`The police are a feudal force that hates the common man'
Former journalist Prashant Rahi who took up the struggle against Tehri Dam after Sunderlal Bahuguna had called it a day was arrested and jailed for four years on the charge of being a Maoist.
Out on bail he talks to JYOTI PUNWANI about journalism, activism and political prisoners.
Sunday, Oct 16 14:43:44, 2011
Q. Why did you leave engineering to become a full-time radical?
A. I loved engineering; I was mad about cars. I joined BHU IIT in 77, and in those days, when there were no computers or Internet, we designed an electric car which is now being run as a battery-operated car on the campus. But I changed while in my final year. After B Tech, I joined Hindalco’s power plant to understand how a factory runs, and to get closer to workers. I would take leave for a week to go work as a miner. Eventually I resigned, did my M Tech, got a fellowship to do research and then abandoned that too to plunge into the students’ protests in eastern UP against Rajiv Gandhi’s New Education Policy. Finally I became a journalist and joined the Himachal Times and then the Statesman. But within six months, the movement for a separate state of Uttarakhand began. I covered it as a journalist and took part in it as a citizen. I am proud to say that while I was in jail, both my PhD guide, Prof A M Tripathi, and Ravindra Kumar, editor of Statesman, wrote letters of appreciation about me.
Q. You saw no contradiction in being both a journalist and an activist?
A. Uttarakhand has a tradition of people’s movements. Many journalists joined it after reporting on it for a while. In March 1996, Vajpayee, then the Leader of the Opposition, had come to Dehradun to address a rally. Goons brought by the RSS began throwing stones on the agitationists, who had declared a boycott of elections and were there with black flags. The BBC’s Mahesh Pandey got hurt on the head, and the Jagran’s cameraman had his camera smashed. All the journalists present at the rally rushed to their defence and resisted these goons for a full 10 minutes. It created quite a flutter and Vajpayee remarked that now even journalists have become agitationists.
I was reporting the facts. The entire society there was in the process of churning. Journalists were part of it. Entire districts and towns had been abandoned by the Government. Even in Dehradun, people had started barging into police stations. The Punjab police had been called in, but these hurly burly men were forced to withdraw by the women and kids fighting in the forefront.
This was a movement to obtain a share in power, it reflected regional aspirations. The Statesman gave a lot of importance to this issue. But I very consciously kept my ideology out of my reporting. It was a tightrope walk. But this helped me develop the ability to convey my point in an acceptable manner, without resorting to propaganda.
Q. Why did you leave journalism?
A. After the State was formed in 2001, I felt I was merely doing routine reporting. With the movement over, the coverage naturally reduced. My job had become too easy. Also, it was becoming difficult to write what I really wanted to. I had to cross over a threshold and go to the people to write freely about their issues. As a journalist, one has to maintain a thin sheet of insensitivity. Even if you are part of an agitation, the people see you as a journalist. A gap remains between you and the people. I was being pulled towards the struggle against the Tehri Dam. By then Sunderlal Bahuguna had given up, villages had been displaced and there had been a lathi-charge in two villages. The kids who had supported the movement for Uttarakhand were now in college. We built a team and from 2001 to 2005, we resisted the dam.
In 2002, the police began looking for me as the leader of the campaign. In 2004, four of our comrades were arrested; the police began calling us Maoists. It was our failure that we couldn’t hold out against the repression. Our cadre wasn’t strong enough. The villagers could no longer support us and in 2005 we backed out. But we had managed to revive a lost movement. Tehri became the bastion against policies surrounding jal, jangal, zameen.
Q Did your arrest give you any insight into the police?
A It’s a feudal force, which hates the common citizen. Even if you are elderly or educated, the police call you ``tu’. They are so anti-women. While torturing me they would talk vulgarly about women activists. The policemen would torture me at night, and discuss politics during the day! I used to scream during the torture; now I know better. The next time it happens, I won’t. That was a valuable experience for me – it taught me how to fight torture. One of the policemen who was always working on a computer while I was in the lock up, landed up in jail next to me. He had been arrested by the CBI which was investigating a fake encounter killing.
The hills used to have the revenue police – the tehsildar, the patwari. Now the police have replaced them, and people in Uttarakhand have also started hating the police.
Q. Four years in prison, solitary confinement – how do you remember it?
A.I was kept along with others for 10 months. I found a great divide between rich and poor prisoners. Normally, you have to have a reason to be excused from doing labour – sweeping the barracks and the compound twice a day, carrying out the garbage and cooking. Only the toughest person makes the chapattis – all cooking is on a wooden chulha and the tawa gets so hot that the chapatti maker gets warts on his fingers. But if you pay Rs 500, you will never be asked to work.
Initially, while I was in the common barracks, I was also sweeping. Then the IG Prisons landed up and announced that Prashant Rahi is like an atom bomb. After that, no one asked me to work – I was a dangerous prisoner who had to be prevented from mingling with the others.
My daughter Shikha would bring me books and she also held a press conference for me. Despite all the repression, the bogey of Naxalism, Shikha, who lived in Mumbai, did so much for me that the police started asking me - You are Shikha Rahi’s father?
After her press conference, local journalists even took out a candle march in my support in Dehradun. Though the police version about me being a Maoist commander appeared in the press for a few months, well-known journalists of the region who bring out small magazines, kept writing in my support. Eventually, the mainstream press also got influenced. At one of the CM’s press conferences, the journalists shouted slogans and didn’t allow the CM to speak.
Not all political prisoners get that kind of help. We fight for their release, but we need to build a support structure around them while they are inside. They have so many needs, and the jail has its own economy.