Archive for the ‘Custodial Beating’ Category

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Post-Modern Undercurrents

April 26, 2014

(63 of 74)

‘Whether there is a Modi wave or not, is not to be known from the large gatherings, sometimes the undercurrents are stronger than the open waves.’ Says Medha Patkar, social activist and candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Mumbai North East.

This article appears in Outlook magazine on the 28th April, 2014 issue.

Santosh Thorat, an organizer for the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement from Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar in Mankhurd had many questions about joining Aam Aadmi Party, long before the Assembly Elections in Delhi, long before his movement and Medha Patkar would decide to stand for elections in Mumbai North East; his own constituency that had seen massive demolitions in 2004-2005 of 80,000 homes. It was pretty obvious that day, a year earlier in an Irani restaurant in Bandra, that he wouldn’t want his own politics, of strong community-driven movements, of Ambedkarite politics, a strong anti-caste centrality, of women’s participation, from the legacy of Bhagat Singh to Annabhau Sathe, to be diluted by joining any political party, as a footsoldier, but as a leader of people.

Today he holds meetings in groups after groups of women, all who have been part of dharna after dharna, march after march, demanding a right to a home, now moving their strategy towards electoral politics: everyone here must get ten votes for Medha Patkar and for Aam Aadmi Party. Exactly a month earlier, when Medha held a public meeting to decide whether to go for electoral politics or not: a patient Santosh waited for his turn to speak on stage, and when he got his chance, he gave a short speech to loud applause, simple and to the point: ‘Tai kudh nahi khadi hai, hum unko khada karaya.’ (Medha is not standing for herself, we are making her stand for elections)

‘Humare kaam karne ke liye hum Tai ko khada kiye’ (We are making her stand for elections to do our work)

In the 2009 general elections, her constituency was really a neck-in neck battle between Sanjay Dina Patil of the Nationalist Congress Party and Kirit Somaiya of the Bharatiya Janta Party, both who are running again, whose vote tallies had a difference of just 2,933 votes. NCP counted 2,13,505 votes to BJP’s 2,10,572 votes, with Maharashtra Navkiran Sena’s Shishir Shinde coming third with 1,95,148 votes. And while none of them have started their election campaign, apart from trying to ridicule Medha Patkar or talk about Modi Waves, at every other street corner laden with AAP’s signature white hats, a speech is often heard, ‘In the last elections 9 lakh people did not vote, this time please do.’

Medha Patkar’s AAP campaign strategy is to the point, she simply responds, ‘we’re reaching out to people. And we have to resort to whatever electronic media my collegues use, and to hold small meetings, work with groups that are active in the grassroots.’

“The campaign is of course hampered by the twin handicaps of funding and electoral rules: ‘We apparently can’t even put our stickers outside the autos, even if they are owned by autowallas,’ she would say. Just two days earlier the BJP had a frontpage advertisement, in the Times of India, which as per their rates of Rs.6960 per square centimetre, and that a frontpage has 1716 square centimetre, comes to Rs.11,942,360, without the 15% discount. Meanwhile Medha’s AAP donation website merely collected 13,000 in the 4 days it went online (On the sixth day a corporate lawyer from Kolkata donated Rs.1,00,00 for as he has seen Medha work for years, and feels corruption is a cause to all ills). ‘We say development planning has to be face to face, so how can electoral campaigning not be face to face?’ she says, sitting in a small AAP office in Vikhroli, set up by a small restaurant owner, over the chatter of volunteers and the tan-tan of drums ready to be played when they continue to go on the road. (the five young boys who had come from Vikhroli’s Bheem Chhaya Nagar to play drums for Medha’s walks through the bastis, also faced election rules, as the police did not give them permission to play publically.)

‘We have to depend on the social media.’ She says, ‘But there has to has to be very serious changes in rules and regulations from the election commission. Hoardings are allowed, on purchase basis, where parties pay lakhs of rupees but banners are not allowed. We are not allowed to put our stickers. Raj Thackeray has put up big hoardings, lakhs, and crores are spent, but those are not violations. There’s a rule that your hoardings should not face the municipal land, but the road is municipal land, why is that not a violation? Do we all just point our banners to ourselves?’

Almost every other day, her campaign starts after a night spent as late as time affords, as she wakes up at 5 in the morning, plans her meetings with her volunteers, and continues with short rallies and meetings, on the road, at parks, at markets, at crossroads and nakas, up the small by-lanes of slums, to small rooms and homes housed by countless supporters of the movement and now the party, with a motley bunch of volunteers, those rooted in the grassroots and those who have come down from their buildings, from across the city, and some from across the country. On the road with her, it is clear that in many of the lower depths of the city, her simplicity is something that strikes with her prospective voters, and her legendary energy, which some feel is her strenght but also others fear for her age, and the tolls of countless hunger strikes and arrests by the police.

In one of her public meetings on the 14th of March, at the one birthplaces of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, at Rafiq Nagar 2, it was almost an accepted reality, as far as bystander conversations can grace wholesale voting patterns, that they would all vote for her, they just don’t need to sit in a public rally where a thousand people, mostly unorganized workers sat patiently, donning the AAP hats that were being distributed by young volunteers. Rafiq Nagar, itself, is on the dumping grounds of Mumbai, where children die every other month from malnutrition-related disease, where policemen routinely harass young Muslim boys, and which has faced demolitions almost every other year. Rafiq Nagar, the citadel of the ragpickers, Rafiq Nagar, when it was still Rafiq Nagar 1, where some boys still have not returned home from the 1992 riots.

It was here that proceedings started with Lok Shahir Milind Kambli from Mulund, who starts the rally with a song, a rendition of Sambaji Bhagat’s Surat ko pehchano bhai’– a song that attacks caste as much as corruption, that invokes Dr.Ambedkar’s dreams, ridicules every political figure, from Advani, to the Gandhis, and invokes the blindness of those who ran after the ‘mandir’.

The organizers would then give speeches, with Santosh Thorat now talking about his memories of growing up near Rafiq Nagar, with Jameela Begum from Mandala talking about the memories of the movement, and Ram from Mandala talking about the recent custodial death of 22 year old Mohammed Sheikh who was picked up by the Shivaji Nagar police. It was exactly like all the countless public meetings of the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, except for the entry of the slogan: ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, sometimes invoked by Atique, himself a Muslim from UP, and sometimes to the chagrin of other Muslims in the movement, while Medha herself feels these slogans need to be reclaimed from the Hindutva, and returned to the tradition of the Independence struggle.

The one thing that AAP has done for Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement, whether as a boon or a bane, is that it has brought many volunteers from the upper middle classes, the middle classes, and upper-castes, or Savarnas, into what was once a purely populated by the working class, the urban poor, and those who have grown up in a tradition of Ambedkar politics. Her rallies at more suburban middle class areas are often done with the help of AAP volunteers and a ragtag group of locals who she has worked with in the movement. The slogans that she invokes, is typically from a rights tradition: ‘Hume Satta nahi Satya chahiye! (We are for truth not for power) and ‘Matya deya, hakka leva’ (Give your vote, take your rights.)

Her speeches at all corners are laced with not just ‘brashtachyaar’ (corruption) but also ‘atyachaar’ (atrocity) and covers the work done by the movement to expose the Adarsh scam, the Maharashtra Sugar scam, to the SRA scams, the corruption in the builder lobby, to the work that was done for unorganized workers, street hawkers, slum-dwellers, to invocations of women’s participation in the community and to vote, to the behaviour of the previous Minister of Parliament who has apparently never asked a single question in parliament, to the lies of every ruling party in the state that promised the regularization of slums, to basic infrastructure: sanitation, electricity, roads, and water, which many people of her constituency are deprived of. She often exerts that there is 30,000 acres land free in the city, and inequitible distribution of resources is a mainstay in her speechs on the street corner. ‘Land has to be released. Land is now blocked. From Bhayandar, Vasai to Mumbai, a handful of companies and a few hundred people have more than 10 acres, six companies have more than 500 to 2000-3000acres.’

The ten-year long movement for the Right To Housing, the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, is central to understanding the shifting genealogies of a city, where housing moved from being ‘shelter’ to ‘an investment’, and the markets only defence regarding its existential crisis of slums, is to demolish them in the name of urban planning. Meanwhile, a Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme for the BMC, stated that …. ‘the relevant dimension is that the area, they (slums) together occupy – just 6 per cent of all land in Mumbai explaining the horrific levels of congestion.’ And against mainstream perception that the movement is demanding free housing, at every public rally, they themselves demand that they’re willing to pay for affordable housing, often to cheers from an entire crowd. ‘If Hiranandani gets land meant for us for Rs.40 per acre, we’re willing to pay even more!’ Said organizer Jameel Akhtar from Ambujwadi in January of 2012.

‘Our housing plan’ Says Medha, ‘Includes dormitaries, to self-reliant housing. And for that it is very necessary that you classify people according to their needs. And the whole plan has to be brought out by public-people participation. Under the public agencies and the people themselves – and the people include the construction labourers and the service sector.’

‘And some of the issues we’re raising are pollution and environmental, and the polluted air does not understand if its flowing through slums or the middle class areas. Drainage, infrastructure, the traffic, and there is no regulation about the number of cars coming on the roads, or whether there will be a skywalk or something else, there is just no consultation with the people. All of this clearly, brings out the non-participatory and undemocratic planning on one hand, and the corruption on the other. And it brings in the fraudulent and flawed planning, and the affordable housing’s definition and the plan for 1 crore housing, is very acheivable.’

It had become visibly obvious that her decision to stand for elections was not just taken due to AAP’s Assembly Election results, or that she is propelled to fight for her movement and Right To Housing, but she also adds, almost as an afterthought, that there had to be a counter to Modi. ‘Fear of him amongst people in Mumbai is not so strong, but fraud in his own presentation, is impactful. And who questions Ambani? Who questions Adani? Who questions inequality?’ That there was dissent in the National Alliance of People’s Movement against her decision to stand, ‘a handful of people’ as she adds, mostly from Assam, Karnataka and some NAPM units from West Bengal, the idea was that many felt that electoral politics had to be seen as complimentary to non-electoral politics. She often implies the role played by social movements in shaping policy and law, and her vision of development is motivated by the Directive Principles of State Policy, guidelines in the constitution, which being ‘not justiable’, has ensured that its tenets for more equitable development that pays attention to ecology, environment, and social justice, has not been followed by most state and central governments. Her desire to give more power to the Panchayats as per Article 243 of the constitution has often been attacked as playing into caste power dynamics but she continues to insist that, ‘Unless there is democracy in the bottom level, there is nothing, and this is why becoming a MP doesn’t mean so much. ‘

‘At the parliament we debate laws and policies and that is also important and as movements we have influenced so many acts. RTI has come from social movements. And the unorganized sectors workers who are part of NAPM, where we’ve had umpteen number of meetings with the workers, the ministers, with officials where we’ve drafted, re-worked, and we brought out that act, but certain sections are still weak, like regulation, and recording of labour. And as movements we continue to fight, even with the Hawkers act, we extensively have worked on it since the Kolkatta hawkers were evicted and the Hawkers Federation came into being. And we’ve taken all the movements of hawkers and the urban poor to every single ministry, from all states to that forum, with Jaipal Reddy, Shailaja, Shivraj Patil, and all officals. And we got the policy in 2003, the bill in 2009, we got it passed in 2013. And the president still has not signed the bill.’

We met for an interview during breaks from campaigning at Vikhroli, where a visibly tired Medha Patkar seemed more out of place with english-media journalists, than the streets, and she seems absolutely comfortable on the road, campaigning in slums where her organization has just started to take roots. Volunteers would come and go, take long instructions, while she would sit behind a table in a small 10X4 room, laden with AAP newspaper cuttings, posters and banners.

‘There is a general middle class and media perception, which is anti-slum, but the only people fighting agaisnt the builder lobby are the working class and the poor. How would your housing policy move beyond those narratives?

‘Those fighting the builder lobby are not only the working class and the poor, that is my point. We are fighting MHADA re-development, all middle class people – government officials, government servants, bank employees, are all with us. We are fighting other redevelopment projects, and everywhere people are cheated. The Catholic properties in the heart of the city are grabbed by builders.’

‘How would you defeat this perception?’

‘We are holding meetings in societies, and raising these questions. And the more confirmation I am getting is that they say ‘we need your kind of fighting spirit’. And they know they can’t fight these battles, wherever they face injustice. Even the Campa Cola people came to us. So everyone seeks support and it’s not only the slums. And it’s only through the media we can defeat the perception. And we’re not so strong in social media. Aabhi do din pehle mujhe maloom pada ‘Whats APP’ kuch cheez hai. And someone told me that you can put in a 25 second message, and I can’t even give a speech less than 25 minutes.’

‘Your constituency, especially around Ward M, which is also known as the dumping ground of people, owning to all the displaced people and the dumping ground, has a high prevalence of juvenile deliquency and violence against women. Are you going to address this issue with your constituency and the general public?

‘We have to come to a position. Women’s rights, though we are actually empowering women through the movements, and their participation itself is their way out of drudgery, and insecurity. And people become secure themselves so they don’t have to beg for outside external security forces. And suffice to say, Justice Verma’s committees recommendations should be implemented which has not happened. And there is no political will, but social will has to be there, and nowadays it is there, and people know they can’t beg before politicians, they know there is something about a demand for better governance, and much will be achieved when people will say we will govern ourselves. And that change, whether at an individual women’s level, or a community level, is self-reliance. Swaraj can’t mean self-sufficience but go up to self-reliance, and this is the position we as people’s movements have said. We can’t be naïve on an economic or political level, and there are caste and gender divisions. And at the same time, we feel that asserting people’s right to resources, even land in an urban area. Water in an urban area people don’t have access to. Why? Because water falling onto the roofs or anganwadi, is not recognized as a resource. And it is all just lost due to people being diverted by bad politics.

And what about policing? The police in fact, in a general perception, does not represent the people of Ward M. Just on the 21st of January, there was a custodial death of a 22 year old Muslim and about four months ago there was a custodial death of a dalit man, after an altercation outside a restaurant. There is a breakdown of trust between the people and the police.

‘The police as an institution is a big problem. That’s because from top to bottom it is corrupt. And corruption ensures they will not fulfill their role and leads to them commit crimes themselves. And these custodial deaths, you have seen, only after mass action they acted on going on a second post-mortem. But how many people can fight like this? With this kind of perseverance and this strength? And the police can’t be totally ruled out, and there has to be a security force within the community, and we don’t mean there be a parallel army, but the security will come with community level inputs, and strenghtening the community relationships. Everything else is value change.

Mumbai has a long legacy of Ambedkarite politics and working class struggles, which is represented in the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. Arvind Kejriwal may have taken a stand on contract labour but then there’s reservation and there are some radicals in the movement who’re uncomfortable with some of the language of AAP. There are internal contradictions between AAP whose slogans are very different from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan. And do you see these contradictions and how are you dealing with it?

See, these are some allegations and questioning is based on lack of knowledge. The other day, I told Arvind Kejriwal to take a clear stand in support of reservation at Kannawaram Nagar in Vikhroli. And there are lots of strange situations with Marathas asking for reservation and Brahmins asking for it and even with Muslims, not every movement is in support of it. And Dalit muslims must get reservation as per Article 341. The other thing is, about contract labour what the party did in Delhi, it must go beyond what they have done. The manifesto is still not ready on it. But with the organized worker’s sector, there were 31 committees formed on contract labour and I have seen their documents, and there are promises in it. As for as people’s movements, we’ve strongly taken positions. Everywhere in the country in all the movements of our supporters, there are mismatches, there are differences. I personally don’t feel scared of that, our conscience and commitment matters, there are disagreements in all families. But no doubt a common mimimum agenda must be developed.

***

It was after this point as Medha would leave to prepare for the next rally, after her response to a question in English, was spoken in Hindi, deliberately by Medha to her listening volunteers, that led to an internal conversation between the AAP and Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao-AAP, about the suitability of certain slogans, about the importance of Ambedkar’s Birth anniversary on the 14th of April, about those who feel the Lokpal is against the constitution, and is therefore against them, and these people must be spoken to. ‘RSS chaddi pehnti hai toh hum chaddi pehna chodd de?’ asked one man. Over the ruckus of interview-exploding into a conversation ten minutes ago, an elderly AAP volunteer had said that Vande Mataram is the same as Jai Bhim, and no one paid much attention to him.

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Invisible Cities: Part Fourteen: Ramnagar: Schizophrenia And The City

December 11, 2012

A few homes remaining at Sinhgad Society before the rehabilitation buildings - photo for part 1

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis in three parts on the 9th, 10th and 11th of December, 2012.

Mangesh Khopde (31), was admitted to Ward 1 of Sion Hospital on the 14th of November. He was screaming, violently lashing out, and had to be strapped in, given electroshock therapy and sedated.

It all started when on the 9th of November, 2012, his house in Ramnagar, Ghatkopar was demolished for a SRA project called the Satra Hills by Satra Developers.

Mangesh, who had also been sober for a year and a half, was on anti-psychotic drugs, that were lost in the demolition as his family could not rescue all of his belongings.

He had confrontations with the police and the supporters of the builder, and was pushed into the police van, raving and abusing the whole time.

Eventually, over the next few days, without taking his medication whose prescriptions were buried in the rubble, he found himself wandering aimlessly, fighting with strangers, and screaming. After a year and half without alcohol, he had a relapse, that led to his breakdown.

Taken to the hospital with extremely high blood pressure, he was sedated with Lorazepam, given the anti-psychotics olanzepine, haloperidol, quetiapine, and pacitane, over the days, reacting to some medication, and not reacting to others. He now doesn’t remember the events of the ninth of November, but still disagrees with the idea of moving into a building, preferring to live in a slum which has low maintenance costs.

The dispute between a group of residents of the 18 societies of Ramnagar, all named after Shivaji’s forts, are the numerous allegations and discrepancies in the project, especially concerning forgery and the undemocratic manner of the decisions taken by the developer,.

Central to the dispute is the strange role played by a resident called Prabhakar Shetty of Sinhagad society.

In a letter dated 27th of July, 2009 that RTI activist Sandeep Yeole acquired from the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, he complained about the undemocratic manner the SRA project was being handled by the Developers, by the resident’s federation itself, and by numerous members of the federation, including Shankar Mahadik, a National Congress Party Worker and treasurer and Sanjay Shetty, who was the under secretary.

His letter itself originally in Marathi, hints to the highly spurious manner of functioning of not just the developer, but of numerous parties in the residents associations, and the complete absence of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority.

‘Shankar Mahadik brought in Satra property developers. To start with the development the developer needs to send a letter of interest to the federation and the societies involved. Mahadik however made no such insistence for the letter and allowed developers to begin the surveys without providing any letter to the federation or any of the societies. On the other hand, they made contracts with the developers and architects in a hurry. This contract was lacking and inconsistent, which I noticed and brought to the federations notice, but they did not take any proper action over it. Many of the societies in the area were coming together to sign the contracts despite the problems in it, so we too gave our contracts and all necessary documents to the federation. As the president of the Sinhgad Society, I had been in touch with the federation and had been asking for additional information regarding the developer’s plans, but never received any concrete replies or answers from the them. I got into numerous arguments with them due to this. One night in July 2006, Sanjay Shetty came to my house with a single contract which Shetty said was in favour of the societies and made me sign the papers. He said that he would give me a copy of the contract I signed in the morning, but did not give me one. Because I had no copy of this, I got into arguments with the federation. Because they were always on the side of the developers and not the people, I started avoiding the federation meetings. I even met with the developer and tried to get information from him as the President of the Sinhagad Society, but he too was always vague and non-committal.

So I sought this info under the RTI. Under the RTI act I was only able to access the contract signed with the federation and not the contract with the developer. With this I also received the necessary supporting documents submitted along with the contract, including power of attorney, registration of proposal, and documents which the society was never shown. When we showed these documents to other society members and workers, we collectively began fearing that in future our houses will be broken and we would become homeless.’

In another letter to the Ghatkopar Vibhag he stated, that ‘We also found an authority letter and letter for registration, which were typed in English and contained forged signatures. Our Society head, Prabhakar Shetty had been elected as Vice President of the Federation. However, when the proposal was presented to us, Shripad Pawar signed as Vice President and named Prabhakar Shetty as only a member, and forged his signature on the proposal.’

There is clear prima facie evidence that Prabhakar Shetty’s signatures do not match on many of the documents where he has allegedly signed. However, on the 9th of November, 2012, he himself was pushing people out of their homes, abusing them.

Prabhakar Shetty, a very suspicious and evasive man, claimed, when asked if he supports the project, that ‘it (the project) is for the entire Ramnagar, and it is a government project’. When asked, if he wrote any letter to the SRA, he claimed ‘phele tha aisa’, but refused to elaborate on record. Praful Satra, the developer, claimed that he always had a majority consent in the project, and the few people who were protesting earlier, slowly started to accept him as the builder.

Meanwhile, those residents now who still protest, claim Mr.Shetty was simply bought off.

‘He used to keep calling us on the phone since the day the notice came, and told us to take the cheque before our homes were broken down,’ Said Sheetal Kopde, ‘But once the home was broken down, he started to taunt us, saying we should’ve just taken the cheque.’

Mangesh’s mother Sunanda has been a domestic worker for 31 years and feels it is too early for her daughter-in-law to work as a domestic worker, worried that her son might never recover from his psychotic breakdown, leaving him incapable of looking after their three children.

‘We won’t leave without respect,’ She said, ‘Sar jhuka ke hum nahi hatenge.’

The Marked Man

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Sandeep Yeole, RTI Activist and a social worker, carries around a gigantic bundle of documents that he has acquired from police stations, the slum rehabilitation authority, the collector’s office, the MHADA, the environment Ministry, regarding each societies discrepancies in the project. One such group of documents details that the Letter Of Intent clearly states that the builder must get environment clearance before a commencement certificate, yet both papers show, he has a commencement certificate arriving six days before the clearance. On that, the builder claims that he had the Environmental Clearance in March of that year itself, but the notice reached them late.

Satra Hills is currently, literally being built by digging into a mountain where stand the homes of working class marathi folk, where now a few hundred shanties overlook a construction site as a gigantic hole next to a hill, with residents anxious about the rain and possible landslides.

Sandeep, however, still persists to point on the discrepancies in the project, where all he desires is that the builder should be removed and the people given a chance to develop themselves.

‘We are not against development,’ he says, ‘Vikas ke naam peh vinaash karenge, hum us builder ke development ke khilaf kaam karenge.’

‘In this scheme, there is no transparency, no democratic values, and it doesn’t work within anything close to what are co-operative values. It just plants a builder and that’s it.

‘All our self-development is based on environmental, social, economic, political and cultural values, and our fight is not to increase how much sq feet we get, or how tall the building is. We aren’t profit-oriented.  Our fight has substance.’

Armed men broke into a small room where he along with protesting residents held their meetings on the 30th of October this year. He was attacked by eight men in August of 2009. A large number of false cases of dacoity and extortion were put on him long before the SRA project, when he was instead investigating the role of a local Shiv Sena corporator and future MLA, Shantaram Chavan, who has now passed on, who was also involved in trying to bring a builder into Ramnagar.

On the 23rd of November, another resident Santosh Hinghe, whose house is still protesting against the demolition, complained to the apathetic police at Vikhroli Park Side Police station, that the construction of the building was damaging his home, but was instead beaten up by two constables.

Suspicion and violence is now a way of life in Ghatkopar’s Ramnagar.

A man was murdered on the 1st of October, 2012, yet all parties claim this has nothing to do with the project.

Dozens had even attacked those protesting against the project on the 1st of June, 2011, after the government agreed to investigate the project after Medha Patkar’s hunger strike.

The Slum Rehabilitation project in Ramnagar is one of 15 projects across Mumbai including Golibar and Sion, that the government had initially agreed to investigate after Medha Patkar’s 9-day hunger strike in May of last year. Since then the government relegated on its promise and the matter is now in the High Court.

Shailesh Gandhi’s petition in the High Court stated in 2006 itself that there around 89 SRA projects where there are ‘Forged  signatures  of  slum  dwellers  to  show  that  they  are  agreeable  to  the  developer’ and ‘Names of non-existent slum-dwellers being listed to increase free sale component’  (both allegations also exist in Ramnagar). The case led to the creation of the High Powered Committee whose record of offering relief to slum dwellers against demolition drives is an emphatic zero.

The government has claimed that all the controversies regarding SRA projects such as Ramnagar should be looked at by this committee which few slum dwellers have faith in.

‘The committee is completely anti-slum and pro-builder,’ Says Sandeep Yeole, ‘It exists so people don’t take all these forgery cases to the High Courts and stretch the project on and on, but to finish them then and there if they go to the committee.’

Sandeep believes in the long fight, and claims he is not afraid of any of the consequences. He is aware that he is a targeted man, but also knows that there is a quiet majority that sees the sense of self-development, considering that the SRA scheme has failed. His weapon, against those he claims the builder has: the police, the courts, the violence, is to inform people about what the SRA scheme really is. ‘Out of the 18 societies, Lal Kila society chased the builder away when he couldn’t answer their questions.’

 ‘What do I gain by committing forgery?

Praful Satra photo for part 3

Praful Satra, Managing Director of Satra Developers, responds to the controversies regarding the Satra hills project

Satra Hills, covers a plot area of 29,168 sq m, and is at an estimated cost of 275 crores. Five rehabilitation buildings will be built for the slum dwellers, while high-end apartments with swimming pools, a hi-tech gymnasium, and grand entrance lobbies will be built for free sale.

A few homes still unbroken, surrounded by the remnants of broken walls, are scattered around the construction site. It was here that Mangesh Khopde’s home stood, once upon a time, but now has literally been plummeled into rubble, along with his medicines to keep him sane, propelling him into a downward spiral that led him to the Sion hospital.

Praful Satra believes himself to be a veteran to Slum Rehabilitation Projects, referring to, and dismissing other builders in the city who failed to work at the few places in Mumbai where land is still available. In an interview lasting just under an hour, he reiterates repeatedly that he has the consent of the majority of the slum dwellers.

‘We have 98% consent, only 25 people are still protesting and they are all being misguided. In 2006, I had 75% consent, and today I have more than 98% consent.’

‘Can you tell me why there are allegations of forgery coming from some of the slum dwellers?

‘See forgery doesn’t even happen. It’s not possible. Andar ka shabd hota hai, see if there are 2000 people, and out of them 2 haven’t signed, and one think they will blackmail the builder, milenge, jayenge, then the one will say, the queries have been satisfied and will sign, aur usko bolega, I haven’t signed, both will fight, but he has!’

‘So this is a local problem?’

‘See if someone tells you there is forgery. Ask yourself, why does anyone commit forgery? And why do the forgery when you are getting an official majority? Do you have anything to gain from committing forgery?’

‘But there are documents available from the SRA, the complaints that have been written….’

‘See, no one has sent me any complaints, I have not gotten anything from any agency or anyone.’

‘There is a man who has four different kinds of signatures on four different kinds of documents.’

‘See, the society gives me the papers. The consent. I don’t know who is this, who is that, and it is attested in front of 10 or 11 people, not in front of me.’

‘Mr. Satra, if you have done everything legally, then let’s turn the question around. There are countless of projects in Mumbai from the SRA which are taken to the high court with instances of forgery. So why are people talking about forgery?’

‘We will talk about ourselves, And we haven’t done any forgery, and whatever consent we got from the Ramnagar Co-operative society, we got, we got the LOI, the CC, the environmental clearance and we have doing everything as per the rules. But there are some people, two-three, people, who’re misguiding other people. There is this one man, Sandeep Yeole, who is meeting everyone and he is telling people the wrong things. And just 25 people listen to him. He has never met me, never called me. And we replied to his letters asking what is his problem? And come and meet us, and what is your problem?’

‘Tell me more about Sandeep Yeole.’

‘See, I know, this man, he has an NGO, he just wants to give everyone a house. And that’s what I want to do. I want to give everyone a house too. See, you are an NGO, aap accha kaam karte ho, I love you, ok fine, aap bahut accha aadmi ho, aap paisa nahi kahte ho, very good. I am a builder and all builders have a bad name, but out of 2000 builders not everyone is the same.’

‘Can you tell me about the role of Shankar Mhadik of National Congress party. It is known that one needs the patronage of a political party to pacify the people. In your capacity, do you feel that this idea about forgery is in-fighting between different political parties?’

‘See I will speak about my own case. I will only talk about my case, nothing general. See like I said before, there are 2000 people, and people have been there for 70 years, and everyone is a legal tenant. And 98% is legal. There is very little controversy as everyone is legal. And I am a a builder, I have nothing to do with any political party. Internally, a slum is known as a political vote bank, and all parties are there, NCP, Shiv Sena, Congress, MNC, BJP, and on the hill, candidates from three parties are winning – MNC, BJP and Shiv Sena, what do I have to do with them?’

‘But if you have to work with the community?’

‘See in 2006, no one would go there. No one was interested. And because of will and experience, we went there, hum himmat kiya, and we were successful.’

‘Can you tell me why Mangesh Khopde who had a psychotic breakdown, is protesting against demolition and the project?’

‘There are some 20-30 who are protesting with this Sandeep Yeole. And this man Mangesh’s father, apart from him, all are ready to leave. His children, his wife. And we have the transit camp ready for them. We are giving 7000 per rent. And the cheque for 18 months is also there. And this is one of four such cases. And we did a meeting with them. And they want money. Unofficially. We refused. They want five lakhs, and if we give five lakhs to 2000 people, 100 crore ho jata hai. They wanted five lakhs, and I have never given anyone money. This is what I heard. Not directly. Through media.’

‘Now under 33-38 rule, those who still protest have to go through a process with the builder. And this man, who is protesting, is with Sandeep Yeole, and they want to develop the whole society by themselves. Sometimes they want a 500 sq feet home, and we can only go as per SRA rules where it is 269, and if tomorrow the government, gives 300, we will do it.’

Do you feel Sandeep Yeole is working for another builder?’

‘No, this man, he’s a good man. He wants everyone to have a house. So do I’.

‘I am not doing anything wrong. I am with people. I am working for them. And I have to make the tenements, and for those who are legal, I got to give them a house, and those who are illegal, I got to give the PAP to the government. What benefit is there for me?’

‘But you will have free sale flats? You are making very high-end apartments?’

‘And we have amenities. If we didn’t have them, we wont sell anything.’

‘And a swimming pool?’

‘See the first building I am making for the Slumdwellers of Ghatkopar will be the top building in Mumbai. I am giving them a flowerbed, a balcony, parking, and a swimming pool. For them.’

‘Different buildings for free sale and different for the slums? Swimming pools for both?’

‘No, different for slumdwellers and different for free sale. Tum aaj jhopad pati meh rehte ho, bahar jaa ke sandas karte ho, machar hai, nalla hai. And we are giving all the amenities and people are trusting us, and those who are protesting, they will come eventually.’

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The Life Of A Witness

June 17, 2012

Photo credit: Tehelka photo

In memoriam: Tehelka photographer Tarun Sehrawat (1989 – 2012)

This piece appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 17th of June 2012. Another piece appears in Tehelka on the 30th of June.

I first met Tarun Sehrawat and the intrepid Tusha Mittal in January of 2010, when we both found ourselves with the duties of trying to investigate why the state of Chhattisgarh had kidnapped Sodi Sambo, a supreme court petitioner, and a woman who was shot in her leg during the combing operation of Gompad that took nine lives. She was there in Jagdalpur hospital, while we were outside the ward trying to get access to her, and Tusha Mittal would harangue every stubborn official with such gusto, that you were certain that war reporting was best left to women. Tarun and myself sat quietly, smiling at each other, joking and taking photographs of one another while Tusha did her job. He was an absolute delight to work with, or in this case, observe work. He had no malice and insecurity that most photographers had for their own. And his innocence was something that you were absolutely glad you could find in a place like Dantewada.

The next time we met, we found ourselves on the way to the village of Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli which was burnt down by the security forces in March of 2011. Tusha and I were this time, at each other’s necks like a bunch of Laurel and Hardy’s on steroids, regarding the best way to deal with the logistics of going into ‘the jungle’. Tarun, as usual would smile to placate our anger against ourselves. We all did do our jobs eventually, and Tarun’s images were an absolute justification of our profession.

Tarun was a witness to our state’s grand security operations in Central India. He has photographs of burnt homes, of widows whose husbands were killed by the security forces, of women raped by security forces, of fragile old men with country rifles who the state refers to the greatest internal security threat, and of Abhuj Marh, his final assignment, where few have ventured. But one of his most heartbreaking images would remain a photograph of a family in Dantewada sifting through their burned rice trying to separate the ash from what they could eat. That’s what he witnessed. That’s what only a few handful of people from the outside world have ventured in to see, some of the bravest and some of the most brilliant journalists and photographers I have had the honour to work with.

Yet it’s death from Dantewada that follows you around, as with each story of encounters, and killings. Just a few months ago, the controversial superintendent of police Rahul Sharma would take his revolver and shoot himself. Assistant Superintendent of Police Rajesh Pawar who I confronted about a fake encounter would be gunned down by the Maoists some years later. And now a tortured adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi would wish to die in jail, as there’s no way he feels he can get justice in this country. Each name jotted down in my collection of notebooks, of those killed, of sons named along with their fathers –Madvi Kesa s/o Bhima, Madkam Deva s/o Bhima, Madkam Admaiah s/o Maasa, and countless others. They add to a list that I don’t know sometimes whether they will have any meaning, when all that tends to happen, is that the war goes on. It’s the ghost of the conscience of the country that’s dead as each time the warmongers ask for helicopters to drop hell from above onto one of the darkest corners of the country.

A cellphone becomes the purveyor of madness and death. ‘There’s been an attack in your favourite village’ an activist once called and told me, and I went into a daze, and hated him – how many favourite villages did I have? Then came the final message about Tarun, ‘Pronounced brain dead.’ And this just a few days after friends would tell me that he was making a full recovery.

We all think we’re invincible. We venture into roads that could be mined with IEDs, as did one explode a day after two of us passed, killing three security personnel. We venture into the haven of the malarial monster, the killer of people that doesn’t discriminate like we do. In Basaguda, I remember the sight of a CRPF jawaan holding the hand and walking with another jawaan, whose body was sapped of energy, whose eyes lost of life, who would say the dreaded word: malaria. It was an absolutely tragic sight of watching these two towering men, pathetically walking down, broken down. A year later in Chintalnaar, a few days after 76 jawaans were killed in an ambush, the jawaans of Chintalnaar would exert, ‘You don’t even have to ask about the mosquitoes. Around 80% of us suffer from malaria at some point or the other’.Mosquitoes have killed one of the Maoist’s most iconic leaders- Anuradha Ghandy. And for the ordinary adivasis, their stories are left to statistics, sometimes to a world beyond statistics.

In Jharkhand, at the Roro mines of Chaibasa, an old adivasi miner left to die of asbestos exposure by the Birlas would talk to me, while three young children, slept behind him. All three had high fever. All three had malaria. In fact, a few months into the job, and it became standard operating procedure to not just document the atrocities committed on a whole people, but to finally ask about illnesses in the village. At one visit to an IDP settlement at Warangal last year, our investigation team very quickly became a medical team, and we had to take on the responsibility of taking people to the nearest clinic.

Some quarters mention how Tehelka should’ve guided Tarun with some precautionary measures but unfortunately those are never enough and some circumstances can’t be helped. Tarun had no option to drink pond water, in a place where water, even after boiling would turn yellow. A few years ago, my adivasi guides and a few other journalists and myself faced a similar problem. And we had to walk over 15 kilometres of hillocks in a summer that can blaze to around 48 degrees, and our water supply ran out. We had to drink from a miasmic river. And we all did and we were lucky.

The more water you carry, the more you’d tire, and the more you’d drink. And you can’t ration what is never enough.

I used to even take anti-malaria pills every week in my first forays into Central India, and ended up in the middle of nowhere with high fever, and find myself in the middle of a busy bus station, alone and wrapped in a shawl, shivering like my bones would be shattering, with my mind drifting away, waiting for a family friend to come and save my life. And I was lucky. Malaria was bombed out of my system. To most people in Central India, there’s little rescue. Where Tarun had gone, no doctors venture. In fact, in some of the areas in Dantewada and Bijapur where Doctors Without Borders did go to work, they were accused by the state of Chhattisgarh of ‘helping the Naxalites’.

The angel of death of Bastar made of iron ore, covered in flags and illusions of greatness, is touching and destroying everything that is beautiful. Tarun had a long way to go. Twenty three, the age of most SPOs and Maoists, is not the age to die.

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Invisible Cities: Part Ten: The Demolition Seige Of Sion Koliwada

June 4, 2012

This article appears in abridged form in Daily News & Analysis on the 4th of June, 2012. Photographs of the demolition drive can be viewed here.

The residents of Sion Koliwada face police brutality for opposing a redevelopment project

Twenty-five residents and activists who were peacefully protesting against the re-demolition of a home in Sion Koliwada, remained in custody and had applied for bail at Kurla Magistrate Court on Friday. The accused were then sent by the court for medical examination after allegations of police brutality. They will remain in police custody till the 5th of June, 2012.

On May 29, the police had demolished the home of Kalpesh Shivkar, arrested activist Medha Patkar and seven others, including Frank Fernandes, 16, a science student of St. Andrews college, who had gone to defend his father Nelson, when the locals tried to prevent the police from demolishing their homes.

A day later, the people deeming the demolition illegal, would begin to reconstruct the home of Kalpesh Shivkar. But late night on May 30, the locals tried to rebuild the home, and over a 100 security personnel positioned themselves in one of the re-development buildings, while the police stood across the street, claiming they are there to maintain law and order. Jai Maharashtra, a TV channel owned by Sudhakar Shetty, has been sitting with what the developer’s own supporters call ‘bouncers’, all tagged with the name ‘Sairaj’ on their uniforms. The supporters also allege that the remaining residents have simply resorted to blackmail the builder, and there have been no irregularities in the scheme.

All night the residents stayed on a dharna, while neither the police nor the private security would move. The next evening, on the Bharat bandh, the police would again enter the slum and drag away individuals as they lay down before bulldozers, and again, demolished Shivkar’s home. They arrested one activist Jameel Akhtar Sheikh, whose on slum of Ambujwadi in Malad, faced a demolition drive two days earlier, who lay down before the bulldozer, and 24 other women, including Madhuri Shivkar, a leader of the resistance at Sion Koliwada.

On Thursday night, the police not only refused to reveal to journalists what sections those arrested where booked under, but also prevented the entry of journalists into the police station to interview senior officials.  It was finally revealed that all of them were arrested for, Section 143, 147, 149, 152, 332, 353, 504, 506, while Madhuri Shivkar was also charged with Section 447 and Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code. Most charges concern rioting, unlawful assembly and ‘causing hurt to a public servant’ when almost all the residents claim they had peacefully protested.

The issue dates back to 1999, when builder Sudhakar Shetty of Sahana Builders approached the residents with plans to redevelop the land. Sudhakar Shetty who is a known aide of Baba Ramdev was raided by the Income Tax Department in September of 2011.The residents have been protesting that the builder Sahana Developers had illegally acquired their consent for the project. When he did not get the requisite 70% consent, he allegedly forged signatures on the consent forms.

After filing an RTI, it was discovered that a consent form, dated 20/7/1999, has the signature of Eknath Koli who had died in 1997. Another form has the signature of Lilabai Vishnu Patil, signed in English, even though Lilabai is actually illiterate and has only ever used thumb prints for all her official documents.

The residents had gone to the Sion police station on February 26, 2011 stating forgery in the project, yet the police had refused to file the FIR, claiming that this falls under the purview of the BMC. The matter concerning the forgery is still pending in the Kurla Magistrate Court. After Medha Patkar’s nine-day hunger strike in Golibar slums last year, the government had consented to investigate into 15 re-development schemes, including Sion Koliwada, where the residents alleged irregularities and fraud. But the government backtracked and the matter is now pending in the High Court.

Builder Sudhakar Shetty, however, maintained that he has played by the rules. Speaking to journalists, he said, ‘When the BMC demolished one hut on 30 May, locals got ladies from outside and started to rebuild. Therefore on 31 May, the BMC demolished again.’

He added, ‘Eight years ago, locals gave us 70% consent only then the proposal was passed. Until then, locals didn’t complain. When the case went to the HC, it was dismissed. We have all the necessary documents. Why didn’t the locals get relief in HC if documents were forged?’

National Alliance of People’s Movements and Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao (GBGB) Andolan condemned “this brutal move of the administration to evict the people from their decades old settlements, for no cogent public purpose, rather for the vested interests of a private real estate lobby,” the body said in a statement.

‘They keep talking about encroachers,’ said Kiran Keny, of Sion Koliwada, ‘but the government had encroached on our lands since the British times. The land on the harbour line all belong to the Kolis.’

‘This government is looting us, at least the British gave us something and left, which is the land we have right now,’ lamented Devendra Vaity, another resident.

‘Dear Chief Minister, is this rioting?’ Ask the residents of Sion Koliwada.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 6th of June, 2012.

According to the police, the protestors had not only resorted to rioting and injuring a lady constable Kalawati Ravindra Sinha, 54, who would be admitted to Hinduja Hospital, but they also illegally rebuilt a home that the residents claim was illegally demolished.

The police also demanded police custody of the protestors till June 7 fearing they would return to protest, and return to ‘provoke’ the residents. Their only eyewitness is another police constable, while residents had video footage of the so-called riot, where every person who was arrested was picked up from the ground when they were lying down before the bulldozer.

At the police station, no one was allowed to meet the accused and even after all the protestors were sent to the Nagpada police station, no one was allowed to send them any food. Journalists were also not allowed to interview senior police officials.

The protestors remained in police custody all night and would complain before the Kurla magistrate court that their medical tests were not done properly. Allegations of abuse have been widely circulated in the Sion village, and just two days earlier a young Frank Fernandes sat in a police van with torn shirts, showing tell-tale signs of police violence.

A few of the police’s justifications for demanding police custody make an interesting indication of naked police aggression. In the first information report, they claim that if the protestors are released they would hurt the ‘peaceful environment’ in the area.

This is unfortunately only half the picture as dozens of private security ‘bouncers’ as described by the builder’s supporters, have been sitting in the building already completed by Sahana Developers, since the night of May 29. When asking the DCP whether they would be sent home, he replied, that they are the builder’s security, they are only sitting in their area, and only if they act, will the police intervene.

Another reason given is that the police constable Kalawati is in a serious condition. To blame 25 people for someone who allegedly kicked the constable in her head, and to keep them in police custody for the same is akin to revenge. The residents themselves alleged that the constable was hanging onto the van as it sped away from the village, and she had fallen down. At Hinduja Hospital where she was admitted, it had come to light that she was discharged on Sunday Morning after being described as ‘stable’.

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A Constitution’s Dead Army

April 9, 2012

Thirty years ago, a retired armyman’s body was being dragged by a police jeep as his adivasi brethren, armed with bows and arrows, helplessly tried to stop the convoy but were fired upon and chased away.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 9th of April, 2012.

Gangaram Kalundia was bayonneted in the police van, and then dragged across the village, for speaking for the rights of his people, and there was never any prosecutions against the police for his murder.

Gangaram was an adivasi of the Ho tribe, who joined the army when he was 19 years old, fought in the war of 1965 and the war of 71 as part of the Bihar Regiment, and had risen to the rank of Junior officer.

He voluntarily retired and returned home to find that his village Illigara in Chaibasa of West Singhbhum of Jharkhand (then Bihar), along with some 110 other villages would be submerged due to the Kuju dam project, that was funded by the World Bank.

He would organize his people to fight for their fundamental rights against displacement and the project exactly thirty years ago, to only be brutally murdered by the police early in the morning on the 4th of April, 1982.

‘This is where we placed stones to stop the convoy that had Gangaram,’ Said Tobro, then 14 years old, now pointing to a small woodland by the roadside, ‘and this is where we were, with bows and arrows, but the police fired upon us and chased us away.’

While Gangaram Kalundia was killed in 1982, a long agitation had still sustained itself, that had often driven people like Tobro underground, aware that the police were rounding people up. Surendra Biduili, 52, was a part of the agitation against the dam, and the eventual victory in 1991 when, ‘the World Bank withdrew the money.’

‘Their reports said that the dam would only submerge lands that had paddy,’ he continued, ‘but it was a lie, we were cultivating vegetables as well.’

It was much later when Gangaram had become a symbol for oppurtunistic politics, and his shaheed divas, would be attended by every other political party, or as Surendra would say, ‘First everyone used to be afraid to mention Gangaram’s name, now all the parties of contractors and dalaals come for his shaheed divas.’

In The Thousands

Gangaram Kalundia was not the only adivasi leader killed for representing the rights of people. Just a few kilometres away from Chaibasa, across the Sal tree forest, is the village of Bandgaon, where Lalsingh Munda was killed in broad daylight in the market on the 1st of November 1983. His concerns were that sacred grounds were being used by non-tribals and contractors as a waste dump.

‘You travel by bus to Chaibasa, well, back then, people used to get off the bus to piss into the sacred grounds.’ Said Phillip Kujur, a member of JMACC (Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee).

Phillip Kujur was also associated with Lalit Mehta who was brutally murdered in Palamau in May 2008, Niyamat Ansari who was killed by the Maoists in Latehar District on the 2nd of March, 2011, and on the 29th of December, 2011, Pradip Prasad was killed by PLFI extremists in the village of Mukka, Latehar.

Sister Valsa who fought for the adivasis in Pachuwara in Pakur District of Jharkhand was murdered on the 15th of November, 2011.

The roads in adivasi villages are punctuated with memorials for fallen leaders and activists.

The office for NGO Birsa in Chaibasa has a memorial stone with other names: Vahaspati Mahto killed in 1977 in Purulia, Shaktinath Mahto killed in 1977 at Dhanbad , Ajit Mahto killed in 1982 at Tiraldih, Beedar Nag killed in 1983 at Gua, Ashwini Kumar Savaya killed in 1984 in Chaibasa, Anthony Murmu killed in 1985 at Banjhi, Nirmal Mahto killed in 1986 at Jamshedpur, Devendra Mahji killed in 1994 in Goilkera. The memorial ends with the sentence, ‘anaam shaheed….hazaaron mein.’ (Unknown Martyrs, in the thousands)

‘When I was young,’ Said Phillip, ‘I was travelling with two veteran activists, who kept pointing to village after village saying, ‘here’s where another cadre of ours was killed’, and there I was, another man they trained to fight for people’s rights. Finally, I turned to them and asked, ‘you taught all these people how to fight, but did you teach them how to stay alive?’

In recent times, K Singanna, one of the first organizers of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh in Narayanpatna Block of Koraput District of Odisha was shot thrice in his back in a police firing incident on the 20th of November, 2009. Since then, another leader Nachika Linga has been living underground in fear of arrest, or death, as posters calling for him to be caught ‘dead or alive’ were posted all over Narayanpatna after the firing. Both individuals were responsible for organizing the Kondh adivasis to claim their rights as per the Fifth Schedule, to free themselves as bonded labourers on their own land.

In Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, Muria and Koya adivasis committed to taking the cause of their people via rallies, writ petitions, and organizing them to fight peacefully for their rights, have almost all been arrested as alleged Maoists. Manish Kunjam, an ex-MLA, has faced repeated death threats and his own cadre, responsible for working in the villages, have been in and out of jail.

On International Labour Day, the 1st of May, 2008, in Kalinganagar Industrial Park of Jajpur, Odisha, one of the leaders of the Anti-displacement group, Dabar Kalundia was attacked outside the gates of the Rohit Ferrotech Steel Plant and escaped, but Omin Banara (51) was killed.

In Memory of Gangaram

‘They all talk about Gangaram, but they don’t care about his wife.’

Birangkui Kalundia, widow of Gangaram, lost her only daughter when she was giving birth to her grandchild. She was widowed by the state, and her daughter would be another statistic to those 80,000 women who die every year due to childbirth.

Her brother-in-law, would also cut ties with her, often dividing the produce of Gangaram’s 15 acres for himself, leaving her out with nothing, and after his death, she moved out of the village his husband fought for, to move in with her new caretakters, her nephew and his wife, where she lives with a quiet pride to this day.

She still holds onto the medals won by her husband, the citation for his President’s Medal,  speaking in soft tones unforgivingly about the men who killed her husband, coming to terms with injustice in this life, to a hope for justice in the next.

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Death In A Quiet Corner

March 21, 2012

This op-ed appears in abriged form in Daily News & Analysis on the 19th of March, 2012.

‘Torture has long been employed by well-meaning, even reasonable people armed with the sincere belief that they are preserving civilization as they know it. Aristotle favoured the use of torture in extracting evidence, speaking of its absolute credibility, and St.Augustine also defended the practice. Torture was routine in ancient Greece and Rome, and although the methods have changed in the intervening centuries, the goals of the torturer – to gain information, to punish, to force an individual to change his beliefs or loyalties, to intimidate a community – have not changed at all.’ – from Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, The Dynamics of Torture, by John Conroy.

On the 11th of August of 2010, Mandangi Subarao of Kondabaredi village of Rayagada district of Odisha, allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself in the offices of the Anti-Naxalite cells of the police station.

He killed himself in the police station that specializes in tracking down and killing Maoists, in fear of the Maoists, according to the police.

His case was eventually sent to the National Human Rights Commission by the National Campaign For The Prevention Of Torture, who asked the state to submit action taken report by 2 February 2012. The police continue to be on duty. A similar situation had developed in Dantewada when the NHRC took cognizance of the death of Pudiyama Mada after newspaper reports detailed his torture by the Central Reserve Police Force, and his eventual ‘suicide’ in the Sukma police station.

Meanwhile, the medical report on adivasi teacher Soni Sori’s condition that reached the Supreme Court stated that stones were found lodged in her vagina and her rectum while she was in police custody.

The Supreme Court gave the Chhattisgarh government 55 days to respond, and sent her back to the Chhattisgarh jails, and has revealed once again, that the rule of law and the constitution is divorcing itself from the aspirations of citizen of the state, whose fundamental Right To Life has to be protected by the Courts, not something the Court grants her, or the police is allowed to take away the instant they consider her a Maoist sympathizer.

Her hearing was supposed to be held on the 25th of January, 2012, but its turn never came up. Instead, the Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg, who she accused of torturing her, won the President’s Medal for Gallantry on Republic Day, the day the constitution of India came into being. He was awarded for his conduct during an encounter with the Maoists in Mahasumand District in 2010.

To the state machinery: it remains a story of he said, she said, as the allegations of torture in police custody leave no witnesses besides the tortured themselves, but in this case, the accused has a medical report from Kolkatta to say that her body was violated beyond anyone’s imagination, unlike the Mandangi Subarao case, where a man who kills himself in the police station in fear of the Maoists has done so in a district, out of sight and mind, and buried in the quagmire of the hopelessness of raising one’s voice over endemic abuse.

The National Human Rights Commission has gone on record to say that 1574 custodial deaths took place between April 2010 and March 2011. And between 2001 and 2011, there were around 15,231 custodial deaths, according to The Asian Center For Human Rights who had done a similar study on custodial violence in 2008, where they had claimed around 9,000 people were killed in police custody since 2000, at an unchanging average of four per day.

The Police State Against The Woman’s Body

16 year old Meena Khalko was killed in an alleged encounter and accused as a Maoist. Allegations would surface that she was raped and murdered and not killed in crossfire, and the Chhattisgarh Home Minister parroted his police officials who said that she was ‘habitual about sex’ and had links with truck drivers.

Ishrat Jahan who the Special Investigation Team confirms was killed in a fake encounter recently was questioned by our own Home Minister G.K. Pillai who finds that her checking into a hotel room with another man is suspicious.

In none of the 99 cases of rape allegations against Special Police Officers or security personnel in South Bastar did the police file even a single First Information Report even after the Supreme Court ordered them to do so. The National Human Rights Commission Enquiry Team, (comprising of 15 police officials out of 16) only investigated five cases out of 99, where in one instance, they visited the wrong village and construed that the allegations were baseless as they couldn’t find the victims.

In the other village of Potenaar, there were discrepancies in the testimonies of women who were raped three years earlier and there was no FIR filed in the police station. Thus they construed again, that the allegations were baseless, as women traumatized brutally by assault have to apparently remember the intricate details of everything that was done to them and lodge a complaint against the same police that rapes them.

The women of Vakapalli of Andhra Pradesh who were allegedly gangraped by the special anti-Naxalite forces the Greyhounds, are still fighting for justice in a case that was widely highlighted in Andhra Pradesh but the accused policemen continue to be in duty, and the state continues to construe their allegations as nothing but Maoist propaganda.

Even though the women’s statements were recorded both before the police as well as the Magistrate: all of them stated that they bathed after the assault, they did not resist the assault as they were afraid of violence, thus, there was no sign of injuries (besides one woman who had a boot on her face), and thus no physical evidence of rape, and the case would run aground by a system that ignores the Supreme Courts own directives on rape, which mention that inquiries should be done on accusation alone and the burden of proving innocence falls on the accused.

A 12 year old girl who was allegedly raped by the member of the elite anti-Maoist C60 group of Maharashtra, in the village of Paverval on the 4th of March, 2009, the alleged rapist himself, claims with strong conviction, that it’s all Maoist propaganda mischief.

In Narayanpatna block of Orissa, in the village of Taladekapadu, on the 19th of April, 2011, a 14 year old girl was allegedly gang-raped by four security personnel, yet without making her medical report public, the Crime Branch claims the entire allegation is false. The girl’s family belong to the Kondh tribe who have been criminalized in a district that has seen mass arrests, police firings into crowds, mass abductions and tortures, and the burning of villages, and to them, the idea of approaching the judicial system itself is oppressive.

And the cases like hers are those that never receive the kind of attention that the Soni Sodi case has, where a woman stood up for her rights, who approached the media that would listen to her, who repeatedly spoke about the torture faced by her family by both the state and the Maoists, and would yet be condemned by the system, while those who defend human rights watch helplessly.

The State As A Bystander

A woman attacked with acid by a man in the middle of the market while a crowd watches without doing anything can be described akin to Soni Sodi being brutally tortured as the judiciary, the press, the senior police officials, larger civil society and the general public sit quietly.

A group of committed activists, a dissident media and international human rights organizations have been repeatedly bringing her case to the public eye, yet as a matter of fact, have failed to prevent her torture.

Bystanders, and the silent consent of the general public plays its role in perpetrating human rights violations. If a woman is being tortured, first it’s veracity is questioned, then when it is confirmed, she is dehumanised with the tag ‘Naxalite supporter’ so people can continue to be bystanders, and turn the pages over the suffering of a fellow human being. When it comes to rape, a victim is dressed indecently, not that men need to keep their dicks in their pants. When it comes to rape accusations against the police, the very lackadaisical and haphazard manner of the investigation, the complete lack of interest shown in even lodging FIRs, doesn’t entertain any seriousness of the crime and only manifests the complete bias of the police who are convinced that all accusations against their own, is malicious propaganda meant to ‘demoralize’ their ranks.

Bystanders, when there are many of them, will always pass on the responsibility of doing something when there are others in the crowd. Responsibility is diffused. Responsibility is further diffused, when the crowd looks around and notices no one is doing anything. Chief Ministers are quiet. Home Ministers are saying a rape victim was habitual about sex. The Highest Court of the land, sends a woman back to her torturers, to ensure procedure. But when a police official suspected of torture is awarded by the president of the nation, what kind of message does it give to the police?

The police however have been convinced that the Maoists have been using the laws of the land, the courts and Writ Petitio, to hamper their counterinsurgency efforts. And counterinsurgency is completely incompatible with human rights – what are human rights violations to one, are standard operating procedures to those in uniform.

State of Anomie

Psychologist Ervin Staub quotes in The Origins and Prevention of Genocide, Mass Killing, and Other Collective Violence, that ‘Dominant groups usually develop “‘hierarchy legitimizing myths” or legitimizing ideologies that justify subordinating other groups. They often see themselves as superior and deserving of their status due to their race, religion, intelligence, hard work, worldview, or other characteristics. Groups also embrace ideologies of development and visions of economic progress, identifying the victim group as standing in the way.’

And Jon Conroy quotes him extensively in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, The Dynamics of Torture, where Staub studied mass human rights violations in Argentina during the military Junta, where “….over time, ‘the many kinds of victims made it difficult [for the perpetrators] to differentiate between more or less worthy human beings. It became acceptable to torture and murder teenage girls, nuns and pregnant women. Learning by doing stifled the torturer’s feelings of empathy and concern.’ Furthermore, the Argentine torturers could see that their actions were supported by the larger society. Their superior officers signed release forms for kidnappings, relieving the lower orders from responsibility for the acts they carried out. The judiciary commonly accepted the military’s versions of events. The press – threatened by prison terms for demeaning or subverting the military – largely accepted censorship and did not report on disappearances. Doctors were present in interrogation rooms…….The middle class, Staub says, was pleased by the junta’s economic policy and was unmoved by the repression that accompanied it.”

A considerable difference in India would be: the mainstream media censors itself not out of fear but for reasons it knows best.  The middle class, especially, is happier to be engaging with the indigenous adivasis as exhibitions in state-sponsered fairs. Doctors in Chhattisgarh had botched two medical reports on Soni Sodi.

In India, ‘development’, ‘economic progress’, have become the legitimate myths, justifications, war cries; the apathy, for the killing of the illegitimate children of the Republic.

That every day, four people are invisibly tortured to death in police custody reflects upon the society we are becoming, and the apathy that emanates from it, is the gasoline that falls into the tinderbox that is a lawless society holding a gun to its head, a neurotic world of violence where people kill each other for a packet of biscuits, or uncontrolable rage, or where the Border Security Force strips a man and beats him brutally and videographs it, as every institution of authority has broken down, where the new deities of profit, growth, development have destroyed the needs of human touch and conscience: where compassion, empathy, and mercy were quietly executed in some forest declared as a Disturbed Area or a ‘liberated zone.’

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The Ghosts Of Dantewada

March 14, 2012

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 13th of March, 2012.

On the 11th of March, 2012, Superintendent of police of Bilaspur Rahul Sharma took his service revolver and shot himself in the head. Some cite personal problems, others feel he was under severe pressure from his superiors.

I first met him on the 3rd of April, 2009 when Maoists, travelling by motorcycle had gunned down Channu Karma, a relative of Mahendra Karma, in broad daylight, just a few kilometers away from the police station at Dantewada. I had taken the above photograph of the witness of the crime, who sat distraught, holding his head, unable to talk. Rahul Sharma (framed by the window) then the Superintendent of Police of Dantewada, had entered the scene of the crime, and instantly called someone in Raipur, and in a calm demeanor he described the situation and everything that was being done by his deparment to handle just another political assasination in Dantewada. He would later ask me where I had come from, and I replied, I came from Mumbai. I would live in Dantewada for months under his office.

A few days later, on the 12th of April, an encounter had taken me to the village of Goomiyapal, then to Hiroli, then Samalwar, where the police had claimed to kill three Maoists in the forest, yet the dirt-roads leading away from the village of Samalwar were filled with pools of blood.  The villagers too claimed that three people were taken away by the police from Samalwar and that there was no encounter in the forest.

That day I had interviewed Rajesh Pawar, the Assistant Superintendent of Police in the mining town of Kirandul. He had a strange habit of leaving his service revolver on his desk. I would meet him a few more times, once to find access to some prisoners who I knew were being beaten in the other room after an IED blast on a road near Kuakonda that had injured three CRPF personel.  And each time I met him when he was in office, he would leave his 9mm on the desk. When another reporter challenged him about the killings of Hiroli, he responded quickly, ‘Itna easy nahi hai, aadmi ko marna.’ And he handed his service pistol to the reporter, ‘mujhe maro.’

A few months later, he was gunned down by the Maoists on the 23rd of May, 2011 at Gariaband. The Maoists had filled him up with twenty bullets in an ambush that also took nine other lives. The village of Goomiyapal, where a mother and her son were beaten up during 12th of April encounter in the ‘forest’, would see another encounter in December 2009 that claimed six lives, and another in May of 2010, that claimed two lives, and again on the 12th of February, 2012, where a young boy was shot dead.

But Rahul Sharma’s stint as Superintendent of Police at Dantewada was even more controversial with the killing of 19 adivasis in Singaram village, which the police referred to as harcore Maoist cadres, but human rights groups and the media had cited as ordinary villagers, and witnesses claimed that people were lined up and shot. The Singaram matter was taken to the courts by human rights activist Himanshu Kumar, and a few months later, one of the adivasi petitioners who was challenging the version of events of the police, would be killed by the Maoists.

Death, in Dantewada, moves in circles, and only the ghosts know the end of the war.

There was once a casual story about Superintendent of Police Rahul Sharma, who met Arundhati Roy and filmmaker Sanjay Kak when they were in Dantewada. He would tell Ms.Roy that he was an avid reader of her work when he was in JNU, and would say, like a market economist would concur, ‘Peace would come to Dantewada if the adivasis would be taught greed.’

I wish I knew Rahul Sharma a lot better now, and I wish could’ve asked him what he learnt from the Adivasis.