Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Bhopal Diary

I am keenly following the investigations into the murder of Bhopal-based RTI activist Shehla Masood.

The murder took place outside her home in Koh-e-Fiza neighbourhood of Bhopal in the morning of August 16, 2011. Shehla’s body was found in the driver’s seat of her car. She was apparently shot dead as she was about to leave home. Newspaper reports said she was to join an anti-corruption rally that was being organised in Bhopal on that day. Later in came to light that she intended to visit Mantralaya, the building in Bhopal that houses the offices of the state’s senior officials.

I have reasons to follow the investigations.

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I have spent six years in Bhopal. In the first three years, I lived on the fourth floor of an apartment building that overlooked Nehru Nagar square.

I would leisurely spend my mornings in either of the two balconies of my apartment, reading newspapers and throwing occasional glances at the happenings on the square below.

One morning in August, 2004, I noticed some labourers setting up a makeshift stage right in the middle of the road, close to the square. Once the stage had been set up, the labourers starting tying the two ends of a rope to two lampposts that stood on the either side of the road. The rope was at a height of around 50 feet from the ground.

I gathered from the watchman of my apartment building that a matki phod competition was being organised at Nehru Nagar square. Matki phod is a popular event in Maharashtra. An earthen pot is hung very high and competing teams make human pyramid or tower to reach up to the pot and break it.

The stage had been set up to accommodate the chief guest of the event and the pot was to be hung from the rope.

I had seen matki phod only in movies. I was happy that I was going to witness it for the first time in real-life. Around 5000 people had gathered at the square by 8 p.m. The crowd kept on swelling as time passed. I was deliriously pleased because my balcony was on a vantage point. I was to enjoy the event without being crushed by the crowds.

As the event began a photo-journalist friend dropped in because he felt he could take good pictures of the event from my balcony.

After clicking 100 or so pictures, my friend suddenly lowered the camera and pointed his finger at the stage.

‘There. Do you see her?’ he asked.

The stage was crowded. The chief guest was sitting on a huge chair and people were standing around him in a semi-circle.

‘Whom are you pointing at?’ I asked cocking my eyes.

‘Shehla Masood. The woman in the yellow dress’

I cocked my eyes but could not see Shehla properly because of the distance between the balcony and the stage.

‘Who is Shehla Masood?’

‘She is an event planner. I think this matki phod has been organised by Shehla Masood,’ my friend said.

A year later, I with another friend visited an exhibition of handicraft things in Bhopal. As we were moving from stall to stall, my friend suddenly whispered in my ear, ‘Shehla Masood in standing in the next stall.’

My eyes automatically went to the next stall. That was the first time I saw Shehla. Later, I often saw Shehla – at exhibitions, events and functions.

I read about Shehla’s death in newspapers on August 17 last year. The papers described her as an RTI activist. Perhaps she had stopped planning events and functions and had become an RTI activist.

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The Bhopal police started investigating the case but months passed and they were not able to make any breakthrough.

Finally the case was handed over to the CBI. The CBI officials were quick in their actions and arrested Zahida Pervez, an architect and interior designer as the key conspirator of the murder.

According to newspapers, both Shehla and Zahida had close relations with Dhruv Narain Singh, a legislator of the ruling BJP.

Zahida was not able to tolerate Singh’s closeness to Shehla. Newspapers have said that she with the help of a friend hired sharpshooters from Kanpur, my home at present and got Shehla killed.

Investigations are on in the case.

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The CBI is often accused of being a puppet in the hands of the central government. However, the investigations seem to be fair in the Shehla Masood murder case.

Many will say that CBI is functioning impartially because the Congress Party is in power in the centre and the BJP is ruling Madhya Pradesh. But then the CBI seems to have fairly investigated the murder case of Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan, a state under Congress Party’s rule. A Rajasthan minister has been accused of conspiring to kill Bhanwari Devi.

Narendra Kumar Singh, a young IPS officer was killed in Madhya Pradesh recently. Madhya Pradesh police is investigating the case. But the slain police officer’s wife, Madhurani Tewatia, an IAS officer, wants the case to be investigated by the CBI. It proves that people have faith in CBI.

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I wonder why the police force of any state invariably fails to solve murder cases in which high profile persons like ministers or politicians are seemingly involved. The cases of Shehla Masood and Bhanwari Devi are two examples.

Police officers have responsibilities. Shouldn’t they be answerable too? The state police are able to solve cases related to the common man. What cripples the police when they have to deal with cases involving the powerful? Are there two standards of investigation – one for the common man, another for the influential? I can cite several murder cases that have remained unsolved for years, just because of the reason that the victim was a common man.

Shouldn’t the government of Madhya Pradesh ask the police chief of the state why the Bhopal or Madhya Pradesh police was not able to solve Shehla Masood murder case whereas the CBI has succeeded? Or is it possible that the state government never wanted the case to be solved?

If the CBI, a central agency, has to investigate all cases in which the powerful people are apparently involved, then why are Mamata Banerjee, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and some other chief ministers opposing the implementation of the National Counter Terrorism Centre, a proposed central agency?

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I logged on to facebook a few days back and was surprised and amused as the page opened. On the right-hand side of the page was the usual column which said - People you may know and one of the names mentioned was of Dhruv Narayan Singh (!/profile.php?id=100000360987167&sk=info). I clicked on his name. I was more surprised when I went through the details Singh has provided in facebook. His residential address is E-1, 45 Bungalows, Bhopal. I realised I was his neighbour in the last two years of my stay in Bhopal. My address was E-41, 45 Bungalows, Bhopal.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Holi - a bottle mattered then, a bottle matters now

I can feel and smell that Holi is near.

The festival is celebrated in spring, a short but pleasant transitional season between winter and summer.

Spring mornings are crisp. The cool breeze in the early hours is heavy with the fragrance of flowers that blossom in spring. As the day progresses the brightness of the sun increases and you feel the heat. You are drowsy in the afternoon. Nights are once again cool. You know winter is on the wane and a hot summer is just weeks away.

I don’t have to bark like Gabbar Singh, ‘Holi kab hai? Kab hai Holi? Kab?’ or check the calendar for Holi.

I love Holi. Anybody who has grown up in north India loves Holi.

In my childhood Holi for me was synonymous with sprinkler; the sprinkler that was also common at barber’s.

I would rummage through the things in the storeroom and fish my sprinkler a fortnight before Holi. I would clean it and check if it needed any repair.

My next task would be to get a bottle for the sprinkler. Empty liquor bottles were best suited for sprinklers.

But my father was (and is) a teetotaller and finding an empty liquor bottle at home would be impossible.

I would pester my mother for a bottle.

She would ask the neighbour living on our right. He was a teetotaller. Mother would ask the neighbour on our left. He was an alcoholic but drank only in bars and never at home.

My mother would finally stop a scrap dealer passing by our house. He would have liquor bottles of different sizes and shapes. I would check each bottle by fitting the sprinkler.

After securing the bottle, I would start looking for used batteries. I would tear them open and grind the black chemical of the battery to fine powder. I would mix the powder with kerosene and make a gooey paste that looked like grease.

I would smear the faces of my friends with the paste on Holi. They would not object despite the fact that paste looked dirty and noxious. Those were childhood days.

I would leave home at 9 a.m. and return at 1 p.m. completely drenched in coloured water. There would be layers of paint, varnish, grease and adhesive on my face. It would take days to get rid of those colours and chemicals.

Last year a friend visited me on the day of the festival. He smeared dry colour on my face and hugged me.

As he hugged me, I felt something hard tucked under his belt. After he released me, I felt the thing with the back of my hand and asked, ‘What’s it?’

He lifted his shirt, exposed a bottle of rum and grinned.

I celebrate Holi but not in the way as I used to celebrate earlier.

Now I usually stay at home on the day of the festival and my friends drop in.

Earlier I used coloured water but now I buy dry colours.

Once I frantically scouted for empty liquor bottles. Today you can find many empty bottles in my house. But I do not care for them. Times have changed.

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Indians celebrate hundreds of festivals but Bollywood is enamoured only with Holi. I can recall several Holi songs but no Diwali song.

I feel the best Holi song is ‘Holi ke din dil _ _ _ _’ from Sholay ( Kishore Kumar has sung not only for Dharmendra but also for the male extras at the beginning of the song. Amitabh Bachchan plays the role of a poker-faced character in the film. But he also lets his hair down and dances in his quintessential style for a few seconds.