‘Didn’t the Police Know Their Real Business Was in Azad Maidan?’

The Quint presents an exclusive extract from retired IAS officer Anita Agnihotri’s book ‘The Sickle’.

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(The following has been excerpted with permission from the English translation (by Arunava Sinha) of retired IAS officer Anita Agnihotri’s book The Sickle (published by Juggernaut). The subheadings are not part of the book and have been added by The Quint.)

A tributary of the Godavari named Kadba flows past Dindori; it has been dammed at Ozarkhed. The enormous reservoir of water glowed in the twilight, surrounded by dense jungles of acacia and jujube. Thick pipelines of water passed through the region, with firewalls at regular intervals to ensure the pressure of the water didn’t burst the pipes. Old clothes were piled on all of them – did people secretly wash their clothes here?

The group of Bhils had been eager to halt for the night near the dam, but their leaders had called to say, no, they had to pass through Nashik. The Kisan Sabha is a formidable organisation, each and every village is allotted to a leader or to their deputy, all the way down the ranks. They are like an army without a uniform, no deviation is permitted.

Blood, Sweat & Tears: ‘Had Joining the March Been a Mistake?’

Before the evening darkened, the fragmented peaks of the Sahayadri range became visible, each with a unique shape of its own. If one looked like a curved horn, another was hump-backed, while a third was concave. It was as though they had left the earth to arrive at a distant planet in the galaxy. How much farther would they have to walk? How much farther, just to maintain the right to keep tilling the land that they had poured their blood, sweat and tears into all these years, even though they had no documents or receipts?

The cold, the ache in her cracked soles, and the pain streaking from her knee to her ankle like an electric current were not allowing Rukma bai to sleep well.

Waves of sleep overcame her after she screwed her eyes shut for a long time, only for her to wake up again. Her throat was parched, she had a throbbing headache. Had joining the march been a mistake? What if she didn’t make it back home this time, what if she died on the way... what would happen to Rakhu?

‘What Time Is It?’

It was late, the moon had risen above the mountain peaks, climbing up the canopy of the sky. The cold seemed to be shooting out of its body. The spot where they had lain down on thick sheets normally used to cover oneself was not by the side of the highway, it was a riverbed. In March, all it held was sand and large rocks. Even a few spells of unseasonal rain would bring the current out from beneath the sand, which meant that there was water underneath – having no option, like the marchers, it was feigning sleep. The bank was higher than the riverbed, though the slope wasn’t steep; it rolled upwards comfortably, leading to fields of grass and farmland.

Like fireflies, the glows from mobile phones were moving up and down the ridges between the fields. People were walking about, calling out to one another.

Aji bai, aji, get up, I’ve brought you some hot tea. Have some.” A young man was talking to her, squatting near her head and leaning forward. “Have some tea, you’ll feel better.

Rukma bai sat up with difficulty, leaning on her elbow for support.

It was true, a mere cup of tea offered so much warmth, for some time it could stave off the chilly flood cascading down from the blue canopy.

What time is it, my boy?

Ten, aji.

‘It was the Police & the Highway Patrol’

Large cars and trucks were whooshing along the slightly elevated four-lane highway. Down here from the riverbed, all that was visible were their lights in motion. Another row of lights stood immobile at the edge of the highway, where the sound of boots could be heard and beams from large torches could be seen.

It was the police. And the highway patrol. The police had refused to let them rest or lie down beside the highway. A barrage of instructions was coming through from Mumbai on the walkie-talkies, because of which they had coerced the marchers to go down to the riverbed.

The peasants didn’t even know of a river named Bhaldevi. The formidable Godavari flows out of the Brahmagiri mountain in Nashik district towards the south-east. The people of the Western Ghats refer to it as the Ganga of the South. Numerous small and large tributaries have added to its power and richness. Near its source stands the unique Jyotirlinga Trimbakeshwar Shiva.

The river runs for nearly 1,500 kilometres to reach the sea through the West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. The Godavari basin extends across Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The adivasis of the Western Ghats cannot tell from the appearance of the slender teenaged river how wide and fast it flows in another land.

‘Now That It Was Dark, There Would Be Trouble’

The Darna river emerges from the Kalsubai hills in Igatpuri to take a long and meandering route before merging with the Godavari on its southern bank. The Kadba flows into the Darna, as do the three rivers originating in the Anjeri hills – the Bhaki, the Aundha and the Bhaldevi. The Bhaldevi brims over in the monsoon, but it was quiet now in March, a little helpless.

The police and the highway patrol had changed the marchers’ sleeping arrangements without warning, which had led to a mad rush and scramble.

The small buses, jeeps and Trekkers loaded with their things had been sent off to an open field a little farther away. Their bedding and their food were all in their respective bundles, and now that it was dark there would be trouble if they strayed from their groups, but there would also be trouble if they didn’t go up to the vehicles to collect their things. And so they walked back and forth, guided by the light from their mobile phones.

After the March

If her phone battery drained, Rukma bai would lose her only remaining contact with their village. She couldn’t have walked another step in any case. Everyone was tired after marching all day, but the old men and women were particularly exhausted. The slip of paper was knotted into the end of her sari... a young man had read it to locate the vehicle and fetch her food and bedding. Marvellous boys, all of them, may Saptasringi Devi Ma look after them all. The police were apparently worried that the marchers would block traffic if they were allowed to sleep beside the highway. Oh, for heaven’s sake, didn’t the police know their real business was in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan?

(The author, Anita Agnihotri, is a former IAS officer. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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