“Then I realised what the cries were. They were not war cries. They were cries of desperation. They were cries of hope. They were cries of solidarity giving some strength to the people whose houses were being demolished…”
I went to the Rani Dighi Patal area the first time in February 2013. The occasion was Mahashivaratri. The name of the area comes from a pond once owned by the royal family of Pakur. Rani is “queen”; dighi is “long”, because the pond is more long than wide; patal is “pond”. The royal family of Pakur was an ally of the British and was instrumental in getting the Santhal rebels of 1855, brothers Sido and Kanhu Murmu, captured. In the mixed-up world of India, though, they were almost worshipped by the locals. Rani Jyotirmoyee Devi – after whom the pond is named – was the last in the line. She was elected to parliament in 1952 and 1957, and even served as the health minister of Bihar. She died in the 1970s, soon after the government abolished the privy purses of the royals, and acquired much of their land.
At that time, the area around Rani Dighi Patal was a desolate wilderness. People who lived nearby went to defecate in the area around Rani Dighi Patal, but the place was so deserted that they went there only in the mornings. No one dared to go there after sunset. Gradually, towards the end of the 1970s, the area around the Rani Dighi Patal started seeing the arrival of settlers. No one purchased land here, for – technically – the land belonged to the government. To speak clearly and legally, the land was encroached upon and the settlers there were squatters.
Years passed. “Pakaur” became “Pakur”, and, in 1994, was separated from the Sahebganj district and made a separate district. In 2000, Jharkhand was separated from Bihar; Pakur, today, is one of the 24 districts of Jharkhand.
In all this time, the encroachment around the Rani Dighi Patal grew. From just a few mud houses around the scenic pond, the settlement had grown to include some brick-and-concrete houses as well. A total area of 52 bighas – including the pond – had turned into a dense settlement of about 212 houses, the population being about 1,200, perhaps more than that. When I first went to that area, I saw a settlement as huge as a village – a considerable part of the entire Pakur town. There was a tarred road running through the settlement. There were electricity pylons providing power. There was also a pipeline set up by the municipality, supplying water from deep boring. The place and the people there were so well-settled that it was hard to believe that none of them officially owned any land.
There is a Baba Tarakeshwar Nath mandir there, and the residents of that area, after the puja at the mandir, organised a communal bhoj of the prasad: khichdi. Most the residents of the Rani Dighi Patal area were Hindus. There were a few upper-caste families, but most were Harijans – I would rather say “Dalits”, but “Harijan” was what I heard from the people I spoke to there, so I am using the term “Harijan” – and some thirty Muslim families. The upper-caste Hindu families were, mostly, with jobs, with money. The Harijans and Muslims were, mostly, daily wage earners. The men of the Harijan families did odd jobs, while the women of the Harijan families worked as domestic helpers in other people’s houses in more affluent areas like the neighbouring Rajapara and Tantipara areas. The men of the Muslim families pulled cycle-rickshaws, while in both the Harijan and Muslim families, the women supplemented their income by tying beedi. In Pakur, beedi-making is a huge business.
I, along with another doctor colleague of mine, had been invited to partake of the Mahashivaratri prasad by “Bada Babu,” the head clerk of our office. He is a Kurmi, a portly man, shrewd – like all bada babus are supposed to be, and jolly – very much into risqué jokes and having a good time with food and drinks. Bada Babu’s family had been living in the Rani Dighi Patal area since the 1970s. At that time, not much encroachment had taken place, so Bada Babu’s mausa ji – the husband of the younger sister of our Bada Babu’s mother – had grabbed a very prime location, just next to the pond and just a few feet away from the mandir. Mausa Ji was childless, so he adopted Bada Babu as his legal heir. Mausa Ji used to work as a clerk in a sarkari office in Pakur. After his death, while he was still in service, on compassionate grounds, Bada Babu was given the job of a clerk in our office. In the early 2000s, Bada Babu converted his Mausa Ji’s humble mud house into a brick-and-concrete house – a very fine structure with three rooms, a central hall, a kitchen, a bathroom, a garden at the rear that opened straight into the pond, and also a little outhouse. For water supply, there was a well in the garden. However, there was one strange thing I noticed in Bada Babu’s house. It did not have a concrete roof. What is it called in Hindi? – yes, chhat-dhalai. The chhat-dhalai had not been done. The roof was asbestos.
“Bada Babu,” I asked him one day. “How do you manage to live under an asbestos roof in summer? Doesn’t the heat become unbearable?”
“We don’t worry, sir,” Bada Babu said nonchalantly, with a smile, as if he were joking. “We are simple people, not officers like you. We can live in any situation. Whether heat or cold.”
We laughed. And quite true, although the roof was asbestos, there were a lot of trees in the rear garden of Bada Babu’s house. There were two mango trees – one very huge one that seemed to cover the entire roof of the house. So, I assumed, the house did not get that hot during the summers. Also, the beautiful Rani Dighi Patal pond was just next door. How lucky Bada Babu was, I thought, to be living just next to such a huge and beautiful pond.
Nearly too late
On my first visit to the Rani Dighi Patal area, the evening of the Mahashivaratri bhoj in February 2013, I had a ‘B-shift’ – the 2 pm to 8 pm shift – at the Sadar Hospital of Pakur which, all thanks to the higher officers of the district, has been built seven kilometres outside the town. Until about 7.30 pm, there was absolutely no patient traffic. Then, just at 7.30 pm, patients started milling in. I was annoyed. My evening was spoilt and my dinner – the prasad – was gone, I thought. Now I had to spend money and eat at a restaurant. The doctor of the night shift came at 7.45 pm sharp. We worked together, but I was not able to leave the hospital before 8.20 pm. In between, I kept on getting calls from Bada Babu.
“Aa rahe hain na, Sir?” he asked. (“You’re coming, aren’t you, Sir?”)
“Haan, haan,” I replied, my phone pressed between my ear and shoulder, as I wrote the details of my patients in the bed-head ticket. “Thoda busy ho gaye hain. Late se ayenge, lekin ayenge zaroor.” (“Yes, yes. I’ve gotten a bit busy. I’ll be late, but I’ll come for sure.”)
“Theek hai,” Bada Babu said. “I shall wait for you near the mandir.”
Bada Babu had given me directions to his house – for it was my first foray into that area – but there was one vital thing he had forgotten to tell me. When I reached the Tarakeshwar Nath mandir, it was shining with disco batti. There were huge red pennants flying around the temple. It didn’t seem like it was around 8.50 pm. The place was illuminated with tube lights and flood lights. Loudspeakers placed near the mandir were playing some song – I don’t remember which one.
Instead of looking around, or even stopping my motorcycle for a moment, I just rode ahead, through the crowd, on the pucca road towards the mandir.
People started screaming. I braked. Someone put his hand on my rearview mirror.
I was so scared I nearly fell off my motorcycle. What had I done now? In the mid-February cold, I began sweating.
Then I realised. I had driven my motorcycle right into the space where the devotees had settled down and were having their prasad. The space was the road, and the devotees had settled right there on the road, one row on each side of the road. There was barely any space on the road for vehicles to pass. Forget a motorcycle, even a bicycle couldn’t pass through that space. There was just enough space for young men, with buckets of khichdi and sabji in their hands, tiptoeing through the crowd, barefoot, serving the food. And, in that sacred and congested space, I had dared to drive in on my motorcycle!
And this was the vital thing – that people have their prasad sitting there on the road – Bada Babu had forgotten to tell me.
I stopped and I felt like crying, I felt so helpless.
“Who is this man?”
“What is he doing?”
“Doesn’t he see people are sitting here?”
I was sure that I had run my motorcycle upon some people’s plates of prasad and I would be given a nice thrashing. I was scared, I was indignant. You people have your meals sitting on a road? – I wanted to ask. But I realised that this was Jharkhand, and this was Pakur, and anything is possible here. If people can chop vegetables and take a bath sitting on a road, what would stop them from having prasad on a road? Wasn’t it a festival day? And, during weddings and huge festivals like the Durga Puja, aren’t entire two-lane roads blocked for days, forcing people to use longer diversions? Yet, no one complains. This is our society. And I had just done something terribly anti-social. I braced myself to get beaten up, when I heard someone shout from somewhere behind me.
“Wait! Wait! Stop! Stop! One minute.”
Har har Mahadev! I thanked my stars. It was Bada Babu!
He held the rear of motorcycle and started pulling it backwards.
“Sir,” he told me gently. “You keep the handle straight.”
I did as he said.
“Arre, rasta ta chhad,” Bada Babu – fluent in Hindi, Magahi, Bhojpuri, Khortha, the Malda-Murshidabad type of Bengali, and also Santhali – shouted at a few young men around us. “Why are you crowding the place?”
Bada Babu was certainly someone in this area – a well-known and respected figure. For, as soon as he began helping me out of that murk I had driven myself into, the crowd became silent and started giving us space.
Obviously, there was no way I could take the motorcycle through the crowd up to Bada Babu’s house, so he parked it a little away from the road, in a plain, safe place. Then he literally took me in his huge arms – I was shivering so badly, despite a Benetton sweatshirt and a helmet upon me! – and took me to his house.
There, my colleague, as portly as Bada Babu, wearing his funny zebra-striped sweater, was already standing outside Bada Babu’s house, alarmed by the commotion and as sure as I had been that I would be thrashed up nicely. When Bada Babu brought me safe and sound to his house, both fat men nearly rolled around on the ground laughing. They just wouldn’t stop laughing. They would look at me and start laughing again. They held each other and laughed. My colleague plopped down on the smooth grass outside Bada Babu’s house and laughed, rolling on the ground, looking like a giant zebra-man in the bright, almost surreal lights thrown by the floodlights and the tubelights. It took them nearly ten minutes to compose themselves; even after that, they broke into random chuckles. I removed my helmet and was relieved that I had it on during the mishap – at least, the people on the road had not been able to see my face!
Post-Mahashivaratri 2013, I went to Bada Babu’s house on several occasions. Sometimes, I went alone, mostly on Saturdays, when he invited me to have khichdi with him. Bada Babu’s family ate only khichdi on Saturdays and he asked his wife to make extra for I would be eating too. Bada Babu’s personal Saturday khichdi would be an elaborate affair, not the simple type we had on that Mahashivaratri or otherwise. Bada Babu’s appetite and propensity to entertain guests were as huge as his paunch and rump. His lunches and dinners were XL. So, there would be the khichdi, cooked to perfection, topped with huge balls of ghee. (My mouth is watering as I write this.) Then, there would be the aloo-chokha—boiled potatoes, mashed with salt, and slightly sautéed in mustard oil with slices of onion and chillies, with sprinklings of turmeric and spices tossed in. Bada Babu is a huge fan of chillies and everything sharp. Then there would be a bhujia, usually of brinjal – long slices of brinjal deeply fried in mustard oil – a total health hazard but delicious, like heaven. Then there would be papad, pickles, and Navy Cuts after we were done.
A whiff of things to come
When, sitting at that tea stall opposite our office on the morning of Monday, May 23, 2016, I heard that the houses at the Rani Dighi Patal were being demolished, my first thought was: “What about Bada Babu’s house?” Our ambulance driver called me on my mobile phone.
“Hello, Sir. Civil Surgeon Sir has asked us to go to the Rani Dighi Patal area in the medical team. Please collect some medicines and the first-aid box. I am coming to pick you up.”
“Is the situation there that bad?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Sir,” the driver said. “Even I am surprised. I have never been to a demolition site on medical team duty. We’ll know only when we reach there.”
I prayed all the way to Rani Dighi Patal. Three years ago, I had, unknowingly, almost driven my motorcycle onto the plates of the people eating there. Today, bulldozers were openly being driven into the houses of those people.
There were policemen and policewomen everywhere – around 500 of them. Some were regular police personnel, wearing their khaki uniform, with batons and shields. Others were from the Indian Reserve Battalion, in their forest print fatigues, with guns. I could count three bulldozers. One policeman, holding a megaphone, was announcing: “Please move away.” But nobody seemed to be listening. Those whose houses were being razed down were staying away, guarding their belongings now out in the open. But the tamasha-mongers were crowding the scene. My driver stopped on the road, wondering what to do.
“Sir, you keep your gadi here only,” a young and handsome policeman, in a uniform that fit his body in an attractive way, came and told me. “There is no space to park vehicles in the Rani Dighi Patal area. Even our vehicles have been parked far away, in the Rajapara area.”
“How sweet!” I thought. “Such a helpful policeman! Since when did the Jharkhand police become so good?” Then I recalled that he was one of the policemen to whom I had prescribed some medicines when I had been deputed to the police line. There is such a dearth of government doctors in Jharkhand, that the home department has to borrow doctors from the health department for its jails and police line.
I got down from the ambulance and walked towards Rani Dighi Patal area. And there it was – Bada Babu’s house, its doors and windows gone, Bada Babu’s household goods placed on the space before his house, where my colleague had stood alarmed, three years ago, fearing that I had certainly been beaten up. I couldn’t see Bada Babu anywhere. The moment I stepped in, two men, using an iron rod each, ripped a door off its hinges. There was dust everywhere. Places where I remembered there used to be beds, chairs, tables, utensils, TV – were all bare. Places where we used to sit, and eat, and drink – all those places looked ravished, different, a far cry from the happy moments I had spent in that house.
I saw Bada Babu’s wife – she was hassled, wearing a nightie, instructing the men in the house to do this and that – though I couldn’t see Bada Babu.
“Bhabhi Ji,” I asked Bada Babu’s wife, “Where is Bada Babu?”
“There,” she pointed towards the garden at the rear. Then she asked, harried, as if afraid some other mishap had befallen them, “Why? Is there something to do?”
“No, no,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “I was just wondering.”
Bada Babu’s wife busied herself with vacating the house, and I caught sight of Bada Babu. He was hanging from the grille, on the garden side, trying to untangle an electric cord. While Bada Babu’s wife looked agitated, he was a picture of composure. His face was sweaty as he tried to loosen the several whorls the cable had made around the grille. I went to him and helped him untangle the cord. But he did not see me. Perhaps he did; he just did not acknowledge me. After untangling the entire length of the cord, he came inside the now nearly empty house, rolled the cord around his arm, went outside, and threw the cord among his belongings. As he went outside, he passed me by, but he still did not look at me or talk to me. I followed him out. He quickly went inside again and came out holding the wash basin in his arms. After placing the wash basin with his belongings, he started shouting instructions to the boys to rip off the windows. They used the same procedure. They placed the iron rods beneath the hinges and gave a strong tug. The windows came off.
It was difficult to see that house coming apart. I started walking towards our ambulance. As I turned to leave, my gaze strayed to the roof of Bada Babu’s house. The asbestos sheets were still there. Those hadn’t been taken off. Now, after all this time, I understood why Bada Babu – as well as everyone else in the Rani Dighi Patal area – had had no concrete roofs on their houses. They knew that the land they had built their houses on was not their own land. Building the roof is an investment no sane house owner would make on land he doesn’t own, land he doesn’t have papers for. Bada Babu spent almost a decade of his life in a house that he had built on land he had squatted upon, in a house with asbestos sheets as the roof. Yet he did not talk about it.
As I turned towards the Tantipara main road, where our ambulance was parked, a bulldozer was preparing to raze a mud house close to Bada Babu’s house. It was a big house. A mud house, but a big house, nevertheless. The house had been emptied. It used to have clay tiles on its roof, all of which had been removed and placed in orderly stacks some distance away from the house. Only a skeleton of hefty wooden rafters remained where the roof used to be. The tamasha-mongers, comprising of young men and boys, had gathered around the house even as one policeman screamed his lungs out in the megaphone – “Door hat jaiyye! Ap sab door hat jaiyye!” – while some other policemen tried to push the crowd back, away from the site of the demolition.
Passing by the crowd, I thought of the owners of that house. Were they around? Were they witnessing this demolition? They certainly must be around. It was their house, after all. All their belongings – cots, chairs, mattresses, kanthas, kitchen utensils, buckets, mugs, TV – everything was out there under the open sky, before the eyes of the hundreds of people gathered there. The entire life of the owners of that mud house was there on full display.
“Jai Shri Ram!”
I was shocked. I stopped in my tracks and turned around.
“Jai Bajrang Bali!”
The bulldozer driver reversed and approached the wall again.
“Har Har Mahadev!”
The wall gave away, but the rafters remained.
I couldn’t believe that the tamasha-mongering crowd there was actually shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, “Jai Bajrang Bali” and “Har Har Mahadev”. What were they demolishing? The Babri Masjid? The house that was being demolished had also belonged to Hindus. So why these war cries?
Then I realised what the cries were. They were not war cries. They were cries of desperation. They were cries of hope. They were cries of solidarity giving some strength to the people whose houses were being demolished.
I saw friends of that family climb on half-demolished walls and retrieve the wooden rafters that they had been unable to remove earlier. An attack by the bulldozer had loosened those rafters so it was easy to take them off. After taking the rafters off, the men got off the wall and signalled to the bulldozer driver to demolish the wall.
As the bulldozer moved forward to demolish another wall of that mud house, the crowd – and even the friends, perhaps family, of that house – shouted “Jai Shri Ram”. They were simple people. Uneducated. Illiterate, too, perhaps. That was all they knew – the names of their gods: Shri Ram, Bajrang Bali, Mahadev. They did not use the names of their gods as some war cry. They did not shout the names of their gods because they were going to attack an enemy. They shouted the names of their gods so that they might find some kind of strength, some kind of a consolation, during that difficult time in their lives. The names of their gods were intended to shield them – as much as possible – from the attack that was being made upon them.
As I settled into the front passenger seat of the ambulance, one thing surprised me: the people whose houses were being demolished were not protesting. There was no resistance from the people at all. In fact, at times, it seemed as if the administration – come to demolish this settlement – was being cheered.
The question remained: Why were people not resisting? What was the reason? What was the secret?
I spoke to the men and women of the Tantipara area where our ambulance was parked. Though the area is called Tantipara – the place where people of the Hindu weaver caste Tanti live – the people I spoke to were of the Hindu blacksmith caste Lohar. They write their surname Karmakar. From what I came to know from the Karmakars, the people in the Rani Dighi Patal area were already aware of something like this happening. This eviction, this demolition, was long overdue. Perhaps for ten years or so.
Nearly four decades after this basti around the Rani Dighi Patal pond was established, the government, all of a sudden, realised that this land belonged to it and not to the people who were living on it. It started sending notices to the district administration to get the squatters evicted and use the land reclaimed to beautify the area. Pakur is also a sub-division, and the sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Pakur is the authority responsible for carrying out such evictions. Every time a new SDO came to Pakur, he got orders to get the area cleared, and, somehow, the order was overlooked, the eviction was postponed to some other time.
It surprised me no end when it was revealed to me in the office that even our Bada Babu was involved in the netagiri. He had stood as a leader of the squatters and had convinced the people that they wouldn’t be evicted. I also came to know that Bada Babu had already purchased property on the outskirts of Pakur. That is, notwithstanding the precarious situation of the people he claimed to represent, Bada Babu had, silently, made himself safe.
People who could lead the protest were the well-to-do ones, the people like Bada Babu. And all these people had already got a whiff of the things to come. So, like Bada Babu, they too purchased legal properties elsewhere and, while there was still time, they shifted out of their impermanent dwellings in the Rani Dighi Patal area, dwellings built on land that they did not legally own. The policemen didn’t have to announce anything on their megaphone before the bulldozers razed down such houses. Those houses had already been vacated. The only people who were left were the property-less, the truly homeless – Harijans and Muslims – those who worked as daily wage earners and as domestic helpers and cycle-rickshaw pullers. They had nowhere to go; they did not own permanent, legally registered properties. Their leaders had failed them. No one advised them to protest. No one advised them to fight back. No one advised them to lie down before the bulldozers. They had no other option but to stay back, with hope still in their hearts that everything would be fine. Nothing turned out fine. Their houses were demolished.
So why did our Bada Babu stay back? Why didn’t he too – for he owned legal land elsewhere – move away while there was still time? That is because he was like a leader to these people. His moving out – in fact, his speaking the blunt, bitter, and severely discouraging truth to the people who saw him as a hero – would have damaged his clout. So, Bada Babu behaved like a good role model; like his followers, the people who couldn’t go anywhere else, he stayed back, choosing to vacate his illegal house only when the bulldozers came right at his doorstep.
It was an odd scene. The victims of demolition were narrating their sorrows to anyone who cared to listen – even the police. And the police were, surprisingly, so kind that they were actually listening and commiserating.
“What can be done now?” was what, with a look of sympathy, most policemen had to tell the squatters who were telling them their sad stories. They spoke those apparently kind words. They did not ‘lathicharge’, tear gas – though available – was not used at all, and the police were kind. Ample proof that if the government screws the people, it does so with utmost care – with ample amount of lignocaine jelly or other suitable lubrication.
It was well past noon when Bada Babu’s house was demolished. Bada Babu’s house was as tenacious as him. It did not give way that easily. The bulldozer struck it once, then twice, and then the asbestos roof started falling. When the bulldozer hit the house the fourth time, I saw the mango tree above it shaking. Did the mangoes fall? I couldn’t see that. All I could think of were those days I spent in that house.
Bada Babu was nowhere to be seen while his house was being demolished. What was he feeling at that time? Ignominy? Indignation? Inevitability? That this had to happen, eventually? What?
I cannot say. Bada Babu, no matter what others might think of him, had been good to me – that was, perhaps, why what first came to my mind when I heard of the demolition was ‘Bada Babu’s house’ – and I hear from people he trusts that he is disturbed. Though it was a sorry scene in the Rani Dighi Patal area on May 23, 2016, the only house that really broke my heart as it was being destroyed was Bada Babu’s house. I have so many questions on my mind, but I am afraid I will never be able to ask Bada Babu any of them.
It has been more than two weeks since the demolition, and I have seen Bada Babu only three times in all this time – we have had short, formal talks, each a minute or two long, and each time he was as calm as he had been on the day his house was demolished.