BY ANABRANCHED IN DELHI – 4th April 2006
All afternoon yesterday, although the crowd remained small, friends and supporters wearing smiles flowed in a steady stream by the Bhopal camp at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Even through the haze of my arrival, I can sense that this is an odd moment of pause, a breath between the massive exertion of the Padyatra and the looming determination of the hunger strike. This is a marathon, a wager. The Bhopalis have come very far, sacrificed more than I can understand, and now have settled down and are gritting their teeth preparing for the final push.
Meanwhile, it is a daily grind. Yesterday was a Hindu holiday so traffic was light and the quantity of dust and exhaust was relatively low. Still, the air was thick and the sun was unforgiving. Everywhere you sat it pursued you, biting at your toes and breaking through the thin tree cover. We played a game of musical blankets, shifting the worn red and black striped throws along the axis of the shade, crowding together, laughing, sleeping and singing in the constantly moving pools of dappled shade.
Jantar Mantar is the name of an odd coral-colored structure that dominates the park behind the Padyaatrees. It’s several stories high in places, an odd formation of walls full of stairs that seem to go nowhere. According to my informants it was built 400 years ago by a local king/warlord. Despite it’s seemingly arbitrary appearance, like something built by a misled post-modern architect, it is apparently an extremely sophisticated astronomical tool. It is capable of tracking and measuring the most subtle shifts in the sky. The structure itself is surrounded by a park – green grass dotted with circles of men, smoking and lounging – and all that is circled by a fence of iron spikes. Across this boundary everything changes. On the other side the wall explodes with posters and slogans.
Although the area here that is allocated to protesters is terribly small – given the graceful open fields of the park behind them – the juxtaposition still seems somehow fitting. A tool to measure the stars has become the barometer of the body politic, a measure of the state of democracy. Today, I would say it looks like a storm is coming.
The Bhopal camp is on a sidewalk. It’s lightly wider and higher than most sidewalks, but still just a sidewalk made homelike by a profusion of colorful banners tied to the fence, and a compact row of bedrolls stored against it. I knew that they were staying on the side of the road, that they had been every day of the march, but it still struck me, shocked me even. The simple vulnerability of it. Politics as physical, not just marching or protesting or hunger striking, but making the street your home, protected only by the strength of your dreams, convictions and demands. Wagering yourself against the state for what it owes you.
Stretched out horizontally across this sidewalk, as everyone sleeps at night, there is room between my toes and the road for someone to walk, but not much, and then the sidewalk drops away sharply. There are several lanes of traffic going to the left, a thin median strip, and then a few more lanes headed the other way. I haven’t seen any carts here in Delhi, but laborers walking, cars, trucks, mopeds all make their way, and for some reason the traffic police seem to do a brisk business, creating a parade of affronted commuters. On the other side is the camp of the Narmada protesters. Theirs is a slightly wider space, with a few more trees. Police monitor the edges of both protests and occasionally make nerve-wracking flurries of movement. In late afternoon a small but energetic crowd of leftists tied up a banner on the right side of our encampment and chanted against the visit of the director of the WTO. “Capitalist murderers!” After a while they leave.
Bhopal and Narmada, then, are left face to face again, echoing each other, as they have for twenty years. Both hailing from Madhya Pradesh, the national ‘breadbasket’, they are nightmarish parables of development gone wrong and are two of the most influential, long-standing, non-violent resistance movements in the country. Narmada Bachao has watched over the slow, unremediated, displacement of thousands for the benefit of a few – largely those who are building the dam. It is a process whose damage can still be mitigated, even partially stopped. Bhopal has been struggling to stand strong after one complex, catastrophic hit that has decimated the health of generations and is now further complicated by chronic poisoning from the water. It is a catastrophe that has never been faced. Their victims and survivors are the casualties of modernization that are supposed to disappear, and yet they persist. The irritation and dismissiveness of the government is palpable and some nights tangible.
The atmosphere, on both sides of traffic today is angry and sober. Last night 200 policemen, some armed with guns, descended on the Narmada camp to forcibly remove two of the hunger strikers to the hospital for feeding. Narmada activists are striking to try to stop the final few feet of the dam from being built until land compensation is granted – “land for land” as the court had promised. The government is baldly playing delay games – here, drink this lemon water, we’ll take care of it, just wait a little longer. Meanwhile the dam advances six inches per day. They came to arrest the hunger strikers and feed them until the dam has finished.
The Bhopalis crossed the street and helped to form a human chain, against which the hundreds of police officers pushed. Satish, a Bhopal supporter, was arrested along with a number of Narmada supporters, and the hunger strikers were spirited off in an ambulance to receive glucose. The brutality and cynicism of the ambush was beyond dispiriting. No one slept much, and there were tears, but focus held: “there’s no point kicking the police,” someone said, “they’re just doing their job. We should kick Manmohan Singh.” What’s disturbing at this juncture, in 2006, is that they government seems to have stopped bothering to deny the facts, the facts that both of these issues represent massive governmental failures towards citizens. Daily they seem to become more comfortable with acknowledging that they know, they just don’t care. A taunt. “Yeah, and what are *you* gonna to do about it?”
Meanwhile, at the Padyatris’ camp, the day passes in meetings and conversation, gathering strength for the next push of the movement, the massive demonstrations that are planned for next week as the government reaches its deadline for meeting the Bhopalis six demands. Already, a steady trickle of people coming to join for the dharnas is arriving from Bhopal to boost numbers and strength. It seems clear that the government is playing hardball this week, cruelly and arbitrarily enough to be sparking debates on both sides of the road about the limits of non-violent protest. Mostly, however, it has simply steeled the nerves of everyone putting their bodies on the line, and in this case, on the pavement.
Yesterday a smiling grandmother wearing pale blue, a gas survivor who walked all the way from Bhopal, told me that she isn’t afraid of death. She says she has it all planned out: she will die and become a ghost and go strangle Manmohan Singh for causing so much suffering. Perhaps the PM should come down to Jantar Mantar and check the weather every once in a while.