An example of decreasing space for expressing dissent in Gujarat: Farmers barred from protesting against Dholera SIR

sirBy Sagar Rabari*

The story of farmers agitating against the proposed Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR) in Gujarat is, by now, well known. The land that they received under the Tenancy Act, Ceiling Act and santhani does not appear under their names in the revenue record. On January 3, 2014, during the environmental public hearing (EPH) of DSIR at Dholera, the collector had promised to hold land kacheris in all the villages which come under DSIR area and promulgate revenue records within a month’s time. That promise, after 22 months, is yet to be fulfilled. Around 100 farmers have planned a foot march from village Bawaliyari to Ahmedabad from October 29 to November 3 to remind the collector of his promise to the people.

On October 14, 2015 the Khedut Samaj – Gujarat wrote a letter to the Police Commissioner of Ahmedabad City and the Superintendent of Police (SP), Ahmedabad Rural, seeking permission take out a footmarch (padyatra) from village Bawaliyari (in Dholera taluka of Ahmedabad district) to the Collector office in Ahmedabad. Two days after this, on October 16, 2015, the Bhavnagar edition of “Gujarat Samachar” (a Gujarati language daily) carried the news item, “Meetings/rallies in Ahmedabad district banned”. It says: “the Additional District Magistrate has ordered a ban on any meetings of more than 4 persons on roads, footpaths, lanes and by-lanes, on rallies and demonstrations in all areas of Ahmedabad district outside the jurisdiction of Ahmedabad city police Commissioner”.

Section 144 is always in operation, in most areas of Gujarat, on some pretext or the other. In Gujarat, since the last 15 years, social activists have been finding it increasingly difficult to organize public meetings, rallies, demonstrations or even a simple gathering to submit memoranda to public officials. It is nearly impossible for ordinary people, the “victims of state-sponsored development”, to voice their difficulties and grievances. What does the above mentioned news item imply? If the farmers of Dholera are to lose their land, then so be it. If they lose their livelihoods, so be it. However, they must not raise their voice in protest. All rights granted to citizens under Section 21 of the Constitution are suspended in Gujarat. Is Gujarat a different nation? Has it ceased to be a state of the Union of India? How come people in India do not even know of this reality, the fact that Gujarat is reeling under a state of undeclared emergency?

In Gujarat, the administration can cancel permissions granted for public meetings at the last minute. If your protest is non-violent, you stand to be detained, arrested and face numerous legal cases.

On the other hand, if you belong to a dominant class/caste, if you have political and economic might, then the Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation (GMDC) ground may be given to you for a token rent of Re 1 instead of regular rent of Rs 7.5 lakh, the toll taxes will be waived for you. Even your inflammatory speeches will be condoned. It seems the government considers it as development of language! Hold rally/ public meetings without permission as many as you wish!

After social injustice, economic disparities and suspension of human rights amidst the propaganda of ‘development’ are nowhere under discussion. The enlightened class may advise us to take legal recourse. Of what use is that? The apprehension that the police would detain/arrest us before the programme of January 11, 2015, not allow us to demonstrate and voice our anger, or illegally tap our phones was put before the High Court of Gujarat, asking the Court to give directions to the Gujarat government to allow our programme to continue and to state on affidavit that our phones were not being tapped.

At midnight on January 11, 2015 we were picked up by the Crime Branch team and taken to the Gaikwad Haveli. We were kept there till 6 pm. January 11 passed. The High Court is yet to hear the case!

The farmers of Dholera have petitioned to the High Court to save their land and water and have asked for a stay order on any work on DSIR till the matter is heard. The case has come up for hearing 26 times, and 26 times the High Court has deferred the hearing to another date. The arguments have not been presented, the stay has not been granted and the government is going ahead with its version of ‘development’ and the people have been feeling increasingly helpless and angry.

The government or High Court, which can order Hardik Patel to be brought before it even at midnight, has no time to spare to hear out the farmers. The only difference is that Hardik Patel is a symbol of a socially, economically, educationally and politically powerful class, whereas the farmers and people of Dholera are representing a socially, economically, educationally and politically marginalised class. Their numerical majority does not help them owing to their lack of education, economic power and organizational backing.

When the government overtly displays such discrimination between two classes, can the courts be expected to deliver justice? Can these classes trust the courts for long? Has the High Court of Gujarat distinguished itself by delivering path-breaking judgements against the incumbent governments? When was the last time this happened in Gujarat?

The point is not to blame the legal system. The legal fraternity belongs, by and large, to a class which believes in compromises, in extracting the maximum from the most helpless, in ensuring one’s own benefit before all else. How can this category, which fights for free plots of land and other perks of office, be expected to go against its grain and deliver justice?

Since last 15 years in Gujarat, the government has almost stopped talking to agitating people; the government talks only with those who become violent, adopt aggressive approach. This shows that the government does not have the moral courage to face truth. If the government has faith in its agenda then why is it running away from its own people? This is a government of cowards and bullies.

If the government does not listen, when the courts do not deliver justice, and if the police do not allow the people to express grievances, then should the people continue to suffer in silence? For how long? Patience is not infinite, and if it runs out, then what of the future? It seems as if the government is telling these farmers: You be aggressive, damage government properties than we will talk to you..!

Is not this government, through its various acts of omission and commission, preparing a fertile ground for popular violence? Will the people, caught between ever-widening economic disparities and the deaf ear of the judiciary, remain patient? But then, arms cannot be the answer. The narcissism of present-day Gujarat makes me worried for its future. The thought of what a long neglected and frustrated majority can/will do is itself spine-chilling.

*Khedut Samaj – Gujarat

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