Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Million Mutinies on One Tiny Street

The turmoil of constant local wars and foreign invasions prompted Jaipur's ruler, Jai Singh II, to begin building Jantar Mantar in 1724. The astronomical observatory would allow soothsayers to monitor cosmic shifts so as to better divine auspicious dates for royal enterprises, and to predict the fate of ruler and ruled. Nestled in the heart of New Delhi, Jantar Mantar today is mainly a tourist attraction, although it continues to function as an observatory of sorts — a window into what the writer V.S. Naipaul called "India's million mutinies."

For a decade now, by executive order, a stretch of road between Jantar Mantar and Parliament Street is the officially designated protest space in India's capital — all others are off limits. As a result, Jantar Mantar offers a rich daily marketplace of grievances, ranging from tribes demanding compensation for lost land and farmers seeking better prices for their produce to demands for women's and gay-rights, and everything in between.

A bureaucratic spelling error has brought a group of Dhangars, sporting tribal red and yellow colors, here for the fourth time. "We hope this time our voice will be heard," says Gunderao Bansode, an advocate who introduces himself as the leader of the group. They're from the western state of Maharashtra, where they accuse state officials of deliberately misspelling the name of their tribe in order to deny it entitlements due under Indian law, which reserves places in educational institutes and legislatures, as well as government jobs for certain "scheduled" castes and tribes. The Dhangar are a "scheduled tribe" in Maharashtra, but they accuse government officials of taking advantage of a transliteration error to deny them their due. In Marathi, the language of Maharashtra, the r at the end of the tribe's name is pronounced as an English d, and "Dhangad" is not a scheduled tribe. The protesters claim officials have been certifying them as "Dhangad" instead of "Dhangar" precisely to deny them their tribal benefits. "It's a conspiracy of the dominant community, the Marathas," charges Bansode. "With 1.2 crore [12 million] members, we're the second largest community in Maharashtra. By denying us reservation [of seats], they want to keep us from coming to power

A stone's throw from the Dhangar camp stands a tent housing a dozen white-attired men, representing the Greater Cooch-Behar People's Association. They are demanding that eight districts currently divided between the eastern states of Assam and West Bengal be instead recognized as a separate state of Cooch Behar. "Our language and culture are different from these states'," says Babua Barman, a central committee member of the GCBPA, whose activists have been camping near Jantar Mantar for two years now, joining a chorus of calls for separate statehood from more than half a dozen regions across the country.

Autonomy is a demand familiar to the Tibetan activists nearby, mounting loudspeakers to relay speeches by some 200 pro-Tibet supporters who have arrived from all over India to join a 24-hour hunger strike. A bunch of cops stroll by, eyeing rosy-cheeked Tibetan girls, who studiously ignore them. Disdain for the cops is a common theme among the demonstrators at Jantar Mantar. "They hate us," laughs Rachna Dhingra, an activist with the International Campaign for Justice for Bhopal, which has been camping here since March to demand legal action against the corporations responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster. "We're making the police earn their keep." Day-to-day life at Jantar Mantar is not much fun, she says. The public toilets are filthy, and the only available showers are at a nearby Sikh temple. The police and civic authorities "just want us to go away," she says, but the protesters are buoyed by the random strangers who stop by to offer money and support.

Among the other campers are parents of children who were abducted, sexually assaulted and killed in New Delhi's affluent eastern suburb of Noida over a period of years — a wealthy businessman and his domestic servant were arrested, but the case is still pending and the parents are demanding justice. Then, there are the activists of the Mafia Unmoolan Samiti, which is raising its voice against organized crime; the Rashtriya Viklang Party, which works for rights for disabled persons and has been here for years; and solo protester Ramdev Kumar from Seemapur, who claims his wife left him for someone else and his brother usurped his house. "I want the government to do something," he says.

Outsiders might take the cacophony of complaints at Jantar Mantar as a sign of vitality in India's democracy, but many of the protesters — some of whom have gone unheeded for years, if not decades — are less sanguine. ICJB's Rachna Dhingra says having this space is better than nothing, but sees Jantar Mantar as a symptom of a flawed democracy. "If you want your voice heard, you must scream within these 500 meters," she says. "And even then, you can't be sure you'll be heard."

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