Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals,” said Dr Martin Luther King, in a speech entitled The Future of Integration, delivered in 1961.
The demands on individuals for attainment of justice and rights touched upon by King in the quote above, is on display at the centre of the national Capital on Jantar Mantar Road which is India’s popular site for staging protests.
People from across the country come together at Jantar Mantar Road in New Delhi to hold protests on mind boggling issues. Some are here to affirm their existence which has been declared dead in government records while others seek justice for deaths of their loved ones. Such is the multitude of issues and the diversity of people pouring in from all parts of India that the great historian Ramachandra Guha called the protest site a “mini-India”.
Jantar Mantar truly deserves the nickname “mini India” but what it does more appropriately is it illustrates the “other India;” the nation which hardly gets any importance, value and space in media. The India which is not visible because of the shades of some over-shinning issues. A country which has come to Jantar Mantar because the rigid and oppressive social, economic and political system has squeezed and thrown them away like used tea leaves.
An example of the “other India” at Jantar Mantar is the dharna of Dalits who have been allegedly forced out of their village Bhagana, in Hisar, by the dominant Jat community. There was a time when around 300 Dalit families were forced to leave their land. It was May 21, 2012. These families were asked to move out after they battled almost for a year against a situation of complete social boycott declared by the Khap Panchayat (illegal village assembly of Jats).
Social boycott in a village can be very hard on the lives centred around it; shops would not sell stuff to Dalits, their involvement in daily village life is not welcomed, and their children are isolated at schools and other social arenas. But the most crippling blow of such social boycott was when these landless dalits were not allowed to work on the fields and farms, owned majorly by the upper caste. Such an act capsised the lives of these innocent people. Working on the land is their only way of earning.
According to those who have been on a dharna at Jantar Mantar — for quiet some time now — the decision of the khap to declare social boycott was prompted by the assertion of right to equal share in the village common. It is alleged that the Jats decided among themselves to distribute the common village play ground, where the Dalit boys played football with those from the upper caste community.
Realising that dalits are being shortchanged, they complained to the Hisar Deputy Commissioner on June 2, 2011. “Some district administration official raided our village after few days. However, nothing substantial happened after that”, said Sanjay, a 35-year-old leader of protester in Delhi.
A polity’s success is determined by the state machinery’s ability to protect and nurture the weakest and vulnerable sections of society. Political scientists of all hues will concur on this. Judging on this benchmark, the state has failed to protect the dalits of Haryana. “Since our exodus from our village, governments at both centre and Haryana have changed, but the story for us remains the same. We have been still waiting for authorities to act and help in making our return possible by creating conducive environment,” Satish Kajala added.
Kajala has been living in a camp at Jantar Matar since four years. Their camp is the second one towards the right side from the entry. A big banner with Bhagana’s disputed land on the background and the narration of their stories in Hindi hangs at the back wall of their tent. A big poster of Ambedkar on the front of the tent welcomes visitors. Inside the tent, on the left side lies a gas cylinder and stove where their meals are prepared.
Kajala’s father was busy making tea, while Kajala – surrounded by his friends and relatives – was sitting in the center, on the mattress. On being asked, how long are they willing to take their struggle,he answered “Jab tak insaaf nahi milega” (Until we do not get justice). Their confidence is very palpable. This is in spite of the fact that their struggle is being fought without any political support, whatsoever.
Kajala was 31 when they had to leave their village. He is single and has no plans to get married anytime soon. “Had I been married I would not have continued my dharna as I am doing now. Our fight is more important than personal comfort,” he said. The case of Hisar exodus is currently being heard by National Commission for Schedule Caste.
Two camps down from Kajala, is the camp of Jagjeet Kaur who has been protesting at the site since 2013 (when protest against Nirbhaya’s gangrape was in top gear). Kaur allegedly accuses a senior police officer of raping her. According to Kaur, she was raped on January 16, 2010, by an IPS officer. The officer, Naunihal Singh, the then SSP of Sangrur district, has been accused of allegedly raping Kaur in Ludhiana. Her pleas were rejected by Punjab and Haryana as well as the Supreme Court. As of now, National Human Right Commission (NHRC)is hearing her case.
Spending nights at Jantar Mantar is full of problems for protesters, especially women. The area lacks of basic civic amenities as it has only a single toilet complex and one drinking-water tanker. The toilet closes at 10 pm and opens at six in the morning.
“I try not to drink much water in order to cut down on the number of times I go to the toilet during night time. The timing of the toilet is already less but the toilet attendant often closes it early and opens it late. Bathing in this toilet in not allowed, so I have to go Bangla Sahib gurudwara to take a shower,” Kaur said. She is dependent on the gurudwara for food also.
Just opposite to Kajala’s camp is the dharna spot of Santosh Murat Singh from Banaras. His reason for sitting on dharna from last four years is a very interesting and funny one. He does not possess an elaborate camp like others, but his banner is a sure eyeball grabber. It reads: I am alive.
According to Singh, when he returned to his village with his wife, who was a dalit, in 2005 from Mumbai he was welcomed by a bitter gesture of social boycott. He added, in 2006, when he was in Mumbai his relatives in the village made his death certificate claiming that he died in the ‘2006 Mumbai train blasts’.
The motivation behind this was to usurp his share of ancestral property. From then, he says, he ran from pillar to post to resurrect himself from death in the official record, but to no avail. “I am alive and kicking but in official papers I have died in 2006,” says an exasperated Singh.
A stroll on Jantar Mantar road brings home the point, that in spite of multiple flaws in how our country serves us justice, one good thing is that it gives us the right to dissent and protest, which is sacrosanct for democracy, is not only recognised but also respected.
In Delhi, we don’t have any public square for protest. Hence, among the places available to accommodate large crowd, Jantar Mantar comes a clear winner due to better infrastructure which holds large crowd, wide roads, a brand name for protest and proximity to the Parliament.
This popular protest is evident enough for a fact that there is still space to seek justice even if the doors of justice might appear to be shut. And these protesters are waiting to be heard!