The Strange Trajectory of an Agitation

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After Ajit Pawar’s urination comment, a group protesting shoddy drought relief finds unexpected momentum

On a recent Friday afternoon in Mumbai, a young female journalist of a Marathi newspaper enters a part of Azad Maidan that seems reserved for demonstrations. It is a warm day, and apart from a few individuals erecting a stage at one corner, there is little activity. She walks past the policemen stationed at the gate, across the half-built stage, and stops in front of a small group of men and women seated under a large canopy. It is a group of farmers from Maharashtra’s Solapur district, and they have been on protest for over two months demanding water for their drought-affected area.

The journalist wants an interview with Prabhakar Deshmukh, the head of this group, but finds him busy speaking to another reporter. She hangs around, exchanging a few words with other members of the group. However, the moment she gets an opportunity, she interrupts Deshmukh’s conversation with the other reporter and asks him a series of questions. She enquires about plans for future protests and the health of the protestors, and if any politician has come calling yet. Deshmukh has hardly any new information to offer. Realising this, the journalist gives Deshmukh her phone number and tells him, “If you do anything, if any politician comes—call me.” As she prepares to leave, Deshmukh tells her to visit him on Monday. “We will do something,” he assures her, “It will be big, bigger than anything so far.”

Prabhakar Deshmukh—or Bhaiyya Deshmukh as he is reverentially called—is a farmer and social activist from Solapur’s Patkul village. He also heads a welfare group called Solapur Zilla Janahit Shetakari Sanghatana, under whose banner the ongoing demonstration is being held. He had once led a protest by employees of a sugar factory in Solapur demanding better wages, and also a nine-day long dharna at Azad Maidan asking for Home Guards in the police force to be entitled to pensions.

Deshmukh began his latest stir earlier this year. When he arrived in Mumbai on 5 February with some of Solapur’s drought-afflicted farmers, their demands almost went unnoticed. They wanted the Maharashtra government to release water from other dams to Ujani dam, a vital water source for crops and human consumption in much of Western Maharashtra that was running dangerously dry, and then to irrigation canals in Solapur. According to Deshmukh, the point was to generate awareness of their plight among Mumbai residents as well as the state government. “I had held a demonstration a year ago at Azad Maidan.,” he says, “And I thought I will use that experience for this cause.”

For the first few weeks, the protest got little attention. Deshmukh visited the nearby press club, sent notices to media personnel, organised protest marches, held a bhajjan-kirtan session outside the Chief Minister’s residence, tried to gatecrash the state Assembly with empty pots asking for water to fill them, and even got journalist friends in Solapur to call up their counterparts in Mumbai and inform them of the public stir. But a few stray mentions in some newspapers was all the notice he got.

On 8 March, more than a month after they started their stir, three protestors climbed a tree at Azad Maidan armed with their wives’ saris and threatened to use them as nooses to hang themselves. They spent about two hours making those threats—after which the fire brigade brought them down—in the hope of drawing an apathetic city and administration’s attention. But even that did not work.

All that, however, changed on 6 April, the day Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar mentioned Deshmukh in a speech. The NCP leader’s widely reported words were as follows: “This person named Deshmukh who has been fasting for more than 55 days at Azad Maidan demanding that water be released—from where will we give him water? Should we urinate in the dams? Even urinating has become difficult since there is no water to drink.”

Deshmukh learnt of it the next morning when a few reporters visited him. “They asked me, ‘What do you think of Ajit Pawar’s comment?’ I asked them, ‘What comment? And who are you?’”

As TV channels kept playing Pawar’s comment throughout the day, Deshmukh was invited by four news studios for his response. “They wanted my…what’s that word?” he pauses to recollect, “…byte.”

Of the original lot of February demonstrators, only three remain at Azad Maidan—including Deshmukh. Others left by and by, some because they missed their families and others disheartened by the city’s apathy, their places taken by other farmers from Solapur. However, ever since Pawar’s comment and the subsequent media coverage and popular outrage, the camp has been high on enthusiasm. Activity levels are up, and Deshmukh has had a stream of visitors, some of them sitting with him on dharna in solidarity.

“Look at them,” Deshmukh says, pointing at the policemen stationed at Azad Maidan’s gate. “There used to be only a handful of them before.” There are now at least 10 cops there. “The government finally knows how serious we are. They know we will not leave before getting water. Karenge yaa marenge,” he says, inspired it seems by Gandhi’s call to ‘Karo yaa maro’ (do or die), as those around him nod in determination.

The cause, many believe, now has what it takes to achieve success. A 25-year-old Solapur resident, Irshad Saheblal Mujawar, who is pursuing a science degree at a Mumbai college, helps as a translator for Deshmukh’s interviews with English-speaking journalists. “When Deshmukh came to Mumbai, nobody knew him,” says Mujawar, “Now, everyone from Mumbai to Delhi knows about him and our struggle.” To aid publicity, Mujawar has set up a Facebook page for the group. Every weekend, he visits Deshmukh to collect news reports and information on the group to highlight on the internet.

A paper plate with the number of days they have been on protest has been put up beside the Sanghatana’s banner. Members of the group are seen with folders of clippings of Deshmukh’s newspaper coverage and notes on their various demonstrations. Among the aims is not to let their movement flag. Speaking in the presence of other protestors, Deshmukh says that the mood in the camp is upbeat and confident of achieving the agitation’s goal. When he is alone, though, he acknowledges that he is unsure whether the media will continue to highlight their struggle. Last week, with the help of newspapers, Deshmukh called upon residents of Solapur to participate in a demonstration outside the Assembly building. Around 2,000 individuals, by his estimate, turned up. But when they tried to enter the Assembly, they were blocked by the police, bundled into police vans and driven back to Azad Maidan.

One of the protestors, Dhanaji Howale, then climbed a tree and declared he would commit suicide. Several reporters and photographers were present and followed every move of his. Dressed in a bright saffron shirt, cream trousers and—oddly—a pair of sunglasses, he looked visibly agitated. He jumped from the branch of one tree to another, using hand gestures to convey a thirst all too dire for Solapur’s survival. This went on for about an hour, with him apparently rousing himself to a frenzy to make his final leap. When he did jump, it was onto a safety net put up by firemen. He fell unconscious immediately after.

Two days after his suicide attempt, I spot him carrying a packet of tea from a nearby stall. He is 22 years old and has studied till class 12. He claims he decided on killing himself at the spur of the moment. I ask him why he was wearing sunglasses. He smiles in response.

When I visit the camp on a Saturday evening, Howale is missing. He left for Solapur the previous night; his parents, having seen him on TV trying to kill himself, had asked him to return rightaway. Even otherwise, there are remarkably few protestors at the site for some reason. There are at least 50 on most days. Where have they gone? Since they have found that very few reporters turn up on weekends, Deshmukh explains, they take it as an opportunity to visit relatives in the city.

As I leave, he says, “Come visit soon. I will tell you what we will do next. It will be something big.”