, is that in the earliest days they would dig vertically down. It was only after a number of accidents that it became standard practice to excavate at a slight oblique angle to reduce the risk of a cave-in.
  11. [11]Of course she had been warned against ‘Russian swallowers’ as a child, Radha told Ajay (my research assistant). ‘But it wasn’t until I was big that I saw one. Where? In your house. Where else?’ She meant of course me.
  12. [12]It is in fact doubtful that this Shiva shrine was there in pre-BSP days. At least, a couple of displaced Sonth villagers I managed to trace denied its existence. Nearby, however, had been a small shrine to Bajrang Bali (Hanuman), the main image of whom was given a subordinate place in the new Shiva shrine. There is, however, an old – and now flourishing – village Hanuman temple that abuts onto the walls of the main BSP hospital in the township and about which an elaborate mythology has also developed. The early surgical success rate of the hospital was disastrous because effluent from its theatre was polluting the shrine. More generally, few locals seem to have lost much sleep over the fate of their temples at the time that the site was levelled. As old Baisakhu explained, ‘we were endlessly wandering here and there for the compensation money for our fields, and nobody could spare much thought for the deities. And when we were paid, we had never seen so much money. Everybody was so happy and in Girvi we walked up to our ankles in the canisters of expended fireworks.’
  13. [13]Every shopfloor has several images or pictures of Visvakarma (‘the divine architect of the universe’) who is the patron of artisanal and industrial production. But he appears to be an entirely benevolent deity who only accepts vegetarian offerings. ‘Only Mother is given blood’ I was told. ‘But isn’t Visvakarma the god of iron?’ ‘Brother, in the factory there are furnaces. Furnaces are the form (rup) of Kali. Before we had never heard the name of Visvakarma.’ Except at his annual puja on 17th September, most BSP workers pay him no attention at all (though he is regularly worshipped in private sector factories). His immigrant outsider status was brought home to me when I asked my friends in the Coke Oven Heating Group why his festival was fixed by the Roman, rather than by the Hindu calendar. After some discussion, it was decided that since foreign lands had factories first, his annual puja must have been borrowed from abroad.
  14. [14]I was offered the Sanskritised Hindi bhakshan as a synonym. Bhakshan means ‘food’ in the specific sense of food consumed by malevolent and vengeful supernatural beings. Traffic accident black spots are said to take bhakh, as are certain tanks which demand tin salla – one death by drowning in every three years, though some say three deaths in three years. Whichever, it’s enough to prompt several mothers I know to forbid their sons to bathe in the Patripar tank.
  15. [15]Management or the unions, it has been suggested to me, might easily allay the workers’ fears of becoming balis or bhakh by sponsoring the sacrifice of animal surrogates. Partly because of Hindu reformism, and partly because of the spirit of Nehruvian secularism that still hangs in the air, I judge that to be an ideological and political impossibility. Coconuts are indeed often smashed as non-sanguinary balis to bits of equipment and infrastructure, but it seems unlikely that anybody who takes these stories seriously would suppose such paltry substitutes sufficient to ensure their safety. Though I am not sure whether to believe his story, one contract worker I know, employed for some years by a big contractor in the plant, claims that his boss would always ‘cut’ four goats at their work site at the inception of a new contract. The only accident that they ever had involved one of his work-mates who, through his own carelessness, fell to his death. This is the only time that I have heard of animal sacrifice in the plant.
  16. [16]I say ‘anonymous’ because, with the exception of the case of Santosh Kumar discussed below, nobody seems to personally know anybody who suffered the fate of a pujwan in any factory in the area. Some, however, may well suspect that friends and relatives who died in plant accidents were taken as bhakh.
  17. [17]Hindustan Times, 1st November, 2003. The commonest motivations for such sacrifices, claims the article, are childlessness, financial problems and illness. In the weeks that followed, several more cases were reported by the same newspaper. One in the issue for 12th December, 2003 was purportedly intended to cure a woman’s husband of alcoholism; another in the issue for 9th February, 2004 to enable the perpetrator to pick winning combinations at satta (a numbers racket).
  18. [18]Given the frequency of such reports that is perhaps unlikely, and in 2000 the Delhi High Court felt confident enough to uphold the death sentence passed on a man and a woman found guilty of sacrificing a small girl (Central Chronicle, 22nd October, 2000). Having read a considerable number of these reports, however, I suspect that these periodic panics about human sacrifice often resemble a witch craze, and that children are sometimes put under pressure to corroborate accusations – on occasion by well-meaning middle class ‘secularists’ concerned to expose what they imagine to be the gruesomely ‘superstitious practices’ to which the unlettered masses remain enthralled. I return to this point in the penultimate section of the paper.
  19. [19]In Bhilai, this identity embraces people from U.P.
  20. [20]In the village on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border in which he has worked, Amit Desai (personal communication) recorded a very similar story about Indira Gandhi offering sesame seeds into the sacred fire when she came to inaugurate a big dam project in the vicinity. Again, each seed stood for a victim.
  21. [21]Dainik Bhaskar, 9th February, 1998.
  22. [22]For a different part of South Asia, see Obeyesekere’s (1989) extremely interesting analysis.
  23. [23]In that the sacrifier eventually dies on account of making it, this sacrifice is closer to a Faustian pact than the stories I recorded. The villagers tell of one field that had claimed, not only his life, but also those of two others who had subsequently tried to cultivate it (Desai, personal communication). There was no implication in any of the stories I heard that consequences of this kind would eventually catch up with those who offer bali for a factory.
  24. [24]Grigson (1949) and Sundar (1994), for example, are sceptical of the evidence for it. But Elwin (1950:72-5) discusses a case from 1938 in which a pregnant woman had allegedly been sacrificed by a tank for the fertility of the fields it irrigated. More accurately, it appears to have been the foetus she carried that was the essential offering. The evidence seems to have been compelling, a conviction for murder was secured and the main protagonist hanged.
  25. [25]For accounts of human sacrifice amongst the Konds I have relied on Bailey 1958; Boal 1982; Duff 1846, 1847 and 1848, Hardenberg 2005, Padel 1995 and Stutchbury 1982.
  26. [26]Their burial alive parallels the way in which most balis to BSP supposedly died. These pigs are offerings to a masan. Masans attach themselves to certain households and make them rich, but rapidly bring ruin if neglected. They are only ever fleetingly glimpsed, and take different forms, but their distinctive characteristic is that they have pig-like bristles. When the steel plant started, most villagers with significant ‘black wealth’ (that is, several head of buffalo) would have offered such sacrifices. Few still do so. That is partly because large herds are no longer common and partly because they no longer consider sacrifice seemly and find they can get away without it.
  27. [27]In reality the majority of Chhattisgarh’s population are not in fact ‘Tribals’.
  28. [28]According to some outsiders, local fears of industry are still deeply entrenched. A Malayali neighbour recently assured me that even now the number of ‘pure-bred’ Chhattisgarhis with jobs in the plant is negligible; and when I demurred he explained how my impression to the contrary was based on an optical illusion. ‘Chhattis-garh’ is generally held to refer to the ‘thirty-six forts’ of former rulers of the region, but my informants from other states often (half-humorously) say that the real import of the name is that local women have thirty-six houses (i.e. husbands). The theory that my neighbour put to me (and he was entirely serious) is that as a result of their promiscuity the number of children of mixed parentage in the industrial belt is extremely large. Whenever there has been a hullabaloo about the under-representation of locals in the BSP workforce, it is these people who were ‘brought forward’; and it is because of their outsider genes that they dare to work in the plant. BSP’s Chhattisgarhi workforce is not really Chhattisgarhi at all.
  29. [29]Hindustan Times, 29th June, 2001.
  30. [30]See, for example, Hartland (1913), Knight (1909) and Westermark (1912) from whom the examples given in this paragraph are taken. Drake (1989) usefully summarises several other early sources.
  31. [31]For some decades, the challenge of placing such stories in a more general comparative frame has been largely left to specialists in other disciplines. The folklorist, Alan Dundes (1996), has assembled a fascinating ‘casebook’ of commentaries on variants of the ‘walled-up wife’ ballad from the Balkans and India. His concern is to stress the interpretative importance of looking at the ‘Indo-European’ corpus as a whole, but given the strong parallels this has to stories and legends from other regions, it is unclear why his comparison should stop there. From the perspective of comparative religion, Eliade (1965:76; see also 1959: 51, 56) sees sacrifice in general as an act of (repeated) cosmogony, and construction sacrifice as one instance of this.
  32. [32]See, for example, Taussig (1995) on the human sacrifices required by a sugar mill in Venezuela. For the Andean region, see Nash (1979), Taussig (1980) and Gose (1986) on the association between human sacrifice and modern mining, and between industrial accidents and the failure to sacrifice. For central Java, Wolf (1992:129) reports popular beliefs about local spirits who cause deaths and disappearances because they were not properly propitiated when factories were built on their land. Dundes’s casebook (1996:54) includes a story about a Slav folk hero who sacrificed himself in a vat of molten steel in order to make it of the highest quality.
  33. [33]In Indian classical mythology, Sesa is both the remains of the sacrifice and the snake in whose coils Vishnu slumbers after the doomsday destruction of the cosmos and as a prelude to the start of a new cosmic cycle. Sesa’s brother is Visvakarma, the divine carpenter who will construct the world anew (Malamoud 1996:19).

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