Pragya Bhagat, Bhopal, February 23, 2007
They work for the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh (Bhopal Gas Affected Women’s Stationery Workers’ Union). Clad in dark burkhas with bright pinks and magentas peaking from underneath their cloaks, they gossip and laugh amongst themselves. It is hard to see the anger in their kohl-lined eyes. “All we want is a permanent job”, says Shabnam. She has been working at the stationery unit for nineteen years now, making folders, envelopes, and cards that will be used by government officials. Yet the government they are working for refuses to recognize her and others at the Union as permanent employees entitled to higher wages and employee benefits like their peers at the government press. So how does the government justify paying some of their suppliers well and not the others? “They say we are illiterate and our women are old,” explains Shabnam. Apparently the government finds it perfectly normal to use the folders made by old, illiterate women, but will not pay them what they are due. That is why they are here today, helping Rashida Bi make torches for the procession in the evening. They gather handfuls of the soft, fibrous cotton and wrap it tightly with strips of rags. As they work, a group of women sing together, erasing the differences that others might divide them with. It doesn’t matter if they are Hindu or Muslim, whether they are gas-affected or water contaminated. It doesn’t matter whether they are young or old. It doesn’t even matter if they are on pitch with everyone else. Their earthy tone rings amongst the people that are arriving by the truckload, and soon enough, five hundred people are overflowing the area both inside and outside the tent.
Five hundred people. It’s hard to imagine what that means for someone who hasn’t seen a group that large in one place. It is an endless wave of color, a quilt of browns and reds, greens, pinks, khaki, mothers and children, men smoking beedis, a gathering so large an observer would be sure to sense that something momentous is about to happen. It began at 7 pm.
As people were arranging themselves into the procession on the street, the rag-wrapped torches were dipped in kerosene. Other torches were caked with mud, which had begun to form cracks like the interconnected wrinkles of an old woman’s skin. These torches were also dipped in kerosene, slowly and meticulously allowed to drip clean until the top portion was saturated with fuel. Two lines of people were arranged, with some holding the signs made two days ago while others held the torches that were being lit one at a time. Slowly, but surely, the dispersed flames lit up the individuals now visible in the dusky darkness of the evening. Children briskly following their parents, eight foot banners placed at the beginning and at the middle of the procession, an endless two lines as far back as the eye could see. And at the end of the formation, a police truck – high enough to be a tractor with a single red light glaring on its gigantic structure. The truck followed close behind, while a group of twenty policemen and women were at the head of the march. This was where emotions were at its highest.
The flames lit up the survivors’ faces, their determination and passion more visible than ever. Watching them was like watching a heart beat, the slogans slow and rhythmic in the beginning, then quickening to a pulsating excitement. The fervor was contagious, the roads were clogged, and the media was clicking away at full force. By the time we reached the Chief Minister’s gates, many of the torches had lost their fire. The flames were not as bright, but the passion in the souls of those who were still screaming with great zeal was more intense than any flame could have possibly been. The people asked for nothing new; only what they have been fighting twenty-two years for. Enough is enough, the government can not close their ears to the screams of suffering that should haunt them every night. I don’t know how they can sleep at night knowing that people are dying due to their almost criminal apathy and corrupted consciences. A kilometer from the Tinshed and many slogans later, the procession had come to a halt.
The trucks that had dropped off the residents of Old Bhopal now came back to take them to their homes. The road began functioning again and a sense of normalcy, if you could call it that, returned. The thirty or so people that would spend the night stayed back, so far the highest number of supporters committed to sleeping at the Tinshed. Once again, the dhol was a much desired commodity. Yes, even protestors need to have some fun. And what fun it was!
After a hearty meal of rice and dal, we sat in our blankets and clapped to the tunes sprinkled with laughter. The elderly women sang their trademark “Cuckuroo” song, much to the delight of everyone around them. There’s a certain charm associated with eighty-year-old women singing like little schoolgirls. Moments like these become embedded in one’s memory, because of the sweetness they exude. It wasn’t until 1 am when the singing and giggles finally subsided. The floor was densely packed, with someone’s head inches away from another’s feet. The snores came quickly as a blanket of exhaustion finally set in at the Tinshed.