Forbesganj: To Vote, With Spite

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Reheena Khatoon shows the scar on her right arm, where a bullet fired by the police pierced her arm and killed her infant son.

This article appears in The Wire on the 30th of October, 2015

The villagers of Bhajanpuri, Forbesganj resent Nitish Kumar for the police firing that took four lives in 2011 yet say they will still vote for the grand alliance out of obligation.

On June 3rd 2011, four people were shot dead by the police after protests against the blocking of a village road by a private factory and the administration. Two were young men who were barely beyond twenty, one a mother of three children, and the other was a ten month old infant.

In a video of the incident, you could see a young man lying in the sand, breathing; his name was Mustafa, and a few seconds in, a constable from the Home Guard, Sunil Kumar Yadav, brutally jumped on him, abusing him, again and again, to lead to a call by a senior officer trying to stop that act by saying ‘sazaa mil gayi.’

When you visit Mustaf’s family, his mother brings out a form of that same scene on a phone. They have seen that, they keep it with them, a video that captured the last moments of their son’s life, his final breath as a moment of anger against an insensitive state, an insensitive society. It’s been more than four years, and his father Mohammed Falkan Ansari still sells clay drums on the streets of Forbesganj. Their second son Anwar, who was then working as a labourer in Kashmir, is now mentally unstable, he suffers from constant migraines: the mother and the father take Alprozam, an anti-anxiety pill, to sleep, a habit formed after the killing of their educated son.

‘Kalma padne laga woh,’ says his 75 year old father about the last living image of their son captured on video.

In the four years since the incident, there are still cases on the protestors, the home guard was in jail but released and back on duty, according to the family that saw him jump on their critically injured son. The protest and the movement died down, the road they fought for was blocked again.

Nitish kabi nahi aaya,’ they blame him and his administration, they blame the police. Nitish was in power and in an alliance with the BJP when the firing had occurred.

‘Vote nahi denge usko, lekin uski hi garbardan ko denge,’ laments Falkan, ‘Hamari majboori hai.’

In conversation after conversation, it was an almost given fact that between the BJP, who they unanimously see as communal, and Nitish, this election was not for them.

A Short Recap to a People’s Struggle

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The villages of Bhajanpur and Rampur are dominated by small farmers belonging to the Pasmanda Muslim community, and are just 12 kilometres from the Nepal border. A majority of their young people work as migrant labourers in Kashmir and in Chandigarh, a handful of young men drive trucks, another handful work in pharmacy shops, and small shops across Forbesganj. Only one young man is a jawaan in the Sashashtra Seema Bal (that is also known in Forbesganj, to have fired onto a protest demanding investigation into sexual assault in the village of Batraha, 20 kilometres away from Bhajanpur).

In Bhajanpur, that is only a few kilometres from Forbesganj town, land was acquired at piecemeal prices decades ago, from Rs.6000 to Rs.3000 per acre for the creation of the Forbesganj Industrial Area. In 2010, land was given to a starch and glucose factory owned by Auro Sundaram Glucose Factory which has close links to the Bharatiya Janta Party. On 2nd June, 2011, a day before the firing the residents were informed by the administration that the road that leads to the market, the karbala, and the town, would not be touched. They lied. The road was blocked and after juma prayers on the 3rd of June, a protest broke out that tore down portions of the wall.

The police opened fire killing Mustafa Ansari (18), Mukhtar Ansari (22), Nausad Ansari (10 months old) and a pregnant Shazmina Khatoon (35) violating standard operation procedures with the use of lethal ammunition targeting the upper portions of the body – Rais Ansari (26) was shot in his face when he looked out of his window and the police had by then started to fire into the village. Shazmina Khatoon was shot in her head and killed. Eight year old Manjoor Ansari was shot in his neck, survived, but is partially paralyzed. Nausad Ansari was killed when the bullet pierced his mother’s arm and hit him in the body.

In 2011, the Forbesganj firing was one of many related to land disputes and displacement across India – all involving the police firing onto protestors – Maval, Maharashtra, 9th August, had three killed, in Guwahati, Assam, 22nd June, there were three killed, Bhatta Parsaul, Uttar Pradesh, 7th May, four killed, Dhanbad, Jharkhand, 27th April, had four dead, Jaitapur, Maharashtra, 18th April, one dead, Kakkarapalli, Andhra Pradesh, 28th February, three dead.

Yet the Forbesganj firing slowly grew into a national movement due to a small video clip taken by local journalist Amarender Kumar. The news website Twocircles and its dedicated journalists relentlessly covered the incident and the following protests that slowly started to spread into mainstream consciousness after the local media as well as the Urdu media had woefully under-reported the incident. The Bihar Government would tell the Supreme Court that it is a small incident and put the entire onus of blame onto the people themselves. Lalu Prasad and Rahul Gandhi would visit the village and offer compensation and help. Civil rights organizations such as ANHAD and the CPI ML, hold protests, press conferences and small actions over the years. In 2012, under the leadership of the CPI ML, the road was reopened by thousands of party volunteers and villagers. After a High Court order it was blocked again, as it stands today and an alternative road is opened a hundred metres away. This agreement came to fore in 2015 after the administration promised to give the village ‘adarsh’ village status – providing government jobs, better roads, irrigation, etc, to the village, and promising to withdraw the cases they had charged on the protestors.

The fact remains, is that if Dasrath Majhi would’ve tried to chisel a road through the mountain of bureaucracy in Forbesganj, he’d have been promptly shot.

Of Bullets and Painkillers

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Rais Ansari who was shot in his face has spent almost all of the compensation he received in multiple plastic surgeries and medications.

Raheena Khatoon can still barely use her right arm for any heavy work. She manages to wash the dishes and the clothes but everyday she takes two Nimesulide Paracetemol pills to ease the pain. She recalls how her elder son refused to eat from her bandaged arm for six months after she came back home, after they lay her son 10 month old Sahil to rest (His name was Naushad, but they called him Sahil.)

Her husband Siddique was working in Rawalpora in Kashmir as a labourer when the firing happened. ‘We talk three times a day when he is away,’ Recalls Raheena.

Siddique was released from his work without complaint after he had informed his malik what had happened in his village. The rest of the labourers in the camp contributed to his travel fund and he started to make his way back home. He recalls how they Kashmiris would speak about the firings that took place in Kashmir, (a similar story was repeated by Mudassir’s brother who travels to Kashmir to work.)

He reached home to find his wife in hospital, his in-laws by her side, and his son dead.

Today they speak about their loss without pain, without anger, there is a sense of quiet outrage that murmurs within them yet they smile often, they laugh, they speak about the incident without much anger. They play with their three children, young Somaiya was born a year later, the others have grown to an age where they gauge the loss that affected their family. Raheena recalls she was not conscious and aware that Sahil was shot, the bullet that shattered her bone and filled her arm full of shrapnel instantly put her into shock. She recalls each detail stoically.

Yet 70 year old Rafiq Ansari, Sahil’s grandfather cries when he recalls his grandson. He too harbours anger that Nitish never came, ‘babua chalagaya chinn.’

And the entire family repeats they will vote for the grand alliance out of ‘majboori’.

The same is repeated by Farooq Ali, whose pregnant wife was killed that day. He remarried and used the compensation money to buy a tractor which he earns from, to provide education for his children.

Yet it is Mukhtar’s father Farooq Ali, whose wife also passed away a year after their son was killed, that doesn’t care to vote for Nitish, but whoever can beat the BJP.

We shall see, he says slowly, we have time to decide, he dismisses it all.

A Child’s Semantics of State Violence

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When Mikhail’s infant brother was shot dead and his mother was in hospital under the threat of losing her arm, he was merely four years old. His grandparents had gone to the hospital, his father was on his way back from Kashmir, and in his first conversation with his mother over the phone, a boy under the care of his nieghbours, asked if everyone was dead, and if anyone is coming back.

When five year old Faizan is asked about his late mother Shazmina, he smiles sheepishly and replies woh mitti ke neche hai.

Thirteen year old Mohd Rasool who recovered from his injuries but was left partially paralyzed, angrily told a government official who had visited him in the hospital that he will shoot back whoever shot him.

Eight year old Toheb, whose uncle Mustaf was shot by the police wants to grow up to become a policeman, much to the chagrin of his grandparents, who are still fighting a murder case against the police.

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