Before I was put on the road to Bawana, I had made plans for the rest of the day. These plans included two doctor’s appointments and several hours of reading, a lunch of fried fish and vegetables, and an hour or two of Netflix.
Before I was put on the road to Bawana, I travelled with a friend to the Chawri Bazar metro. We emerged into gorgeous sunshine and many crossed electricity wires, hopped onto a cycle rickshaw and took an exhilaratingly hair-rising ride past dilapidated mansions and shops and people people people, to Ramlila Maidan.
We didn’t actually know where Ramlila Maidan was. The rickshawwala pointed to a ramshackle roundabout and said it was just beyond that. We told him to drop us off a little distance away, and then walked up to what we’d been told was the main entrance. There were lots of police people. One of them approached us and asked where we wanted to go. To Ramlila Maidan was the blithe answer. Okay, but this is not the main entrance – that is around the corner over there, we were told authoritatively. Alright, we nod.
They repeat the verbal directions, this time accompanied by hand gestures, just in case we had not understood. How helpful they’re being, I remark to my friend – I guess individual members of the Delhi Police can still be decent. We feel quite happy at this renewed belief in human goodness, and walk in the direction indicated to us.
Turning the corner
We turn the corner, and sure enough, there are even more police people amassed there. Seeing them, some degree of nervousness sets in. I remember the WhatsApp messages that had arrived just as we were exiting the metro station: be very very careful. Police are rounding up people. I had ignored those messages. The sun was shining, and we were going to join thousands of people who had finally found their voice. And the cops had been so nice and helpful.
We turn the corner, and have not even entered Ramlila Maidan, whose main entrance is still a little distance away. The new set of cops – rather more numerous and armed than the previous set – asks us where we want to go. This time, instead of answering directly, we ask where Ramlila Maidan is. Those words galvanise the police into action. We are told that if we are looking to join the protest, then it is happening at Jantar Mantar and not in Ramlila Maidan. Okay, we say, we’ll go to Jantar Mantar.
The man cop smiles, and instructs a woman cop to put us in a van. It will take you to Jantar Mantar, he assures us. My friend is held by the arms and marched in to the van. I resist. We can make our own way to Jantar Mantar, I say. The statement is met with a smirk; my arms are held firmly and I too am marched to the van. This entire episode takes a few minutes. Every time I resist, I am briefly released, and other people turning the corner, as we too had just done, are shoved into the van before the cops turn back to me.
Which van are we going in – that one over there with the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh flag on it, I ask. There is a brief glance of consternation. That’s not an RSS flag, I’m told, it’s a Jai Mata Di flag. I continue to protest that Delhi Police seems to be in cahoots with Hindu fundamentalists. I am pushed into the van, and the driver is told to remove the flag. But I’ve just been to the temple, he grumbles. I ask if the van too has been to the temple. A sharp glare from him – from now on we’re enemies. The dashboard has idols of multiple Hindu gods on it, and there are several more Jai Mata Di flags inside the van, but I feel I can’t push my luck in asking for them too to be removed.
There are eight of us in the van – four women and four men. Four police people – two men and two women – are bundled into the van with us. In response to multiple questions, the destination of the van has now changed from Jantar Mantar to Unknown. We drive a short distance and stop by the Kamala Market police station. More stern police people are amassed on the pavement. The Assistant Commissioner of Police steadfastly refuses to answer all questions directed at him. Instructions about our destination are barked at the driver. In turn, he says he needs money to fill the tank with petrol. We take off, fill petrol, and then, finally, we are on our way. On the road to Bawana.
Bawana is in North Delhi, near the border with Haryana, and these are roads on which I travel often. We keep driving north north north, the driver looking often at the GPS on his phone. After some time, I give up my front seat to the cop who is guarding us. He tells us that his son too had come for the protest but that he had sent him back home. The son is a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He needs to study, the cop says. But what country will he inherit if he doesn’t protest, I ask. To which there is no response, because the cop feels he has already said too much. Which he has.
Losing our way
The road to Bawana is longer than I expected. We have turned off the main highway, and are now in Rohini. We go down the same road twice. It quickly becomes clear that the driver is lost. He takes us down the side of a canal, then realises that isn’t where he wants to be, so he starts to turn the van around on the narrow road bordering the canal. Even the cops start shouting at him, saying he will drown us all. Somehow he manages to turn the van around, and we resume being lost.
We drive around aimlessly for another hour. The driver has no idea where he is going, but is so invested in being in charge that he will not let on or ask anyone for directions. Young men in North India who have very few prospects and therefore a great need to feel macho: according to sociologists, this seems to have been the profile of the rioters in North East Delhi.
The situation is becoming untenable. We are lost. We suggest stopping at a dhaba for chai and samosas. The only suggestion that is accepted is that we look at Google maps and direct the driver towards our own incarceration. And that is what we do. My friend directs. The driver drives. To lighten the atmosphere, a water balloon comes sailing at one of the windows of the van and disgorges its contents. Holi is around the corner.
Finally, the van on the road to Bawana arrives in Bawana – at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, to be precise. Long consultations at the gate, and then we are driven into the stadium, where the van takes a u-turn and stops. We are ordered to get off the van. I am the first to disembark, and the official videographer (seconded away from his usual job of filming weddings and receptions, perhaps) gets a full view of me.
I glare at the camera, and walk up to the building, where there is a receiving line of police. Women and men are told to stand in separate queues, and every one of us is asked for our name, number, and address. I have already been warned by a friend that I should not provide false information, so I tell the truth, including about my mother’s name (poor thing!). The women cops usher me into the building and I am pointed in the direction of the loo.
Luckily for me, this loo turns out to be the first of two welcome surprises that day. Like all Indian women of my class, I am horrified at the thought of using a public loo. But I have no idea for how long we will be in the detention camp at Bawana, so I need to use it. And thankfully, the loo turns out to be a useable one. Clean, and with running water in the taps. The water runs out later, so I am glad that I used the toilet when I did. And then we are given bottles of water, which too is a welcome relief.
We are ushered up some stairs to what must have been the gymnastics and boxing wing of the stadium: one side of the large room is covered with gymnastic mats, while the other houses two full-sized boxing rings. A cracked mirror is hanging on a pillar in the middle of the room. Over the course of the afternoon, several of the male detainees walk up to the mirror to groom themselves. One of them even has a brush for his beard. For some reason, the women stay away from the mirror.
There are about 80 people in this large pen – our group of eight are the latest and last entrants. From what I can gather, everyone has been picked up in a similar manner – directed by the first set of cops to the Corner of Deceit, and then rounded up. But some people there had been rounded up just for daring to walk on the road in front of Ramlila Maidan; two women in hijab had been on their way to an appointment with an eye doctor.
Now that I’ve mentioned hijab, perhaps this is a good time for a quick note on clothes?
On the road to Bawana, I was thinking of how the prime minister had said, after the first anti-Citizenship Amedment Act protests had taken shape around the country, that we would be able to recognise the protestors by their clothes. By this, he meant to suggest that all anti-CAA protestors are Muslims who wear “Muslim clothes”.
The big shock for the Hindutva brigade, of course, is that the anti-CAA protests are fuelled by Indians of every stripe and faith and class and caste and gender. And we all dress differently.
But what is notable about the contempt with which the cops treat my friend and I is that our clothes – which would once have marked us as being educated and of an “upper class” and which would once have provided us with several more layers of protection than is available to poor members of minority communities, for instance – are now the basis on which we are treated badly. Here is the revolution by the have-nots against the haves, but rather than happening in the name of freedom or equality or justice, it is happening in the name of fascism.
On the road to Bawana, we looked up “preventive detention in India”. The basis and procedure of such detention follows a law first promulgated as the Preventive Detention Act of 1950, and renewed several times and in different guises since then. This law allows any government to order that people be detained if they are suspected of adversely affecting “the security of the State or the maintenance of public order”. No reason needs to be provided to the detainees for their detention, though the grounds have to be disclosed within five days.
No legal recourse
And there’s more. “No suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings shall lie against any person for anything in good faith done or intended to be done in pursuance of this Act”. This now explains even more the contempt on the faces of all the police personnel to whom I address my questions: they know they have immunity and act therefore with impunity. And why wouldn’t they, when the only judge who has thus far stood up to the Delhi Police and its current masters – Justice S Muralidhar – was transferred immediately after calling the police to account for its shameful role in the Delhi riots? No suit shall lie against them, indeed.
But I digress: we are now off the road to Bawana and in the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium. In a large room with about 80 other people. We had been picked up around 11.30 am, and it was now about 2 pm. We are all getting hungry. Some oranges are produced by two generous students, and are the most delicious segments of citrus I have ever eaten. And then some students sit in a group and start to sing. Songs and slogans of protest, each one wittier and more biting than the last. Food and entertainment! But soon the oranges are over, and throats are hoarse.
Some people stretch out and fall asleep; some intrepid students had brought along course books that they now start to read. I have not carried any books with me, and so cannot do any reading for my classes the next day. If indeed I will be able to teach my classes the next day? It is sobering to think how easily my day’s plans have been derailed: no doctor’s appointments, no fried fish, and no reading. And this happens to how many people all over the country every single day? I think it best not to make any plans as yet for the next day.
On a couple of occasions, I wander outside the pen to speak to the cops. Both times I ask if we will be given food. No, they say, there is no one to go out and get the food. They too, they aver, have gone without any food since early that morning. I try not to look too pointedly at the empty biscuit wrappers that are lying about their feet, the bags with tiffin boxes that swing on their chairs. Why are they lying, I wonder? To create a sense of solidarity with us?
Destroying the nation
A few of the cops have been nice enough to us, and might well have been motivated by this reason. They have even asked us what we are protesting, whether we are in support of or opposed to the CAA. I say sardonically that we wouldn’t be here if we supported the CAA, since those rallyists are never detained or arrested. One of the cops is nasty, and snaps at me to say that our protests are destroying the nation.
I say that we are supporting the nation and opposing the government, but I might as well have said nothing since no one is really listening. One of the nicer cops is tuned in to the prime minister’s self-propaganda show, Mann ki Baat. Several of the others are craning their necks to listen. I walk back in.
At 4 pm, we are told that we will be let go at 5 pm. The rally in Jantar Mantar is drawing to a close, and they will let us go after it is over. Some of the cops sound almost apologetic, but only almost. Just-following-orders is always their response when we ask them why they are doing what they are doing.
At 5 pm – again filmed by the videographer – we are sent back out on the road in Bawana. But how do we make our way back from here? There are no buses in sight, and no autorickshaws. The metro is half an hour away. The cops shrug their shoulders as they get into their cars and jeeps, leaving all 80 of us standing on the road in Bawana.
The road home
Luckily, one bus comes by. And some Ubers respond. My friend and I take an Uber to the nearest metro station, which is listed as being 30 minutes away. But the GPS frequently leads us to dead-end roads surrounded by fields. It is beginning to grow dark as we lurch from one road to the next: clearly, it is not easy to get back from the roads of Bawana. Fortunately for us, we have a staunch driver who keeps asking for directions, and finally, an hour and a half later, we reach the metro station. It is not until we get on to the metro – seven hours after being picked up by the police – that I believe I am going home.
The next day, buried in an inside page, I read the report on the rally and the detentions. Apparently 185 of us had been detained, and several buses carrying students had simply not been permitted to reach Jantar Mantar. According to the paper, those of us who had been detained had been booked under Section 63 of the Delhi Police Act. I looked up the act, and it stipulates that “persons [are] bound to comply with the reasonable directions of police officer[s]”. No prizes for guessing who defines “reasonable directions”.
I reached home at 7.30 pm, six hours after I had thought I would get home that day, and started reading for my classes the next day.
Madhavi Menon is the author most recently of Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India.