An autobiographical narrative of M. C. Mehta’s illustrious career fighting for the public
A collection of M. C. Mehta’s wisdom, anecdotes and legal stratagems
A unique compilation of the judgments and orders in 18 public interest cases
 

Five Rupees: A Young Activist's Struggle

It was around twelve-thirty at night when I emerged from a shadowy alley. I glanced around cautiously, as I knocked brusquely on the heavy wooden door. A warm light emanated from inside and I could see my breath floating, cloud-like, in front of me. A few moments later, a trusted face squinted sleepily, yet cautiously, from behind the cracked door. I swept aside the shawl that I had wrapped around me for cover, so my friend could recognize my face.

These were tense times in Jammu. The movement for Jammu Statehood was at its height and one never knew who might come knocking in the middle of the night. It could certainly be the police. They had been very active in raiding suspected hide-outs for my fellow activists. It could be a goonda, a local thug. My friend took the risk, for he knew it could also be a volunteer of the movement, desperately in need of help. The man's face lit up with excitement when he recognised me, despite my turban and beard disguise. Hastily, he ushered me into his house and closed the door behind him. You never knew who could be trusted in these dangerous times and I was a wanted man, hunted by the police because recent events were fresh in everyone's minds.

The story unfolded, six months earlier, in the spring. I had just started my law practice in Jammu, the winter capital of the State of Jammu & Kashmir and was struggling to balance my practice with the social, cultural and youth movements I was involved in. I was thereby always short on time.

One day, I was approached by some of my contemporaries. They told me that some youth groups had voted me as the president of a newly set up youth organisation, the "Youth Action Committee," to fight for Jammu's statehood. Although it seemed an honour, I was reluctant to accept. I replied that I had not volunteered for this position and would not accept it. I had too much to do as it was and resented that they had not asked me.

At that time, there was significant social unrest over inequality, between the Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions, in providing employment, political representation and economic development. Jammu provided the lion's share of the income generated through taxes, natural resources, food products and forest wealth, while the Kashmir region dominated the political scene. In Jammu, we felt dramatically underrepresented. The solution that many of us chose to pursue was to fight the injustice and demand independent statehood for Jammu. I was familiar with the cause of unrest among the people of Jammu so I was a staunch sympathiser, but was hesitant to accept leadership of the movement. They remonstrated, telling me they would protest in front of my office if I did not accept. After a few days of contemplation, I thought of a strategy for the struggle and accepted the position. Within a week, we were in action.

The State of Jammu & Kashmir has two capitals. In the summer, it is Srinagar, famous for its serene and natural beauty, with sights such as the Dal Lake, Nagin Lake, Shalimar and Nishat Gardens and the Jhelum, which flows right through the city. In the winter, the capital is Jammu, the gateway of the state, situated on the banks of the river Tawi and nestled in the foothills of the Shivaliks. Our first step was a dharna, a non-violent sit-in, outside the State's Civil Secretariat building in Jammu. Scraping together the meagre resources we had, we printed handbills and posters, appealing to the people of Jammu to support the struggle. We sat outside the winter capital building for eight days. As days went by, members of the Action Committee would leave and I could tell that their morale was suffering. Soon enough, I found myself demonstrating alone. Nobody seemed to have taken notice of our dharna and the movement appeared to be fizzling out. The supporters who had initially approached me now backed out for one reason or another - family pressure to earn money, fear of reprisals and so on. Our efforts had seemingly failed. We had barely been noticed - there was not even a single line mentioning us in the newspapers.

I realised that it was necessary to recruit youth for the movement from the countryside. I spent weeks roaming through villages and listening to people's concerns. I came across several capable and dedicated people who were truly willing to work for the cause. Students and youth from the countryside volunteered to join the struggle, which enabled us to continue sit-in protests. Initially, we had a rotation of two people each day sitting on the dharna, supported by public meetings and rallies. Soon the hard work paid off and the number of volunteers swelled to more than 150. We demonstrated, for about ten weeks, outside the Civil Secretariat building of the winter capital of the State and organised meetings from urban streets to rural dwellings. This helped us to attract the attention of the press and general public.

As my confidence grew, I felt that we should test our commitment and so we held a 24-hour hunger strike, followed by another fast-unto-death, for Jammu statehood. The volunteers and sympathisers' strength grew each day as thousands of people - youth, students, businessmen, farmers, academics and politicians - started attending our peaceful demonstrations. They saw that we were serious and that our demands were genuine. Soon we were all over the newspapers and we simply had to make an announcement about a public meeting or a rally and hundreds would join in.

As the movement became popular, the government responded, as we had expected, with repression. Tension in the Jammu region was high, with the memory of the emergency of 1974 still fresh in people's minds. Politicians were paranoid about any type of dissent - even non-violent in form. Furthermore, the move for statehood threatened many established interests in Kashmir that benefited from Jammu's natural resources.

The government started subversive tactics. Many of my young friends, who were at the forefront of the movement, were arrested during the dead of the night, from their homes, taken to unknown destinations and tortured. The police would shave my friends' heads and eyebrows, pull out their fingernails and beat them senseless. During interrogations, the police wanted to know my whereabouts and that of other key leaders.

During this time, one of the pioneers of the movement, Shri Bhim Singh, was arrested by the authorities. In order to keep the movement alive, I had to go underground. I abandoned my apartment and law practice and moved between several friends' houses each day. The police raided place after place, but luckily they never found me. I donned a turban and a shawl, grew a beard and, assuming a false name, would go from place to place, to meet supporters and address in-house meetings arranged by different activists. There were no fixed working hours. In this nomadic existence, I often walked for miles without food, water, or shelter - the police ever on my heels. Long working hours and living under semi-starvation conditions for days resulted in extreme exhaustion. My health began to deteriorate. One day, I fainted and had to be hospitalised - of course under my fake name. After receiving treatment, medication and food, I recovered quickly and soon I was on the run again. The police had information that I was in the hospital and were on their way to verify this. Through everything, those dedicated to the cause never disclosed my whereabouts, even if they were brutally tortured.

As the movement gained popularity, people became restless and started pushing for change. By this time, our Youth Action Committee had become a full-fledged organisation. Energy was high, passions were ignited. This was the time to act and harness the momentum into a positive force to achieve our goal: statehood. The prevailing mood became apparent to me as I was resting, one morning, at a doctor-friend's home. I realized that the time was right to hold a rally. This was a risky proposition, considering that the police were after me; coming out in public was to tempt fate. The spirit of sacrifice and the trust that we placed in each other had made our organisation extremely effective. There was no room for ego or power politics. We simply had to accomplish our mission. A member of the Committee's core group came to where I was hiding and I told him to get a permit for holding the public meeting, make announcements to supporters and put up posters in the city inviting people to attend. This time, however, he was quite helpless and began crying as he told me that he was living under semi-starvation conditions and had no money whatsoever. He could not afford even ten rupees for obtaining a permit.

That day, I awoke with only five rupees in my pocket. It was the last of my personal savings. Due to my deep involvement in this movement, I was not practicing law anymore but instead was surviving on the generosity of friends and supporters. I borrowed ten rupees from Dr. Kulwant Singh, the veterinary doctor in whose house I was staying, to partly cover the cost of the permit for holding a public meeting. Adding the five rupees from my pocket, I was able to give fifteen rupees to my young friend. With determination and fire in his eyes, he set out. Volunteers put posters up all over the city, announcements were made through loud speakers and student and youth activists like Shri Uday Chand, a fellow we called "Shakespeare" for his curly hair, Manohar Singh, Bhupinder Singh Salathia, Vinod Sharma and others got busy organising the public meeting. By mid-day, I shifted, clandestinely, into a school opposite my office at Panjtirthi Chowk. Shri Jagdish Singh, a staunch supporter of the movement was the principal of that school. After a brief meeting with him in his office, I hid on the third floor of the building.

As word spread about the public meeting, the police came out in full force. By evening, they had put barricades on roads leading to the Parade Ground where other leaders of the group and I were going to addres the public. The police blocked every street leading to the public meeting's venue and looked, in every passing car and scooter, for me and other youth leaders. There were even policemen stationed right outside the building where I was hiding. I grew very anxious when I was told that my exit was blocked.

That evening, over 20,000 people were at the venue shouting pro-movement slogans. At sunset, two men, in their early twenties, showed up carrying a long rope in a jute bag and a board. They tied the rope to the board and lowered the rope out of the third floor window, instructing me to hold the rope firmly and jump. It was nearly 40 feet to the ground. I had never climbed down such ropes before, but I had to simply put my trust in them. I slid down as quickly as I could, being careful to not burn my hands. I landed, with a clambering thud, onto a corrugated tin rooftop below. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop, for nearly two hundred feet, I arrived at the end and dropped down to a motorcycle waiting below. I had no idea who the rider was. I ducked my head and we took off swiftly through winding alleys.

Every possible entrance to the meeting place was blocked, so the motorcycle driver pulled out of an alley and onto a main road leading straight to the meeting place. He was driving the bike at full speed and I had to clutch onto him to keep from falling off the back. We went faster and faster, straight towards the police checkpoint. With the engine screaming and the wind howling we literally flew past the checkpoint, leaving the police stunned and chasing after us. We crossed the hurdles they had put up, left the broad road and soon entered winding streets again. The driver slowed down the motorcycle and stopped not far from the venue of the public meeting. As soon I got off the motorcycle, I was surrounded by waiting volunteers who escorted me to the podium amidst loud cheering.

The police did not dare move in, for fear of inciting a riot, but they were prepared for the eventuality. Besides, their tactics were different; they did not want outright confrontation, they simply wanted to silence the leaders who led the movement. By suppressing the leadership, they hoped to set an example for the rest of the public. When we got on-stage, the crowd was electric. No one really believed that I would actually be able to make it to the meeting.

I delivered a short speech, telling the crowd about the hardships and financial constraints we faced in fighting with the movement. I stated that, if they were willing to sacrifice, if they were willing to endure for the cause of Jammu statehood, only then would we continue the agitation. If they were not willing to do it, we would forthwith stop the agitation. The crowd responded resoundingly in favour of the movement. Then people began passing around hats for making donations for the movement. That night, donations of around 35,000 rupees were given and hundreds of young men and women volunteered to join the movement.

The donations being collected by the volunteers at the rally diverted the attention of the police. My colleagues saw this as an opportunity for my escape and quickly wrapped a white shawl around me, put a turban over my head and whisked me onto the rooftop of a nearby building, from which I was to jump 20 feet below. The police blocked all other exits, so this was my only means of escape. I saw a sputtering motorcycle stationed below. I was scared and hesitated. Then, from behind me, I heard a growl - a huge, fat, monkey was gnashing his teeth in preparation for a full-fledged attack. I jumped and fell into nothingness.

I lost consciousness on impact with the ground, but came to a moment later, when I was being helped onto the back of the motorcycle. It was a different motorcycle, but the same driver. I braced myself again for the unexpected and we took off with a jolt.

We exploded past a police barricade and disappeared into the narrow streets, bobbing left and right for what seemed like an eternity. We had managed to elude the police. As we got farther and farther away, I knew that I was safe. I again tucked my cheek against the driver's back, shielding myself from the brisk night air. As my heart rate began to slow down, I once again had time to think ahead and to consider where I would hide that night.

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