Pragya Bhagat, Bhopal, March 10, 2007
They come, they go. Four times, then five, then six. The police are a constant presence at the Tinshed today. We will forcibly take you to the hospital if you don’t eat something. Break your indefinite fast.
No, the six reply.
The Chief Minister has agreed to see the fasters. How much time does Chauhan give to those who have not eaten a single morsel for six days? Three minutes. In these one hundred and eighty seconds, he tells them that he will agree to the demands that are “logical and lawful.” Who decides what is logical? He does. Who decides what is lawful? He does. We are concerned for your well being. Break your indefinite fast.
No, the six reply.
The fasters are taken to Vallabh Bhavan where they sit for two hours with the Principal Secretary, the Collector, and the Commissioner of Bhopal along with other officials. The demands are fine, we’ll see to it that they are met. Now please, break your indefinite fast. No, the six reply.
Not until we see your promise in writing.
Apparently it takes two more days of fasting to put a promise on paper, since the Principal Secretary said he would have a note ready for the Chief Minister by the twelfth of March. Two more days of starvation. The meetings took a toll on the fasters, who were even more fatigued after traveling and talking for so long. Their skin droops slightly, and the heat presses against their bodies like an unwanted embrace. Two more days and then maybe it will end. We’ve done it for six day, two more is nothing. There is hope in waiting.
The evening passes lazily, with more supporters arriving to spend the night as the cauldron boils with toffee-colored chai. Guddi Bi, one of the fasters, looks around at the visiting families. “I wish my children were here, but they are upset with me.” Her older son, Sabir, has been to the Tinshed twice to show his support and love for his mother. Her younger son, Shahid, is not as enthused. “Shahid is very stubborn, he takes after me. He says if you wanted to kill yourself why did you give birth to us in the first place? Why can’t he see I am doing this for him, so he will have a better life than I did?” Guddi Bi will not die; her blood glucose has stabilized since Dr. Trivedi dropped by and made the six fasters drink Electral, an electrolyte supplement, so that the ketone levels in their blood goes down. She brags about her daughter, how she is taking care of her brothers while their mother is gone. “But the neighbors say the house is so quiet now. If I were at home, I would be screaming at them for one thing or another. But now they come home, eat, and sleep.” As she waits for the government to accept her demands, her children wait for her to be a mother again.
No one said waiting has to be boring. The youth from Yuva Samwad arrive with a drum and a cache of songs. We sing into the night, learning and teaching the words that have inspired the hearts of many to swing with passion. Blankets are laid out and eyelids become heavy, only to spring open at the arrival of a steady stream of police.
It is 11:15 pm. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty- they keep coming from behind the tent like a string of ants who greedily surround their meal. While we were singing, the police had stealthily parked their vans and trucks behind the tent, so as to remain unseen. There are men and women, some clutching sticks while others have guns hanging from their shoulder straps. There’s only one reason why so many police would arrive at the Tinshed- they want to force the fasters to go to a hospital.
The media, doctors, supporters…numbers are being frantically punched into cell phones. The protestors organize themselves into a compact group, facing the uniformed men and women. Slogan after slogan dripping with anger is hurled at the ones who watch with weapons in their hands. The media starts to arrive slowly as discussions are taking place between the Superintendent of Police and Sathyu. Why should we go to the hospitals and get needles injected into our skin if we are already taking Electral? The doctor has sent the police but did not bother to come himself. Rashida Bi is chained along with the others, and her voice is loud and crisp. We want to talk to the doctor; tell him to come here and take our urine samples. If he finds ketones in our blood, we will go lie on those rotten beds of yours at the government hospital. But until then we will not budge from here. The atmosphere is crackling with tension. What will happen next?
An hour passes. There is no sign of the government doctor; instead, two young men who look like they have just graduated from college arrive at the sight, scruffy-faced and tired. They are the doctor’s assistants. The doctor is probably too tired to bother with the people he refuses to sit next to during check-ups. The man uses a stool to sit on, and awkwardly bends down to take their blood pressure. The assistants however, don’t have a choice. Their tired faces will be plastered in the papers tomorrow, their quickly beading sweat will shine on television screens throughout Bhopal. They nervously take the pulse and blood pressure of the fasters, upon which Dr. Trivedi arrives. While the police are contemplating on what to do, the assistants tell Dr. Trivedi that the condition of the fasters is stable. But they had ketones in their blood, a policeman interjects. That was two days ago, before they had taken Electral, replies Dr. Trivedi. His status as a professor of medicine is respected and his opinion taken. The fasters’ urine will be tested the next morning for the presence of ketones. The police disperse in their bulky jeeps, the media leaves with their sound bytes, and the strength of the protestors shines in their relieved and sleep-deprived smiles. Two hours after the debacle began, it comes to a close. But this is by no means an end. The police have shown what they are capable of, and the survivors have proven once again that they will not back down under any circumstances.