Jantar Mantar, the equinoctial sundial in Delhi, has long become a hotspot for dharnas that brim with propaganda, politics, people, pleas and some misplaced hope.
S.K. Pundit, sitting on one such dharna, narrated his “struggle for justice”. The drug mafia had kidnapped his three children and wife in 2012 as he had informed the police about their operations that had led to the arrest of some of their men.
“The police set the goons free after being bribed and they had their revenge. My two younger sons and 8-year-old daughter were kidnapped first. Later, they came for my wife. Now I have no one left. I couldn’t even get an FIR registered anywhere because police won’t act against the drug mafia,” said Pundit. After losing all hope, he decided to come to Jantar Mantar and stay here until he gets justice. Asked if he has filed any petition in court, he said, “I don’t know about that. I am just going to sit here until I get my family back.” Pundit’s story might be genuine, but his conviction that he’ll get his family back if he sits on a dharna at Jantar Mantar only evokes helplessness. He said, “I have searched for my family on my own and while doing so, I ended up rescuing 148 children from human traffickers and drug rings. But there is nobody to save my family. Now I am injured (his right hand is tied in a dirty blue cloth hinting that he has lost his wrist), so I cannot continue the search on my own. But I want the government to help me. I know sitting on a dharna will help my purpose.” But why does he think that a dharna will help him more than a legal battle? “I don’t know law. What I know is that I have lost my family and this is the way I have chosen to struggle for my fight for justice.”
The Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party has been operating from their “camp office” at Jantar Mantar for the past four months after their original office at Rafi Marg was demolished. “We had our party office at Rafi Marg, it was taken away from us because it was unauthorized, but after the evacuation we were not given any other office. We were not even warned about the evacuation. So we have set up our office here at Jantar Mantar now,” said an elderly person sitting in a chair, basking under the winter sun in the empty “camp office”. He handed over a visiting card without talking further.
Camped at Jantar Mantar for the past nine years is Machindranath Suryawanshi, 64, who is the founder of “Akhil Bhartiya Joota Maro Andolan”. He is popularly known as “joota mar baba”. Suryawanshi is popular among the permanent campers at Jantar Mantar. He has a reputation of being “the most selfless person in India”. Suryawanshi said, “The corrupt politicians and bureaucrats need to be brought back on the right path. It can happen if we beat them hard with shoes. Shoes protect our feet when we walk on a rough path, and these shoes can also protect us from corrupt officials.” For all his faith is his “joota maro andolan”, Suryawanshi has never hit anyone with a shoe. He said, “People all across the country come to me for solutions to their problems. I file petitions for them and advise them about what they should do. Generally, the problem gets solved and there is no need to teach anyone a lesson with the shoe. But now I think I am going to hit someone hard. There is one V.K. Rajan, he is not replying to my RTI. I might hit him with a shoe,” said Suryawanshi, but did not divulge what his RTI was about.
Then there is Shyam Lal Bharti, founder-president of the so-called “Bharatiya Samaj Dal”, who claimed he is behind the idea of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Bharti said, “I am the one who wrote the whole MGNREGA policy document. The reason why it is not a huge success that it was meant to be is because its founder was thrown out from the committee. They deleted my bio from all the documents. I am nowhere on the papers of MGNREGA. I told them what was wrong in their approach. They did not listen to me. They threw me out because I told them that they should not steal people’s money.” Why he is at Jantar Mantar? “I am here for the past two-and-a-half years and I’ll stay here until I get the recognition that is due to me. I can save this country from going into the abyss that the politicians are taking it into. I can stop these floods and environmental crisis. Give me one chance and I’ll prove I am right. Let the United Nations and the United States give me one chance and I’ll tell them the secret. I know the solution and I can save my country and this planet.” Asked what his solution was, Bharti laughed and said, “If I told you then my secret is gone. I won’t tell it to anyone. I’ll prove it and I’ll do it when I’ll be given a chance.” Dressed in an old blue suit, Bharti showed his scrapbook of various newspaper cuttings marked with his commentary on them. He said he abandoned his family three years ago so that he could save his nation. But the government of this country has failed to recognise his “potential” and so he is at Jantar Mantar until someone worthy gives him the chance he deserves. Jantar Mantar is his home now.
Among the disillusioned at Jantar Mantar is one Chandra Pal Singh. A 67-year-old retired government school teacher, Singh has no “camp”; Jantar Mantar is not his home either, and he doesn’t have a “spot” anywhere on the road to sit. He just roams across the stretch of the road with his banners. Singh said, “My request to the ‘honourable’ politicians of the country is to let Parliament function smoothly because too much money of the common man gets wasted every time Parliament is adjourned due to the selfish propaganda of the political parties.”
But why protest at Jantar Mantar? “If not Jantar Mantar, then where else? This place is symbolic of the power that democracy gives to its people. Good or bad, senseless or a genuine demand, it does not matter. What matters is that you can say what you want to say and they may like it or not, they’ll have to hear it, even if they choose to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of the people. At Jantar Mantar, you have a right to be heard. That is why all these protesters come here, to be heard by those whom the people elected but who have chosen to ignore those very people once in power,” Singh said.