Cities & Architecture

Road Closed, Ahead and Behind, for this Village in Maharashtra

Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

Villagers gathered outside the entrance to the College of Military Engineering on May 21. Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

Pune: On the morning of May 21, Balika Phulawane of Bopkhel, an urban village on the outskirts of Pune, dropped by the entrance of the College of Military Engineering (CME). She was there to show her support for fellow villagers who were sitting on a dharna asking the government to reopen the road running through the college, which sits at one end of the village, thus saving villagers a 15-km diversion in getting to nearby Dapodi and then Pune.

Phulawane was aghast as she watched the strike turn into a battlefield. More than a hundred policemen, shielded behind barricades, attacked the protesters with sticks and broke open tear-gas canisters to disperse them. The villagers in turn began to randomly pelt stones, which struck the police as well as uninvolved locals.

Phulawane, a 30-years-old widow and a mother of three who works as a cleaner at a call centre, hid behind a tree near a temple in front of the CME gate. A policeman asked her to take cover in a police van parked inside the college; she climbed into the van, where other women from the village were also sheltering.

Other police vehicles were parked inside the campus, and the police began to drag over men, some of them injured and bleeding from the lathicharge. According to villagers, some policemen also broke into nearby houses and seized men at random.

Overall, the police detained 189 villagers, including 74 women and 13 children, and drove them to Bhosari police station, 15 kms away. Balika Phulawane was one of them.

Why the strike was called

Bopkhel, with its population of 21,000, is surrounded by defence land on three sides and the Mula River on the fourth. Two roads link Bopkhel to the city: one through the CME to Dapodi, and another to the Pune-Alandi road near Dighi. After a High Court directive that no road could be allowed through defence land, authorities closed the road through CME on May 13 – denying access that village residents had had for the past 60 years.

Route map from Bopkhel to  Dapodi now that villagers have lost the right to cross the CME on foot. Credit: Google Maps

Route map from Bopkhel to Dapodi now that villagers have lost the right to cross the CME on foot. Credit: Google Maps

Bopkhel itself resembles a large slum, with narrow alleys running between houses no larger than 100-200 square feet. Half of its residents work as housekeepers, security guards, gardeners, or on construction sites in the city– daily wage-work that earns them Rs.100 or 200 a day. The road through the CME was barely a kilometre long, and most residents preferred to walk. With the road closed, they faced a 15-km commute – at a cost of an extra Rs.40 each way – to reach Dapodi by private transport, as public transport on that route is infrequent.

On May 21, around 2,500 villagers gathered at the CME gate to strike for the reopening of the road. Within an hour, the police conveyed to villagers the message of the Commissioner, Rajeev Jadhav, that the road would not be opened. Meanwhile, police battalions assembled.

“Once we came to know the fact, we decided to do a Jail Bharo Andolan, voluntarily getting ourselves arrested in order to fill the jails,” said Srirang Dhodade, who led the strike. Events took a different turn, however, leading to a  lathi-charge and the defiant protesters pelting stones. The peaceful strike suddenly turned into a riot-like situation.

Residents described people bleeding, falling and running in disorder everywhere. “I saw the police thrashing people till they were bleeding,” said Laxmi Parit, 52, from Bopkhel. “They dragged injured people out carelessly and threw them into the vans. I have never experienced such violence in the whole of my life.” Parit was caught in a stampede of protesters and onlookers, and says she woke up in a hospital that evening.

The streets after the strike. Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

The scene after the May 21 protest. Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

On a rainy afternoon on June 21, Neeta Jadhav struggles to sit up on a bed in her tiny tinwalled house. Her husband Ashok helps her up. Jadhav is 35 but frail, wearing a gown and with her left hand in a sling. “I don’t know why I went to get my husband home safely when I heard the police and protesters went berserk,” she said.“I fell and people ran over me.” She was taken to hospital as well, and doctors placed a rod in her fractured shoulder bone.Ashok struggled to pay the hospital bill of Rs.20,000, and has to manage family and work all alone.

Another victim, a domestic worker who was only discharged from hospital on June 17, nearly a month later, needs support to sit or to stand and will not be able to work for at least six months.

Arun Sarode, 40, sits in a plastic chair in his hall-cum-kitchen looking down at legs that are swollen and scarred. He says he watched the strike through the window of a public toilet. “Police entered the toilet and trashed everybody over there,” he said.“They beat my legs so badly that I am still bed-ridden.”

Days of police custody

The CME gate at Bopkhel where the strike was called. Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

The CME gate at Bopkhel where the dharna was called. Credit: Varsha Torgalkar

Those arrested at Bopkhel spent an anxious day in the Bhosari PS before the police started processing them.They took everyone’s jewellery, accessories and mobiles, and broke the women’s glass bangles. Everyone was photographed and transported to the Sahyadri, YCM and Khadaki hospitals for medical checkups. They say they were later made to sign documents with unknown contents.

The Bopkhel protesters  were eventually told that they had been charged under Indian Penal Code 143, 147, 149, 353, 324, 325, 326, 332, 333, 343 and 120 B – for unlawful assembly, rioting, and being armed with a deadly weapon. Late in the night, they were transported to Yerwada Jail, a high security prison, where they were lodged in different barracks in the morning of May 22.

Poonam Barate, a mother of two, was horrified to find herself sharing a barrack with female inmates jailed for serious crimes like murder or assault. Back in her house at Bopkhel, she recounts the upheavals she and the 73 other women went through during their six-day custody. “Prisoners used to shout at us for no reason, lady wardens treated us inhumanely. We had to go through routine physical checkups that required us to strip completely. By the time we could go to bathe or to the toilet, all the water was finished. It was humiliation.” Mothers had no idea how their kids were managing. The wardens denied sanitary napkins to one girl who was menstruating heavily due to shock.

Long road to court

Meanwhile in Bopkhel, on May 22, the police imposed a curfew and made sure local shops and stalls remain closed. Nobody opened their doors, except those whose family members had been jailed. As some residents said, the village was in mourning. Every fourth household had had somebody hurt or jailed. Few of them knew they needed to find a lawyer to bail out those arrested.

Finally, state lawyers were appointed who applied for bail at the sessions court in Shivajinagar. Bail orders were passed on May 25.

According to CD Bhosale, senior police inspector at Bhosari PS, “The high court awarded the decision and they [the villagers] should have filed an affidavit in the court. Neither police nor CME can open the road against the High Court decision.”

He defends the police action against the protesters. “The crowd that gathered at the gate were people hired by Dhodade, who is a village goon, and they pelted stones in which 15 police including I got injured.”

Balika Phulawane, who was in jail for six days, was fired when she rejoined office the next day. “I had to beg to save my job,” she says. “Though they have kept me on, they still can remove me on a whim.” Many daily-wage labourers were not so lucky, and had to find new employment or else are still searching. Sarita Jadhav (name changed), a student in her twenties, has not been back to college and still shakes at the memory of jail. All of them have to fight the case and attend court on the dates that they are summoned. All of them take the new route out of their village, 15 kilometers longer and many times harder than before.