Type
Fiction
Category
Fair Australia Prize

FAP winner – Fiction: Verdict on a winter afternoon

Binayak had spent two years in prison in Chhattisgarh already, and, now, he was going to go back behind bars.

As Ilina accompanied Himanshu and Raj to the door, a deafening silence filled her house. Her daughters were in their rooms, fatigued and battered, their nerves frayed by the seeming chimera and now dismal reality of their father’s conviction in the Raipur Sessions Court. They lacked the will to commiserate with his supporters and well-wishers, to share in their disbelief. Through the years of Binayak’s incarceration, social workers, political activists, doctors, journalists and students had campaigned tirelessly for his freedom. The collective despair of the community surrounding them had often served to ameliorate their own suffering; but, today, they suffered alone. The cloud of political symbolism surrounding Binayak would now quickly dissipate, and Ilina and her daughters would think of him, finally, as a devastated, fragile and emaciated old man alone in a prison cell.

The symbolism was, in many ways, inescapable. Here was a man whose hopes and aspirations, whose years of service to the adivasis of Chhattisgarh, to the poorest of the poor, had been savaged by the seemingly untrammelled might of the ‘democratic’ state. Here was a man whose pacifism was recognised around the country; yet, he had been convicted of conspiring to aid ‘terrorists’.

For many in the political community, this ignominious trial and the unconscionable life sentence that was handed down symbolised the deep anomie that lay at the core of the state. It symbolised the brutal underbelly of this nation’s ‘shining’ narrative of economic growth, development and riches-for-all. It made corporeal the violence of its covert war against those who continued to fight for the millions it had dispossessed. It was, to many, the ultimate proof of the hollowing out of Indian democracy.

Outside their house in Raipur, in the yard, a canopy of sal trees stretched from the road to their doorstep. The earth outside was black and clayey. It was winter. A cold breeze rippled through the broad sal leaves. There was no one outside now except Himanshu, who sat on a wooden bench by the door. Raj had left for home. The day had been draining. Having spent all morning and afternoon in the courthouse, first listening to the verdict being delivered and then dealing with the pandemonium that ensued, with journalists and TV reporters clamouring for a glimpse of the condemned man, a quote, a gesture of defiance, longshots of the grieving family and words of consolation, he was now tired, his mind drawing a blank. An orange sky stretched above him and the cawing of crows filled the sullen evening air. He wanted to give the family some space but didn’t want to leave yet. He knew he would need to be by their side again soon. In his mind, a thousand questions chased one another. A thousand questions and a cacophony of voices blurred his thinking. What was he to do now? Of course he knew this meant war. He knew that this was only the beginning, that, having got Sen, the government and police would now go after others like him.

His school in the forest had already been ransacked once. Then, in the middle of a muggy summer night, no one had been able to muster the courage to stop the plunder and depredation, to ask questions, to plead with the marauders, who were really only boys from neighbouring villages who had unwittingly joined the salwa judum, the vanguard of the anti-rebel movement. One by one, their books, files, chairs and mattresses were thrown into a heap in the courtyard outside and set alight. Boys carrying truncheons, with both fear and anger in their eyes, forced their way into the school building and shouted at the wailing caretaker to get the babu to the compound so he could witness the incineration of the politics of ‘resistance’ he had promoted. When Himanshu arrived, he watched the destruction helplessly. Calling the police would have been futile; he had no doubt that their knowledge of the attack long preceded his own.

But that had been sometime ago. Now, the scent of a different kind of danger, a more insidious kind, rent the air and he knew that it was only a matter of time before something happened to him, something strange and inexplicable that would reveal itself to be an elaborate plot concocted by the powers-that-be, an entrapment and a terribly crude ploy.

For this was the land of the ‘upside-down’ and ‘inside-out’, where the ‘police wore plainclothes and the rebels wore uniform’. Anything could happen anytime now, and he was prepared.

The city of Raipur was a strange place. Words lost their meaning in the raucous politics of the state. Words like ‘sedition’, ‘development’ and ‘welfare’ floated through the corridors of government offices, courthouses and marketplaces, and yet not no one knew what they really meant. What constituted seditious conduct in this modern nation? The colonial dispensation had come to an end a long time ago but its vocabulary and instruments of power lived on, wielded by new masters. Words like welfare and development that slipped easily off glib tongues in the city made hollow sounds in the dense forests where their reverberations should have been felt. Words denuded of meaning filled newspapers and posters on walls. Posters hailed the verdict and called for the condemned man to be hanged for his ‘anti-national’ activities.

No one noticed the fact that they had been pasted around the city a day before the verdict. 

When Sudha arrived at the house, she found Himanshu still sitting outside, contemplating the end of the road, where an old couple sat on their hunches and smoked. She walked slowly to where he was seated and placed her hand on his shoulder. Himanshu smiled back, and, for a moment, the familiar sight of Sudha, in her wrinkled beige sari and with her chaotically arranged hair, filled him with relief. Sudha, a lawyer, had been with Binayak and Ilina from the very beginning, her unwavering commitment and sharp mind a source of solace and support not only to the family but to everyone involved in the case. Even as the scaffolding surrounding the case fell apart, torn bit by bit by steadfast journalists and activists, she could see that the prosecution, and the unyielding state apparatus behind it, would never buck, would never go back. She knew that they were in for the long haul, fighting a battle where words, evidence and the law made for a slippery, ephemeral danse macabre, filled with dramatis personae who sometimes seemed like figments of one’s imagination.

But Sudha had seen it before and been around long enough to know how it would play out. She had long been a target of covert threats and intimidation. Long ago, when she had raised the matter of the displaced people’s rehabilitation in the court, she was told by strangers, nameless men who accosted her outside the court after her hearing, to refrain, to think of her own safety. At first, this had been a terrifying experience, but the novelty soon wore off.

Fear too has a shelf-life.

The dilapidated colony of tin shacks that she had seen the displaced families move into were such a far cry from the concrete houses and five acres of land promised that she imagined even the courts would be appalled and the mining companies would be forced to provide better rehabilitation. Instead, they found themselves mired in a game of deferrals and transfers, months-long delays that stretched to years. In the end, it was all came down to fighting it out in the open, bringing people together and taking their battle to the offices of ministers in the city. She remembered the blistering cold winter of the previous year. A young mother, whose husband worked as a construction worker in the city, had lit a small fire inside her makeshift house to keep her two children warm, who couldn’t sleep at night. They fell asleep when the little fire had warmed their room. The next morning, neighbours awoke to find thick, black smoke bulging through the blue tarpaulin sheet that served as the entrance to their shack. All three had suffocated in their sleep.  

As Himanshu and Sudha sat silently in each other’s company in the yard, an old man and woman, with towering bundles of tendu leaves perched atop their heads, walked slowly past the gate. The old woman wore a pale, fraying yellow sari and the old man a white kurta. The evening sun glistened in the horizon. The woman gestured to the man and they came to a stop at the edge of the gate. Both stared fixedly at the door to Binayak’s house, seemingly oblivious of the others present. Of the many times she had been there, the old lady distinctly remembered her last visit. That hadn’t been to seek the doctor’s advice about a fever or pain, but to let him know that she had heard about what the government, court and police were doing to him. Because she couldn’t read and didn’t own a radio, she could only keep up by eavesdropping on people’s conversations in the market. She had heard and she was incensed. She had said, ‘Doctor babu, in the end, God won’t let them lay a finger on a good man like you.’

She would realise now that she was wrong.

The old man and woman continued on their way, stooping under the weight of their tendu leaves.

The chaos outside the police station reached a fever pitch. As Binayak’s back finally disappeared into the building, and policemen quickly slammed the main entrance doors shut, the chants outside grew louder and more insistent.

We won’t disperse! We won’t leave! Long live justice! Long live the people’s power!

The cacophony was deafening. No policemen could be seen outside. The station was completely surrounded on all sides. At the back of the crowd, Ilina and her daughters watched, speechless. The exhaustion on their faces gradually transformed into anger. The innumerable people between them and the doors of the prison were now coalescing into one seething mass.

A few minutes later, as the sounds gradually diminished, Sudha, dressed in a yellow sari, stood up and walked to the front of the crowd. She stood on one of the steps that led up to the main entrance.

And she spoke; she spoke to the anguished people in front of her, calmly and in a measured voice.

As she started speaking, everyone around her fell silent.

Let us remember this day. Let us remember the anguish we feel today. Let us remember this injustice. Let us remember. Go tell your mother and father. Go tell your brother and sister. Go tell your son and daughter. Tell them about your anger. Let us remember. We will go back home today and we will remember. We will remember that this is what the oppressive state has done to us. We will remember that this is what the state has reduced us to – a furious people, deprived of our basic rights, punished when we dare to help ourselves. Remember that the only crime we are guilty of is fighting for justice. Remember that the only crime that we are guilty of is looking after the most down-trodden and oppressed among us. Remember that the only crime we are guilty of is demanding that the state do what’s right. When mining companies come and take away your land, the state doesn’t stand up for you. The state comes and steals your land on the company’s behalf. The state deploys all its force to push you and your families off your land, land that your ancestors have lived on and worshipped. The state annihilates all opposition to the transfer of your land to private coffers. The mining companies don’t even need to ask. All they have to do is say that they are interested in your land. The state will do everything in its power to take it away from you and hand it over. It will do everything in its power to extinguish all hope of fair compensation. It will do everything in its power to make the expropriation as cruelly efficient as possible. This is what the state will do to us. And when we dare to stand up for ourselves, when we dare to stand up for our brothers and sisters, when we dare to help our wounded and our sick, we are incarcerated. Elaborate plots, manufactured crimes and allegations pulled out of thin air – these entrap us in a despicable system that is rigged from top to bottom. This is our lot. This is the fruit of our labour. False propaganda and hysteria encircle us, and the zealots bay for our blood. We are seditious traitors, we are told. We are terrorists, we are told. Why? Because we dared to help our broken and wounded brothers and sisters? Because we dared to ask that our lives not be annihilated? Because we dared to speak up and demand our dues? Because we dared to stay put and not follow eviction orders? Because we dared to claim this land of our ancestors? Why? Why are we punished, brothers and sisters? What is our sin? This is the question that hangs like a sword over our heads. This is the questions that lies at the very heart of our predicament. What is our sin? Our sin is that we dare to believe in our own humanity. Our sin is that we did not allow them to extinguish our humanity when they set fire to our homes to clear our land. Our sin is that we exist, and that we shall not perish at the hands of injustice. No, we shall not perish at the hands of injustice. We shall live today. And we shall live tomorrow. God willing, we shall live for many days more. And, in that time, we shall reclaim our right to exist, freely, and we shall never stop fighting for justice.

 
 

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Arjun Rajkhowa works in tertiary education in Melbourne. His research interests include public health; media, culture and society; human rights; and policy. He has volunteered in the community sector in Melbourne for several years. He can be contacted on Twitter at @ArjunRajkhowa.

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