I’m currently reading a book that spans the 1920s-60s. It reveals a lot about some of the men who organized and led the freedom struggle – Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari, Nehru and Vallabh bhai Patel. And I’m wondering what these men would do if they knew that, in the sovereign land for which they went to jail and organized strikes and suffered attempts on their lives, two young girls would be arrested for questioning the legitimacy of a bandh. That a doctor’s clinic would be destroyed because a politician died of old age. That this politician would be a man accused of unleashing mayhem and murder upon citizens, and that he would never be punished properly for his crimes, but instead that his dead body would be draped in the national flag.
When India came into being as a republic, we chose to be democratic, sovereign and secular. We were no longer just a landmass upon which hundreds of millions lived, but a notional place of dignity. We knew what it was like to live without freedom, equality and justice. And we wanted to stop suffering, just so that someone else could get richer.
When we say we wanted freedom, it wasn’t just that we wanted rulers who had the same skin tone. We wanted the freedom to choose what was good for us. Because often, what was good for Indians resident in India was not profitable for colonial masters. But when we protested, our leaders were thrown into jail for a range of crimes that ranged from disturbing the peace to treason.
And now? Well now, Dayamani Barla has been in jail for over a month. In 2006, a case was filed against Barla when she was part of a group that blocked a road, demanding NREGS (national rural employment guarantee scheme) job cards for some villagers. She was charged with rioting, criminal trespass and so on. The case was reopened and she was arrested in October this year. She managed to get bail but was immediately arrested in connection with another case. According to a statement issued by other activists, police officials refuse to tell ‘for technical reasons’ what laws Barla is supposed to have broken.
Wondering why an old case reopened, and what was Barla up to? Well, she’s been standing with the farmers of Nagri village who refuse to let go of the 200-odd acres of land the state government has earmarked for a law university and a new IIM.
It is not that the villagers of Nagri wish to pose an impediment to educational institutions. They have said that there are other pieces of land around, which are not being cultivated and therefore more suitable for construction. This land, they say, was acquired in the 1950s, and even then, most villagers had refused the pitiful compensation on offer. For decades, nothing happened. Then the state decided to build a new university, and so it destroyed the standing crop belonging to the farmers. And now, Barla is in jail.
Consider the irony of Barla, an award-winning journalist-activist, being lodged in the Birsa Munda Central Jail. It has been named for legendary freedom fighter Birsa Munda who died in Ranchi jail, it is said, under mysterious circumstances.
I wonder what our freedom fighter-leaders would say to Dayamani Barla. What would Gandhi say? What would Vallabh bhai Patel say? What would Subhash Chandra Bose say?
And I wonder too – how different are we from colonial India where people could be parted easily from land or salt, and leaders jailed for encouraging us to break the law if it hurt people and livelihoods?
First published here.