I have had a harrowing time. Quite worse than I have mostly had while travelling in this country for some time now.
While returning from Ramgarh, a sleepy hill town in Nainital district, I inadvertently became victim of mob ire. Our train was to leave from Kathgodaon at 8:40 pm in the night and my father and I safely left the hotel at 5.00 pm. It would have taken an hour and a half to reach Kathgodaon and another 40 minutes for an early supper snack at a restaurant.
We still had over an hour in hand, but that we always keep in case of an emergency while travelling in hilly regions.
As we crossed the small market area, we stopped by to say goodbye to an acquaintance. Little did we realize that the friendly formality would cost us such harassment. I looked out of the shop and noticed a small crowd slowly gathering at the end of the road. Suddenly that multitude turned into a sea of rage. A very ballistic throng was shouting slogans.
A motel’s windows were broken and a few young men came looking for kerosene. They were intending to set the place on fire. Alarmed, my father and I prodded our taxi to speed away as things were beginning to go out of control. To our horror we found that the entire commotion had taken place right under the Police Chowki and they had raised barricades putting a halt to all traffic movement.
The lane itself though narrow was avuncular for movement out of the town. That meant we were trapped. Knowing a few people in the area, we waited at a shop at a safe distance. The owner, an influential person of the area, was in touch with the authorities in Bhowali, the nearest big town, and coordinating with the police.
Puzzled at the developments, I asked him how such a large mass of people had swelled in such a small place. “Madam these are labourers. There are at least 1,000 Biharis who are working here. The rest are Nepalese,” he said.
Apparently there was some wage feud with the motel owner, who had beaten a poor labourer. All the wage earners in the area had gathered and given a severe thrashing to the owner and had brought him to the Police Chowki, where the fellow was now locked.
Now, if the motel owner had made a mistake and was in the lock-up, what was the entire purpose of further violence and putting up barricades? The inconvenience caused to unconcerned parties was totally unwarranted.
Meanwhile, local Uttarakhand people also joined the multitude making the situation even more precarious. The motel owner was obviously not a popular man.
On a query about why locals were now joining the fight which was none of their business, pat came the reply, “They have nothing better to do.” The shop owner explained the situation.
The hill town with picture perfect views of the Himalayas and close proximity to Delhi has become a popular destination for people from Delhi, Haryana and UP to buy summer cottages sending the prices spiraling. An acre of land now costs about a crore of rupees. Locals are choosing the easy way out. Selling even half an acre makes them wealthier than they can ever imagine. They immediately drop their jobs, stop farming and mostly spend their time idling or boozing. That is the very reason why labour is brought from other states.
Now, Ramgarh is also a popular destination for the well-heeled as it is where people like Rabindranath Tagore, Mahadevi Verma and Vivekanand chose to spend some summers. The Neemrana Group of Hotels has converted Tagore’s home, where he penned a part of Gitanjali, into a popular retreat. Besides, there are a couple of WelcomGroup’s charming properties in the area along with the famed Sitala Estate.
So as the clock was ticking away fast, the trail of vehicles of holiday makers was lengthening. It had been over an hour and a half and most of the people stranded needed to catch the train to Delhi.
The police had arrived from Bhowali, but looked completely meek in face of the hostile horde.
I heard some sirens, and the way was thrown open for a couple of minutes. Apparently Israel’s Ambassador to India had been spending the weekend at the Neemrana property and was allowed by the police to leave. But no such luck for us commoners. Not even for a former MLA who was also waiting in a now fairly long queue.
What do these people want, I kept wondering, as the culprit was already in lock-up. But the gang would not relent. Again and again they let out blood curdling threats.
After repeated pleas from tourists, nearing 7.00 pm, all the taxi drivers came up with an alternative idea, to take an obscure route which was also very long. If all of us were willing to pay a ransom, they would take us by that way but even then we may just make it on time.
All of us agreed, but little did we realize what was in store. Not only was the road unmetalled, night was falling fast. It turned out to be one of the worst journeys of my life. Most of the route was uninhabited and so pitch dark, in absence of road lights. There were sharp bends, big stones, and trucks with full beam lights were suddenly appearing from the opposite direction. On top of it we were going full speed.
My father is a senior citizen and I get mountain sickness, it is impossible to pen down that one hour-forty minute journey! At one point the river overflowed the road and we actually had to go through it. And to make things worse, the tortuous mountain road had no railing!
At last when we reached the plains, we had missed the train at Kathgoadaon. So we rushed to Haldwani, the next station, and were able to board, just in the nick of time. Some hapless foreigners who were also stuck at Ramgarh with us and did not speed as much, missed the train altogether.
My experience got me thinking. How little it takes to rouse a rabble. And how people have taken to imparting justice in their own hands, without waiting for law to take course.
The incident can be anything. From the smallest to pertinent ones. Whether it is the Dalit case in Haryana, the Sacha Sauda case in Punjab or Gurjar reservation in Rajasthan, everyone comes out on the streets with little consideration about the inconvenience caused to the common man. My own colleague had been held up for a day this year when Sach Khand sect held protests against the killing of their leader.
This is not the way of a democracy. Rights should not mean a licence to do what we want. It is extremely crucial that people understand the thin line dividing a genuine protest and lawlessness. It goes without saying we need to reform our system of justice dispensation.
Most of all, our mentality must change.