An activist colleague of Medha Patkar, Bilal Khan’s account (in his own words) of his close brush with the MP police.
Narmada Bachao activists’ brush with the MP police
I, along with four others, reached Bombay Hospital, Indore on August 8 to meet Medha Patkar who was forcefully hospitalised on the 12th day of her indefinite fast by the Madhya Pradesh Police. Medha Patkar was fasting to protest against the illegal submergence of 192 villages and one township in Madhya Pradesh by the backwaters of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
Some of us decided to leave for Bombay Hospital, Indore as soon as we found out where the police had taken Medha after forcefully picking her up from Chikhalda – the fasting site. As we reached the hospital, we realised that no one was allowed to meet with Medhal. It is worth noting that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan tweeted that Medha was just hospitalised given her deteriorating health due to her fast and not arrested. Hence, we got into argument with the police as they were restricting entry to meet Medha Patkar. Our demand was to at least allow one attendant with her if not visitors. The media recorded our arguments with the police and started broadcasting the incident. The police were visibly annoyed by us. I could sense that I was on watch in the hospital premises.
This suspicion was confirmed as I made my way to the washroom. I entered inside with a permission from the watchman. A cop suddenly came from behind and caught hold of me. He grabbed me with his arm around my neck and held my right hand with his other hand as if he was shaking hands with me. He smiled after holding me like this. His smile gave me the impression that I was not in trouble; that he would either ask me to go back to where I had been waiting or perhaps even take me to meet Medha (after all, he knew I was associated with her).
These thoughts, however, were short lived as he ordered someone to take my phone out of my pocket. I didn’t see the point in protesting, as I was already encircled by a lot of police. I did not even bother to see who was taking out my phone from my pocket. By now I had accepted that I am in real trouble.
The cop took me to a place that appeared as a lounge. All the visitors present in the area were asked to vacate the premises. More cops poured into the vacated area. I saw one constable with a lathi and I prepared myself for the ensuing event. Although I knew my pleas would be in vain, I still tried to tell the cops that I had come in just to use the washroom. After a while, the constable with the lathi went outside. Finally, the cop took his hands off me and made me stand to the side. He called two cops inside who were in civil dress. They were continuously staring at me. I thought they might thrash me. One of the two left and I was made to sit with another on a bench. This cop showed me the photographs of other colleagues of mine which he shot when we were giving bytes to the media. He started asking for their names. After a while a constable came inside and informed that the jeep has arrived. I was made to sit in that.
I saw the senior officials saying something in the ears of those constable who were to accompany me to wherever they were going to take me. I was driven to a faraway police station; I couldn’t even see the name of the police station. I had become upset by seeing the highhandedness in picking me up despite being innocent. I had stop protesting or reacting and was just observing whatever was happening. I visit Mumbai’s police stations very frequently and deal with top most cops with a sense of confidence while advocating on side of slum dwellers whenever there is a slum demolition but now all my confidence was gone and I felt betrayed.
My Muslim identity had also added to my nervousness. I was not telling them my full name to the cops and it is only after their insistence that I was sharing my surname. My politics as well as my identity makes me feel more vulnerable of atrocities that are generally faced by Muslims and activists in police custody.
Finally I entered the police station and immediately asked for three things: lawyer, water and bathroom. First two demands were denied and for the third one I was asked to use the toilet that was there in the lock-up. Then the constable who brought me from the hospital made me stand in front of a duty officer who asked my name and address. He asked me where I had come from and why I came. I told him that I was from Mumbai and how I am associated with Medha Patkar and wanted to meet her. He hurled a filthy epithet on me and asked me sit in a corner that was stinky and dirty, by taking off my shoes. After a moment he called me and asked me to deposit all the money I had with me. I took out all the cash, counted and gave it to him. Then another officer sitting in another corner asked that duty officer to not deposit the money with him. I found myself totally disconnected with the outside world without a phone and any access to a lawyer or friend. No one would know where I was. I was missing now.
What I was most worried about in the police station was my mother. I was wondering how my mother would react when she would not be able to contact me. She speaks with me on phone every day and sometime twice a day with one or the other excuse just to ensure I am safe. Initially she did not like my work but later when she realised that I was not leaving activism she just ask me to not go in front during any action and warns me about possible threats. I always defy her tactfully. I cannot imagine making her upset knowingly. My main worry was my mother only-how will she react to my missing.
One or the other cops would come after regular interval and ask for the same information again and again — my name and my residence and every time my answer was the same. After almost an hour I could see the change in behaviour of constables, they started treating me well. I was given a bottle of mineral water and asked for if I wanted food. I took the water and thanked them for asking about food. After a while the duty officer called for me and told me that I would be released after their senior comes to police station. He also gave me tea. I felt half relieved as I still did not trust them fully.
By now, I was abducted and had been missing for two hours. Now I thought to ask them of my release because the senior police officer did not seem to be coming. However, the trauma of my abduction had made me too upset that I did not want to talk to anybody and let anything happen to me. Injustice had already happened to me. Agitating against it would mean begging for justice. Finally I was called and made to write and sign an apology letter for entering the hospital without permission. After I signed the letter, I was returned my phone and asked to go.
I took an auto rickshaw and asked to get dropped at the Bombay hospital — from where I was abducted by the police — thinking that I would change the route in case I find any danger. My concern about danger was confirmed as soon as I switched on my phone to talk to the local Indore supporters. I called our Indore supporter and informed him that I was coming to Bombay Hospital. He asked me stay where I was and that he would come to pick me up. I said I would come back on my own because I did not want to take the risk of being caught again by the police while waiting for him. I had received several calls from the police station to come back.
The moment I entered the Hospital I was encircled by a crowd which had come to demand my release. I was then immediately mobbed by the media asking for my byte. I did not receive any further calls from the police station as soon as I started appearing in the media. Every state news channel started claiming that it was due to the impact of their news that I was released. Soon I received a call from a politician who asked about my wellbeing in order to convey that it was due to his influence I reappeared.
In reality, it was local supporters Latika and Deepmala who created a buzz went I went missing. I had informed Latika when I left for washroom in the Hospital. I was also informed that a sympathetic former IG of Indore had also intervened to get me released. Probably the quick media campaign and the intervention of some influential persons was the reason behind the change of behaviour of the cops in the police station towards me.
I saw our local Indore supporter being called by the cop who picked me up from the hospital. This cop was one of the top most cops of Indore responsible for Medha Patkar’s security in the Hospital. He went inside with this cop. This supporter is a well-known journalist and writer in Indore and he is also the father of the lawyer who was there in the hospital with us. Being an eminent citizen of Indore this supporter had a limited entry to see Medha Patkar in the Hospital whereas no politician including influential MLAs and MPs of major political parties allowed any entry in the Hospital no matter how much they protested against no-entry. After a while this supporter who went inside with the top cop and sat down with him in the hospital and phoned his lawyer son and asked him to take me away from the hospital immediately. I am sure the supporter would be asked by the top cop to ask me to not appear in the media anymore and leave the Hospital. Police was annoyed by my reappearing because the top cop had stated in the media that they had not abducted/arrested me and then I reappeared from the police station proving the Madhya Pradesh police department wrong. I remained underground the remainder of the day based on advice from the local supporter.
It is indeed a rare stroke of luck that I reappeared otherwise no one would have known what had happened to me. At the end I just want to admit that I was seriously traumatized by this event but at no point did I think of stepping back. I will continue defying my mother tactfully!
PS: I also want to greatly thank the journalist who saw me being picked up by the police and informed my colleagues.