Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Callous Iconography

Teesta Setalvad
While this week should have been devoted to the unfortunate verdict in the ZakiaJafri (supported by CJP) case against NarendraModi and Others, the pressing ground level reality at Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat and Meerut has compelled the writer to change gear. Over the next few weeks I shall offer the reader an analysis of the judgement of the Court.This week is dedicated to the thousands suffering in bitter cold in Western UP, in bitter cold and poor conditions, with an Appeal to India and Indians to find their heart and visit and re-visit the tragedy:-
No man’s land is the land is, under international law, land between nations or disputing parties, land under dispute, where uncertainty and ambiguity govern, land that no authority or state controls but significantly where no laws, national or others, apply. Internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially those internally and forcibly displaced by manmade tragedies, or deliberate plans of development or natural disasters are recognized as among the world’s most vulnerable people. Especially because they have not crossed over international borders but remain under the protection of their own government, even though the abdication of the fundamental duties of the government and rights of the government may be the cause of their desperate flight.
Responsibility for their welfare must and should rest with the state. However the culture of impunity prevalent in a country that has failed to book powerful state actors for their role in the prevention of perpetrated violence, i.e. their fundamental failure in governance to, without prejudice or bias, protect the lives of the poor, underprivileged as much as the politically shrill and powerful, has penetrated to blurring responsibility for the plight and conditions of IDPs.
In 2002, as 1,68,000 IDPs were forcibly and cruelly evicted from their homes by marauding mobs in Gujarat, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) supported a PIL that finally ensured that Gujarat state accepted responsibility for the rations (grains, tea, milk and sugar) been until then borne by community organisations. The action that forced them into living as cattle herd in essentially difficult conditions was made worse with the state, in a desperate hurry to “clean up” the remains of the blood and gore, wanted to rush into elections and forcibly close the camps.
Eleven years later the response of the state, under a different political dispensation, after the violence in Uttar Pradesh in the four districts of Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut and Baghpat, affected by violence is worse, not better. Faced with five petitions in the Supreme Court of India, and keen to ensure a gloss on its blemished imaged the Nine Reports filed by the Uttar Pradesh government are obfuscations of the reality on the ground. As lead petitioners in one of the cases that ahs presented significant contrary data to the Court, we have shown that the reports of the district officials contradict what the state is officially saying to the highest court of the land.
Over 33,000 persons, IDPs, forcibly displaced by the unleashed terror of a more powerful Jat community in the four districts lived until they were forcibly evicted over the past few days on open state and central government land, in sub-human conditions at bitterly cold temperatures (many of the camps are out in the open, just tents above ground that is treacherous and cold as night settles in; on days where it rains, wet bitter cold has resulted in deaths). Nineteen camps in Shamli district and two in Loi were and are testimony to gross abdication of state responsibility as food and clothing was donated generously by private donations and individuals; State presence in distribution had been limited to a fortnight except the inadequate quantities of milk that continued to come to Mallakpur relief camp until recently.
Even as the state cynically carried out these forcible evictions, 3 year oldUvez lost the struggle for his life and died in the Manna Majra camp on December 23-24 2013. In the affidavit we had filed before the Supreme Court in mid-December, we had listed the names of 23 persons, child and adult who had died in the camps because of ailments related essentially to the inhuman conditions in sub-human  temperatures. Two twin baby girls had died within hours of being born as far back as September 10, 2013 at the Jaula camp. Days before we travelled again through the camps where it is impossible to stay after 5 p.m. as wind and cold settles in, two day old Chhotu( he was not given a name) son of Manga breathed his last two days after breathing life; one day old Chhotu (he was not even given a name) son of Azad died at Phugana on November 28, 2013.A few kilometers away from the Mallakpur camp is a colony of re-settlers, displaced by a flood 30 years back. (Rathoda ,Baghpat) and Soop-Silana) but the state has seen no desire to vacate them from their irregular habitats which is now permanent home.  Both sets of IDPs had to inadvertently make homes on forest/state government land; yet the state appears to be treating the two sets of IDPs differently, why?
The biting thought that kept creeping up to me as we witnesses state denial and callousness over these deaths, was the question, which was worse? Deaths by the perpetrated mob violence (over 80 dead and a few dozen missing) or those deaths that were avoidable and took place under the state’s redoubled watch as our own people live in abysmal conditions as IDPs? Do we as Indians even care?
The vile statements of Gujarat scion Modi, “Relief Camps are Babymaking factories” have become iconic of state abdication and cruelty. (The speech made by him on September 9, 2002 at the temple town at Becharaji in Mehsana was the launching pad of his GauravYatra and 2002 election campaign). Today, MulayamsinghYadav’s sickening “those in relief camps are Congress and BJP workers” and his chief secretary claiming “No one dies of cold; go check Siberia” have joined this merciless iconography. Finally pushed by outraged criticism, the UP government was compelled, 3 days after Yadav’s outrageous comments, through the findings of a government committee, to admit that 34 deaths had indeed taken place  in the relief camps between September 7 and December 20.
Our plea in the petition is that the Supreme Court appoints a Court Commission (just like at the time of the Right to Food Petition) to ensure regular and impartial monitoring of the ground situation with feed back to the Court. Of the 436 FIRs filed, little action has been taken against accused. Powerful accused with allegiance to the BJP, SangeetSom have not just been released on bail but were felicitated at Agra with the PM in waiting in tow. Chilling accounts of gendered violence, brutal, on 19 girls and women await legal and judicial note and redressal.
Responsibility for the protection of fundamental rights (right to life, property and protection before the law) under the Indian Constitutional scheme lies not just with the state government, but ultimately also with the Centre.The abdication in the case of what has come to be names as the Muzaffarnagarviolence, must and does also lie with the Centre. At least as far as the IDPs are concerned what stopped the Centre from using the Army to ensure that our own people, little babies and pregnant women (there are over 100 in the camps) are well fed, clothed and protected from the cold? The same obduration that, across party lines has little respect for human lives.
It is this bitter reality that impelled a mass movement in this country to demand the enactment of a law that fixes responsibility for perpetrated and mass communal violence and humane rehabilitation - the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Right to Justice and Reparations) Bill. Strident opponents of the bill, including those forces that have benefitted most from communal polarization, apart from using their rank and file in acts of violence, have so far succeeded in brazenly bullying the Centre from even tabling the proposed law for sane discussion. It remains to be seen if this UPA II government, floundering and weak, will have the will to keep a promise made through the Common Minimum Programme in 2004.


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