On 2 March 2006, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation had once again demolished the Maninagar settlement. All the residents were left homeless. [Maninagar is a slum in Ahmedabad that mostly houses the Denotified tribal (DNT) community.] Children were crying, women were hurling abuses. Older people were gathering their broken belongings. The corporation authorities had confiscated all their belongings, even the cot of a hundred-and-twenty-five-year-old woman. The women of Maninagar had been brutally beaten up by the police.

Amidst the rubble, two small children were laughing as they looked at what was happening with their tiny eyes. One was four days old, the other had completed nine days. Their mothers were crouching under the shade of a nearby tree with their children.

The government and the residents who lived in nearby neighbourhoods were bent on forcing the Maninagar communities into becoming nomadic again.

They had been living in Maninagar since 1960. But they were always assumed to be thieves, even though they worked extremely hard to earn their livelihoods.

I was angry. It was time to go on a hunger strike. If we sit back silently, the government will be only too happy to drive us away and kill us off. In any case, people were already dying of hunger. Out of fear of the authorities, nobody wanted to risk going out for work.

As if this was not enough, the police were now constantly patrolling the area. All the people who had been made homeless and destitute were roundly beaten up whenever they were spotted settling down on the streets. People had to become vigilant, they’d hurriedly gather their things and stumble away as soon as there was a hint of police presence. If anybody protested, they were brutally lathi-charged with no concern for age or gender.

A sense of terror had spread through the community.

At that time, one of our friends, Vijay, had ranked first in the state examination held for selection of police constables. He had been working with the Budhan Theatre for a long time, and he was also involved with the Chharanagar Library and other education projects in the locality. These were community activities that we DNTs had been organising for many years now. But Vijay’s only dream was to become a police officer. Now it had come true.

Meanwhile, our friend and comrade, the thespian, Roxy Gagedkhar, was in Gandhinagar to discuss the Maninagar issue with the linguist and activist, GN Devy. Dr Devy had long been our mentor and champion. I am not privy to the details of the discussion but I received a call from Roxy saying, “Dr Devy is saying that we should hold a hunger strike on the Maninagar issue day after tomorrow. We need to bring together a hundred people.”

The day was 23 March 2006. I was noting down the date for some reason and I remembered that Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged on this very day in 1931. The revolutionary poet Pash too had been killed on this day back in 1988. I remember a poem by Pash.

Those who have sung the songs of swords
Their words are formed with blood
Blood is made of iron
Those who live on the borders of death
Their deaths begin the journey of life
Those whose blood and sweat mix in the soil
They rise from the soil.

I picked up my phone. Since I had not paid my bill yet, outgoing calls were barred. But I could still send text messages. I typed the poem out and sent it to my friends. The people of this country have forgotten Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice. We have forgotten his ideology, his fight, his message of martyrdom, everything.

When Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru went willingly to their deaths, they probably did not have the India we have created in mind. Perhaps the India of their dreams died along with them. I feel if we gain inspiration from Bhagat Singh’s love for books, half of the country’s problems would be solved.

Pash was murdered because he wrote about the Khalistani movement and expressed his views against the government. In my experience, I have learnt that the state silences people in two ways. First, it tries to buy them off and give up on the ideals they hold. And if that doesn’t work, it sentences them to death.

About a hundred and fifty people joined Dr Devy in the hunger strike. I sent word out to all my friends to support the strike in whatever way it was possible, be it direct or indirect participation. Some three hundred people responded. The hunger strike sent a strong message of opposition to the government. Many other organisations had also joined us.

The very same day at three in the afternoon, the municipal commissioner, Anil Mukim, came with his officers to discuss the issue with us and promised to give land to a hundred and two families. This was a huge victory for us. We heaved a huge sigh of relief in our jubilation.

People of all ages and genders participated in the protest. Two recent mothers joined in with their infants, despite the intense heat. Both the women had not eaten anything since morning, their breasts had no milk, making their children unwitting participants in the hunger strike.

To obtain a ten-by-ten-foot piece of land, one has to visit the corporation office some two hundred times. Some people do this for years together. Even then the corporation rarely takes any action. When the judiciary gives its approval to “remove the poor”, others take it as an excuse to hound them for their blood.

When the people of the Maninagar settlement went to reclaim their possessions at the municipal office, they got nothing back. This despite the deputy commissioner JD Saya’s promise to return them their belongings. In the unfolding of this process, the officers of the municipal corporation showed us their true colours and where their loyalties lay.

We were tired. Mukesh, a friend from Maninagar, came up to me and said, “In the last two days we have spent about five hundred rupees on travel alone. We no longer have the strength to fight.” His voice betrayed how little faith he had left in the government. He told me that many children had become unwell because of the heat. I felt like we had all fallen ill.

Theatre was a great outlet for many of us in such situations. In March 2006, a nomadic and Denotified communities fair was held at Kaleshwari where we performed three plays: Mujhe mat maro, saab [Don’t beat me, Sir], Idgaah [Prayer ground] and Ulgulan [The Great Tumult]. We were to perform in the scorching heat outdoors. It felt as if the ground itself was on fire. Standing there without footwear was next to impossible. Yet, all of us performed barefoot. By the end, we all had sores on our feet. In our passion to narrate our stories, we completely forgot about the blistering heat.

Jeetu was the lead actor of Mujhe mat maro, saab. His father had been in prison for six months and his bail application had been rejected twice by the high court. Back in the day, both our fathers were partners in crime, quite literally thick as thieves. And now we were here together.

On the day of the performance the bail application was being filed for the third time. We were all hoping for the best. But the plea was rejected once again. Jeetu was shattered. At first, he refused to perform. But then he took the stage anyway.

Sandeep, another of our fellow troupe members, who had been in prison for the past three months on false charges of homicide, was out on parole for eighteen days so he could write his university exams. He had to return to prison on 28 March 2006. The performance was on 26 March.

Sandeep came to me a day before the performance and said, “Dakxin... I want to perform before I go back to prison. Please take me to Kaleshwari.” I could see how passionate he was. I did not even ask him to rehearse. I was confident he would be able to improvise during the performance.

Like a bird, Sandeep was always ready to take wing, and perhaps it was theatre that helped him survive the cage-like walls of the prison. Sandeep had a bit of a stammer, but surprisingly, even without any rehearsal, he gave an excellent performance at Kaleshwari.

Vimukta: Freedom Stories

Excerpted with permission from Vimukta: Freedom Stories, edited by Dakxin Bajrange and Henry Schwarz, Navayana.