On the night of October 4, when Mumbai businessman Manoj Kumar Reddy returned home from work, he found his 11-year-old daughter in tears. The trees in Aarey Colony were being cut, she told him.
Earlier that day, the Bombay High Court had dismissed a batch of petitions challenging the Mumbai civic corporation’s decision to allow the cutting of more than 2,600 trees in Aarey Colony, a forested expanse in northern Mumbai, to make way for a controversial metro rail car shed. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation – the government agency in charge of the metro – hastily began to fell trees that very night. Hundreds of citizens who have been protesting the car shed proposal since September were left distraught, including Reddy’s young daughter.
“It broke my heart to see her crying, so I told her I would go to Aarey and do my best to save the trees,” said Reddy.
That night, as Reddy joined a large crowd of protestors at Aarey, he was lathi-charged by the police, shoved into a police van and detained along with more than 100 other people. After spending a night in police detention, 29 of the protesters were arrested, sent to Thane jail and slapped with a variety of non-bailable criminal charges, including Section 353 of the Indian Penal Code (assault of criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging duty).
By the time Reddy and the 28 others were released on bail on October 6 and the Supreme Court ordered a stay on the felling of Aarey trees, much damage had already been done. The MMRC had finished cutting 2,141 trees, and 29 citizens and their shaken families were left grappling with the trauma of their arrests.
On October 10, organisers of the “Save Aarey” protests brought several of the 29 citizens together to speak to the media about their ordeal of being arrested for a peaceful protest.
Contrary to the claims of Whatsapp forwards that the protestors were “Maoists Missionaries and Mullahs”, this was not a group of seasoned social justice campaigners. Instead, it was a diverse group of students, professionals and businesspeople of different age groups and different parts of the city.
Scroll.in spoke to several of the protesters and found them all asking the same question: “Why were we treated like criminals?”
‘It was scary and humiliating’
An engineer by profession, Manan Desai is an avid environment blogger with more than 25,000 followers. Since he has been actively involved in beach clean-up activities in Mumbai for the past few years, raising a voice in support of Aarey trees was a natural extension of Desai’s work. At Aarey protests that he began attending in September, Desai feared that the police could detain them, but never expected to actually be arrested.
In Thane jail, the arrested protesters were made to share cells with criminals charged with murder and rape, and were made to undergo all the routine procedures for jail inmates. “They cut our hair short, shaved our beards and even made us strip for a body check,” said Desai, who lives in Mumbai’s Kandivali area. “It was scary and humiliating, and has been traumatic for our families too.”
Desai is particularly upset about the criminal charges filed against him and the 28 others. “If violent rioters were arrested and treated the way we have been treated, there would be no more mob lynchings in this country,” said Desai. “Instead, those people are allowed to roam free, and we have been called anti-nationals, urban Naxals and activists funded by Christian missionaries. All this is very undemocratic and unconstitutional.”
‘I still have sleepless nights’
Born and raised in the area of Goregaon, Swapna Swar has always felt a strong bond with the trees of Aarey Colony nearby. She began attending protests against the metro car shed in September, when demonstrators began organising long human chains in Aarey every weekend.
“So when I heard that the trees were being cut that night, I got scared and ran to Aarey,” said Swar, a math teacher. “Clean air is a human right, and when we went to peacefully protest the tree cutting for the sake of our environment, we were put in jail. Do we deserve this treatment?”
Even though Swar is getting plenty of support from friends and family, getting arrested was a traumatic experience she never imagined she would have to face. “I still have sleepless nights thinking about it,” said Swar, who has also stopped logging on to social media because of all the trolling she has been subjected to. “I needed to stop reading all that because I am afraid I of having a breakdown after everything that has happened.”
‘We are just ordinary citizens’
While most ‘Save Aarey’ protesters are from Mumbai, some, like 23-year-old Mimansa Singh from Kolkata, are not locals. Singh is doing her Master’s in law at Mumbai’s Tata Institute for Social Sciences and had exams all through this past week. “If we had not got bail, I would have had to write my exams under police protection,” said Singh. “But I don’t mind because this is a greater cause.”
Singh describes herself as a conservationist who began attending protests against the Aarey metro car shed just a few weeks before her arrest on October 4. “Most of us protesters are not a part of some organised movement – we are just ordinary citizens.”
Singh parents want her to stop participating in Aarey protests, and Singh claims she understands their fears for her safety. “Today’s middle class is very scared of the state, and the fear is legitimate considering the way we were treated when we came forward to speak for the environment,” she said. “But this is something that needs to be done.”
‘Our future is at stake’
A resident of Mayur Nagar, 21-year-old Swapnil Pawar is a fourth-generation resident of the Aarey Colony area. On October 4, when officials began felling trees in the forested area, Pawar and his friend were among the first to arrive at the spot. “I shot a video of what was happening and sent it out to all the ‘Save Aarey’ groups [on social media], which led to protesters gathering at Aarey,” said Pawar.
Sometime after midnight, when a large police force had barricaded all entrances and exits from the Aarey Colony site, it began rounding up protesters for detention. “At the police station, they refused to answer our questions, did not allow us to make phone calls and kept saying we would be released in the morning,” said Pawar. “But in the morning, they ended up arresting us.”
Since his arrest and bail, Pawar has been trolled online by several of his own friends, and his parents have been angry with him for participating in the protests to protect Aarey. “They are scared because with these criminal charges against us, our future is at stake,” said Pawar, who has just completed a hotel management course and hopes to study abroad. “Those plans might get affected if the charges against us are not dropped.”