Pragya Bhagat, Bhopal, March 8, 2007
How does one begin to describe the women of Bhopal? Their motto “We are flames, not flowers” falls short of portraying their gutsy bravado. They are pillars of strength, clad in brightly-colored saris and dark burkhas. Their scalp bleeds with red vermillion and their hijabs reveal only their eyes – fierce and reflecting the strength of their soul. It was only appropriate then, that on International Women’s Day the majority of people that came to the sit-in were women.
But there is nothing new in that. For every man involved in the campaign, there must be at least thirty women who participate actively. One simply has to look at people like Rashida Bi and Champa Devi who are spearheading the campaign, at Hajara Bi and Nasreen as leaders within their communities, and at the four fasting females to see what a crucial role these “flames” play in feeding the fire of motivation amongst the gas-affected and water-contaminated communities. It is truly spectacular to see docile housewives and reclusive mothers transform into vocal, powerful speakers, striding confidently ahead of, if not right along with, their men. The women of Bhopal are an inspiration to campaign supporters worldwide as shining beacons of perseverance.
While these women and others commemorated the seventeenth day at the Tinshed, Shivraj Singh Chauhan was commemorating Women’s Day in a plush auditorium, distributing sweets in honour of his birthday which was yesterday. That’s Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister for you – he celebrates his life while others mourn the loss of their loved ones. Death is inevitable, we know that. But when fifteen to twenty people are dying prematurely due to exposure related illnesses, that is when you know something is seriously wrong.
Twenty-two years after the world’s worst industrial disaster took place, death is still a frequent visitor at the doorstep of gassed homes, while the women who run these homes fight for the right to live. The Tinshed was bubbling with activity on this Women’s Day; seven organisations- Eklavya, Yuva Samvad, Muskan, Mahila Manch, IWID, Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sanhyog Samiti, and a group of nuns from a local Bhopal church – came to offer their support to the protestors. Songs of hope and triumph were sung, the government was bombarded with stinging insults, and words of justice were eloquently articulated by representatives from each of the organisations. The highlight of the evening was a torchlight procession from the Tinshed to Roshanpura, the site where our protest first began seventeen days ago. As one walked between the two lines of burning torches, candles, and cardboard placards one slogan melded into another. It was a cacophonous symphony of enthusiasm and anger, merged into one voice that rang through the streets of New Market. From the adolescent girls holding the banner at the head of the procession to the lady in white who walked at the tail end cradling her broken arm, it was the women who dominated the march. Tired and worn out from the walking and screaming, we arrived back at the dharna site thinking the day had come to an end. We thought wrong.
No one expected the Collector of Bhopal to show up, but within five minutes of being notified of his arrival, three Ambassadors lined the curb of the road below us along with a police jeep. For about an hour, the Collector, S.K. Mishra, the Superintendent of Police, Anant Kumar Singh, and their posse of five other men and eight policemen sat on the ground with us, warding off mosquitoes and squirming on our oh-so-luxurious thin sheets. Many a time, Mr. Mishra would state something that Rachna or Sathyu would immediately refute with legal or official evidence, and Mr. Mishra would cite it as a “communication gap.” He answered the phone thrice in the middle of discussion, but was otherwise fairly decent in his demeanor throughout the meeting. Sit with us for a few hours, Sathyu said, and we will convince you why our demands are valid. The Collector replied with a nonchalant Sure, I’ll ask important person X, Y, and Z to come too. But tomorrow is Rang Panchmi and then there’s the weekend. Plus it will take us a few days to find the documents we need and contact the appropriate people…If you ever want to learn how to evade responsibility from six fasters who are a total of twenty-one kilograms lighter and thousands of others who are waiting for clean water, ask S.K. Mishra. His we-will-take-care-of-it-later spirit is bound to warm your heart.