Mumbai: The 29 people who were arrested at Aarey colony on October 4 for protesting against the cutting of over 2,500 trees have accused the police of assault and misbehaviour. All 29 had gathered at the Mumbai Press Club, where they individually narrated their experiences of the night at Aarey.
Pramila Bhoir, an Aarey resident, was one of the first ones to have reached the spot on October 4. “I live in Aarey and have been actively involved in the agitation against the Aarey destruction. When we found out that the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL) officials had reached Aarey, I had gone there to see if there was a way to stop this. The destruction was not just of the trees that were fell but also of those several wild animals, innumerable birds and the Adivasi lives that are directly connected to the trees. This metro project will kill them all,” Bhoir said.
She alleged that the police roughed her up, shoved her to the ground and detained her even when she was sitting at one corner singing protest songs. “They had rounded us up from all sides and arrested us unprovoked. Male police were deployed to handle women protesters, who inappropriately touched and pushed women into the police van,” she said.
Among those arrested, some were local residents, some students, a few professionals working at private firms, some were teachers and a few land right activists. Many of them were coming in contact with the police for the first time and claimed the experience has left them completely shaken.
“The state has failed to distinguish between rioters and peaceful protesters. We had assembled at Aarey to peacefully register our protest against the environment destruction that was taking place in the city. But we were all treated like hardened criminals, shoved, pushed and beaten up,” said Kapildeep Agarwal, a law student from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Agarwal, one of the arrested persons, has been researching on the environment laws in Aarey.
Among those arrested, five were women. Each of them had stories of assault and abuses inflicted on them by both male and female police. Shruti Nair, a city-based entrepreneur who was at the protest site, said, “I was manhandled by a senior police officer at the police station, which gave me a bruise on my cheek. There were many assaults by deputy commissioner of police (Zone X11) D.S. Swami at Aarey.”
The protesters have demanded an independent inquiry to be conducted against the police.
There were around 150 protesters who were detained but only 29 were identified and arrested. “How did the police think only 29 of us should be booked and leave the rest. The police had their intent clear. They wanted to target students and others who have been actively participating in protests and challenging the state,” said a protester.
All 29 were booked under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Section 353 for allegedly assaulting and obstructing public servants from discharging their duty.
On October 4, the Bombay high court had rejected two petitions pertaining to Aarey trees and refused to declare Aarey as a forest area. It also declined to quash a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decision allowing the felling of over 2,600 trees in the suburban green zone for a metro car shed. MMRCL has been demanding this land in the suburban green zone for a metro car shed. Protesters have been demanding that the metro car shed be built away from the forest region, since this is perhaps the last standing green zone in the city.
Within hours, the MMRCL, amid heavy police deployment, reached Aarey colony and began felling trees. The police had invoked Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code which prevents the assembly of more than four persons at a spot.
The news of mass tree felling went viral on social media and environment lovers from across Mumbai and outside had gathered at Aarey to oppose the state’s decision. Shashi Sonawane, an activist from Palghar, had travelled to be there at the tree felling site. “We have been actively protesting the state’s decision to acquire land for bullet train in Palghar. Everywhere the state has been snatching lands and destroying the environment. Look at the irony here. The state claims to be doing its duty here of cutting trees and we were allegedly obstructing them by asking them to not cut the forest,” Sonawane said.
All 29 were released after spending a day in the jail.
On October 6, a group of law students wrote to Chief Justice of India Rajan Gogoi seeking his immediate intervention. The students said they were forced to approach the Supreme Court because the Bombay high court rejected an application moved by environmentalists seeking a stay on the cutting of trees until the matter is head before the Supreme Court.
A special bench was constituted and the Supreme Court has ordered that no more trees be cut in Mumbai’s Aarey forest until October 21, when it will hear a plea against the government’s decision to clear the area for a metro car shed. Rishav Ranjan, one of the law students who wrote the letter to the CJI, was present at the press conference. He said, “We will be taking up all the missing points from the earlier petitions and build our case before the apex court.”
By the time the Supreme Court had intervened in the matter, the MMRCL had cut most trees. Amrita Bhattacharjee, one of the petitioners and activists who has been at the forefront of this protest for the last four years said, “While a lot has been destroyed, the Supreme Court’s intervention still is crucial at this point. One, this area can still be preserved. Second, our other pending petitions before the Supreme Court which haven’t come for a hearing for a long time will be looked into with priority. Aarey is no more a local agitation. It has taken shape of a national movement now and we are only hoping that the Supreme Court looks into all issues closely.”