Bhajanpuri (Bihar): The surprise hit film of 2015 was Ketan Mehta’s Dashrath, the Mountain Man, in which a villager from Gehlaur near Gaya in Bihar spends his entire life cutting a road through a mountain. If Dashrath Manjhi had tried to chisel a road through the mountain of bureaucracy in Forbesganj, he’d have simply been shot.
On June 3, 2011, four people were shot dead by the police here during a protest against the blocking of a village road by a private factory. Two were young men who were barely beyond 20 years old, one a mother of three children, and the other a ten-month-old infant.
In a video recording of the incident, you can see a young man lying in the sand, breathing; his name was Mustafa, and a few seconds in, a constable from the Home Guard, Sunil Kumar Yadav, brutally jumps on him, abusing him, again and again; a senior officer can be heard saying ‘sazaa mil gayi’ (‘he’s got his punishment’) in the background.
When you visit Mustafa’s family, his mother brings out her phone to show you a recording of the shocking incident. She keeps it with her all the time – that video capturing the last moments of her son’s life, his final breath, a constant reminder of the brutality of the state. It’s been more than four years since Mustafa’s death; his father, Mohammed Falkan Ansari still sells clay drums on the streets of Forbesganj. Their second son Anwar, who was then working as a labourer in Kashmir, is now mentally unstable; he suffers from constant migraines. The parents both take Alprozolam, an anti-anxiety pill, to sleep – a habit that set in after the killing of their only educated son.
‘Kalma padne laga woh,’ (‘he started to read the kalma’) says Ansari, now 75 years old, about the last living image of his son captured on video.
In the four years since the firing, there are still cases on against the protestors. The home guard who jumped on Mustafa as he lay dying was kept in jail for some time but has since been released and is back on duty, according to the family. The protest and the movement died down, the road they fought for was blocked again.
‘Nitish never came,’ they said, blaming the chief minister and his administration, especially the police. Nitish Kumar was in power and in an alliance with the BJP when the firing had occurred.
‘Vote nahi denge usko, lekin uski hi gathbardan ko denge,’ laments Ansari, ‘Hamari majboori hai.’ (‘We won’t vote for him but we will vote for his alliance. We don’t see any other option’). In conversation after conversation, it was almost a given fact that between the BJP, which they unanimously see as communal, and Nitish, they saw little to choose from.
The road of death
The villages of Bhajanpur and Rampur are dominated by small farmers belonging to the pasmanda, or ‘backward’, Muslim community, and are just 12 kilometres from the Nepal border. A majority of the young work as migrant labourers in Kashmir and in Chandigarh; a handful of young men drive trucks, some work in pharmacies and small shops across Forbesganj. Only one young man is a jawan in the Sashashtra Seema Bal (that is also known in Forbesganj to have fired on protestors demanding n investigation into a sexual assault case in the village of Batraha, 20 kilometres away from Bhajanpur).
In Bhajanpur, which lies only a few kilometres from Forbesganj town, land was acquired at throwaway prices decades ago – from Rs. 3,000 t0 6,000 per acre – for the creation of the Forbesganj Industrial Area. In 2010, some of that land was given to the Auro Sundaram Glucose Factory, whose owner has close links to the Bharatiya Janta Party. On June 2, 2011, a day before the firing, the residents were informed by the administration that the road that leads to the market, the karbala, and the town, would not be touched. They lied. The road was blocked and after juma prayers on June 3, a protest broke out in which people tore down portions of a wall that had been built, blocking their access to the road.
The police opened fire, killing Mustafa (18), Mukhtar Ansari (22), Naushad Ansari (10 months old) and a pregnant Shazmina Khatoon (35) violating standard operation procedures with the use of lethal ammunition targeting the upper portions of the body. The police even fired into the village; Rais Ansari (26) was shot in his face when he looked out of his window. Shazmina was shot in the head and killed. Eight year old Manjoor Ansari survived being shot in his neck but is partially paralysed. Naushad was killed when a bullet pierced his mother’s arm and struck him.
Forbesganj was only one of the many incidents related to land disputes and displacement across India that year in which the police fired onto protestors. On August 9, three people were killed in Maval, Maharashtra; in Guwahati, Assam on June 22, three were killed, Bhatta Parsaul, Uttar Pradesh, saw four killed; four were shot dead in Dhanbad, Jharkhand on April 27, one in Jaitapur, Maharashtra on April 18; in Kakkarapalli, Andhra Pradesh, three protestors were gunned down on February 28.
Yet the Forbesganj firing slowly achieved national notoriety because of the short video clip taken by local journalist Amarender Kumar. The news website Twocircles and its dedicated journalists relentlessly covered the incident and the protests which followed even though the local media – including the Urdu press – played down the story. The Bihar government would later tell the Supreme Court that was happened was ‘a small incident’, putting the entire onus of blame onto the victims themselves. Lalu Prasad and Rahul Gandhi visited the village and offered compensation and help. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and civil rights organisations such as ANHAD held protests, press conferences and small actions over the years. In 2012, under the leadership of the CPI (ML), the road the locals had been blocked from using was reopened by thousands of party volunteers and villagers. After a High Court order, it was blocked again; in its place, an alternative road was opened a hundred metres away.
In 2015, the state administration said it would give Bhajanpuri ‘adarsh’ village status – which comes with the promise of government jobs, better roads, irrigation, etc – and promised to withdraw the cases that had been slapped on the protestors in 2011.
Bullets, painkillers and the fear of greater pain
Raheena Khatoon can still barely use her right arm for any heavy work. She manages to wash the dishes and the clothes but she takes two paracetamol tablets every day to ease the pain. She recalls how her elder son refused to eat from her bandaged arm for six months after she came back home, after they lay 10-month-old ‘Sahil’ to rest (His name was Naushad, but they called him Sahil.)
Her husband Siddique was working in Rawalpora in Kashmir as a labourer when the firing happened. ‘We talk three times a day when he is away,’ said Raheena.
Siddique was released from his work without complaint when he informed his malik about what had happened in his village. The rest of the workers in the camp contributed to his travel fund and he started to make his way back home. He recalls how the Kashmiris he knew spoke about the firings that took place in their state. He reached home to find his wife in hospital, his in-laws by her side, and his son dead.
Today they speak about their loss without pain, without anger; they smile often and laugh too but there is a sense of quiet outrage within them. They play with their three children. Young Somaiya was born a year after the incident. Raheena recalls she was not aware that Sahil had been shot; the bullet that shattered her bone instantly put her into shock.
Yet 70-year-old Rafiq Ansari, Sahil’s grandfather cries when he recalls his grandson. ‘Babua chalagaya chinn’ (‘our child went away’). He is still angry that Nitish never came but says, as does the rest of the family, that they will vote for the grand alliance out of ‘majboori’.
Farooq Ali, whose pregnant wife was killed that day, says the same thing. He remarried and used the compensation money to buy a tractor – which provides him a living and helps him to educate his children.
Mukhtar’s father, Farooq Ali, whose wife also passed away a year after their son was killed, said he was voting not for Nitish but for whoever can beat the BJP. “We shall see, he says slowly, we have time to decide,” he adds.
A child makes sense of state violence
Mikhail was only four when his infant brother was shot dead and his mother nearly lost her arm. His grandparents had gone to the hospital, his father was on his way back from Kashmir, and in his first conversation with his mother over the phone, the boy, who was under the care of his neighbours, asked if everyone was dead, and if anyone was coming back.
When five-year-old Faizan is asked about his late mother Shazmina, he smiles sheepishly and replies woh mitti ke neche hai (‘she is underneath the earth’).
Thirteen-year-old Mohammad Rasool, who recovered from his injuries but was left partially paralysed, angrily told a government official who had visited him in the hospital that he will shoot back whoever shot him.
Eight-year-old Toheb, whose uncle Mustafa was shot by the police, wants to grow up to become a policeman, much to the chagrin of his grandparents, who are still fighting a murder case against the police.