Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Venita's Diwali Saga

I don't know about you guys - but I had a really exciting Diwali.

I was arrested, hauled off to the cop station and held for three hours. I attach my column with the paper 'Herald' in Goa that explains all. If you want to read my other columns ( quite an exciting read I promise - one of them is 'How I started A Riot') you can go to www.savegoa.com

To put this in context - for the last two years I have been involved with the Goa Bachao Abhiyaan - a group that has been fighting to save Goa from an awful fate. The Government is busy making plans to sell Goa to Mining Interests, set up hideous SEZ projects, and turn the lush countryside into a sea of concrete.

In my village I have started the Moira Action Commitee and we have been questioning illegal construction for some time now. This happens invariably at the 'Gram Sabha's which are the village gatherings where one gets to question the Panchayat and those in authority.

Here I thought I was just a writer - but I have become an accidental activist. Right now my life is schizophrenic. I am writing a script for Karan Johar while my life is a film by Shyam Benegal.

Go ahead. Enjoy the story.

The Accidental Activist – Will this happen to you next?


I am an ordinary person. I could live next door to you. I have four dogs, two cats, and a daughter that I adore. I write scripts for business and books for pleasure. Like you - I believed that we lived in a democracy and we all had a right to speak up and be heard. I believed that we were safe in Goa. In the past few days I've learnt to think differently.

On Sunday the police forcibly hauled me off my seat in the Moira Gram Sabha, dragged me to a jeep, drove me to the police station and detained me.

All I was doing was attending a Gram Sabha. I had barely stood up to ask a question when a villager interrupted by producing the columns that had featured in this paper and demanded that I apologize for writing them. My reply was simple. If I had written even one thing that was not fact, they were welcome to protest in the same forum by writing to the editor. I would certainly not apologize. I believed that we still lived in a democracy with the full right to have an opinion and air it. I was told 'We will pass a resolution saying you cannot speak in the Gram Sabha until you apologize'. Instead of controlling the situation the Sarpanch said 'Reply to him'. I refused.

The tactic changed. 'Remove her from the Gram Sabha! She is not on the electoral rolls.' Suddenly the lone protestor was a group of men baying that I be thrown out of the Sabha. They ran towards me, threatening to drag me out of the hall.

I sat firm on my chair insisting 'I am on the electoral rolls. Let the rolls be produced and checked.' ( Electoral Rolls for Moira – Part Number 8 Serial Number 809). This was completely ignored by the Sarpanch and Panchayat. They sat back and watched as I was surrounded by ranting men issuing threats 'we'll see how you live in this village… we'll see how you step out of doors…' Ironically they were also protesting the fact that I had in my columns in the Herald spoken of 'rowdies' at the Gram Sabha. And their protest proved ample proof of what they denied in words.

There I was – one woman surrounded by a group of screaming, threatening men. The Sarpanch scribbled a note on a piece of paper and the police swung into action. Did they take into hand the rowdies who were trying to intimidate me? Of course not. They grabbed me and forcibly dragged me from my chair. I was pulled out of the Sabha and shoved into a police jeep. When friends insisted they come with me they were pushed away from the jeep and I was driven off.

Two women panchas sat and watched a single woman being intimidated and manhandled without saying a word. A Sarpanch who writes 'Advocate' before his name ignored every rule of the law and wrote a police complaint without verifying the facts which it was his duty to do so. His complaint said I was to be removed because the Sabha had passed a resolution to that effect 'unanimously'. This is the same Sarpanch who refuses to cancel building licences despite the unanimous Gram Sabha resolution that they be revoked.

I made phone calls. By the time I arrived at the police station press and moral support had started to arrive. The police refused to give us a copy of the complaint until the PI arrived. After a wait of three hours he did. His explanation? 'Madam the Sarpanch is in the authority in that situation. We will do what the authority tells us.' I believed the police were meant to uphold law and order and be the instrument of justice. I now learn that they are merely there to do what the authorities order them to – whether it is right, wrong or motivated with malice.

By the time activists from Utt Goenkara, GBA, Aldona Bachao Abhiyaan, and other concerned villagers had arrived, the police had changed their tune. I was now informed that I had been taken into police custody for my own safety. So was anything being done against those who had made me unsafe in the first place? 'You please write to the authorities and complain about the Sarpanch. We will take up the matter then.'

I believed that we were safe in Goa. I believed democracy assured us the basic right to speak up. But I have now learnt for myself how voices are silenced. By wrongly bending the rules. By using the police as an unquestioning blunt instrument in the hands of those in power. By using strong arm tactics to intimidate and threaten.

It will take more than a bunch of village rowdies to scare or silence me. It is the future of my village that I am speaking up for. The place where my daughter will grow up. I will go a long long way to protect her inheritance.

But what terrifies me is the silence they have already forced on others.

The Assagao Gram Sabha was held at the same time as the Moira Gram Sabha. The previous day in Assagao a seventy year old man had been brutally beaten by goons because he had managed to get the Sarpanch finally brought to book. It should have been a stormy Gram Sabha. Instead there was silence. The topic was not even brought up. In that entire village not one person dared to speak up to condemn what had happened.

The violence, the goondaism is on my doorstep. And I live next door to you.

I know. I understand. You're an ordinary person. You don't want trouble. But you must speak up.

It will be your door that they break down next.


--
'You must be the change you want to see in the world' - Gandhi
Venita Coelho
Casa Coelho
House No. 876
Bambordem, Moira V.P.
Goa - 403507
9867166057 / 832 2470861

3 comments:

SloganMurugan said...

Oh!
So this is how it is to be an Aan Indian Citizen.
Keep fighting!

Rashi said...

Hey very nice blog. quite interesting. I am following your blog today onwards. keep posting more often. thanks, rashi

Hapi said...

hello... hapi blogging... have a nice day! just visiting here....