Monday, April 14, 2014

Let's Not Photograph Pity


Few days ago, I came across a news report in Hindustan Times, about the plight of widows of farmers who had taken their own lives. The widows had not yet received compensation despite promises, and life as widows meant a life of vulnerability and unaddressed emotional needs. It was a good report, yet the accompanying photograph was disturbing.

To begin with, it was a staged photograph. I understand that often photojournalists (and so do I) have to recreate scenes in order to tackle bad light, or simply because, sometimes, the composition is not visually effective. Staging a scene is still journalism, as long as the truth is being conveyed. But this photograph was staged in a way that was condescending to the women being photographed. It seems that the photograph was taken with severe lighting constraints, yet this is not justification to make the women seem as poor helpless widows. I have a problem with the triangular position instructed by the photographer, because this makes the scene so forcible constructed.

Besides the aesthetics, I am livid that the women were made to carry the photographs of their dead husbands. Where is the sense of respect towards someone who has suffered loss? Perhaps they did not utter a word when they were instructed to stand in that order. Perhaps, for them, this photograph after all would get noticed, and they would deserve the due they had been promised.

From my previous experience of working with photojournalists on assignments, it was unbelievable to watch them wield power over those who had to be photographed, especially with those who are in the vulnerable section of the society. The consciousness of class difference would automatically bring in a sense of humane indifference.

Let's imagine these three women as widows from a fancier part of Bombay. Would the photographer dare ask them then to stand carrying the photographs of their dead husband, and construct their spatial triangular position, and go click-click-click?

This photograph disturbs me because it does not elicit a sense of respect towards the women, even though the intentions might have been otherwise. Did the photojournalist see anything beyond pity, which he translated through his photograph?

I want to see a photograph where the pride of moving on in their lives, despite the strife, is visible. Let's assume one of these women had a toddler for a child. Let's assume she could not stop grinning upon watching her child gurgle. To me, that would have made a stronger photograph, for it would show me her desire to move on, and her strength and hope in raising a child, despite all odds. If this news piece is an attempt at making the woes of the widows heard, the photograph ought to convey that, instead of looking down upon them.

But I guess editorial boards have a narrow mandate of how a photograph ought to be. The blurred lines are hence erased: a sad story needs to go along with a sad photograph only. When a photojournalist has the ability to turn around the way we view society, it is appalling that stereotypes (of pity, in this case) continue to thrive.

Photographer Tejal Pandey knows this position too well, when her attempts at shifting perceptions have been thrown in the bin, so that the line is not crossed beyond that what is comfortable and safe. Few years ago, when she worked with The Times of India, she was sent to photograph the marathon. Her editors wanted to see images of the sport through sweat and muscles. But Tejal saw something else.

Tejal describes what she photographed, and how it was perceived:

When I reached the venue, I was aghast at seeing these men leering at a female athlete. For them, she was just someone to be ogled at. I took the photograph to my editor, with a caption in mind that would reflect what I had seen. But it was very sad when the underlying truths behind this photograph was ignored, and the photograph was published with a caption that just mentioned that another athlete was running. At such times you realise that your image is likely to get modified so that it fits into a certain framework that the publication wants to put forward and in this case the real message was ignored beyond what might seem obvious – just talking about the marathon and the athletes is fine, but it is not okay to write about the men leering at her... because that would call for another angle to the story, perhaps that of how Indian men look at sportswomen, or at how our blinkered perspective on appropriate clothing cripples our views on sports or sportspersons.

Going back to the original photograph that prompted this post: the photojournalist – Anshuman Poyrekar – is a dear friend. He was the first photojournalist I worked with, in my first assignment in my first job as a journalist at The Asian Age, eight years ago. The assignment was to visit the Marriott Hotel, where a chef was making a series of exotic chocolate delicacies. I was nervous there, but Anshuman had eased me saying that we journalists are the boss, when we are covering an event. When the public relations executive asked us if we would like to have coffee, he had said a prompt yes, while mine was a hesitant one. As the PR executive disappeared, I whispered into Anshuman's ear, “I shouldn't have said yes to the coffee. I cannot afford the coffee! This is the Marriott! Please pay now on my behalf and I will repay you when I reach office.” Such was my naivete, and Anshuman laughed aloud. But he was kind enough to keep this a secret and not embarrass me before my colleagues in the office.

Anshuman is a senior, and a gifted photographer. I only hope that he understands that we journalists are indeed powerful, and hence we ought to use this power to change perceptions, through the stories we tell or photograph.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Revolutionary, Dreamer, Unsung Hero: Dabar Kalundia

On January 30, the valiant struggle of the residents of Kalinganagar, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, lost its hero Dabar Kalundia. A Ho Munda adivasi (indigenous tribe), a farmer, a visionary, a revolutionary – 43-year-old Kalundia had been in the forefront to stop steel companies from taking over vast areas of land that indigenous peoples like himself have long been sustaining themselves with. Widely revered by his peers and equally loathed by the administration, Kalundia's integrity was unshakeable; his arguments were radical, his speeches were rousing, and his ability to celebrate resistance in the face of suppression unbelievable. On at leat three occasions he cheated death from attempts at assassination – his death would have meant easy access into the villages for the administration. Yet, it was a failing kidney – something so curable – that brought his breath to an end.

Few days before his sudden death, Kalundia had been admitted to the civil hospital in Cuttack (the nearest big town 100kms away), but he learnt that he would not survive. So he insisted on returning home so that he could breath his last at home. All these details emerged much later, after slowly digesting the shock of his death.

If one were to visit Kalinganagar today, large steel plants would be the first thing that would be noticed, followed by houses with thatched roofs of red tiles spread sporadically. For many people who have long been associated with the people's movement in Kalinganagar to prevent the onslaught of steel plants, the movement was a failure.

Kalundia's life goes unheard of in the limited scope of the understanding of victory and loss in a people's movement. And hence perhaps, there was not a plethora of obituaries written about him – he died just about the time when columns and air time was filled (rightly so) with the life and work of Pete Seeger as he passed on too. Only one memorial meet took place on January 10 in the state capital of Bhubaneshwar, 200kms south of Kalinganagar. But to understand why Kalundia should not be forgotten, and why his revolutionary vision cannot be called a loss, one ought to understand Kalinganagar.

Kalinganagar is the name given to the industrial industrial complex that was set up in the early 90s, and encompasses 11 steel plants. According to the indigenous Ho Munda community residing in those lands spread across several villages, the extent of the industrial complex has not been determined: every now and then, farther and deeper into the villages, there would be signs that indicate that the industrial complex was expanding. When I visited the place in June 2010, some of the 11 steel plants had already been constructed; some others were yet to acquire land from the people. One of those companies was Tata Steel, a subsidiary of Indian conglomerate Tata Group (Tata Motors, from the same conglomerate, had acquired Jaguar Land Rover from Ford Motor Company in 2008).

Surya Shankar Dash, a filmmaker, had been documenting the struggle in Kalinganagar since 2006. That's also when he first met Kalundia, and realised how the people's articulation, on why Tata could not take over their land, was far beyond the Leftist rhetoric. Dash feels that the movement in Kalinganagar evolved entirely through the strength of the people; it did not have the support of any NGO or mainstream political party. Neither was any outsider sympathetic to their struggle made a leader to guide them. “All decisions were collectively made by the community that stood to be affected by the projects, and this is something I have not seen in other movements,” says Dash.

When I met Kalundia in June 2010, he had invited me to a simple yet delicious lunch, that he had prepared by himself. During our conversation, he had said something, which helped me understand why the adivasis understood buzzwords like 'development' and 'sustenance' better that revered scholars. “We adivasis buy only two things for our kitchen from the market – cooking oil and salt. Everything else is found here. If I want to eat spinach one day, I will take some from my neighbour's farm. If he wants to cook tomatoes one day, he will take some from my farm. This is how we have always been living – in harmony with each other,” Kalundia had said, as I licked off my fingers to finish the meal.

 The only photograph of Dabur Kalundia in my archives, from my travel to Kalinganagar, in June 2010. © Priyanka Borpujari

However, it was this sense of independence, a keystone among indigenous communities, that brought Kalundia his untimely death. “Adivasis are the kind of people who would rarely complain. They ask very little of you. Everyone knew Dabar was a bit unwell with his kidney, but he behaved as though all was well. He had always put his personal issues aside,” remembers Dash.

Yet, there is no denying that Kalundia was a man listening to his own tune, when it came to responding to situations of repression. “He converted occasions of repression into celebrations of resistance,” says Dash. Once, the District Collector (the highest officer in a district) visited the village. Unlike in other villages where the reverence towards the Collector is shown by putting out a chair and table for him, Kalundia ensured that everyone sat on the mat on the floor, including the Collector. He recorded the proceedings of the meeting with his camera. Instead of trying to explain why they companies had no right in acquiring people's land, he directed every word towards the Collector, conveying that the latter was responsible to listen to peoples' issues. “It took a lot of courage to challenge the Collector and tell him that he wasn't doing his job well,” says Dash.

Kalundia was the leader with no declaration or frills. He was attacked at least thrice, and he escaped each time. He knew that it was important to respond to the repression in every possible way, and was hence open to new ideas. When Dash once suggested that he ought to be documenting all that was happening in Kalinganagar, he needed no explanation. “One day, he called me and said that he had saved up Rs 15,000 ($ 250), and asked me to get him a video camera. When I got one, he began to shoot and made more effective use of the camera than I would have,” says Dash.

Knowing about Kalundia's camera play comes a full circle for me: in 2010, I had seen some videos about the repression in Kalinganagar which motivated me to go there and report about the struggle. I had known that Dash had edited the videos and had uploaded them on Youtube. But it is only now, at his death, that I learn that Kalundia, inadvertently, invited me to Kalinganagar. However, according to Dash, Kalundia was soon bored with his new “toy” and had begun to train other men to use the camera. He knew that as a leader, he had to delegate work in the spectrum of a resistance.

But true to the democratic nature of the movement, Kalundia also faced the ire of his own people. He had sometimes undertaken contract work for the companies, and that angered the people around him. But he would explained his rationale behind taking up those works, stating that it was easy for the companies to bring people from outside to do the work, thus making way for those outsiders to dominate the natives. “Just because I am doing contract work does not mean that I would stop fighting the acquisition of our lands. It is my right to fight for my land, and it is also my right to work in a dignified way. I am not working as a petty labourer,” he would assert.

But increasingly, with more and land being taken over by Tata, Kalundia became an angrier but silent man. During the Martyrs' Day meeting on January 2 this year, he rebuked anyone who wished him 'Happy New Year'. Martyr's Day is observed on January 2 by the people of Kalinganagar since 2006, to remember the 14 men and women who had died that day, when they were attacked by the police that had charged at them, to forcibly drive them off of the land. Nobody had known that the land had been mined.

This year, on Martyrs' Day, Kalundia delivered a speech, in the state official language of Oriya. Here are excerpts from his profound – and last – speech:

“On Second January 2014, as everyone in our country and the world are wishing each other a Happy New Year, I would like to tell Naveen Patnaik [Chief Minister of Odisha state] that he has sold our flesh to the people of the world, he has sold the flesh of the people of Kalinganagar, he has sold the flesh of the tribal population.... The ministers, the police, the officials… they have consumed the blood of the people, and they have celebrated Holi [Indian festival of colours] with their blood. I will not forget this day, as long as I am alive. I will say this as long as I live… to this democratic nation, this democratic state, and the democratic political system…

In the name of democracy, they have brought all these companies here, who are preying on us for money… and are having a new year feast.... The ruling government in this country, in Odisha, and in the other states, has only one agenda – to exploit the common man....

In this world, there is not a single politician or government that has not taken money from big companies… nobody has the guts to speak out against the big companies… but I do… and I will speak against them...

Today, everyone is running after money, no matter what his income is… everyone wants more and more… but you cannot eat money… you can only eat rice, dal, roti, which come from the land… it does not come from factories… If anyone can prove to me that rice, dal, roti comes from a factory, I will kiss his feet. ...”

When Tata Steel was finally able to start constructing its plant on some of the arable land owned by the people, activists deemed the movement as a “lost” one. But what is a valid definition of a successful movement? For some, success means the mobilisation of people and a real democratic process, rather than one piece of paper into the ballot. For others, success is perceived as preventing any construction by the authorities. In the case of Kalinganagar, therefore, the fact that the 11 steel companies set up their plants on the lands of the indigenous communities is a “failure”. So, did Dabar die a vain revolutionary?

Only in his death can the richness of Kalundia's life and his revolution be understood – he was the catalyst that brought together several villages to put up a brave front before the combined magnanimity of the State and steel companies.

According to Dash, the struggle in Kalinganagar, and Kalundia's leadership, were not in vain. Tata Steel did set up its plant on significant parts of arable lands, but it could not displace people from their homes. They were not able to displace the residents of Baligotha, Chandia and other villages. “We activists seem to celebrate a half-baked victory only when a politician might openly support a movement,” says Dash.

A fortnight after his death, at least 50 people attended his memorial service in Bhubaneshwar. They were mostly activists and academics in solidarity with the Kalinganagar movement. Each spoke about Kalundia's unflinching integrity. Everyone remembered his lucid articulation; his distinct and unique style to reverse perspectives during arguments. They all knew how he would calmly listen to activists yet deliver a better speech himself.

“Can we pack our bags and move on, when some people take the petty compensation and the steel plants are built, while others resist every attempt at repression? People like us extend solidarity to peoples' movements, but we seem too distant to provide basic medical aid, especially when places like Kalinganagar are not at all inaccessible,” says Dash, in equal parts angry and sad about the avoidable death of one hero, unfazed by anyone, Dabar Kalundia.

(I visited Kalinganagar in June 2010 and reported about the movement in a six-part series called 'Kalinganagar Diary'. I had vowed to return soon, but it's been almost four years since.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Fruits Of Afforestation

Adivasis in southern Madhya Pradesh see salvation from malnutrition in a drive to plant fruit trees (This article first appeared in the Down To Earth magazine dated December 10, 2012)

On December 8 last year, drumbeats sounded from deep inside the forests of Umberdoh in Betul, Madhya Pradesh. People had assembled there from far away villages, many having travelled for nearly 12 hours. The sun gave way to a full moon, the wintry winds began to blow and people huddled around a fire while songs of freedom from oppression began to echo. Rapt attention was paid to details and testimonies were presented of a new process that promised salvation from chronic malnutrition, while ensuring a robust livelihood.

A year since, and many more meetings later in other villages in Betul, the idea of planting fruit tree saplings is slowly taking root among the Korku and Gond adivasis of southern Madhya Pradesh

Two grassroots organisations, Shramik Adivasi Sangathan (SAS) and Samajwadi Jan Parishad (SJP), have kick started this afforestation drive. Aimed at addressing the decreasing forest cover in Madhya Pradesh—the state accounts for more than one-third of the forestland diverted from the country since 1981—this process has already found acceptance among villages in Chincholi and Ghodadongri blocks of Betul.

SAS began the campaign for fruit sapling plantation on July 1, 2011, when the Hari Jiroti festival to welcome the monsoon and celebrate the sprouting of new crop was being observed in the region.  Faldaar paudhe lagaayenge, bhukhmari mitaayenge (through fruit sapling plantation, we will eradicate malnutrition) and Purkhon se naata jodenge, jungle-zameen nahi chodenge (we'll establish links with our ancestors, we won't leave our land and forests) were the slogans raised on that day.

 People assembled at the December 8 meeting from far away villages too. They paid rapt attention to details and testimonies of how planting fruit trees promised salvation from chronic malnutrition
People from near and far off villages assembled at the December 8 meeting. They paid rapt attention to details and testimonies of how planting fruit trees promised salvation from chronic malnutrition (Credit: Priyanka Borpujari)

“We requested for 50,000 fruit tree saplings from the district authorities, but received none. But that did not deter us,” says Anurag Modi of SAS, who has been working in the region for almost two decades. Modi claims that so far, 20,000 saplings of fruits like Indian gooseberry (amla), jamun, mango, guava and custard apple have been planted in the forests, close to water bodies.

Study in contrast
Giving back the responsibility of maintaining the forest cover to  adivasis, and thereby ensuring their access to what could possibly provide them with the nutrition they lack, is in stark contrast with the Green India Mission-2011 of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The mission's objective is increase of forest cover on 10 million hectares of land by year 2020. The total cost of the mission has been projected at Rs 46,000 crore over 10 years.

The ministry's projects are all heavy on funds. In fact, Rs 871.25 crore has already been allocated by Madhya Pradesh towards compensatory afforestation, as on June 30, 2011, according a statement of the minister of state for environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, made in the Lok Sabha. Natarajan also stated that 176.54 million trees had been planted on public and forestland in the state in the past three years. In a separate correspondence between the office of the principal chief conservator of forests (development), Madhya Pradesh, and the CEO of ad-hoc Compensatory Afforestation and Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) of MoEF, dated March 18, 2010, an annual plan of operation for the utilisation of the amount of NPV (net present value) from the afforestation fund was submitted. In that proposal of a financial requirement of Rs 17236.29 lakh, a significant amount had been quoted for the conservation of wildlife and protection of forests, which includes building patrolling and forest chowkis, purchase of wireless equipment, utility and range-level patrolling vehicles, firearms and promotion of energy-saving devices.

“Why do we need such a large budget to protect forests with firearms and fences, when adivasis have been taking care of forests for generations?” asks Modi. “The government mostly promotes monoculture, and it wouldn't be wrong to say that trees it plants would be to ensure commercial gain in future, like teak or eucalyptus,” he adds.

Modi says that the government is wasting its time in trying to implement such schemes, which end up being huge scams. “Adivasis have survived on wild fruits for centuries. They understand best how their survival revolves around forests, and know how to take care of it,” he says.

During its campaign, which included a foot march to promote the need to reclaim government wastelands and a large meeting in December, 2011, SAS put emphasis on the adivasis' symbiotic relationship with fruit trees in forests. The announcement pamphlet circulated by SAS and SJP for the meeting urged people to bring symbols of their gods and goddesses to the venue in order to honour the deities. The pamphlet further explained how the British rule in India was responsible for systematically doing away with fruit trees from the forests and replacing them with teak plants; this practice continued well after Independence. “The livelihood from mango, jamun, mahua, cashew, jackfruit, tamarind on just an acre will ensure that the forest regenerates. The livelihood thus gained will be more than what could be derived from agriculture on 10 acres of land. Let's clear off the weeds of lantana to enrich the wastelands collectively,” says the pamphlet.

A conflict brews
During this meeting, workers of SAS, as well as residents of nearby Chirapatla village, described the place fruit trees have in the adivasi ethos of living. Some spoke of the need to protect the river by planting trees; others explained how saplings could be procured from SAS and SJP. Modi explained how people in Chunajoori village had developed their own system to keep a tab on the plantation. First, the people cleared the weeds. They then planted the saplings, dug a well and even developed a nursery. This is a significant way to protect those species of fruits that are disappearing. The people of Chunajoori are also maintaining a register for the attendance of people planting fruit saplings. Roughly 300 man days from the labour of 100 people have been decided by the village to be dedicated for this process.

Modi says that this process had begun sporadically in few villages, but the forest department officials destroyed the saplings. “They also demolished the well that was dug up especially for this plantation. Finally, another set of saplings were burnt down by the JFM (Joint Forest Management) Committee of another village at the department’s instigation. But we are reviving this process slowly,” he adds.
People in the forest department are sceptical. R B Sinha, who until recently was the Conservator of Forests, Madhya Pradesh, says that horticulture is not permitted in forestland. “As per the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, fruit trees cannot be grown over forest land.” The adivasis find this response ridiculous. “Fruit trees have always been growing in forests. We won't be planting any videshi (foreign) fruit trees here,” says an old man.

“About 30,000 children in Betul district are malnourished. Vision loss is a prominent condition among the children. Feeding them fruits from the trees you plant is the best way to provide nutrition to your children, without any additional cost. This is why the threats to keep away from forests have not deterred them from deciding their own fate. They do see hope in these fruit trees,” Modi says. 

Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist, and is the IWMF (International Women's Media Foundation) Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow for 2012-2013

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Defiance In The Ganges

(This article first appeared in Waging Non-Violence on November 28, 2012)

Two women walk away from the Ganges river, carrying its water with them in the urns
Type “dalit” into Google News, and you will be flooded with gory reports from across India of women from this supposedly lower caste being raped and murdered, of men being hacked to death. In the northern state of Haryana alone, over two dozen dalit girls and women have been raped over the last month. There was a 16-year-old victim of gang rape who immolated herself; a woman who was gang raped at gunpoint in front of her three children; and another 16-year-old girl who was gang raped by eight men while four others recorded it and circulated the video, after which her father committed suicide.

The National Crime Records Bureau reports that every day three dalit women are raped, two dalits are murdered, 11 are beaten and two homes are burned down. Yet in the face of such persistent hatred, dalits continue to assert their humanity. Rallies are often held and lawsuits are routinely filed. But it isn’t clear whether these efforts have triggered the kind of empathy needed to shift Indian culture toward recognizing dalits as equals. That is why dalits in the eastern state of Bihar have begun to try something different.

In February 2011, 1,001 dalit women from the Dom community walked through the town of Parbatta, carrying pails of water from the pious river of Ganga (or Ganges). In symbolic fashion, they were taking claim of the river from those who had dominated and oppressed them.

The Ganga Kalash Yatra, as it was called — kalash meaning earthen urn and yatra meaning rally — was the third annual such event in Bihar’s Khagaria district, one of the most deprived districts in the entire state. Dalits comprise about 70 percent of the population. But with unequal land holding patterns on top of the caste system’s social oppression, the options for employment are limited. Many work as farm laborers — where they are exploited in the fields with low wages for strenuous work — while others migrate to cities for rudimentary jobs. Often, women bear the worst consequences; being abducted by feudal lords is commonplace.

Traditionally, Doms never had any land holdings, and thereby no income of their own. They were forced to do important jobs that no one else would take up — cremating dead bodies, cleaning the toilets of the people in the village and managing the dead bodies of animals. Like other lower caste communities, they were prevented from having a relationship with the Ganges. For whatever religious needs that were to be met, they could only access a tributary of the river. Every such symbol of oppression had to be reclaimed. And this is what the Yatra aimed to do, says Sanjeev, a longtime supporter of the Dom community, who has been instrumental in galvanizing the momentum behind their revolt.

From riches to rags
Sanjeev’s story in itself is nothing short of a utopian tale. Until 2004, he was leading an urban life in the Indian capital of New Delhi. He had at one point been a runway model before working as a marketing executive. The death of a relative in 2004 brought him to Khagaria, the place where his parents are from. After the customary rituals and dinner, he stepped outside where he was shocked to see a man fighting with a dog over food thrown into the garbage pile. He went back inside and asked his relatives to get a plate of food for the man, and to invite him into their home. But his request to help this Dom man was met with ridicule.

Later, during that same trip, he was shocked to see what he had only heard in stories — people from the same community were not allowed to take water from the hand pump that was situated in the upper caste area. He began to think about the idea of equality as he went back to his comfortable life in New Delhi. Months later, he returned to Khagaria without a round-trip ticket or a plan. knowing where to begin, but observing the obviously unsanitary conditions, he began bathing the Dom children, one by one, near a hand-pump. People watched in disbelief and doubt. Then he walked around, talking to people and asking women if they would like to read and write. Soon, a ramshackle hut of twigs and mud became a classroom. His students were women, who hid their faces behind veils. This made the men suspicious and they burnt down the hut. But within in a few years, they were learning along with the women.

 The community then formed Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan (BHS; Organization for the the Benefit of the Untouchables) in 2006 and with that the upper castes began to face challenges in their habitual domination of the dalits. Some responded with violence. Sanjeev was forced to leave Khagaria after his cousin was murdered in an attempt to intimidate Sanjeev and stop him from doing his work. Guerrilla Maoists, who have a certain influence in the region, also began to feel threatened that the young boys of the lower castes would no more be inclined to join their ranks to fight against the oppressive system.

Nevertheless, BHS continued to thrive, with membership growing to over 10,000 people. It soon launched a campaign to stop the Doms from having to eat leftover food from the garbage. Meanwhile, the education work continued, and some of the Dom children were enrolled in schools — many for the first time in their families’ history. But once again, these changes were met with resistance. Parents from the upper caste protested the demographic mixing in schools and some teachers even neglected the Dom students.

“People feared that if these children were educated and then employed at better jobs, it would not be possible to practice untouchability, which would signal the end of their own dominance in the society,” Sanjeev explained.

This didn’t stop BHS. In fact, they started to receive some funding and established a core team of 12 organizers, including six women. Yet, something bigger was still needed. There was a need felt to assert the Dom identity, while also reclaiming universal symbols and resources, like the Ganges, which had come to be an instrument of oppression. Through meetings and brainstorming sessions, the idea of the Ganga Kalash Yatra was born. February was decided upon as the time for the Yatra because that was when the women had less work in the fields; summers would have been too difficult for a rally.

Down by the riverside
While attending the Yatra in 2011, it was remarkable to see women from far off districts and villages travel to Parbatta in the biting cold of the winter. They chipped in small amounts of money to collectively hire a tractor, that would take them to the Yatra. In the first year, 175 women participated, but about 400 did in 2010. I was told that the process had been the same each year: They had managed to take leave from their chores at home and participate in a celebration of their identity as women and equal human beings. Among them were Muslim women, who face religious subjugation and fall under the category of Other Backward Classes.

For a month prior to the Yatra, women from the Kumbhakar caste — kumbhakar means potter — were making urns to be used by the women. Other logistical arrangements included buying fruits and packing them in plastic bags. Tents had to be erected at an assembly ground; microphones and loudspeakers also had to set up. Sanjeev said, “This time, we are having someone from the Dom community to preside over the function, and he will sit next to a politician who we have invited. This will give out the signal that the Doms are now capable of taking the lead for themselves, rather than having politicians decide for them.”

The night before the Yatra, women had taken shelter in a small hall. In one corner, lentils, rice and vegetables were being cooked for everyone. As the temperature dropped that night, and the lights went out, lamps emerged and songs were sung by the women. Soon, only the crickets were heard, for everyone had to be up by 4 a.m. to get to the banks of the Ganges.

Even before the sun was up, the women grabbed their bag of clean clothes and jumped into tractors to head to the river bank. Many trips were made by the tractors and a few jeeps. At the river bank, the women began to bathe; adolescent girls frolicked in the water. As the sun came up, the women carried water into the urns; some women applied vermilion on their foreheads and wore red-and-golden bands — just like the upper caste women would do on a pilgrimage.

By 8 a.m., the women began to walk back to Parbatta. In two straight lines, with the urns on their heads, they headed to the meeting ground four miles away. A few jeeps with BHS banners glided between the moving queues; loudspeakers shouted slogans of empowerment. The town of Parbatta watched the rally go by. They had seen it in the previous years, but this one was larger. People stood in their balcony to watch the once-oppressed walk in stride, carrying the symbolic river waters.

By noon, everyone had placed their urns at a specified location, and sat under a huge canopy. An oil lamp was lit, and a series of speeches followed by the visiting politician and the chosen president of the ceremony. Women broke their fast by eating the fruits and later, a cooked meal. The space and opportunity was used to convey people’s grievances to the representatives of the local administration. On the fringes of the meeting ground were small booths that gave out information about various government schemes, including those related to health, nursery for children, housing and employment.

By 4 p.m., the ceremony was over. Women rested or walked around. But the air continued to be filled with remnants of the sociological process: priests were hired to chant ‘Sita Ram’ for 24 hours, continuously, without a single break. They began at 4 p.m. that day, and continued through the night, in different tones, until the next evening.

At about the same time, the women took the pots and returned to the riverside once again. They threw the pots into the river, and collectively took a vow that they would not let themselves be oppressed in the year ahead.

“What I am trying to do is to get the Dom to realize that nothing is owned just by the upper caste — neither the river, nor the rituals,” Sanjeev explained. “But this process is just one small yet significant step towards making the Doms heard. They have been suppressed for centuries. The government has so many programs for the lower castes, but has that changed the mindset of the oppressor?”

The work that remains
Although the Yatra did not take place in 2012 due to a paucity of funds, many want it to return. As Sanjeev told me over the phone recently, “They want it as a chance to get together, have some fun, and feel their own strength.”

In the meantime, Sanjeev is focusing on getting the government to allocate homes and arable land to the Doms by getting the children involved. They have been making demands of the government for arable land, so that their fathers have work, which would thereby enable them to go to school.

“They [the Doms] will have to stand up on their own and bring about the real change,” said Sanjeev. “I’m just a cog in the wheel.”

Members of Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan carry a sign that says, 
“Towards A New Horizon.”

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Dignity In A Bag

(This article first appeared in The Hindu on July 28, 2012)

Can do with a little help: Bebitai Mohite on the job. Photo: Priyanka Borpujari
Can do with a little help: Bebitai Mohite on the job.

A paper bag is all it takes, proves a Pune organisation, to ensure that waste pickers won’t have to lay their bare hands on soiled discards.

Everyday, Bebitai Mohite sifts through garbage bins of about 100 homes of Pune, segregating waste. She often injures her hand from pins and glass pieces. But the worst form of waste, 48-year-old Bebitai says, are “sanitary napkins and diapers”. Her hands often dip into a rotten wet discard of red or brown.

Among the new forms of waste today are the non-biodegradable sanitary napkins. More urban women are using hi-fibre sanitary napkins, even as rural India still uses cloth. The muslin nappy for babies has been replaced by thick diapers. More adults today suffer from incontinence, thus increasing the usage of adult diapers. None of these are biomedical waste, yet, are toxic.

In an attempt to reduce these encounters with putrid filth, a square paper bag made from newspaper has been designed for the disposal of sanitary napkins. It has a sticker that announces its purpose; waste pickers thus need not unwrap it to see if it contains anything that could be sold. In 2009, a local organisation SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) developed the bag, in consultation with its 1,867 members. SWaCH provides door-to-door waste management across three lakh Pune households. Aging or pregnant waste pickers, or women from slums, were taught to make the bags. A yellow sticker with text in Hindi and English was pasted. Each bag is sold for Rs. 1, and only packs of 50 are sold.

A string originally meant to fasten the bag has now been replaced by an adhesive peel-off strip. A new origami fold makes the bag sturdier. There is a pink sticker instead of the yellow, bearing the universal symbol representing women. And women from the middle class are “thanking” waste pickers through these bags.

Worth it
“The most expensive sanitary napkin costs Rs. 8. We can surely spend another rupee for its safe and clean disposal,” says Smita Rajabali, who has convinced several women in her 154-home housing society to buy these bags. Smita says that during a festive exchange-gift event at her yoga class, the male participants insisted on taking the bags for the women in their homes.

Aarti Patil, Principal of Vidyanchal School, has made it mandatory for female students and staff to use them. “Students should understand that we owe everything to the environment and the society. We have been segregating the waste in the school anyway. Students have observed how waste pickers work, and hence there was no need to explain about the bags. The staff readily agreed to using it,” says Patil.

Similarly, Charuta Mahabale gifts these bags to women during haldi kumkum. “Most women are happy to learn about these bags. But some worry about their family’s reaction when these bags are taken home from a religious gathering,” she laughs.

Far away from Charuta’s high-rise apartment, Layla Pathan and her daughter-in-law Shaheen make these bags in their slum dwelling. It takes them 10 minutes to fold one, and Layla sometimes makes 100 bags through the day. They earn Rs. 25 from SWaCH for every 100 bags. “This bag is a good idea but it is strenuous to make them. It would be nice if we are paid Rs. 40 for every 100 bags,” says Shaheen. Both the women are illiterate. They feel the stickers on the bags are pointless.

“Almost every waste picker is illiterate. How will he know what this bag is for? Even if he can read, he has no time. It is easier to tear apart the bag and see if its content can be sold as scrap,” says Layla.

What, then, would work? “There should be an image of the sanitary napkin on the sticker,” says Layla. Agrees Sangita Jadhav of SWaCH. She travels by crowded buses daily to deliver about 500 ordered bags. She knows best what it means to sell something that hasn’t been promoted. “Customers often tell me that the bags need to be marketed well. We need a better sticker to communicate with the waste picker,” she says. Only the members of SWaCH, and the 8,000 members of KKPKP (Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat) — the association of waste pickers through which SWaCH was formed — are aware of the bag. The rest of the city’s waste pickers would still possibly unwrap them.

Better marketing needed
Maitreyi Shankar, business development manager at SWaCH, who has seen the evolution of the bag, says the door-to-door supply isn’t cost effective. Bulk purchase is a solution. So far, just one office of a software company has bought these bags. “I have been speaking to officials at Kimberley Clark Lever to include these bags with their sanitary napkins, as part of their extended product responsibility. But these things take time to materialise,” she says. There are about 1.5 lakh bags waiting to be sold, halting further production. “I haven't received the materials to make the bags for a while now. Even if the pay is low, it still provides me with some money,” says Layla.

But Bebitai is optimistic that the residents of the housing complex where she works would readily purchase the bag, if a SWaCH representative were to formally introduce it to them. “Even though some women never wrap their napkins despite repeated requests, I think we should talk to them as equals — as one woman clearing off the trash of another,” says the polite lady, who has also visited Copenhagen to attend the 16th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP16).

Smita has an Utopian idea. “Shouldn’t such an eco-friendly sanitary napkin become the reason for competition among manufacturers? The napkins were developed for the comfort of women; these bags are for the comfort and dignity of those women who handle our soiled napkins.”

Thursday, June 7, 2012

'Not Human Inside The Jail': Shamim Modi

Shamim Modi is an assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and is also an activist working in Harda, Betul and Khandwa districts of Madhya Pradesh. She was arrested on February 9, 2009. She narrates her 23 days spent in jail, explaining how basic needs are not met and humiliations are part of almost each passing day. She strongly believes that there is a lot that Soni Sori would like to speak about, about the way she is being (ill)treated in jail in Chhattisgarh.

Modi's narrative is essential because it tells us about the ways in which jails attempt to kill the inmates' every shred of human emotions, as has been visible with the way Soni Sori is being tortured. 

Here is the complete transcript of Shamim's words:

My name is Shamim Modi. I am associated with Shramik Adivasi Sangathan and Samajwadi Jan Parishad, working in the districts of Betul, Harda and Khandwa districts of Madhya Pradesh since the last 18-19 years, for the. We work for rights of people, mostly adivasis. I can understand and feel all that is being discussed today about the way Soni Sori is being treated in jail, because even I was implicated in several false cases fabricated by the Madhya Pradesh government. They shifted me from Harda jail to Hoshangabad jail, because they knew that since I was popular in Harda, they wouldn't be able to harass me the way they preferred. I can empathise with Soni Sori because I faced similar harassment and torture at Hoshangabad jail. There is constant humiliation and if they decide, they can ensure torture every minute.

They would sometimes hang an inmate upside down, or not allow her to sit down. Strip search is very common, in case one is carrying a pen. They consider the pen to be such an ammunition! The police personnel wouldn't do anything by themselves, but would give utmost freedom to other inmates and convicts with the simple words, "Straighten her". And going by my experience of how they tried to "straighten me", I can well imagine what they must be doing to Soni Sori. 
They are very creative about finding new ways and methods of humiliation. They would tell something like, the inmate needs to be taken outside the jail for a pregnancy test. I told the jailer to just do a urine test; what's the need for a test through intrusive methods? But they wouldn't agree, stating that this was not the rule. I later learnt that the police personnel at the jail feel that once outside the jail, the inmates are not their responsibility and they are free to do anything under which they cannot be held liable; whereas the truth is that under jail custody, the inmates' well-being is completely the responsibility of the jail staff. So they took around 8 women together and I was with the group too. People in the area had known about my arrest and so they were quite inquisitive about it. Yet, they took us to the OPD which only had sliding doors and windows and no curtains, and we were examined in a gynecological manner. When we protested, the guards were called in to strip us. And we were stripped.  
One of the biggest issues is that the general public doesn't know that even the jail inmates have certain rights. Because they are not aware, they think that the inmate being ill-treatment is something that he/she deserves. This makes it very difficult to mobilise support from the general public for the rights of jail inmates.  
I have been part of people's movement since so many years now and that does toughen up people like us. We are prepared for anything. Then all we have to do is just console our own selves when the torture begins. It begins with not allowing us to meet our visitors or that we will be charged under the National Security Act. We have to explain why certain things are published in the media. How am I supposed to know how were newspapers publishing their articles? But they still demanded an explanation as to how did the news "leak" that I was being tortured inside the jail. There was also a tendency to feel that if our colleagues/compatriots were doing something outside, I would be made answerable to it within the jail.
There were women in the jail accused of chain snatching. There were adivasi women who had made a small hut but arrested for occupying the forest and her jail custody extended repeatedly. These women cannot voice their concerns when they are in jail. Once they are out, they still do not want to talk. Tell me, how many women who would be released from the jail would want to fight for against the ill-treatment meted out to jail inmates and to ensure their rights? It seemed tough to get the women inside the jail to feel strong and demand their rights. Outside, people were not being mobilised because they do not know and cannot see what is happening inside the jail. The police tortures people in public view. Just imagine what they are capable of doing behind the closed doors of the jail! Despite public criticism, one cannot really deter them from what they want to do.
I encouraged the women to speak up and give their testimonies on the ill-treatment being meted out to them, and they did so too. I was suggesting to them that when they would be produced in the court after 15 days, they could put forth their views. But the moment they reached the jail, the guards threatened them saying that I would be left off soon and then the rest of the women would have to fend for themselves with them (the jail personnel). 
There was a 55-year-old woman inside the jail who was mentally disturbed and felt guilty about her crime. In the middle of the night, the other jail inmates would get her to stand up and then strip her naked. It was so humiliating for me to even see this. I told the jailer that since I am a clinical psychologist, I can see that the woman was mentally disturbed and that she needs medical help. The jailer, "Give her two rough slaps and she will be fine." This is the only way in which women jail inmates are treated. The first step towards punishing a woman inmate is to strip her, which is why women keep mum inside. There is not a shred of human rights inside the jail; you are not allowed to feel human. And anything can be possible.
Some people say that all the noise about the way Soni Sori is being tortured is exaggeration. I don't feel it is an exaggeration; I believe it is being "under-reported". She would be going through much more, and there would be things which she wouldn't be able to tell. I know what could be possibly happening to her.
Later the women inmates told me, that as soon as I had entered the jail, they had got orders from outside to "straighten" me. Those who are given the mandate to do this pour out all their pain and agony and emotions on that new inmate who has to be "straightened". So if you want to survive in the jail, then there is just one way in which you can survive in the jail: disconnect your body entirely from your emotions. You have to forget all your socialisation processes, else you won't be able to survive. 
I have been to the jail several times; but that was with about 50-100 people, during protest movements. But that is a completely different scenario, because then you are kept in custody in a group for just a day or two, in a large hall. So that doesn't really explain well about all that goes on inside the jail, and they are very deft at hiding that reality. So even when I was in jail custody by myself, and if there were inspectors coming in, then every such thing would be hidden away which shouldn't be there in the first place. Now I realise that the inspectors would not be able to detect anything because they don't know where to look. 
Rotis are dried so that they can be used as fuel to light the stove. Plates are somehow bent so that food can be cooked in them, and the jailer is well aware of all this. 
Other than stripping naked, there are other ways of torture. They will show a tiny dark room which hasn't been cleaned and infested with insects. They threaten to pour jaggery water over the naked body and leave the inmate in the room naked, through the night. 
The stress hence builds up over a period of time. Circumstances are such that one is not even told about the charges under which the jail custody has been granted. I was told constantly that I would be slapped with the charges under the National Security Act and nobody could me without the permission of the District Collector. This means we really do not know what is happening outside.
My son was suffering from jaundice and I was yearning for at least some news. It is not that people cannot visit or meet under-trials, but I was told that upon the orders od politicians, I should not be allowed to meet anyone. In fact, the jailer also told me that his own phone was tapped. So even if he got me to speak to my ill son, a minister would get to know about it and that would be bad. 
My bail plea was rejected because of the cases under which I had been arrested -- dacoity, loot, kidnapping, kidnapping with the intention to murder. I was sure that I would be out on bail because they were all evidently false and frivolous cases. I mean, how could I possibly commit dacoity? But somehow, the local court was managed and my bail plea was rejected. When they shifted me overnight, that's when I understood that they had the malafide intention of harassing me in jail. 
Rats run all over the body, nibble on the feet. In the morning if there are blood stains on the floor, then all the inmates check each others' feet to see whom did the rat bite the previous night. There are electricity cuts of about 16 hours in Hoshangabad. So when we are eating food in the dark, rats woul come to the plate, snatch the roti and walk away, while we would just watch. What does one do?
Harda jail is infested with rats. We would sleep with a sheet over us and the limbs of rats would get entangled in the hair -- there is nothing that can be done. We told the jailer to do something about the rats. He replied, "This is a jail madam; not a five-star hotel." I asked him to show the jail manual, stating that if it mentions that inmates should be bitten by rats, then we would agree to what he says. I told him to at least give us mosquito nets. If not for the mosquitoes, then at least it would keep the rats away. But they said that the nets were not allowed too; if the politicians got to know that we were being given nets then their jobs would be at risk. So we slept through the nights that way. I was really afraid of rats then -- I do not fear them now, after having been desensitised for the 23 days inside the jail.  
When in Harda jail, cops came in 2 vehicles in the middle of the night and took me away. I asked them for the time and where were they taking me; they asked me to keep mum and walk with them. I ws convinced that they would kill me in a fake encounter because of these discreet ways. Somehow I found some piece of paper; I always hid a pn with me. I scribbled, "I don't know where am I being taken"; signed it and dropped it on the road when the vehicle began to move, hoping that at least it would reach somebody and it would be read. Later I got to know they were taking me to Hoshangabad jail (about 90 kms away) and there they instructed the inmates to "straighten" me. They would search bags and the body outside, and then check again inside. 
But inside, it was a different story. Of the 32 inmates, some of them would be scared, but there would be about 20 of them who were really cruel. They pour out their aggression against the system on the new inmate to be searched. One of them snatched the bag and overturned it. Everything -- sanitary towels, clothes, undergarments -- everything would be thrown away and would get soiled in the mud. Then 2-3 women would pounce on the clothes worn. Somebody would pull out the knot of the string of the salwar (pants); someone who put their hands inside the undergarments; someone would pull out the kurta. They can do anything. I asked them back if this was the way that they conduct search. They would reply that the CO (convict officer) would explain how searches are done, who would order, "Go get a baton and strip her naked and show her how searches are conducted inside the jail." Then I felt that it was strategically best to stay quiet. Until when can one fight? And if the inmates themselves collect themselves together, then there is hope. But I would scream out and say that I had spent my entire life for people like them, fighting for their rights, so please do not behave with me like this. But at that point of time they are consumed by some kind of force whereby they cannot listen to anything. 
I also felt that when an under-trial comes in and later leaves the jail, the other inmates are made to keep that under-trial's belonging. One reason for this is that they know that the person will get released, so that translates into some sort of an anger. The other factor is that they want to know what things is the inmate carrying, which they can order her to leave behind later. They also might be feeling that educated women would be carrying some cash which they could keep to themselves. Some do this to command their own authority. For 2-3 days I was very stressed. As an activist, we are ready for everything; even dying. But a humiliation of this kind, every day, every hour -- "Sit down", and then moments later, "Why did you sit, woman? Stand up!" -- and the extremely rude, obscene language gets suffocating.
I was arrested suddenly, with cops entering my room forcefully and catching hold of me, without telling me the charges levied on me, not letting me to know about my child's well-being, no knowledge whether my husband and colleague has been arrested, what they could be doing to him if he has been arrested too.... all of this aggravated my health (I am hypertensive since the last 20 years). I began to develop chest pain and anxiety. I said that I needed to see a doctor. But they gave me a tablet of Sorbitrat to chew and assurance that this will be enough. If a doctor came by in the evening, then I could get a check-up. I was on medications for high blood pressure and I was bot able to take them. So when the doctor arrived in the evening, it was found that my pressure had shot higher and that it was fine by then. When I was produced in the court on the 15th day, I told the judge to instruct the jail personnel to provide me with pen, paper, reading material and my medicines. 
I was hoping that no matter how many days, months, years I would be in the jail, I shouldn't fall ill. Thirty-five women sleep in the space meant for 15, and most of them have gynaecological problems. During periods, they are not given any cloth or sanitary towels. So whatever they can lay their hands on -- damp, dirty blankets, or any other rotten material -- they use that. Everybody suffers from vaginal white discharge. Some adivasi women from the villages wear the 9-yard saree. They use the same saree as a sanitary towel; they use one end of it and wash it and dry it, and then use the other end. So the same saree which they are wearing is being also used as a sanitary towel. The question of personal space doesn't even arise. There is just one toilet which doesn't have a door. The new inmates get the space next to the toilet; the "seniors" sleep in a corner away. Within that packed confines, where someone is suffering from diarrhoea or another is suffering from vaginal white discharge, we have to live. There is nobody to who would listen to the agony. We are not humans anymore. I think people who have been in the jail for long periods of time are convinced themselves that they are not humans. 
Some people I know brought papayas for me later because they know I like it. But when it reached me, all I got was its pulp in a polythene bag. When I asked about it, I got the reply, "There could be arms and ammunition inside the papaya." They were constantly inventing new methods for harassment. I asked them how could arms and ammunition get inside a papaya? They replied that it had happened so once earlier! So why couldn't they just cut it and check its inside, inside of making its pulp with the hands? They do so, so that the inmate cannot eat it. Later I realised that the things that were being sent for me reached the jailer's house. They never reached me. This happens to all the inmates.
When I was produced in the court on the 15th day, I asked the judge that at least some good cloth should be provided for the women to using when they menstruate. But they did not do so. They brought sanitary towels worth Rs 500; nobody could use them because they had no undergarments to wear!
Everything is a big farce inside the jail and we should do something about it."


Thursday, May 24, 2012

'The Administration Is Nothing But Common Sense'

The burnt tanker had been stationed at the Chauldhowa outpost since the day it was set on fire – on the evening of May 11. The Inspector In-Charge, Utpal Changmai, was known to be a kind, gentle officer who spoke to everyone with warmth. “But he unleashed such a terror on that night – we can't believe his kind words anymore,” echoed the voices of the people living close to the Subansiri bridge on NH 52. 

The Chauldhowa police outpost of the Lakhimpur police is stationed on the NH 52, much before the Subansiri bridge. It has a large open space ahead of its concrete office. About three CRPF personnel sat chatting on the base of the flag post. In another corner, the Indian Oil tanker stood; its front covered with a yellow sheet of plastic. Invisible to any passerby on the highway, a tempo stood next to the tanker. It contained a few oil drums. Few sweaty, red-thin men wearing just the gamcha below their waist were transferring the oil from the tanker to the drums. Few cops kept a vigil. Changmai waited near a vehicle as I introduced myself to him and requested to speak to him. He suggested that I speak to his senior, who was present there too.

I introduced myself to Imdad Ali, Additional Superintendent of Police (Security), Lakhimpur District, stating that I was doing a series of stories on large dams (not a lie this). He said that there was nothing much to speak of. “We have nothing to do with the dam, and we have no idea about it. We are here only to maintain law and order,” he said. After a few moments of pleading, Changmai, Ali, another officer and I were seated in an office painted green. It had no racks with dusty files, or photographs of freedom fighters. The only accessories were a locked steel cupboard and curtains on the windows and the door. From the window, I could watch better the oil transfer in action.

Ali interviewed me for five minutes, taking down every detail – name, exact address of my permanent residence, place of origin, publication I worked for, the date when I arrived in the region, the place where I was staying in the vicinity, the person with whom I was staying, how I arrived at the police outpost (vehicle and with whom), the places I had visited so far and my phone number. Finally I asked if I could not interview him back. He did not permit me to interview him on video; only the SP is permitted to speak to the media.

Priyanka (P): What have the investigations so far on the tanker that was set on fire?

Ali: We have arrested 14 persons so far.

P: I heard that it was 21. So it is 14 or 21?

A: It is 21.

P: But hasn't one more person been arrested today?

Changmai: Yes.

P: So that makes it 22.

A: Yes.

(This conversation took place on May 17. So far, 26 people have been arrested.)

P: So what exactly happened?

A: This happened on May 11, about 100 metres away from here, in Thekeraguri.

P: Did this happen inside the village or...?

A: We cannot give you so much details. You will have to go and see yourself. All these details are part of our investigation.

P: All I am asking if for the distance...

A: It happened 200 metres away from the highway.

P: Have the arrests yielded any information yet?

A: The arrested have been given jail custody. We have got some information, but the investigations are on. 

P: What did the vehicle contain?

A: It contained 12,000 litres of diesel. 

P: Was it headed to NHPC's dam site?

C: Yes.

P: And was it taking the route of the left turn from Ghagor?

A: No, it was headed to Gogamukh Chari-ali (junction of four roads, or the town square), from where it would have taken the left turn to Gerukamukh.

P: But there wasn't any blast when it was set on fire...?

A: Actually, fortunately, the whole tanker did not catch fire. Only the front cabin got damaged. So there was no blast.

P: And the fire brigade...?

A: The fire brigade was called and they immediately put off the fire.

P: And how long did it take for the fire brigade to arrive?

A: About 15-20 minutes.

P: But the nearest fire brigade is in North Lakhimpur town, which is 35 kms away....

A: Why do you need so much details about how much time did the fire brigade take to arrive? We called the fire brigade, it came and the fire was put off.

P: I am asking so because there is a factor of distance and time...

C: The fire brigade arrived in 25-30 minutes.

P: So first you said 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, and now 30 minutes...

A: You seem to want too many details!

P: are you looking for more people?

C: (nods his head downwards to indicate a 'yes')

A: These are things we cannot reveal as our investigations are on.

P: I have also heard that a small boy was beaten...

A: No we did not beat a boy. Actually, when the tanker had caught fire, we had to demolish a camp that had been set up. Some of the organisations called for 48-hours' bandh in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji. These organisations used some teenagers to pelt stones at passing vehicles. On the next day, May 12, we caught him and brought him to the police station. His guardians were called and they took him home.

P: Who were his guardians?

A: His parents could not come. His maternal and paternal uncles came to take him.

P: But don't you think that the sections under which the arrested people have been charged are very stringent ones?

A: When A FIR is filed, the details of it are understood and based on those ingredients a case is made. If we find during the course of the investigation that some sections need to be added, we do so with the help of the chief judicial magistrate. 

P: But why did you say earlier that this has got nothing to do with the anti-dam movement? 

A: The police is here only to maintain law and order. We are not interested with the dam.... if anyone goes against the law, we look only into that.

P: Okay, in that case, I shall speak to the SP, if it is difficult for you to give me too many details.

A: Yes, please do so.

P: So now the oil is being transferred...?

A: There are actually four companies working on the dam site with NHPC – L&T, Soma, Alstom and Texmaco. This tanker was headed to L&T as it is working on the powerhouse. So this tanker is being offloaded now and the oil will be sent there.

P: But after the strong movement in December last year, which led to the creation of the camp in Ghagor, what kind of agreement was arrived for, for letting materials reach the dam site?

A: We don't know all the things that NHPC needs, and we are not concerned with that. Whenever they needed any essential materials we would provide them that. Most unfortunately this time this has happened. So now we have received orders from our higher-ups that there should not be an illegal gatherings or camps because Section 144 (unlawful assembly) of the CrPC has been imposed here.

P: Since when has Section 144 been imposed here?

A: Whenever Section 144 is imposed, it is lifted after 3 months. About 15-20 days ago, Section 144 was again imposed here. 

P: But was Section 144 imposed here earlier too? On what basis...?

A: Yes, this happens sometimes. It was imposed here earlier too. This is decided by the District Magistrate, and not the police.

P: So was it imposed again before or after Bihu (Bihu is officially celebrated on April 14, but its festivities and gatherings are still going on in some places)

A: I do not remember the exact date but...

C: It was after Bihu.

P: And Home guards have been recruited too here...?

A: Actually home guards are not recruited here now. They were recruited earlier.

P: But SPOs...?

A: Well, SPOs have recently been.... (didn't complete the sentence). Actually home guards stationed at different police stations have been gathered together. Some of them receive a salary of Rs 4,500. But because we have received outside forces, now the home guards are being utilised for other work. But this is an internal matter of the district and we can deploy the home guards however the need arises.

P: But haven't there been any recruitment for SPOs too lately?

A: I cannot say much on that. Only my SP can give you answers to that.... Do you have any more questions?

P: Not really, as you are directing me to the SP for my questions!

P: So for how long will Section 144 be imposed here? 

A: For about 3 months.... until June.

P: So this means that you would have to patrol throughout the highway and in and around Gogamukh too...

A: Well, we cannot arrest people in a restaurant or in the market place or private institutions. But there were many people at the camp and they would pelt stones at the passing vehicles. Because of such incidents Section 144 has been imposed. Now if 7 journalists come to meet us, then Section 144 cannot be imposed. But those people were pelting stones on the SP's vehicle! But if there are ill persons taken by a vehicle because they cannot walk, or if there are women or children as pillion riders on a two-wheeler, then of course it is not imposed. The administration is nothing but common sense. 

P: But those who have been arrested were under such circumstances....

A: No. People have been arrested after due investigation! A person is arrested when he is found to be connected to a particular case. 

P: ...but then there were women who were arrested, who were manhandled by the male police personnel...

A: Look, there will always be allegations, like they are visible everywhere....

P: ...of course there can be allegations, but there could be eye-witnesses too...

A: ...but whom do you term 'eye-witness'? Just because someone says that he saw something, can I trust him as an eye-witness? Eye-witness is that which one sees with his own eye! There are always allegations when something has to be done. There are allegations that police go and watch women who are bathing by the river! These are all baseless things. And there will always be allegations that there were mo women police personnel. But now it is actually very common that there will definitely be women police personnel around. The media is always ready to tarnish the image of the police....

P: ….no sir, I do respect the police because I too have to work and communicate with the police on a regular basis. But all that I am asking is from the point of view of this case. 

A: Look, we are transferred to different places throughout our lives in the police force. We too have women at home. So we cannot ill-treat women while we are at work. So saying that we 'manhandled' the women is wrong. The instances of one or two policemen cannot be generalised....

P: ...I am not generalising. If I did so, I would be wary of coming to a police station or would have men coming with me for my protection. I am asking facts pertaining to the case at hand. And when I said 'manhandling', I meant the instance when women were dragged by male police personnel by their hair. 

A: Then you should ask like that. 

C: I am very happy that you have clarified yourself too. Which is why I ask you honestly, did you or any person face any trouble here? Have they or their vehicles been stopped midway on the road? Did people face any harassment here before this incident took place?

P: Sir, I haven't been here before the incident. So all I now see around are armed personnel. It is an obvious fact that people will be curious or maybe even fearful when they see a road full of police personnel. It is not always a positive environment. So I am aware that there was indeed such an aura here before too, based on whatever people have told me. 

A: Look, in November 2011, a pressure shaft was being transported to NHPC by road. People tried to block it, and then they later began to block the highway and disallow any materials from being transported to NHPC. Then they formed the camp at Ghagor, yet we would apply just bailable charges, if we arrested them. This time the same thing happened; they blocked the highway and the tanker was burnt. Nowadays, if there is a highway blockade anywhere, the message goes right up to the Centre. Blocking the highway does cause a lot of inconvenience to people – old people, pregnant women, people going to the market. You won't see this kind of highway blockade anywhere but this has become prevalent here because in doing so, the message goes to the Centre directly. Once the highway is blocked, some senior politicians do arrive and then the groups can highlight their demands. So now we have orders to ensure that the highway is free, and whenever there is any disturbance there will surely be police around.

P: One last question, and a very personal one – what do you and the police cadre think about the movement and the reason for which the movement is taking place? 

A: Look, we are just policemen. As per the Assam Police Act of 2007 and the Police Act our duty is just detection and prevention of crime. We are not concerned about anything other than law and order....

P: ... but this is one Assamese asking another Assamese what he feels about the dam project.

A: Look, the project is being done by the higher-ups. There are different views among people – those who feel that the dam should be built, and those who feel that it should not. We do not go into such details.

P: All I am asking you is, what you feel about the dam, under the given rumours that it will devastate the whole of Assam and that it would not generate just about 10 per cent electricity for Assam....

A: I am wearing my police uniform now, so I cannot tell you what I feel. I can tell you this if you come to my residence, when I am not a policeman. 

P: Okay, I will look forward to that then! Thank you for your time.


The jail in North Lakhimpur town is a short tiny building in white and brown on the street. One could easily mistake it for yet another beautiful Assamese home which had been modernised to some extent. A small concrete structure, akin to the bus stands in villages which had a good seating area, was where families and friends waited to meet their loves ones who were behind bars. In the waiting area were Gagan Bora's wife along with her two children. She had come neatly dressed, with a large dollop of vermilion decorating her little head. Along with her were Debo Nath's parents; Debo Nath's mother would be seeing her son the first time after 6 days. Also present were some relatives of Dipen Mudoi, and friends of other prisoners.

A simple list of the prisoners was all that was needed to meet them. One had to wait outside the grilled-door to see if the prisoner was being brought. Minutes later, Debo Nath, Gagan Bora, Dipen Mudoi and Prodeep Gogoi walked to the nearby window. It had a fine grill, but porous enough to lightly touch your loved one's hand. But there were paan-chewing non-talking guards in civilian clothes who accompanied each of the prisoners. They would bend forward if our questions were inaudible to them.

But there was good news from each of the men who had been arrested after the tanker was set on fire near Ghagor on NH 52 – they were all doing well, except for the spicy food which was inedible for most. One complained of torn mosquito nets; another of no access to newspapers. But over all, they all were doing well. Prodeep Gogoi smiled despite his aching hand from the fracture and his face still had bruises. “Are they beating you here?” was a constant question for all the men. Instantly, the guards would bend forward and look towards the prisoner, either hoping to memorise every word of the reply or ensuring that no cryptic words are leaked out. When the replies would be “No, we are doing well” or “No, we are not beaten here”, the guards would relax their posture. But all of the prisoners accused of burning the tanker – farmers, shop owners, students – affirmed that they were tortured when they were first arrested. Some of them suffered kicks in the stomachs, some of them were punched on their faces.

A blurred future... Prodeep Gogoi (left) and Dipen Mudoi (right)

It was imperative to try meet Bharat Sahu. He was with Prodeep Gogoi's son Rupankar when they were apprehended by the cops on the night of May 11, around the same time that the tanker was set on fire. While Rupankar had a narrow escape from being arrested, Sahu was left behind. The news spread the next day that he had been admitted to the Civil Hospital in North Lakhimpur town, owing to the injuries he suffered at the hands of the armed personnel – police and CRPF. But what seemed more intriguing was the fact that none of the people wanting to meet him were successful in doing so. They would be told by the cops in the jail that he did not want to meet anyone.

But this day he had appeared before us, and seemed excited upon seeing one activist he had known for long during the days and nights at the protest camp. He had a litany of complaints – he was punched in his left ear while in police custody but had received no cure; one of his fingers was probably fractured and there were no medicines for it; he was kicked in his stomach and back and they ached; he was still limping from being beaten by the batons on May 11. His left ankle appeared bent inwards. He hated the food; he wondered why nobody had visited him so far. 

“But baidew (elder sister), do give us any material we could read, about our rights inside the jail. We will do andolan here itself!” he asserted, even as the guard look disinterested.

“Why don't you write an application to the jailer for appropriate medical treatment?” the activist suggested.

“They won't provide me with pen and paper!” he retorted back.

We requested to meet the jailer. 


Bhanu Bhuyan (20), Kalpana Gogoi (20) and Nitumoni Gogoi (23) were brought in next to meet their visitors. Petite girls with smooth skin and soft voices, they had been arrested from the camp at Ghagor on the night of May 11. 

They said that were doing fine but had a few basic needs:

- the undergarments provided to them were the size meant for a child
- there was no bathing soap or toothbrush or toothpaste
- the sarees provided to them from the jail were dirty
- they had been wearing the same clothes they had been wearing since the time of their arrest 
- they wanted peanuts and other lentils that they could eat, instead of the spicy food

Their mobile phones had been taken away by the police during the commotion when they were beaten and arrested. All three of them hail from remote villages of Kaziranga of Golaghat district. Hardly anyone in their village had mobile phones; they could not remember the phone numbers of those who carried a phone. This simply meant that their parents had not heard from them or seen them or learnt about their arrests, even at least a week after their arrest. The deploring case girls, in a way, represent the state of the numerous political prisoners across the country – 'lost' for their families, trapped in a political battle, hungry for life.


After the girls were sent back to their cells, we were able to meet the jailer, S Baishya, through the same window as we had met the prisoners. We suggested that Bharat be provided pen and paper to write an application since he feels that he is not being treated well. But the jailer ranted how prisoners always lie and they are always taken care of.

Crouching tiger... Bharat Sahu

We complained that prisoners were not provided newspapers to read; the jailer said that they could not ensure 300 prisoners to read just the 4 newspapers the jail was provided.

We complained that Bharat was not given pen and paper to write an application; the jailer said that he could just talk openly since writing paraphernalia was not permitted for jail inmates.

We complained that Bharat's finger had possibly been fractured; the jailer said that he had been taken for an X-Ray the previous day.

They brought in Bharat as well as the jail doctor, to verify the 'allegations'. Bharat was not the same boy we had met minutes ago. What we saw was a scared child with only a murmur, who replied in the affirmative to everything that he was being asked pertaining to his treatment. The jail officials spoke to him lovingly; he didn't for once turn to look at us screaming that he was being threatened. We left the jail, requesting the jailer to provide writing paraphernalia in the least; the jailer retorted that even we could possibly be lawyers, we ought to understand the law better since it not have assert that inmates could deserve this.

As Bharat walked passed us, we murmured that he should not feel threatened. He limped away with his head hanging downwards.


The mystery about who torched the tanker continues.

The jail custody of the arrested men and women has been extended. 

In all, 24 are in jail under the charges of criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly, extortion, mischief with damage to property and mischief with fire. 

At least one truck owner alleged that his truck was being used by the police to transport construction materials to the dam site, when as the police claimed it needed the truck to transport some people.

It is intriguing that the age of several young boys who were arrested has been registered as 18.

People living in close vicinity to NH52 allege that ever since the incident on May 11, many more trucks have been plying on the highway, supposedly taking construction materials to the dam site.

KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi continues his fourth day of fast in Guwahati to protest against the construction of large dams in Northeast India.