Being a mother to three children is a full-time job but that has not been a constraint for 31-year-old V Jazeera as she sits in front of the Kerala state Secretariat in Thriuvananthapuram. She has been there on the street since the beginning of August, asking for an end to sand mining in her coastal village. Kerala’s Chief Minister did meet her once and promised her action. But he wouldn’t give it in writing. And so Jazeera and her kids returned to their dharna.
Jazeera is usually attired in purdah, but it does not curb her freedom. She has not read any book on environmental protection. She is not worried about her future. She is not bent on sending her children to the best available school. She is not eager to earn money to secure the future of her two girls. She is not scared of sleeping on the street or having the girls there with her. Jazeera has her own way of subverting stereotypes.
Jazeera was born and brought up in Puthiyangadi, a coastal village in Kannur district. There was nothing unusual about her life until her marriage. She got married at the age of 17. After suffering torture and abuse by her husband for six years, she decided she’d had enough. She had two children by then. “I fled with my elder daughter leaving the younger one with my mother,” she says, “I didn’t tell anyone about my whereabouts.”
Jazeera went to Ernakulum and worked as a domestic help. Then she became a bookseller in Kottayam. “That was the period that changed my life,” she says. She became a local sales agent for a publisher of academic books. During this time, Jazeera also became familiar with police stations, courts and other government institutions. Her relatives, who had found her by then, asked her to return to Kannur, but she said she would only do so if her husband granted her a divorce. He yielded and Jazeera went home.
In Kannur, she was inspired by a Muslim woman running an autorickshaw. She learnt how to drive, got a licence, and managed to get a vehicle on a loan under the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana project. A burkha-clad Muslim woman running an autorickshaw was beyond the imagination of the conservative men there. Male auto drivers ganged up against her and got the police to ask her to stop plying. She went straight to Thiruvananthapuram and submitted a complaint to then Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. The problem was resolved for the time being, but Jazeera did not want to continue there. She left for Kottayam, where she renewed her career as an autorickshaw driver. There she got married to Abdul Salam, a teacher at a local madrassa. When she became pregnant, doctors advised rest. She went home to her village in Kannur to live with her mother. It was here that Jazeera began her battle against sand mining.
The beach on which Jazeera used to play as a kid had almost vanished. “I noticed how disastrous sand mining was,” she says. Like many youngsters in the locality, her brother was also involved in sand mining, and so her battle began at home. “I asked him to stop mining and switch his occupation. He would not listen. I told him that I could not ask people to stop mining if I was not able to begin my campaign at home,” she says. He finally gave in once she started protesting on the streets.
The pregnant Jazeera stayed day and night on the seashore to block Tipper Lorries carrying sand. She took photographs of people engaged in sand mining and handed them over to the police. They had no option but to take action.
Jazeera gave birth to a baby boy, but she did not relent in her fight against sand mining. She kept up her night vigils, blocking lorries, taking pictures of illegal mining activity on her mobile phone and filing complaint after complaint with the police, the panchayat and district authorities. Her house was attacked thrice. She and her elder daughter were often beaten up by local women in the locality who’d lost employment as sand mining began slowing down. The illegal miners shifted operations to another part of the beach. On 14 June this year, Jazeera began a sit-in agitation in front of the police station at Puthiyangadi, demanding action against them. Along with her three children, including two-year-old Mohammed, she sat on the street day and night under the torrential rains of the monsoon. They slept on the verandah of a shop adjacent the police station. The stir went on for seven days. Environmentalists and human rights activists intervened. The district collector called her for a discussion and assured her of taking tough measures to shield the seashore. Jazeera agreed to wind up her agitation.
She went back home, but found there was no let up in the theft of sand. On 10 July, Jazeera went to the district collector’s office to remind the authorities of their promises. “I got a hostile reception there,” she says, “They alleged I had a psychological disorder. They said I was doing all this only to catch media attention.” Jazeera began the second phase of her sit-in, moving its venue from the police station to the Collectorate’s premises. The dharna went on for another eight days. Finally, the district authorities agreed to set up a 24-hour police aid post in the area and also deputed policemen.
“I thought I had won the struggle but soon realised I had been cheated,” she says. Though a police post had been set up, its cops were inactive. They told Jazeera their duty was to watch a strip of only a kilometer-and-a-half and couldn’t do anything about what was happening beyond that.
Jazeera took her children and boarded a train to Thiruvananthapuram to begin yet another phase of her struggle in front of the Secretariat. On 2 August, she camped out at its north gate in demonstration. This satyagraha by a woman and her three children hit news headlines. Environmentalists and human right activists staged protests in her support.
Three days later, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy called her for talks and promised to look into the matter. Jazeera wanted it in writing, but Chandy refused. Adamant, Jazeera said she would not call off her struggle. She and her children went right back to the north gate. As Open goes to press, her dharna is still on.
I meet Jazeera in front of the Secretariat amid an unusual scene. Office bearers of Childline, an NGO working in affiliation with the government, have arrived to ‘rescue’ her children and send them to school. Jazeera looks agitated. “They came with a team of policemen as if they were approaching a terrorist,” she later says. Besides, Jazeera argues, the children are not begging on the street. “They are staging a protest for a social cause along with their mother.” Jazeera says she told them to pick up the boys employed as child labour at hotels nearby and send them to school first. The Childline activists went away.
Once she calms down, Jazeera has more to say about the children’s education. “In fact, I want to send them to some school here. I have been on the run to find a school since day one. Everybody is asking for a Transfer Certificate from the previous school in Kannur. When I came to Thiruvananthapuram, I thought I would get a favourable response from the CM within a day or two. I never expected that this agitation would have to be indefinite. My husband is a teacher at a madrassa and he gets leave only one day a week. He promised me he would collect the Transfer Certificate at the earliest possible. Why do all these people insist on such technical things like this?” Jazeera managed to get the document and secured admission for her children in a nearby school the next day She’d had a similar experience during her protest at the police station in Kannur. On the third day, Childline officials had forced her to shift to a shelter home along with her youngest child. “It was like a prison. They did not even allow me to leave the room.” They demanded a written assurance from her that she would take care of her baby. Jazeera refused to sign it. “It is ridiculous. He is my son and I am a feeding mother. I know how to take care of my baby. Why should I give an assurance to someone else?” Finally, they let her go without it.
After the Childline workers leave Jazeera’s spot at the Secretariat, I witness another drama. The police pick up a young man who is talking with Jazeera. They ask him for his identity and take him to a nearby police station. Jazeera follows them and has a heated exchange. “Are we not living in free India? Why do you detain a person for talking to me? What is so illegal about it? Don’t we have the freedom to talk on the street?” she asks the police officer at the station.
Jazeera’s older children, 13-year-old Riswana and nine-year-old Shifana, help her take care of Mohammed, the little one who likes to run around and play on the footpath. Her husband Abdul Salam says she has his support. “She is fighting for the whole society and yet people are eager to portray Jazeera as a woman of unsound mind,” he says. Abdul Salam recalls the bitter taunts of relatives, friends and the media. “The daily Chandrika [mouthpiece of the Indian Union Muslim League] had once written that Jazeera is not mentally well,” he says, “After carrying such a story, they called me and offered help in rescuing the children from Jazeera. They did not bother to contact me before writing such nauseating stuff. I warned them that I would file a defamation case against them. The children are safe with their own mother. Why are they so eager to rescue them?”
He says it is not possible for him to be present at the dharna with his wife. “I am a teacher and have limitations in doing such things. Besides, either one of us should take care of the family. I do that. What is wrong in it?” Two days with Jazeera make me realise that she is fighting not just sand mining, but also prejudices and convictions about the dos and don’ts for a woman in general, and for a Muslim woman in purdah in particular.
She has to fight against speculation and slander. Against questions on how a woman can agitate alone on a street. On why her husband is missing. On why she is not scared of her girl children being molested or raped. On why she isn’t at home caring for her family. On why she doesn’t see breastfeeding a baby out on the street as shameful. On whether all of this means she should be labelled a woman of ‘loose’ morals.
Policemen, journalists, government employees, activists and even pedestrians have been among those asking thesequestions. As if that weren’t absurd enough, she has even been portrayed as an agent of an Islamist terror group. But there is also a flipside. Street dwellers, ice cream vendors and sundry passersby have come over to express their respect for and solidarity with Jazeera. Some of them have shabby currency notes to offer in support of her struggle. They see hers as a voice of courage.
THE OLD WOMAN AND THE RIVER
The Neyyar originates in the Western Ghats and flows 51 km east. It is one of the rivers in Kerala worst hit by excessive sand mining. Deep pits have formed in it, often causing landslides along the river bed. Environmentalists say the sand in the river is almost exhausted and now its embankments are being mined. This causes floods during the monsoon. People here, intimidated by the sand mafia, have more or less surrendered their land to these thugs.
In Olathanni village in Thiruvananthapuram, a small hut stands isolated on the river. It is on the verge of collapsing in the heavy rain. This is the house of 72-year-old Darly S or ‘Grandma Darly’, as she is fondly addressed. She doesn’t stay there now, having been forced by the police to shift to a state-run home in Thiruvananthapuram two weeks ago.
It is from this house and for this house that she has fought, for the past 30 years, a lonely battle against indiscriminate sand mining along the river. She refused to give it up to sand miners. She resisted bribes, threats, expletives and attacks.
The path to her house has been narrowed by the shovels of miners on both sides. The river flows 20 feet below her house, which stands on a tiny, narrow islet created by years of ruthless sand mining. The sand mafia has taken over all the land around her house. “Her own relatives let her down,” says Sunitha Kumari, a neighbour and also ward councillor of Neyyattinkara Municipality. “Her brothers cheated her. They sold out the property to illegal sand miners.”
The area was vacated by those who sold out, but Darly wouldn’t move. “They offered a big amount for her land, but she refused,” recounts Sreeja Neyyattinkara, state secretary for the Welfare party, a new political formation in Kerala, and also secretary of the River Protection Council, a voluntary organisation. Sreeja first came to know of Darly’s struggle through a media report. “At that time, I was part of an organisation fighting the illegal brewing of liquor. We decided to support Darly’s struggle and sought the help of likeminded people. The sand mafia used all the means at its disposal to get her out of the way, but she was adamant,” says Sreeja.
Darly, she says, did not just embark on a legal fight. She resisted mining physically. She always carried a knife to intimidate youngsters working as miners. “She was highly articulate on the corrosive effects of sand mining. She could narrate how sand mining was started by individuals for self use and how it turned into an organised crime. She has sound knowledge on the ecosystem of Neyyar and how its flow and depth has gradually changed,” says Sreeja.
The struggle has taken its toll on Darly. When I meet her at the short-stay government home, I find her hardly able to speak coherently. Having heard of what she has gone through—verbal assaults, house break-ins, the killing of her pet dogs and cats, isolation from her family, a social boycott, implication in false cases and what not—it is a poignant meeting. Darly seems to have withdrawn into her own world. When I enter the room, she takes hold of my hands and starts talking as if she has known me for ages. From what I can make out, she believes that she has been killed by the sand mafia and given rebirth by Mother Mary. She appears to oscillate between her conscious and unconscious mind.
She remembers her childhood on the banks of the Neyyar in Pampala, at the southern end of Thiruvananthapuram district. She was the eldest of seven children and stopped going to school young, after her father died. “Our family had plenty of land on the banks of the Neyyar. We used to cultivate tapioca and vegetables. We used to catch fish from the river. Tapioca with fish was the main food. The water of the Neyyar was the cleanest and sweetest of all. The river you see now is not the actual one. The course of the river changed due to sand mining…” she trails off as her memory breaks. She speaks of evil forces that have spoilt the river and used ‘black magic’ to finish her off.
Darly was once married. Her husband died long ago. She tells me that she has a son being brought up by another woman. Anita S, an environmental activist closely associated with Darly for five years, says this is probably a figment of her imagination. “In my understanding, she has no offspring,” says Anita. Her neighbours too say she has no children. What everyone agrees on is that Darly had a dozen pet dogs and a couple of cats. “She used her dogs to keep mining labourers away,” says Sreeja, “Whenever she saw them come by boat, she would let her dogs run free. They were unable to go to the riverbed in her locality because of her dogs.”
“It is painful to know how systematically the sand mafia defeated this woman,” says Anita, who wrote about it on the web portal Counter Current. “The sand mafia was bothered by her presence,” says Anita, “Her house was looted, her pet dogs and cats killed one by one.”
Both Anita and Sreeja believe that her suffering cost Darly her mind. Last year, Darly had an accident that marked the beginning of her mental and physical deterioration. “She was hit by a scooter. The police has not taken any action.” says Sreeja, who suspects it was an attempt on Darly’s life, though she has nothing to corroborate this.
The office bearers of the short-stay home don’t plan to send her back. The activists who support Darly are reluctant to do so, too. “She might not be able to face reality,” says Sreeja. “She may have an emotional breakdown seeing the present condition of her house, which is about to collapse.”
Darly has a request of every visitor who comes by to see her: she wants to be taken back home. She expects to get back to her beloved river soon. That the battle is long lost is too much reality for her to bear.