The Manjhi Metaphor
Amidst the cacophony created over a variety of issues “bothering the nation” like the cancellation of National Security Advisor (NSA)-level talks with Pakistan, a relentless battle being fought by Neelam Krishnamoorthy, the woman leading the charge for the Uphaar tragedy victims, has been drowned out. Despite a Supreme Court order, which allowed the main accused and big-time builders Sushil and Gopal Ansal to walk free after paying a penalty, Neelam Krishnamoorthy, notwithstanding the setback, has again shown the courage to take her fight forward. For the record, the apex court order has failed to win either social or legal approbation.
When the Uphaar tragedy took place on June 13, 1997, I was on the court beat for another national daily. I still recall that on way back to our office on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg from Patiala House courts, I met my fellow reporters Sanjay Singh (currently political editor with First Post) and Prabal Pratap Singh (formerly with Aaj Tak and IBN7) on the staircase. We were summarily dispatched to the “crime spot”. Thereafter, it was a relay between Uphaar cinema, the OPD of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the office.
The sight that evening of several men, women and children sleeping in absolute peace and calm on the stretchers at AIIMS left a lasting impression. Alas, they all carried a tag on their toe-thumb, pronouncing them dead. Next day we were deployed at the cremation grounds, where betrayed souls moved in unison to meet their respective gods.
After a few days, maybe a month, when the public anger over Uphaar had started to wane, Neelam Krishnamoorthy emerged on the scene. She organised the victims and ensured that the Ansals, the owners of Uphaar cinema, had a tough battle at hand. “We went and met advocate KTS Tulsi who advised us that we should get organised if we wanted to take on the builder lobby,” Neelam had once said in a newspaper interview. Nine families of 28 victims got together to form the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT).
Let’s give a pause to Uphaar story for now. Over the past weekend, I ensured that I had time to watch Ketan Mehta’s “Manjhi-The Mountain Man”. The film is a gripping story of an ordinary human being who fought against unlimited problems to build a road cutting through a mountain. Manjhi belonged to <g data-gr-id="77">Mooshar</g> community, placed on the lowest strata of even the scheduled castes. Manjhi’s story is a tale of a man fighting feudalism in its worst form, overcoming the challenge of Naxalism, beating back the threat posed by a corrupt establishment and finally managing to build a path -- 360 feet long, 30 feet wide and 25 feet high through a hillock using only a hammer and chisel. After 22 years of work, Dashrath reduced the travel time between the Atri and Wazirganj blocks of Gaya district in Bihar from 55 km to 15 km.
In course of the film, Manjhi, essayed superbly by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, tells a journalist, who is supportive of his cause and is passing through a bout of depression on professional front, that to fight a corrupt newspaper management could not be a bigger fight than breaking a mountain. For the likes of Neelam Krishnamoorthy, and her namesake Neelam Katara (Nitish Katara murder case), the metaphor of their fight lies in the mission of Dashrath Manjhi. It took Manjhi 22 years to build the road; the man fought his battle all alone; he worked in an absolutely backward and socially and geographically isolated area but still carried on.
He fought the mountain, convoluted government laws, corrupt officials, an indifferent political class and feudal tyranny with single-minded determination inspired by his love for his wife, who died of a fall from the “insurmountable” hillock. Krishnamoorthy is fighting a similar battle -- for the love for her children. When Ansal’s lawyer Ram Jethmalani, the veteran jurist, called her an insane woman, she hit back saying, “Yes, I am insane and the <g data-gr-id="62">Ansals</g> and their lawyers have made me insane by continuously threatening me, intimidating me and tampering with the evidence to secure justice. If fighting for justice for children for 18 long years is insanity, then I am insane.”
The now much revered Dasrath Manjhi too was considered insane all through his period of struggle with the mountain. A newspaper editorial after the Uphaar judgment wrote that by reducing the prison sentence of the accused and instead ordering them to pay compensation worth Rs.60 crore to the State, the court has reduced the entire judicial process to an empty formality. Moreover, the editorial went to state that the judges treated the entire issue of criminal negligence as a matter of civil compensation, reducing criminal liability into a minor aspect.
Like Manjhi, it’s true that Neelam Krishnamoorthy too is fighting for justice for her kin and other victims of the Uphaar tragedy. But like Manjhi’s wife never came back to use the road her husband had built, Krishnamoorthy’s children would never come back to avail of the law which their parents are fighting for. Post-Uphaar tragedy, the long stuck trauma centre at the AIIMS was finally built and commissioned, which in turn has saved many lives. The Delhi Government has promised to build a third trauma centre. The second is located near Metcalf House.
The Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) is also fighting for a law for the prevention of man-made tragedy in public places. Their plea is for an appropriate legislation to tackle such man-made calamities and put in place an appropriate investigative and judicial mechanism that compels future offenders to think twice before indulging in acts of omission or commission that can endanger human life.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has assured the AVUT victims that to begin with Delhi could have such a law for public safety. As and when this law comes, it should be called AVUT law as the road build by Manjhi is called Manjhi Path. But Neelam Krishnamoorti still has some way to go before she breaks through the mountain.
(The author is president Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post)