Nobody knows what to make of them, this army of people who rose up in the heart of a populous city and turned on state forces. Elsewhere – in the jungles of Chhattisgarh, the chowks of the Kashmir Valley or the hills of Manipur – they would have been called terrorists, militants, insurgents, leftwing extremists. But the Swadhin Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah, which set up base in Jawahar Bagh in the northern city of Mathura, has inspired a confusion of terms in the mainstream media.
Several reports describe how the “satyagrahis” fired at policemen from tree tops, tossed hand grenades, set off cylinder explosions and engaged in armed combat. The face-off that started on Thursday evening has killed at least 29 people, including two policemen. Not exactly your textbook satyagrahi, agitating for truth – or specific political demands, at any rate – through rituals of penance and self-abnegation.
Other reports recount how the “violent squatters” kidnapped a policeman before lynching him to death. These squatters occupied the park, set up makeshift houses, ran a parallel government and lived off secret consignments of vegetables, rice and sugar that they offered to sell way below the market price. Clean-up operations in Jawahar Bagh yielded a rich crop of weapons and ammunition hoarded by these so-called encroachers. Not exactly your average neighbourhood squatter, sleeping under tarpaulin sheets and cooking frugal meals over smoky fires.
At the most, the 3,000 people occupying Jawahar Bagh since 2014 were members of a Bose “cult”, which trained children how to use arms and raised several battalions ready to swing into action. And Ram Vriksh Yadav, the slain chief of the cult, has been called a “rebel leader”, giving him more ideological coherence than he probably had. One report mentions that the people living in the surrounding colonies called them Naxalites, but they don’t seem to fit that description either.
Some of this verbal confusion stems from the fact that people are plain stumped. Before the police tried to evict its members on Thursday, few outside Mathura had heard of the Swadhin Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah and its armed wing, the Swadhin Bharat Subhash Sena. In the ashes of the settlement at Jawahar Bagh, a fantastical organisation is slowly coming to light.
A godman founder who claimed he was Subhas Chandra Bose. A chief who wanted a new “Azad Hind Fauj currency” and believed the real value of the rupee was kept hidden by sinister foreign interests; one rupee could actually buy 40 litres of petrol and 12 tolas of gold. A movement for “economic freedom” that also called for abolishing the post of prime minister and president. Children who chanted revolutionary mantras for their morning prayers. Indian patriotism meets the dream of secession from the Indian state, some sort of half-strangled mysticism meets crackpot economics. How do you place such a group on the spectrum of political opinions and intentions?
Some reports sceptically describe the settlement at Jawahar Bagh as a “‘free nation’ camp”. How do you even begin to define this upside-down country within a country?
And the outlandish
But look at the geography of Jawahar Bagh and you might find another reason why its inhabitants were not recognised as militants or insurgents. The park was nestled inside a genteel locality in Mathura, populated by government servants. From their rooftops, colony residents saw the activists turn into settlers, their children wielding lathis every morning.
This particular brand of political violence was brewed in the heart of a bureaucratic locality, in a city in the Hindi heartland that also happens to be a popular site of pilgrimage. For those producing and reading news in the urban Indian mainland, this does not square with the familiar image of militancy. Militancy grows elsewhere, tucked out of sight.
The troubled soil of Kashmir, sealed off by decades of violence, the terrains of the North East, attached to the rest of the country by a narrow neck of land, tribal villages in Chhattisgarh, cloaked in stories of deprivation – in the national imagination, these are, quite literally, outlandish places, cut off as they are from the mainland. And who knows what outlandish movements and ideologies may prosper there.
So when two policemen were killed in Kashmir last week, reports did not hesitate to call the killers militants. Maoist “insurgents” in Chhattisgarh have long been targeted by “anti-terrorism operations”. Separatist groups in Nagaland, some of them under ceasefire and running rebel governments of their own, are still called militant outfits. The names for violence change with the geography. In large, bustling cities, shootouts and encounters are law and order problems, hooliganism, gang violence.
Besides, the “squatters” of Jawahar Bagh had developed rather lasting ties with people around them. The Mulayam Singh Yadav government itself had given permission for a gaggle of “activists” to protest there two years ago, and Ram Vriksh Yadav, who reportedly strode around the city with guns, had close ties with one of the Samajwadi Party factions. The channels of influence flowed from the political to the bureaucratic, and the local administration turned a blind eye to the encroachment.
If the Swadhin Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah is charged with insurgency or militancy, the political and bureaucratic apparatus of Mathura would also be implicated in it. And that would be a bridge too far.