Pragya Bhagat, Bhopal, March 14, 2007
Imagine an ocean of angry faces quaking with fervor. As the merciless heat beats down on their weathered skin, they squint to look ahead, and keep moving on. This is what the drivers and pedestrians of New Bhopal saw today as a group of about 1200 people conveyed a simple message to Shivraj Singh Chauhan- Do you think you can get rid of us by ignoring our suffering for twenty-two years? Think again.
It all began at Kamla Park. Starting at ten in the morning, groups began arriving unsuspiciously in city buses by the dozen. Lucky for us, it was the last Wednesday of the Islamic month of Safar, when people usually go for outings. When asked by two curious policemen as to why we were lounging on the well manicured lawn of the park, we stated that we were celebrating Budh; sometimes religion works in one’s favor.
People were slowly filling up the nooks of the park which still looked fairly empty due to its vast area. The signal to gather everyone was given at one in the afternoon. Soon enough, the pockets of people conglomerated into a massive procession that slowly headed toward the Chief Minister’s residence. The slogans trailed off towards the tail of the line, but the front of the rally echoed with the call-and-response slogans that have become all too familiar. The never-ending chain of men, women, and children did not quite make it to its destination when the protestors were greeted by four truckloads of police, complete with metal barricades and massive roadblocks. They would not let us pass.
What followed was an hour of demonstrating where the police simply averted their unsympathetic glances by focusing on intense walkie-talkie discussions. The survivors held their six foot long banners with an almost patriotic pride. Large letters spelling the survivor organizations flapped in the sporadic wind that occasionally stirred the air, now heavy with heat. People were sweaty, thirsty, and tired, but the insults directed towards the state government boomed with sparks of energy. Women sought out refuge in shade, a rarity on the scorching asphalt. Children held up banners as their faces shone with perspiration.
For an hour, the police refused to budge and the thousand something demonstrators communicated their demands to the seemingly deaf politicians via the blaring megaphones. Each of the six fasters raised their voice with the voices of others. Now on their tenth day of starvation, they only had a bottle of water to keep them going. We had conveyed what we wanted to, and it was time to turn around. The Chief Minister had disappointed us once again, but he had seen what we were capable of. He had been warned.
The walk back to the Tinshed took another hour of trudging in the blistering heat. Maybe it was the fatigue that dimmed the volume of the slogans. Maybe it was the discontent at Chauhan’s still mum administration. Whatever the reason, the thousand plus people trodded back to the Tinshed with dry throats and cracked feet. Some attempted to find a spot on the already crowded carpet, while most women spilled out to the street below, blocking the traffic on one side of the road. The police arrived to move the women against the half wall of the dharna site. The crowd soon thinned out as large city buses came empty and left tightly packed with bodies bursting at the openings of the vehicle. Exhaustion weighed down the atmosphere at the tent.
The weary walkers that remained now had a chance to rest. Dominique Lapierre, author of “It Was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal”, called to offer support and pass on the news of a possible press conference in Delhi. As dusk crept along, the fasters decided that they would have to find another place to sleep tonight. The presence of ketones in their blood now put them at risk of being arrested and hospitalized. The police were not subtle in their attention towards the fasters, yet managed to miss them as the six slipped out of the tent. The flurry of activity at the Tinshed soon came to a close – at least for today. Maybe tomorrow will be a harbinger of better news from the government, instead of the current status of no news.