Vande Mataram! Bharat Mata ki jai!, the crowd screamed in a frenzied enthusiasm characteristic of every ‘revolution’ as dusk descended over the national capital. “We will renew the long lost glory of our motherland!”, asserted the Baba. “Bring back the riches stowed away by parliamentary dacoits in the swiss banks!”, he demanded from high up his perch on the stage at Ramlila maidan, New Delhi. The ground originally meant to host the annual enactment of the Hindu magnum opus ‘Ramayan’, which was a story about lord Ram’s victory over the demon king ‘Ravan’ of Lanka, had also witnessed many a political rally over the years. Today it was bearing witness to yet another political spectacle. A popular yoga guru, Baba ‘someone’ from ‘somewhere’ had taken up the cudgels against corruption in the system and was holding a rally which had the participation of over 50,000 of his supporters. The Baba had announced that he would fast, abstaining from food and water until the government agreed to his demands. What were these demands? Barely anyone in the crowd knew. It was enough for them that at least someone with the requisite clout to matter and make a difference had spoken up against the political elite. The country had been rocked in recent months by one scandal after other each amounting to thousands of crores of rupees. The common people at first astounded and later perhaps even slightly impressed by the huge amounts involved had finally lost patience and their anger was evident. News channels were receiving numerous passionate angry calls every day while the anchors delighted with the opportunity the country’s misfortunes presented, were getting louder and shriller by the day.
Krishna, a college student in his early twenties was one of the many present at the Ramlila maidan that evening. He had been in fact coming to the ground for the past couple of days having heard the Baba’s call to his supporters on primetime news. His father, considerably older and far more cynical had dismissed it as another futile spectacle. “Nothing will come off it”, he had remarked hoping to sound wise. “The powerful will keep exploiting the weak that is how the society works”, he continued. He of course had good reason for his pessimism having seen the dream of ‘lokpurush’ Jai Prakash Narayan crumble in front of his own eyes. In his youth he had taken part actively in JP’s Sampoorna Kranti(total revolution) movement but after the persistence of the unjust status quo had been left disillusioned like millions of others like him. This disillusionment over the course of decades had been weathered to apathetic cynicism.
But Krishna, unlike his father was brimming with optimism and an enthusiastic anticipation for change, the very kind that youth bestows upon its subject along with puberty. This optimism was augmented by the crystallization of a strong sense of identity and a particular ideology in his psyche. Over the past couple of years there had occurred a considerable shift in his ideology and beliefs. He had developed an affinity for right wing, Hindu nationalist ideologues like Savarkar and Golwalkar. More and more he had started taking pride in India’s rich Hindu heritage, giving up the western jeans-t shirt in favour of the swadeshi kurta- payjama. So much so that when he came across an essay in his history syllabus detailing the rich diversity of the narrative traditions of the Ramayana, he was livid. He believed that this was part of a conspiracy to undermine a sacred Hindu text and distort its meaning. Delhi University, where he studied had an enthusiastic right wing student organisation as a part of a vibrant political scene. He took up the issue with them and marched to the vice chancellor’s office along with his student organization friends, vandalizing public property on the way for good measure, demanding that the essay be removed from the syllabus. The vice- chancellor a brilliant academic but a spineless administrator had buckled under the organization’s pressure and had withdrawn the essay from the syllabus going against his own good judgement. This assertion of political power had filled Krishna’s heart with an invincible confidence. Now he was sure that he had the solution for all of society’s ills. It was under these circumstances that Krishna was attracted to the Baba’s rally. The fact that the custodian of an ancient Hindu practice was at the forefront of a modern revolution appealed to him.
At the time when Krishna was participating in the Ramlila rally, Ramesh Bhondre, a young farmer from Vidarbha in Maharashtra had camped beside the Jantar Mantar barely three kilometres away along with about a hundred other farmers from his district. The Jantar Mantar was originally built as an astronomical observatory but these days it was more in the news for hosting protest rallies of causes from all over the country. It had become the quintessential theatre of dissent in the national capital, an Indian Hyde Park. Of course up until the early nineties, these small scale rallies would have been held on the boat club lawns on either side of Rajpath, the venue for the annual majestic republican day parade, a show of India’s grandeur. Protestors could march up to the gates of parliament and hand in their petitions to their elected representatives. This went on until the rulers decided with characteristic disdain that these shows of dissent, arising from their own incompetency in fact painted India in a poor light and shunted them to a less glamorous venue.
So it was here at the relatively nondescript Jantar Mantar road that Ramesh had landed up. He was here along with his fellow farmers after two days of harrowing unreserved travel on Indian railways to protest against the state seed corporation’s decision to continue supplying them with Bt cotton seeds. These seeds touted as having been developed using the best biotechnological advancements by the company that manufactured them had turned out to be an unqualified disaster. Cotton crops across the Vidarbha region had failed leading to widespread suicides. Though the plight of the farmers had elicited some attention from the media in the beginning, interest had faded after the news channels and papers deemed that the ‘human interest’ had been exploited fully from the story. People didn’t always want to hear about unhappy farmers. So instead the national media told them about the fluctuating weight of a famous film actress. Ramesh’s family had been particularly hit hard. Though none in his family had committed suicide yet, all his uncles and his father had become heavily indebted to the local zamindar. There was very little they could do. Ramesh had given up studies after class ten to help his aging father in the field. He had been a good student and had wanted to study English literature having been mesmerised by RK Narayan’s novels in his Zilla Parishad school library. Unfortunately these were the only novels that his school library carried. But the fact that the school had a library in itself was a big deal. He had lain awake till late at night under the canopy of open sky dreaming about that far away land of Malgudi where people drank Coffee instead of Tea. He had tried coffee once on a visit to the nearby city and had found it pleasantly invigorating. Reading Narayan always reminded him of that pleasant, slightly bitter flavour.
Of course once the crops started failing, all his hopes of further education were dashed. The furrows of worry on his father’s brow had become uncharacteristically intransient. He was not surprised when after his board exams his father asked him to work in the fields full time. Ramesh was optimistic when the Tv news cameras turned up that things would improve. Surely the government wouldn’t neglect their plight for long. But when that didn’t happen he was disappointed. He was filled with helpless rage. Then when the NGO turned up and organized the New Delhi rally, he persuaded his father to make the trip. His father desperate and ready to try anything to save his fields had relented. But in Delhi Ramesh was to be disappointed once again. No one seemed to care about their plight least of all the Government. Expectedly all the journalists were at the Ramlila ground covering the Baba’s fast. Ramesh of course did not know this.
Meanwhile at the Ramlila Ground, the fast had continued late into the night. Though most people had left for the night, Krishna had stayed back. There was an air of expectancy around. The government had still not accepted the Baba’s demands and no one knew how it would react. The political class of course could not risk letting anything happen to the Baba. The repercussions would be terrible. It also could not risk looking soft and spineless by being blackmailed by the Baba and accepting his demands. Ultimately a decision was made by someone high up in the administration that they would not back down. The demands were too impractical to be accepted. The Delhi police was directed to swoop in on the venue, arrest the Baba and fly him back to his hometown. His presence in the capital would keep the spotlight on the issue. The government could not afford this.
Thus it was early in the morning at two that a battalion of the Delhi police led by a senior officer reached the Ramlila maidan to break up the rally and arrest the Baba. On seeing the police the crowd panicked and started running helter skelter. To control the stampede, the police had to resort to a lathi charge. The Baba and his aides on realizing what had happened decided that it was best if they evaded arrest and regrouped later. One of the Baba’s supporters suggested that he wear a woman’s salwar kameez to camouflage his presence. The baba reluctantly agreed. The crowd was greeted with a strange and slightly humorous sight of a grown man with a dense beard in a woman’s salwar kameez. The flimsy dupatta had been clearly unable to cover the Baba’s formidable facial foliage. Krishna was angry and disappointed. He had initially planned to court arrest in the Baba’s support but his cowardice had disheartened him. He decided it was time that he escaped this farce and exited the maidan.
As the police was conducting the early morning raid at the maidan, Ramesh was tossing and turning under a tent on the side of the Jantar Mantar road. Though normally the police wouldn’t have allowed the protestors to camp on this road, today because of the Baba’s rally no one seemed to care about anything else. Ramesh hadn’t been able to sleep. He was wracked with worry and uncertainty about the future. The Government and others obviously did not care about his plight. But what could he do? How could he help himself and his family? The first thing he would have to do was to get away from the village. There seemed to be no opportunities there. He would have to go to the city. Of course his parents wouldn’t agree at first but he would have to convince them. Even if they didn’t agree, he would run away to the city without informing them. Full of plans for the future, he felt an urge to relieve himself. He got up to cross the road. Suddenly in the middle of the road on the way to the other side, he heard a loud screeching of tyres. Paralyzed with expectant dread when he turned around in the direction of the sound all he could see were two extremely bright headlights dangerously close and travelling fast towards him.
Krishna on exiting the Maidan was wondering how he would get back home, the metro wouldn’t be available for a few more hours, when suddenly he heard his name being called out. It was a few of his college friends out on their customary ‘booze cruise’ in a car. Krishna did not particularly like this group. He considered them to be spoiled brats disconnected from the realities of the country. But he had no other choice. He asked them whether they could drop him off near his home, they readily agreed. As he got into the car Krishna reflected on his day. He looked around at his friends. They seemed unconcerned about such things as corruption, politics or change. They only seemed to care about their own happiness. Krishna had often scoffed at their indifference. He had always believed that true change could only come when people would get involved in the political process. But recent events forced him to question these convictions. Perhaps it was best if everyone thought about themselves and their families alone. Change and revolution were perhaps impractical, impossible even. As Krishna’s mind was swimming in its ocean of self-doubt, their car had passed Jantar Mantar and was now on the Jantar Mantar road. He spotted a figure crossing the road and when the car didn’t slow down, he screamed, “look out”! But the driver, his reflexes hampered by alcohol, was too slow on the brakes. Krishna could easily make out the look of terror on Ramesh’s face.
In the morning, Ramesh’s body was taken to the hospital for an autopsy. He was among the dozens killed every year on Delhi’s roads. The drivers on realizing that they had hit someone would flee the scene for fear of any repercussions. Ramesh’s death apart from a minuscule column in the last pages of a newspaper did not gather any attention. People did not care about a farmer from India’s interior. He was after all a lesser man with lesser aspirations, fighting a lesser struggle.