Khateeja Begum is middle aged woman, who rarely steps out of her house, and never without covering her head. And yet when I saw her first, she was sitting with great dignity, with a resolute purpose writ large on her face, on a stage erected near a busy intersection, on the fourth day of the hunger strike! "Yesterday she fainted", one of the young activists told me with awe. "We had to take her to AIIMS, where they gave her two bottles of glucose intravenously. When she opened her eyes, she demanded to be taken right back to the dharna so that she could resume her hunger strike!"
What is it that gave her so much courage? What gives courage to women like Khateeja Begum and Manjeet Kaur and Kamlesh, men like Raju, Manoj Kumar, Ansari and Sanju who participated in the hunger strike and other forms of struggle? What is it that awoke the sleeping giants in people like her?
These people are residents of Transit Camp in Kalkaji, South Delhi, a settlement of brick buildings and structures that has grown vertically over the years along with the size of the residents’ families, and more importantly, resources. This particular story starts way back in 1985, when thousands of slum-dwellers from different parts of Delhi found their huts demolished by the MCD, their possessions destroyed and their dreams in a shambles. Set back by decades, 1720 families at least got some space officially allotted to them in the Transit Camp, as vouched for in papers that they show you.
They were supposed to be resettled elsewhere, but that never happened. The Transit Camp was set up in a jungle infested with vermin of all kinds. After sunset the predators of the "human" kind imposed, in effect, a sort of unofficial curfew. The residents lived in fear and in hope that their resettlement would be in more conducive surroundings. Day by day these hopes were belied. All they could do was make the best of what was served out to them.
They did that, patiently and diligently. Brick by brick they built up their homes and their shattered lives. More than twenty years of labour of entire families converted the shacks into permanent structures. As and when they could afford it, they increased the size of their dwellings, adding floors and rooms. "We came here with our 3 sons", an old gentleman informed me. Now they have children of their own. How could we all stay in the tiny room provided to us?" "We sold all our other possessions so that we could live better in this place", a woman said. "We have nothing else, either in the city or in our village. We have nowhere else to go to."
An entire generation has been born and brought up in the Transit Camp. "Do you see that young child?" One of the women asked me. "She is my son’s daughter. My son was just her age when we had to shift here. He remembers no other life."
For more than 20 years they lived there, under the eyes of various authorities and political "leaders". The settlement has electricity and water connections. Various political netas never tire of begging for their votes.
Life went on. Till all of a sudden, on April 26, 2006, there was a bolt from the blue. The Delhi High Court issued orders for the demolition of Transit Camp and the DDA and Delhi Police to report on the results of the demolition on May 15, 2006 to the High Court.
Immediately a small group of youth activists sprung into action. They called LRS activists for a meeting on April 29, 2006 to discuss what the people should do. The informal meeting, held at 10 pm in the night, attracted over 70 women and men. The decision was taken to fight the onslaught on the rights and livelihood of people bothe throufh the courts as well as mass mobilisation.
On May 1, a militant May Day march was organised through the gullies of Transit Camp which culminated in a rally in which over 500 women and men participated. The march was under two banners — Agar Transit Camp Bachana Hai, Sabko Bahar Aana Hai, and a huge banner of Lok Raj Sangathan was held aloft by the marchers. By the afternoon of May 1, 2006, an atmosphere of resistance had been built up in the Transit Camp. There was no talk of leaving or demolitions. There was discussion only on how to wage the struggle.
On May 5, residents were warned, through notices put up by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) that their houses would be demolished as per the orders of the High Court. They were warned to move out their possessions latest May 8, so that their homes could be demolished from May 9 to 11. There was no announcement whatsoever, of how and where they would be resettled. After 21 years they were told that their settlement was illegal because it was in a Green Zone under the Delhi Development Plan. Did it take 21 years for the DDA and other official bodies to realize this? And if it did, why were the residents being penalized for that?
A last minute appeal was filed by veteran lawyer HS Phulka on behalf of the residents which would come up for hearing on May 8.
The residents were galvanized into action. They realized that they had to act immediately, to unite and fight for the defence of their homes and hearths. On that very evening of May 5, residents of the colony – nearly a thousand women, men and youth, gathered at the colony’s Ram Leela Maidan. The meeting was addressed by Bijju Nayak, leader of the Lok Raj Sangathan, and Sucharita, Delhi Convenor of the LRS and a noted women activist of Delhi, who put forth before the people the experience of successful mass struggles. Apart from them, several local activists gave fiery speeches boosting the morale of their comrades and expressing their resolve to fight to the death for their just cause.
The leaders of Lok Raj Sangathan explained to the people the need to be organised and to rely on their own strength. They emphasised the need to keep the initiative in their own hands, without falling prey to the devious parliamentary games and vote-bank politics of various political parties. Various netas would come and try to fish in troubled waters. The people had to be extremely vigilant. Various attempts would be made to split them. Rumours would be floated. Attempts would be made by vested interests to make the people despondent and crush their fighting spirit. On the other hand the netas would urge people to rely on them and be complacent. To go to sleep. After all, what did the netas have to lose? The more the people who went after them, the higher price would they command when they sold out!
The residents decided to set up a ‘Transit Camp Bachao Sangharsh Morcha’, a local committee involving a large number of local people, which would lead the struggle, taking joint decisions and keeping the initiative firmly in the hands of the residents. They also planned various mass actions and demonstrations, in their area as well as in other areas of Delhi, to highlight their struggle.
Every day since then the Transit Camp Bachao Sangharsh Morcha has been holding meetings in public. The leaders inform everyone about developments. Everyone is allowed to speak and decision are taken collectively. Some of these meeting, like the one on 7 th are attended by over one thousand people. Many acitivists and symapthisers of the people have addressed the meetings or participated in the struggle, including Nandini Sundar and Siddharth Varadarajan, Arundhati Roy and Sanjay Kak, and many more.
Their struggle began on April 29th, – and how! On the one hand, they went to court, for immediate relief. On the other they realised that a court verdict could well go against them and the only thing that could save them was their unity, militancy and resolve. In the meeting on 7 th they took an important decision. Their case was up for hearing the next day – the same day that they had been ordered to vacate their premises, with demolitions due to begin the next day. If the verdict went against them, they decided to organize a blockade of all the important roads and junctions in their area. The courts did rule against them – it threw out their case and ordered the DDA to proceed. Urgent phone calls followed and the blockade was on!
The blockade was historic. Nowhere else in the recent spate of demolitions in the country have the residents spilled on to the roads in their thousands and literally paralyzed an important chunk of the city for 4 days! They were all there – women, men, youth, children of all ages including babies. People of various castes, religions and languages. “They were anyway going to throw us out on the roads”, one of the women later told me. “So we thought it best to get out on the roads and fight – then we at least have a chance of winning!”
The organization was tremendous and so was the spirit. Tremendous initiative of the people was released by the Sangharsh Morcha and everyone did what they could as per their capacity. When the police tried to bulldoze their way through and breach the blockade, they were confronted by angry women. “Beat us, kill us, if you want to go ahead!” they declared. The police did use force. I met Kamlesh who is undeterred by the blow she received which has produced a temporary limp. The roads were decorated with defiant banners expressing the resolve of the people. “Why should we pay for the mistakes of the DDA?” “Lok Raj ka naara hai – Transit Camp bachana hai!” “Hum sabhi ka kehna hai, Transit Camp me rehna hai.” “Delhi government murdabad, DDA murdabad.”
The Sangharsh Morcha along with Lok Raj Sangathan issued an appeal to the people to support their struggle in the spirit “An attack on one is an attack on all”.
The blockade was hugely successful. After the first two days, a large number of men did report for work during the day, but the rest of the people, mainly women and children, kept it going successfully. People kept up each other’s fighting spirit by singing revolutionary songs, taking out “funeral processions” of effigies representing the DDA and various authorities. Children were in the forefront of such activities.
Speeches and meetings continued throughout the day, in two pandals erected at some distant from each other. One lesson was learned very thoroughly – don’t believe any rumours. Ask for proof, official documents. Leaders of political parties were allowed to come and speak, but no one applauded them. If they promised anything, they were demanded to give it in writing. When the local Municipal Councillor came and talked big, in one pandal he had to face a barrage of questions till he turned tail, and in the next the women threatened him with chappals.
After 4 days, the people decided to continue their struggle in the form of a hunger strike. Daily meetings continued. The hunger strike continued for 4 days. It was withdrawn after the court postponed the hearing by 3 months. In the meeting where this decision was taken, Prakash Rao, the Convenor of the Lok Raj Sangathan reiterated the lessons learned and pointed out that the final battle had not been won.
Today if you visit the Transit Camp you will find people who realize that their struggle is far from over. The only thing that prevented the demolitions from taking place as per the official schedule was the people themselves – their unity and fighting spirit. They realize that they must not relax their vigilance, must not let the enemy split them. Their daily meetings continue. Their representatives attend meetings of organizations that are trying to build a strong coordination between different groups who are fighting against demolitions.
The residents of Transit Camp walk with their heads held high – in the war against a strong, cruel and remorseless enemy, they have won the first battle!
Who is the enemy?
The menace of demolitions is threatening people in many of our cities. The excuse given is that we want world-class cities and just can’t afford to have slums and other eyesores.
The point is that in these “world-class” cities, our rulers want to give no space to the poor, the very people whose labour has produced all the riches in our land. It goes without saying that the development model promoted is based on the destruction of those who toil.
The question is, who would want a “Shanghai” , a “Singapore”, a “Hong Kong” or whatever, at such a cost? To understand this, we have to see it in the context of what is happening in our country as a whole.
- Workers are gradually being deprived of their hard-won rights.
- The government has passed a law to set up Special Economic Zones where the workers will have no rights and the big capitalist who is promoting the particular zone will rule unfettered. In addition he would be given all sorts of concessions and subsidies. Public bodies will perform the task of acquiring land, i.e. facing the wrath of the people, and hand it over to the capitalist on a platter.
- Public properties – companies in the public sector – are being sold off for a pittance to big capitalists on one pretext or another.
- Peasants are being driven to ruin (and even death) by policies which promote the interests of big companies, Indian and foreign.
- People are being squeezed by the privatization and commercialization.
- Indian companies are expanding abroad as never before. Every day you hear of some company or other acquired by the Indian multinationals, which are moving into the big league.
- A close alliance is being built up with the US in defiance of the expressed wishes of over 3 crores who demonstrated against Bush’s visit (and of others, several times more in number, who did not descend on the roads). This alliance is expected to help the big Indian companies.
- Adivasis are being deprived of their land and livelihood in the interests of the big capitalists.
The list can go on. But the point is that the direction of the Indian economy is to further fatten the big capitalists. Irrespective of which party or coalition rules at the Centre and states, policies are made to favour them at the expense of the people. The big capitalists constitute the ruling class of India. These capitalists want India to be a big economic, military and political power, a big imperialist power on the world scale. In particular they want Mumbai to become a big financial center and Delhi to be the seat of a “big” power. This is the vision they have for two of our biggest cities, and they want to bulldoze all those who come in their way.
by Sanjeewani Jain