Mallika Kaur speaks with human rights activist Inderjit Singh Jaijee about the horrific piling up of corpses in the Bhakra Beas canal, and the government’s apathy towards farmer suicides and the agrarian crisis in Punjab.
The Movement Against State Repression (MASR), led by Inderjit Singh Jaijee, has released 23:51 minutes of raw footage showing human bodies strewn in the Bhakra Beas canal and along its banks, amidst garbage, and being pulled apart by packs of wild dogs. Jaijee has brought this mystery to the attention of the Punjab government, the Centre, the Punjab & Haryana High Court, the National Human Rights Commission, and now everyone with an internet connection.
You’ve released a video that shows dignity being stripped from the dead, of human beings reduced to meat. What drove the decision to release it?
When we were telling them, citing figures, even from the government’s own documents, people didn’t seem to be getting it. But when you show them actual images, they are more likely to believe what is happening. The government is not admitting the truth of this horror. But now it is apparent: bodies taken out, thrown back in, all in full view, under the eyes of the government. So it is deliberate: to perpetuate the mystery and misery around these bodies.
What can people do about this?
People can ask obvious questions and make sure bodies don’t just keep piling up, spreading disease and reinforcing despair.
Your contention is that we might be watching this on video now, but it has actually been happening for years?
At least six or seven years ago it came to our attention that dead bodies floating downstream the Bhakra Beas mainline canal are piling up at Khanauri village. We went to the local police station. The police station is located only about 100 yards from the canal head where the bodies accumulate, and they denied it was happening. We kept going back because the number of bodies was increasing. In the meantime, local citizens of Khanauri had even set up a rest house for the relatives coming to look for these bodies.
How did these relatives know to come looking there?
Word spreads among tragedy-affected, desperate families. And the fact that the rest house was opened shows we aren’t talking about one or two bodies but many more. The rest house had four or five rooms. And the gurudwara provides langar to all the visitors.
Who build this rest house for the relatives?
The Khanauri Mandi citizens. As for the government, we asked them to set up a mortuary. But nothing happened. The government paid no attention. After a lot of noise, they put an ambulance in place three years ago, but it was a half-hearted affair. You don’t see the ambulance coming to collect the bodies in the video.
Civil society showed such initiative in a time people are cynical about it. Why and how did Khanuri Mandi folks mobilise?
Humanity amongst the ordinary people is alive. Khanauri is a village in Punjab, on the Haryana border. One branch of the Bhakra Beas canal goes through Punjab, and then enters Haryana at Tohana, where it gets shallower. So bodies get blocked about three kilometers down that fork, at one spot. That makes them noticeable there; it is not that they all originate from there. So, since Khanauri is where the bodies have been piling up, its citizens have been witnessing the horror experienced by the family members who come searching.
The Khanauri Mandi citizens also organised and sent a petition to the High Court about five years ago. The High Court gave orders to add underwater lights, and various other gadgets. Five years have passed but the government has done nothing.
What have you done to petition government action?
In 2011, the Khanauri situation was brought to the attention of the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the next year it ordered the state to take corrective measures. Nothing happened. Police did post someone in 2014 to stand there and take note of the number of bodies, but this person has orders not to make any attempt to retrieve or identify them. In 2015, we approached the National Human Rights Commission [NHRC]. Result? A diligent policeman, the one recording the numbers, is removed from his post! Then, we wrote to the NHRC about that decision against the junior man. And soon we heard that he had been reinstated. On the larger matter, the NHRC’s request for an Action Taken report from the government has been met with silence. As three months are coming to a close, we decided to release the videos, so people can see what putrid callousness we are campaigning against.
In the videos, there are people handling the bodies, who seem to be retrieving them. Is that the case, and who are these people?
There are divers are employed – private, locally employed. They look at at the person employing them and judge their price. If the person looks rich, they will ask for 30,000 rupees and if a person doesn’t look too rich, they ask for 10,000 or even 5,000 rupees. But the families coming to the canal are so poor they can’t afford even that. So even if divers find a body, they don’t identify it and just throw it back into the canal. And for a good portion of time, the police had instructed divers to do just that.
There is nobody hired by the government to retrieve bodies. We had asked the government to employ divers. We had asked the government to put underwater lights, we had asked the government to put nets. But like I already said, there has only been dead silence from the government.
So these dead have been carried downstream. Where do the bodies originate?
The families that come looking are variously from the districts Patiala, Sirhind, Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib… and maybe parts of Ludhiana.
Your work revolves around rural debt-related suicides, which you began exposing in the early 1990s. How do you connect these bodies piling up in Khanauri to debt?
Usually if the death is a case of murder, villagers are active and report it to the police station nearest their village. If it is an accident, such as a scooter or car falling into the canal, the press is active. That is big news – the villagers run to see that. So the unidentified bodies can’t be explained by those possibilities. Our experience points to suicide victims, driven by debt.
So, by this process of elimination, you are claiming that these bodies are of people who have taken their lives due to debt?
Take the village Balran in Sangrur. It had 90 suicides. There are also, however, 15 missing people in that area. Every village we survey for debt-suicides has missing people who are not recorded anywhere. Our estimate is that many, maybe most, bodies in the canals are of such missing people.
You mentioned that debt-suicides are not largely reported?
The situation has changed over the decades we have been working, but villagers still do not speak out about debt suicides because it would be a declaration of their poverty. If they had children to marry off, they wouldn’t find matches for them, etcetera. And their prestige in the village would sink. They hide the suicides quite fiercely. I remember families whom we visited who reacted very aggressively. Their attitude was – “How dare you suggest this? Our chap would never do that!”
Also, it isn’t clear to people whether suicide is still a crime or not, whether the law has changed or not. What is clear, as a result of lifelong experience, is the extreme harassment that usually follows suicides, including jail for abetment.
The government’s failure to recognise that Punjab has suicides for so many decades has shrouded the issue in shame.
Why has there been such a resistance to recognising suicides in Punjab?
It is very simple. From being economically advanced, Punjab has sunk to the bottom. If the most agriculturally progressive state has sunk, that means agriculture has failed across the country. The government just doesn’t accept these facts in full, even though, per capita, Punjab has the highest rural suicide rate in the country. Each Punjab government downplays the suicides… which is why this seems to us to be part of a larger agenda to downplay agrarian distress across the country. The government knows this is an all-India problem.
This is reminiscent of the pre-militancy period. With agrarian distress rising across India, Punjab had taken the lead with Rasta Roko, and then blocking food grain leaving the state. When the government had no escape, they converted the issue into a religio-political movement, and clamped down. Well-planned diversionary tactics. I’m not saying people were not raising real demands. People were fed up, they did want change, they wanted more federalism. The same calls came from Jyoti Basu, Biju Patnaik, from Karnataka, from Andhra, but the attack on Punjab and 2% Sikhs was disproportionate. The issue was portrayed as all about the unity of India, about keeping Punjab in India.
Punjab feeds India. Now, with an all-India problem, what will they do? They are pushing divisions on religious lines more ferociously than ever, instead of talking about the poor and hungry, and those dying trying to feed them.
So let’s come to who is dying now. There is often talk about this being a Jatt caste problem, from their misplaced pride and machismo, highlighted in some recent movies as well. Can you comment on this?
If it were a caste thing, then how do you explain rural labour suicides? Which are exceeding suicides of farmers now. Now, maybe a village that was comprised of 30% landowners, is now 10% landowners: the balance has shifted towards labourers. So you have landlords, labourers, and landlords-cum-labourers. Remember, in an agrarian economy, the entire village lives on farming, including the grocer, the cloth merchant, transporter and the local halwai. The farmer has always been 30-40% of the community and the rest the laborers working with him, because the farming is still largely manual. I am not taking about the more industrialised belts like Ludhiana, but about the large belt of Punjab that still has a traditional agrarian society, which is being strangulated.
Suicide is gendered, since its victims are largely males. What happens to the women?
They rise to the occasion. They try to head the household, but with debt hanging over them. In a society where women have largely not been allowed roles of leadership, despite this being the land of Baba Nanak, they have to fight for their rights. We have partnered with Building Bridges India and developed stitching centers and other support systems for women.
Not everyone can fight against the immense odds. We have stories of children being abandoned. The widow, who cannot feed them or preserve her dignity or prevent them from entering child labour, leaves them. Then we have the elderly raising these orphans. Young girls remain particularly vulnerable.
Is the situation the same for those working ancillary to farmers. Are they also committing suicide?
Definitely. All segments of the village are suffering. Money comes in through the farmers in a farming society. If the farmer is not earning, even the shopkeeper is not getting customers. We have cases of shopkeepers committing suicides, even multiple suicides, taking their wives and children with them.
With land ceiling laws — mind you there is no parallel ceiling on urban land or industrialists — with the division of land with each generation, we have farmers with very small land holdings. And on top of that, there are laws controlling the prices of crops. Earlier, it was by market demand. But now there is price control on paddy and wheat, which Punjab has been forced into growing, while cotton and sugarcane and cash crops have by policy been encouraged in the west and elsewhere. With controlled prices, limited cultivation area, and a depleting water table, how is the farmer going to earn? This situation spells doom also for those dependent on his purchase power. Suicide is a reality of life here, and that is why human beings are quietly turning into corpses in Khanauri.
So the gory situation at Khanauri is well known by local residents and researchers. How about those further away?
Secondary investigating bodies of the universities, who do not necessarily have knowledge about the villages, have been put in charge of surveys ordered every so often. Out of all the graduates in Punjab, only about 3% come from the rural sector. How much are the urban area researchers going to find out about the rural sector and its suicides? This becomes a way of playing down the suicides too. The Agricultural University that is slightly more aware of agro problems, gave the estimate of 4,049 debt-related suicides. Punjabi University and Guru Nanak University said that in 10 years, there have been less than 300. And now, from this canal, under Punjabi University’s purview, you have up to 35-40 a month! I’m all for university studies. But let independent groups come in, let their reports be published, and let there light be shed for the families of the dead.
What is your estimate?
Our village-to-village survey and related relief work of adopting families in 110 villages reveals 2300 debt-related suicides. The Punjab Farmers Commission says that 2000 people dying per year is now old news. I estimate at least 5000 suicides a year across Punjab.
The canal angle was a revelation even to us five years ago. And these are only the bodies that surface, what about those that get caught in silt or undergrowth? What’s more, this is only one canal, and Punjab is crisscrossed with canals.
And you’ve succeeded in securing some governmental relief for the families identified?
It took MASR 10 years of litigation to get any compensation for well-documented cases, with Panchayat affidavits attached saying, yes, this person had a debt of such-and-such amount and committed suicide by such-and-such method. Compensation is treated like a top secret affair by the government. They are using compensation for political advantage.
The laws in the 1930s, named after Chottu Ram, recognised that the agrarian man is always a labourer, doing a job that keeps others alive, so requires protection given the uncertainty of this profession. In postcolonial India, which people like my father fought for, how hard is this to understand?
Apparently, it is very hard. Because of the larger conspiracy of silence around the agrarian sector that I explained earlier. And also, lobbies like the moneylenders, the aartiyas. They have nothing to do with cultivation, except for lending money to farmer. So why is produce sold through him, and why aren’t interest rate ceilings on loans enforced so debt doesn’t become a downward spiral? Because aartiyas are fundraisers for the political parties.
What needs to change, in Khanauri, for the dignity of the dead? Besides the acknowledgement and larger structural changes?
To start with, ambulances, mortuaries, lights and nets need to be installed, because so many bodies flow through undetected. Efforts must be made to investigate every unexplained death. They have now said that they will build a mortuary 30 kilometers away. No poor person can travel an additional 30 kilometers. The mortuary must be built right here. We need transparency and dignity. Advertise the matter in the newspapers; publish the photos of those found, before dogs disfigure them. All we are asking for is admission of and investigation into what is actually happening.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the US and South Asia.