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Under arrest in an enchanted land - [22/08/99] - The Hindustan Times
The Hindustan Times
Updated 02:00 IST[Late CitySunday, August 22, 1999, New Delhi


Under arrest in an enchanted land
(Rob Penn)

The drama happened in a flash. There was a rustle of crops — a dog, I thought, or a villager returning from his ablutions — before the tall green stalks parted and a sea of khaki engulfed me. I was under arrest and despite my haughty British consternation, there was nothing I could do about it.

Within seconds, the idyllic and remote hamlet of Domkhedi, on a tranquil inlet of the Narmada, had been transformed into the mother of all rugby scrums. The reverence of the environmental activists who were offering themselves in satyagraha was shattered. Over 50 Maharashtra policemen and women waded into the murky brown waters to apprehend the martyrs, who jeered and splashed them.

“Come this way for your own safety,” a very burly constable said before he thrust his arm between my legs and hoiked me aboard the police vessel with all the ceremony of a man stepping on a banana. And that, as they say, was that. It was a fair cop.

Above all, I could not believe the machiavellian behaviour of the police. They simply did not look cunning enough. At first, they had come in faith, with an elaborate promise that the chief secretary of Maharashtra was on his way from Mumbai by helicopter. The activists were flattered. Hell, I was flattered. I foresaw a humble bureaucrat handing out juicy relocation packages like boiled sweets. Life was good.

I had waded through waist, then chest-deep water with my cameras above my head. Now I reclined in the afternoon sun, on the tarpaulin near the water’s edge, making small talk with the subdivisional police officer.

“My son has been in London,” he said. “He has also visited Holland and the US. He is a tennis coach. You know the fellows who won the Wimbledon doubles? He coaches them.” As I exchanged innocent platitudes on the merits of the Queens tournament and the subtleties of grasscourt play, he was plotting my imminent incarceration. I asked him what he thought of the Sardar Sarovar dam. “I have no opinion,” he said, “I am a policeman.”

One hour later, I had been stripped of my cameras, my wedding tackle had been rearranged by Maharashtra’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger and my liberty was shockingly gone. I felt foolish. “There is one born every minute,” the SPO must have mused.

Amid the shrieks and the wrestling, it was difficult for me to gauge the severity of the mass arrest. The police had no lathis, nor did they throw punches, but they used considerable force. Karen Robinson, another British photojournalist, was frightened by the confusion and the stentorian policewomen who bundled her about aggressively. “Please, don’t let them split us up,” she said.

I learnt later that Karen had gone to the back of the boat to check on a 70-year-old man who lay on the deck. This fragile and erudite Gandhian figure, who taught the villagers of Madhya Pradesh how to spin their own cloth, had been flung aboard over-zealously. He was now prostrate and motionless. Karen placed a tender hand on his shoulder. His head popped up and he winked. There was bathos.

Once the boat had set off, leaving Domkhedi to the villagers and its extraordinary fate, our cameras were returned and I had the chance to absorb some detail of this theatre that I had haplessly stumbled into.

Towering above us all was the senior district police officer. He was as fat as he was tall and covered in pressed khaki, leathers and well-buffed brass. He had a pocked face and eyes that did not stare at you, they swallowed you up. He was the caricature of a blustering sergeant major, an Indian Colonel Blimp and the paradigm of a pantomime bad guy.

Medha Patkar, clearly an old hand at this lark, remained composed throughout. She marshalled her team, tended the scared, raised us in song and even had time to object to the illegality of my arrest. She was the “angel of light” and the panto heroine.

From the boat, we were transferred to a convoy of jeeps and trucks. We set off on a narrow and winding dirt road, across the Satpura range towards the district police station at Dhagaon. I stood, clinging to the side of the lurching truck, transfixed by the scenery. Row upon row of viridian hills, softened by the damp air and the fading light, fell away to the horizon in each direction. It looked like Hobbit-land, an enchanted kingdom where angels and gruff trolls dwelled.

My spirits were lifted by the scenery. I was already wondering if it would be too perverse to thank the policeman next to me for arresting me, but there was more to come. As we reached the highest point, the solar eclipse happened. The world fell dark, and minutes later, it was light again. The tribal villagers were agog. It was the work of a wizard — the pantomime was real.

When, later, the truck was stopped to let the men relieve themselves, no one made a vainglorious effort to escape. No one wanted to miss the fun.

Dhagaon, in the district of Nandurbar, Maharashtra, will not have been witness to many historical events over the centuries. Accordingly, the arrival of a convoy of cheery anti-dam activists in full chant caused something of a sensation and we quickly had an avid audience. Outside the police station, the constables seemed to have more trouble dispersing the gawking crowd than in containing those under arrest. When the town’s power failed, it would have been easy to slip off, but again, we all remained.

A local public litigation lawyer arrived. “I am working for free,” he said, which was just as well as he did little enough. I was informed that we had been arrested under Sections 68-69 of the Bombay Police Act. This law gives the police summary powers of arrest where there is a breach of peace or tranquillity (er...anywhere in India at almost anytime of day, a cynic might say). The lawyer also stated that we should be released immediately and having arranged nothing of the kind, he left.

My passport and visa were checked and photocopied. An oily plainclothed officer then spent an hour making a list of information about me that will, unequivocally, be of no use to anyone, anywhere at anytime. The predilection of Indian bureaucrats for obsolete data never ceases to surprise me.

The jail was not large enough to accommodate a tenth of our number — we were over 70 — so we stayed at the PWD resthouse. The police fed us (personally in the case of some humbler specimens) and in the morning, after a frustrating delay, I was released.

This was the first time I have been involved in a non-violent demand for truth. Certainly, I learned from the experience but I also enjoyed it enormously, and I suspect Mahatma Gandhi might have approved of this. Historian William Shiver noted: Gandhi “taught us that there was a greater power in life than force.” Could that power be pantomime? No, but it just might be humour.

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