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indramal-bai

At about 12:30 on 20th November, Indramal Bai, succumbed to her burns, and left us. Even before we were able to get this update ready, she left this world and those who loved her behind. Pushed to the tipping point, Indramal Bai, is one among many in the Pardhi community whose life has been lost because of systemic police torture and harassment, a culture of criminalising communities and of limitless impunity. Indramal Bai shall be remembered – in love, certainly, but also in rage and solidarity…

As Indramal Bai, aged about 30, lay in the Burns Department of the Government Medical College, Hamidia Hospital in Bhopal (M.P.), she called out to her old frail mother who was just about to step out of the ward for a breath of fresh air.  ‘Ayaa’, she’d call out every few minutes, and beg her not to leave her side.  Sarju Bai, who has seen more of life than we can imagine, says she has never felt so much grief in her heart. Her daughter’s attempt at suicide has broken her. She has not stepped out of the hospital in three days. With all her wisdom, she comforted her daughter – lifting her, feeding her, helping with the dressing, and trying to air her daughter’s big and ugly blisters on her backside.

Indramal Bai was rushed to the hospital on the evening of 17th November, with over 60% burn injuries. Exhausted by the  continuous threats made by two police men, Sandeep and Gajraj Singh, who were torturing her to pay Rs. 20,000, she finally threw the kerosene she had just bought from the ration shop over her body and set herself on fire. Together with these two, another policeman Yadav, had been demanding this amount for over a week. They had also been torturing others in her locality and people had been trying to find someway or the other to save themselves.

On the day Indramal Bai had to be rushed to the hospital, these police men from Gandhi Nagar Thana visited her house in the early hours of the morning, then again a second time around noon and the third time again in the afternoon. Indramal Bai’s daughter shares that she had taken out all the scrap they had collected during Diwali Season and was sorting it out on the roadside when the policemen threatened her mother again, saying that they will put her in jail on the basis of this scrap. There was nothing of a stolen nature in the scrap, but simply a month’s worth of hard work done by both mother and daughter.

Indramal Bai was already distraught by the repeated demands for money, but this was the last straw. When the police came at about 2 in the afternoon and once again demanded that she come to the police station to broker a deal, she said to them – you will end up killing me this way; I don’t have any money to give you.  Taunting her that Pardhis are simply dramatic and good at lying, they began dragging her. As Indramal Bai poured the kerosene over herself, her daughter Ashikana snatched the matchbox from her mother and also threw the lighter away. The child pleaded with the police to leave her mother alone. We have nothing to  give you, I live alone with my two children, she pleaded. Unmoved, the  policemen continued standing in front of their house, threatening her. Unable to persuade the policemen as they continued pressing them for money, Ashikana returned to her work on the roadside. Just as she began sorting scrap, she heard her mother’s screams. She ran back to save her. Ashikaana, pointing to the courtyard where her mother tried to immolate herself as she shouted back at the policemen, wonders, along with other members of her family what actually got the fire burning – did her mother light the match herself, from the matchbox that the policemen had thrown at her tauntingly, or was it the cigarette butt they had flicked her way, once they were done smoking at the edge of her courtyard?

Even as her family tried to save her, once Indramal Bai’s clothes and skin had caught fire, the police continued to stand there and say – stop your drama. They even tried stopping them from cutting open her blouse and putting her in an auto – insisting still, that they would take her to the thana.

Lying on the hospital bed, later that day, Indramal Bai spoke of how the police had been harassing her. She would just repeat that she had not stolen anything and was scared of what the police will do with her now.  She kept saying she was very troubled. The young girls and women in the community and their grandmother described how they had to rip off her blouse to stop the fire and pick up the bucket of water nearby to throw on her.

Indramal Bai breathed her last around 12:40 AM on Monday, the 20th of November. Just some hours before – she appeared to be doing much better, and had even spoken to a journalist, testifying to the events that led to her burn injuries in a video interview. Her family was hopeful that she would survive. But something seemed to have agitated her later that evening, because of which she suddenly got up from her hospital bed and tried leaving the ward. She was then treated rather roughly by the hospital staff – thrown back on her bed, slapped a few times and given some injections. Sarju Bai was also beaten in the hospital that night as she begged them to be kinder to her daughter. Indramal Bai died pleading with the hospital staff not to beat her mother, who was distraught by how insensitively her daughter was being handled.

Members of Indramal Bai’s family had submitted their first complaint to the Gandhi Nagar Thana on the 18th of November, the day she had attempted to immolate herself. But an FIR has still not been registered to date – the police argued that since charges were against their own people, an enquiry would have to be conducted first.

On Monday, the 20th, an independent fact-finding team spoke to the Additional Director General of Police (Crime Against Women), Aruna Mohan Rao and Deputy Inspector General of Police, Police Headquarters, Sudhir Lad at the State Police Headquarters. At the same time, a small group of people protested in front of the Police Headquarters and over 300 people gathered at the Gandhi Nagar Thana. They demanded that the three policemen accused be suspended and that an FIR be registered immediately. The protest was peaceful for two hours. But senior police officials manhandled members of the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) and mismanaged the protest – instigating violence. The first stones pelted came from inside the thana premises towards the road on which the protesters were sitting. Probably in reaction to this, some people from the protest, also got agitated. Activists and family members of the deceased and many others brought the situation under control within a matter of minutes, but by then the police had found their excuse. They came barraging out of the thana, charging at the crowd with lathis and letting out tear-gas. As activists and community members were dragged and plainsclothes policemen used abusive language, it further hurt and angered people. A big posse of police finally sent the people back home. Five activists were detained at the thana. A large number of police personnel were also deployed to encircle the basti for about an hour or so, terrorizing the people living there. Indramal Bai’s body was taken for cremation later that evening after two of the five activists (Shivani and Seema) were released. However, the remaining three activists who were picked up – AAP convener Alok Agarwal and two more party members, Pankaj Singh and Munna Bhai – are still under judicial custody having been denied bail both at the Magistrate and Sessions Court level.

Despite the clear evidence of harassment by the police and the link between this harassment and the death of Indramal Bai, the government continues to maintain an ambiguous position. In multiple testimonies – to her family, social workers and members of an independent fact-finding team, Indramal Bai has stated in no unclear terms that she tried to immolate herself because the harassment she was facing from the police was simply too much for her to handle. Despite this, however, there have been reports circulated, saying that in her declaration to the Magistrate, Indramal Bai claimed she was burnt while burning the waste that she had picked. Further still, several members of the community had heard her threatening to immolate herself just before they saw her body caught in flames, and everyone in the vicinity testifies to the fact that no waste was being burnt nearby. Thus, all circumstantial evidence points to her attempt at suicide – and now, in no unclearer terms, institutional murder caused by systematic police harassment.

Once news of Indramal Bai’s immolation hit the press, DIG, PHQ, Sudhir Lad visited Indramal Bai in her hospital room on Saturday (19th) evening, and assured her that justice would be served and that action would be taken against police that harassed her.

But what would justice for Indramal Bai look like? Can we really hope for justice for a Pardhi woman? It is soon going to be ten years since Tinti Bai, a 14 year old Pardhi girl, came home and hung herself after facing extortion and sexual harassment by the local police (Kamla Nagar Thana, Bhopal). She had been repeatedly tortured – both mentally and physically, before she was pushed to take this step. An investigation by the M.P. Human Rights Commission also concluded that the accused police personnel should be booked for instigating her suicide and that compensation be paid to the family. However, since the commission is only a recommendatory body, these conclusions could only serve as the basis for a police investigation, which was begun, but never concluded. Tinti Bai’s family members and neighbours gave several rounds of testimonies, only to find no resolution or justice at the end of it all.

Justice delayed is justice denied. In this atmosphere of impunity, countless Pardhi people have been victims of police torture and harassment. On some occasions, the suicide is so immediate that it can be linked directly to a particular set of policemen,  but at several other times, police torture is such a routine part of the Pardhi life that it becomes difficult to say which incident finally served as the last straw, breaking the fragile balance a Pardhi person holds, in way of strength and sanity in the face of such quotidien, systemic violence they face day after day. Over the past ten years, the community here in Bhopal has witnessed more than 25 such suicides.

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As we speak to people in the community to gather facts, a young girl holds up a 250gm packet of daal that she has just bought and says see how rich we Pardhis are, we are eating daal. Indramal Bai’s ten year old son says his dreams are shattered; he had planned to put up a bangle shop and earn for his family. But now it wouldn’t be possible. This young child is full of anger and bitterness towards the world. He says, “Why doesn’t the government give us any work and stop harassing us?” Sarjun Bai, Indramal Bai’s mother, says she had borrowed Rs. 5000 to sow soyabean in thier land but not even one plant sprouted.

The Pardhis of Bhopal are being worn out by the apathy of the State towards them. Stripped of Scheduled Tribe status in 2002 here in Bhopal, and with no livelihood options once the hunting of small animals and birds was banned, they have little in way of a means of survival. In any work they take up,  they are viewed with suspicion. A group of boys on their way back after a hard days work at a construction site, is mocked at by the police – How long do you think you will get work? they ask. In another Pardhi locality, a boy, returning from serving as a waiter  at a wedding party, is jeered at – A Pardhi out at night is obviously planning a theft. Even wearing a new T-shirt can invite the suspicion of the police.

Whenever a crime is reported in the city or even outside the district, Pardhi homes are searched and people from Pardhi settlements are rounded up. During the first week of this month (November 2017), more than two dozen Pardhi men of one locality alone have been detained at a police station at some point or another. As they began to get restless after 24 hours of being held, they were sent to different police stations in the city and booked under random cases. Subsequently, seven men were picked up from Gandhi Nagar area. Having a knife at home was enough to be charged under the Arms Act.

Given this, it is hardly surprising when we hear a Pardhi person say we have nothing to live by and when the police comes to extort money, what is left for us? It is better to die. Some say it in anger with the will to fight back and bring back dignity and respect for their community. Others say it in despair. While listing out their demands from the State, the youth unanimously say they want ‘azaadi’ from the police and the elders ask for ‘nyay’ for Indramal Bai and her children.

Where is this ‘nyay’ going to come from? The same police that watched Indramal Bai’s body burn but just stood there insisting they go to the thana? Or from the government – Shivraj Singh Chauhan and his cabinet – which has been utterly silent about the incident? The denial of bail of the arrested Aam Aadmi Party activists clearly indicates some kind of political interference. Instead of registering an FIR against the police in the case of Indramal Bai’s death, the police is threatening several members of the Pardhi community with the filing of charges for the incident of stone-throwing on the day of the protest. It is the natural, most reflexive response of the State and its police – to criminalise and terrorise these ‘violent, criminal ‘chor’ jatis’ and peoples. It hasn’t begun today or with this government – it is a left-over, a lingering remnant of the legacy the British left us with of criminalising certain tribes. The pardhis happened to be one such. In a society ridden with toxic structures of inequality such as caste, the effect of such legacies last longer than most would have imagined – condemning generations to violence at the hands of the State and its police. As this systemic violence against communities such as the Pardhis rages on, the Government will continue to sponsor tribal artists to adorn the walls of the Vidhan Sabha and hold annual gatherings for people from de-notified (“criminal”) tribes. For decades they have managed to selectively filter and suppress the voices of people from such communities – allowing their art to be showcased or meting out consolation prizes, but ensuring they do not speak out against the violence they face.

This may not work much longer – another such meeting will not be enough to do right by Indramal Bai. People are clear – they do not want any tokens. Their demand is for justice and a change in the way they are treated. The demand for justice for Indramal Bai continues to burn in Bhopal. A week after the incident, on 24thof November, hundreds of people from across the city – from bastis and bungalows alike – came out in support of Indramal’s family and lit candles to ignite and keep her memory alive. They occupied the streets together – demanding justice for for Indramal and raising their voices against the callousness of the police. People formed human chains along the road. Some sang songs. Some discussed the issues faced by marginalised communities. Others missed Indramal silently. Each of those candles burned brightly – much brighter than the flames that had engulfed Indramal Bai.

The police – and the State – must be held accountable for the countless lives they have taken.

Bhopal will continue to burn as bright – lighting many more such candles in her memory – ensuring that no more such murders will be tolerated.

 

 

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