Here's the latest letter from Pragya Bhagat in Bhopal, where survivors of the 1984 gas tragedy are still asking the state government for clean water and medical care, after twenty-two years!
March 9, 2007
Day 18 of Sit In
Day 5 of Indefinite Fast
The police are regular visitors now, "ensuring our safety" as they like to call it. The doctors visit fairly often too, examining and testing the six fasters whose bodies grow weaker by the day. Walking has become an arduous chore, so they lie in blankets, waiting. They wait for the meeting with the Chief Minister the collector said he would try for when he dropped by again today. They wait for that puke factor to leave their gut so they can focus on other things, like their families. They wait for something, anything that indicates that Shivraj Singh Chauhan is ready to redeem himself by agreeing to the demands set forth a year ago. They wait for a sign that today might be the last day, that they will get to go home and sleep on real beds and take real baths in real bathrooms instead of a makeshift structure curtained by blue plastic. They wait, as they have been waiting for twenty-two excruciating years.
Five o'clock arrives soon enough, but there is no news of the alleged meeting with Chauhan. Disappointment is not a new phenomenon, especially where our interaction with the Madhya Pradesh government is concerned. There is no sign of the Chief Minister, but a large ambulance truck does pull in close to our tent. All eyes are on the policemen and other personnel coming out of the vehicle. They come to our tent, and ask questions about the fasters' health. Have you experienced dizziness? How are you feeling? The answers are short and meant to ward away the people that might want to take the fasters away forcibly. Fine. Great. There are no problems. The ambulance leaves soon enough, but a cluster of policemen remain. These messengers of the government seem to have made our tent their second home.
The tent has become a home for many people, the newest additions being two middle-aged men from Chattisgarh. They are associated with the Dalit movement there, focusing on eliminating the sexual exploitation of women. Mahendra is the more gregarious of the two; he explains how they plan to stay in Bhopal until the survivors get what they are demanding. He used to be a typist for All India Radio until 1990, when he left his job to dedicate himself to the struggle for Dalit's rights. This story echoes the stories of Sathyu and Rachna, who also left their respective jobs to dedicate themselves to the movement of the gas-affected Bhopalis. And here they are today, on their fifth day of fasting, busy with phone calls, finding legal documents, emailing people that eagerly await every morsel of news from Bhopal. They fuel the campaign with their tremendous work ethic and dedication.
Dusk quickly sets in, and a lone light bulb dimly lights the tent. Today the police might come to clear us out of the Tinshed. Everyone scurries around, formulating their own plans of action for the night. A list of media contacts is made, people to call if a raid were to occur. Gulab Bai and Hajara Bi make a pepper powder mixture to protect themselves with. The children strategize over who will hold the policeman's arm and who will grab his/her leg. Pull their cheeks really hard, someone says. We laugh. The six fasters put their beds together, and chain themselves to the tent. Chain link metal with locks, the whole nine yards. And then we do what we have been doing all day-we wait. More men arrive from the bastis and two people from Yuva Samwad come to spend the night. We learn new songs and sing the old ones with a warm familiarity. We dance. We drink tea to stay awake and at one thirty in the morning, most of us decide to call it a night. The police watch from a distance, but no one dares to come near us. We smile to ourselves as our eyes shut out the darkness.
An update from the future ;)