By Teesta Setalvad
Jan 06, 2014
Modi’s statement that ‘relief camps are baby-making factories’ has become iconic of state abdication and cruelty. Uttar Pradesh chief secretary’s claim that “no one dies of cold; go check Siberia” has joined this cruel iconography.
No man’s land is land under international law, land between nations or disputing parties, land under dispute, where uncertainty and ambiguity govern, land that no authority or state controls but significantly where no laws, national or others, apply.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially those displaced by man-made tragedies, deliberate plans of development or natural disasters are recognised as among the world’s most vulnerable people because they have not crossed international borders but remain under the protection of their own government, even though the government’s abdication of its fundamental duties and people’s rights may be the cause of their desperate flight.
Responsibility for their welfare must and should rest with the state. However, the culture of impunity prevalent in a country that has failed to book powerful state actors for their fundamental failure in governance — to protect, without prejudice or bias, the lives of the poor and underprivileged as much as the politically shrill and powerful — has blurred responsibility for the plight and conditions of IDPs.
In 2002, as 1, 68,000 IDPs were forcibly and cruelly evicted from their homes by marauding mobs in Gujarat, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) supported a PIL that finally ensured that the Gujarat state accepted responsibility for the rations (grains, tea, milk and sugar) that was until then being borne by community organisations. The plight of those who were forced to live as cattle herd in essentially difficult conditions was made worse by the state’s desperate rush to hold elections. This meant “cleaning up” the blood and gore by forcibly closing the camps.
Eleven years later, the response of the state, under a different political dispensation, after the violence in Uttar Pradesh’s four districts of Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut and Baghpat, is worse.
Faced with five petitions in the Supreme Court, and keen to maintain the gloss on its blemished image, the nine reports filed by the Uttar Pradesh government are obfuscations of the reality on the ground. As lead petitioners in one of the cases, we have submitted proof that the reports of the district officials contradict what the state is officially submitting to the highest court of the land.
Over 33,000 people forcibly displaced from their homes by the terror unleashed by a more powerful Jat community are today living on open state and Central government land and private residences. Those in “camps” live in sub-human conditions — many were living in tents, in bitter cold and rain and this resulted in several deaths — until they were forcibly evicted. Nineteen camps in Shamli district and two in Loi were and are testimony to the gross abdication of state responsibility. Food and clothing was donated generously by private individuals; state presence in distribution was limited to a fortnight except the packets of milk that continued to come to Mallakpur relief camp until recently. (In September-October 2013 the numbers were 45,000).
Even as the state cynically carried out forcible evictions, three-year-old Uvez died in the Manna Majra camp on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013. The affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in mid-December contains the names of 23 children and adults who had died in the camps because of ailments related essentially to the inhuman conditions in sub-human temperatures. Two twin baby girls died within hours of being born as far back as September 10, 2013, at the Jaula camp. Days before we travelled again through the camps where it is impossible to stay after 5 pm, when wind and cold settles in, two-day-old Chhotu (he was not given a name), son of Manga, died; one-day-old Chhotu (again, he was not even given a name), son of Azad, died at Phugana on November 28, 2013.
A few kilometres away from the Mallakpur camp is a colony of re-settlers, displaced by a flood 30 years ago. The state has no desire to vacate them from their irregular habitats and these colonies in Rathoda, Baghpat and Soop-Silana have become their permanent home.
Both sets of IDPs had to make homes on forest/state government land, yet the state appears to be treating the two sets of IDPs differently. Why?
What is worse? Death by mob violence (over 80 dead and a few dozen missing) or those deaths that were avoidable and yet took place under the state’s redoubled watch in these camps?
Narendra Modi’s statement on September 9, 2002, at the temple town of Becharaji in Mehsana, the launching pad of his Gaurav Yatra and 2002 election campaign, that “relief camps are baby-making factories” has become iconic of state abdication and cruelty. And Mulayam Singh Yadav’s sickening statement that “those in relief camps are Congress and BJP workers” and his chief secretary’s claim that “no one dies of cold; go check Siberia” have joined this cruel iconography.
Pushed by outrage and criticism, and the findings of a government committee, the Uttar Pradesh government was compelled, three days after
Mr Yadav’s irresponsible comments, to admit that 34 deaths had indeed taken place in the relief camps between September 7 and December 20.
As we have pleaded in the petition, the Supreme Court should appoint a court commission (like it did at the time of the right to food petition) to ensure regular and impartial monitoring of the ground situation and feedback to the court. Though 436 FIRs have been filed in Muzaffarnagar, little action has been taken. Powerful accused with allegiance to the BJP, like Sangeet Som, have not just been released on bail but were even felicitated in Agra with the PM-in-waiting in tow. Chilling accounts of brutal sexual violence on 19 girls and women await legal and judicial note and redressal.
Responsibility for the protection of fundamental rights (right to life, property and protection before the law) under the Indian Constitutional lies not just with the state government, but ultimately also with the Centre. At least as far as the IDPs are concerned what stopped the Centre from calling in the Army to ensure that our own people, little babies and pregnant women (there are over 100 in the camps) are well fed, clothed and protected from the cold? The same obduration that cuts across party lines, and the fact that our political elites have little respect for human life.
It is this bitter reality that impelled a movement in this country to demand the enactment of a law that fixes responsibility for perpetrated and mass communal violence and humane rehabilitation — the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Right to Justice and Reparations) Bill. Strident opponents of the bill, including the forces that have benefited from communal polarisation, have so far succeeded in bullying the Centre from even tabling the proposed law for discussion. It remains to be seen if this UPA government, though floundering and weak, will keep the promise made in its Common Minimum Programme in 2004, and at least table the proposed legislation in the Rajya Sabha, to then be debated under the next dispensation.
Teesta Setalvad is a journalist, legal rights activist and secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace