Demonstrations against a metro rail car shed planned inside a forest in North Mumbai hit national headlines again this week as “Save Aarey” protesters shouted slogans and waved signs outside actor Amitabh Bachchan’s house. On Thursday – the second day of protests against the film star – the Mumbai police detained several of the sloganeers, dragging them into police vans.

The protesters were responding to Bachchan’s tweet on September 17, praising the convenience and efficiency of metro rail transport while also calling on Mumbai residents to “grow more trees” as a solution for pollution.

The way members of the Save Aarey movement saw it, Bachchan’s tweet appeared to express support for the Maharashtra government’s controversial August 29 decision to cut 2,700 trees on 30 hectares of Aarey land to make way for the metro car shed. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited – the agency implementing the metro project – claims it will compensate for the tree felling by planting three times as many saplings elsewhere. “Save Aarey” protesters, however, demand that the car shed be shifted to an alternate site, since Aarey and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park are Mumbai’s last remaining green lungs.

Along with Bachchan, Aarey forest defenders also criticised actor Akshay Kumar on Wednesday for posting a video of himself travelling on the Ghatkopar-Versova metro line and smoothly reaching his destination in 20 minutes. Both Bachchan and Kumar’s tweets were retweeted by the metro rail corporation and its chief Ashwini Bhide, who thanked the actors for their support for the metro.

“Save Aarey” activists told that they were not objecting to the actors expressing support for metro rail transport in Mumbai, but to the timing of the endorsements.

Ever since the beginning of September, when the Aarey protests gathered steam and hundreds of Mumbai residents attended rallies across the city, activists claim they have faced intense harassment and even intimidation from people who support the construction of the metro car shed in the forest. The proponents of the project have been trying to discredit the “Save Aarey” movement by accusing protesters of opposing not just the car shed but the entire metro plan. The tweets by Bachchan and Kumar, say activists, feed into this narrative.

“None of the Aarey protesters have denied the benefits of having a metro, but we just do not want a car shed in an existing forest,” said Sarita Fernandes, a conservation officer at environmental rights organisation Vanashakti. “We have faced hostility and harassment for this stance.”

Hate mail, abuse

Among the many organisations and citizens’ groups fighting to save Aarey, Vanashakti has been at the receiving end of severe harassment.

In 2018, Vanashakti had petitioned the National Green Tribunal to officially designate Aarey as a forest and a “no-construction zone”, since the 1,300-hectare green expanse is home to at least five lakh trees, 27 Adivasi villages, and nine leopards. The tribunal claimed it did not have jurisdiction over the matter, and the case is now being heard in the Supreme Court.

Vanashakti has also been at the forefront of engaging with government and civic officials, attempting to convince them about the viability of shifting the proposed car shed to an alternative site in the suburb of Kanjurmarg.

Fernandes claims Vanashakti members have been facing intimidation and abuse through a targeted campaign over the past few weeks. “Last week, two unknown people called up our office and abused our administrative staff,” she said. “We have also received hate mail and trolling online.”

Some social media users, she said, have made unfounded attacks on Vanashakti’s audit reports and NGO registration, and also publicly targeted Muslim and Christian staff members for abuse. “We are not scared, though,” said Fernandes. “We have filed defamation suits against the people behind these social media accounts.”

Phone threats

While Vanashakti focuses on litigation, organisers of the “Save Aarey” rallies on the ground claim that they too have faced intimidation. “The police has been keeping track of people who attend Aarey protests regularly, and has noted down names and numbers of several people,” claimed a protest organiser who requested anonymity. “Two weeks ago, one of our members got a call from a cop who told him not to attend the next protest. It was quite a clear threat.”

Online, “Save Aarey” supporters have been targeted by “pro-metro” social media users hashtags like #Mumbaikadard and #AareyAikaNa to blame Aarey defenders of being unsympathetic towards the average Mumbai resident’s travel woes. “There have also been articles in right-wing publications describing us as anti-social elements sabotaging the metro work,” said the anonymous protest organiser. “But we are also seeing many citizens writing strong rebuttals to these accusations online.”