The Movement Against State Repression (MASR), led by Mr. Inderjit Singh Jaijee, has released literally raw footage: a 23:51 minute video showing human bodies strewn in the water or its banks, alongside garbage, and being pulled apart by packs of wild dogs.
Mr. Jaijee has brought this mystery to the attention of the Punjab Government, Central Government, Punjab & Haryana High Court, National Human Rights Commission, and now everyone with an internet connection.
Mallika Kaur speaks with Mr. Jaijee, human rights activist and co-author of ‘Death and Debt in Rural India,’ to find out what lies beneath the bodies, and remains of bodies, caught downstream the Bhakra Beas mainline canal.
Wednesday 3 May 2016.
Q: You’ve released a gory video of dignity being stripped from the dead, of human beings even reduced to meat that these dogs seem quite accustomed to. What drove the decision to release this video?
Jaijee: Look, when we were telling them, citing figures, even from government’s own documents, people perhaps were not getting it. When you show the actual picture, people are more likely to believe it, we hope.
The government is not admitting this horror. Now see it for yourself. Bodies taken out, thrown back in. This, in presence of police. So it is deliberate : to perpetuate the mystery and misery around these bodies. Look, when I say police, I mean government.
Q: What can people do about this?
J: People can ask some obvious questions and make sure bodies don’t just keep piling up spreading disease and reinforcing despair.
Q: Some questions then. Your contention is that we might be only watching this on video now, but its been happening for years?
J: At least for 6-7 years when it came to our attention that dead bodies floating downstream the Bhakra Beas mainline canal are piling at Khanauri village. We went to the local police station. The police station is located only about 100 yards from the canal head where the bodies come, and they denied there were any bodies piling up.
We pointed them out to the police, but they didn’t pay any attention. That was policy. But we kept going back there because the number of bodies was increasing. And then, in the meanwhile, the local citizens of Khanauri had even set up a rest house for the relatives coming to look for these bodies.
Q: How did these relatives know to come looking here?
J: Word spreads among tragedy-affected desperate families. And the fact the rest house was created shows we aren’t talking about 1 or 2 bodies. A rest house with 4 or 5 rooms was set up. And the Gurdwara provides langar to all the travellers.
Q: Who build this rest house for the relatives?
J: The Khanauri Mandi citizens. And the free food from the Khanauri Gurdwara. As for the government, we asked them to set up a mortuary, nothing happened. The government paid no attention. After a lot of noise, they did put an ambulance 3 years ago, but it was a broken down affair, you don’t see that coming to pick the bodies in the videos.
Q: Civil society showed such initiative in a time people are cynical about civil society. Where is Khanauri, and why did Khanuri Mandi folks mobilize?
J: Yes, humanity amongst the ordinary person is alive. So, to be clear, Khanauri is village within Punjab, on the Haryana border. See, this canal, one branch goes through Punjab and enters Haryana at Tohana, through a smaller canal.
It is shallower. Bodies get blocked about three kilometers down this branch, at a one place. They are easier to detect here, its not at all that they all come from here. So since Khanauri is where they are piling up… citizens there are witnessing this horror and the tragedy of searching family members.
The Khanauri Mandi citizens also organized to a petition to the High Court about 5 years ago. The High Court gave orders to add underwater lights, and various other gadgets. Now, 5 years have passed and government has done nothing.
Q: What have you done to petition government action?
J: So in 2011 the Khanauri situation was brought to the attention of the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the next year it ordered the state to take corrective measures. Nothing happens. Police does post someone in 2014 to stand there and take note of the number of bodies seen floating through, but he has orders not to make any attempt at retrieving or identifying bodies.
In 2015, we approach the National Human Rights Commission. Result? A diligent policeman, at least recording the numbers, is removed from his post! Then, we write to the NHRC about that decision against a junior man in uniform. And soon we hear that he has been reinstated.
On the larger matter, the NHRC’s ask of an Action Taken report from the government has been met with silence. As the three months are coming to a close, we decided to release these videos, so people can wake up to see what putrid callousness we are campaigning against.
Q: In the videos, there are people handling these bodies, who seem to be retrieving these bodies too?
J: Divers are employed there. Private, locally employed. They look at a person and see. If the person looks rich, they will ask for Rs. 30,000 and if a person doesn’t look so rich, they ask for 10,000 or even 5,000.
But people coming are so poor they can’t pay. So even if divers find a body, can’t identify it, they just throw it back into the canal. And for a good portion of time, the police has instructed divers to do just that.
There is nobody hired by the government to retrieve bodies. We had asked the government to employ divers. We had asked the government to put underwater lights, we had asked the government to put nets. But like I said, dead silence.
Q: So these dead have been carried downstream.
J: Yes, however far up the canal is coming from. So the families coming looking, some are from Ropar, some come from Patiala, some come from, it enters Sangrur area only 3-4 kilometers above. The rest is within Patiala. So districts Patiala, Sirhind, Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib, maybe parts of Ludhiana.
Q: You have been championing this issue. And your work is around rural debt-related suicides, which you began exposing in the early 1990s. But how do you connect these bodies tragically piling up in Khanauri to debt?
J: We don’t say they are all debt-related suicides. Even police at Khanuari have noted 35-40 bodies every month, regularly. This is the bodies that are actually seen. Now who are these unidentified bodies? Usually if it is a case of murder, police is active, villagers are active, and report it to the police station near their village.
If it is an accident on a canal, the press is also active. A scooter fell down, a car fell down. That is big news, villagers, they run and see that. So the unidentified bodies can’t largely be that. Of people jumping in the canal voluntarily.
Even that can be some other angle, some heartbreak, some other desperation. Families come looking. But, who are the people whose deaths are still not largely reported? Our experience points to suicide victims, driven by debt.
Q: So, by this process of elimination of the reasons…you are making the claim that these bodies are missing people who have taken their lives due to debt?
J: See, we have village Balran in Sangrur. It had 90 suicides. There are however also 15 missing in that area, post–militancy mind you. Not even counting the deaths of that period. Every village we survey for debt-suicides has missing people, who are not recorded anywhere.
Our estimate is many, maybe most, bodies in the canals are of such missing people. For instance, a person from a university team who came surveying, was telling me the other day that he had come to Khanauri earlier too when a family he was talking to mentioned they suspected their debt-ridden man had ended his life in the canal.
Q: You mentioned debt-suicides are not largely reported?
J: Yes, it has changed over the decades that we have been doing this work, but villagers still do not shout out debt suicides. Initially, if a family reported a suicide, it was a declaration that they are very poor. If they had children to marry, they wouldn’t find matches for them, etcetera. And their prestige in the village would sink.
Initially they hid the suicides quite fiercely. I remember families that we went to who got very hostile with us. How dare you say this? Our chap would never do that! They tried to keep the image of being well-to-do, farmers or laborers.
And then whether suicide is still a crime or not, whether the law has changed or not, isn’t clear to people. What is clear, through their life’s experience, is the amount of harassment that has followed many suicides, including jail for abetment.
The government’s failure to recognize that Punjab has suicides for so many decades has shrouded the issue in shame.
Q: Why has there been such a resistance to recognizing suicides in Punjab?
J: Look, its very simple. Economically, from virtually on the top, Punjab has sunk towards the bottom. If the most agriculturally progressive state has sunk, that means agriculture has failed across the country. So the government just doesn’t accept these facts in full.
Even though, per capita, Punjab has the highest rural suicide rate in the country. I can’t be clearer: the highest. We have written on this so many times.
Yet, each Punjab government downplays the suicides, which is why it seems to us part of a larger agenda in New Delhi to downplay agrarian distress across the country. The Government of India knows this is an all-India problem. Admit it in Punjab, and its clear as day.
This is reminiscent of the militancy period. Pre-militancy in fact. With agrarian distress rising across India, Punjab had taken the lead. Rasta Roko, and then they started blocking Punjab’s food grain going outside, when the government had no way to escape, they converted it into a religio-political movement, and clamped down.
Well-planned diversionary tactics. I’m not saying people were not raising real demands. People were fed up, they did want change, they wanted more federalism.
The same calls came from Jyoti Basu, Biju Patnaik, from Karnataka, from Andhra, but the attack on Punjab and 2% Sikhs was disproportionate. It was painted as all about unity of India, keeping Punjab in India.
Anyway, Punjab feeds India. Now, with an all-India problem, what will they do? They are now trying to push divides on religious basis more ferociously, instead of talking about the poor and hungry and those feeding them, or dying trying.
Q: So let’s come to who is dying now. There is often talk about this being a Jatt caste problem, from their misplaced pride and machismo, highlighted in some recent movies as well. Can you comment on this?
J: If it were a caste thing, then how do you explain rural suicides of labor? That is exceeding suicides of farmers now? So it isn’t that. Now, maybe a village that had 30% landowners once, has 10% landowners: balance have become laborers. So you have landlords, laborers, and landlords-cum-laborers.
Remember, in an agrarian economy, the entire village lives on farming. Whether the grocer, the cloth merchant, transporter, the local halwaii, everyone. Farmer has always been 30-40% and then the laborers working with him, because it is still largely manual farming.
And I am not taking about the belt that has more industry, like Ludhiana, or other avenues of work. I am talking about the large belt of Punjab that still has traditional agrarian society, which is being strangulated, man, woman, child.
Q: Suicides are largely by males, it is gendered. What happens with the women?
J: They rise to the occasion. They try to head households, but still with debt hanging on the family’s head. In a society where women have largely not been allowed roles of leadership, despite this being the land of Baba Nanak, they then have to fight for their rights.
We have also partnered with Building Bridges India and developed stitching centers and other support for women particularly.
And mind you, not everyone can go against the immense odds. We also have stories where children are abandoned, and the widow, who cannot feed them or preserve her dignity, or prevent them from becoming child labor, goes away. Then we have the elderly raising these orphans. Young girls remain particularly vulnerable.
Q: And this is the same for those working ancillary to farmers, they are also committing suicide?
J: Definitely. The entire village is suffering. All segments of the village are sinking. Money comes in through farmers, in a farming society. If he is not bringing in money, everyone shrinks.
So even the shopkeeper, he is not getting buyers. We have cases of these shopkeepers committing suicides, even multiple suicides: taking their wives and children with them.
With land ceiling laws, mind you there is no parallel ceiling on urban lands or industrialists, with the division of land with each generation, you have farmers with very small land holdings. And on top of that, there are laws controlling the price of crops.
Earlier, it was by market demand. But now on paddy and wheat, which Punjab has been forced into growing, while cotton and sugarcane and cash crops have by policy been encouraged to the west and elsewhere, there is a price control.
So we have controlled price, limited cultivation area, and a depleting water table, where is the farmer going to earn from? And for those dependent on his purchase power, it also spells doom. Suicide is a reality of life here, and that is why people quietly turn into these corpses in Khanauri.
Q: So the gore at Khanauri is well known by local residents, local knowledge, local researchers… how about those further away?
J: Secondary investigating bodies of the universities, who do not necessarily have knowledge about the villages, have been put in charge of surveys ordered every so often. Look, out of all the graduates in Punjab, only about 3% come from the rural sector.
Now, how much are the urban area researchers going to find out about the rural sector and its suicides? It becomes a way of playing down the suicides too. The Agricultural University that is slightly more aware of agro problems, gave the estimate of 4,049 debt-related suicides.
Punjabi University and Guru Nanak University said that in 10 years, less than 300. And now, from this canal, under Punjabi University’s purview, you have up to 35-40 a month! I’m all for University studies. But let independent groups come in, let their reports be published, and let there be some light shed for the families of the dead.
Q: What is your estimate?
J: Our village-to-village survey and related relief work of adopting families in 110 villages reveals 2300 debt-related suicides. The Punjab Farmers Commission saying 2000 people dying per year is now old news. Don’t do anything, and the new numbers are so much higher. I estimate, across Punjab at least 5000 suicides a year.
The canal angle came as a revelation even to us 5 years ago. And these are only the bodies that surface, what about those don’t or get caught in silt or undergrowth? And this is only from one canal. Punjab is littered with canals…
Q: And you’ve succeeded in securing some governmental relief for families identified?
J: It took MASR 10 years of litigation to get any compensation ordered in well-documented cases, with Panchayat Affidavits attached saying, yes, this person had a debt of such-and-such amount and committed suicide by such-and-such method. But really, compensation is treated like a top secret by government.
A Deputy Commissioner’s statement saying so many given compensation. Now, say how, many, by what District. And compare it against the reported numbers. But they are using compensation for political advantage.
Larger changes like laws are also more news than fact. The laws in the 1930s, named after Chottu Ram, recognized that the agrarian man is always a laborer, always working on a job that keeps others alive, so requires protection given the uncertainty of this profession.
In post-colonial India, that people like my father fought for, how hard is this to understand? Very. Because of the larger conspiracy of silence around the agrarian sector that I explained earlier. And also, lobbies like the moneylenders, the Aartiyas. They have nothing to do with cultivation, except lending money to farmer.
So why is produce sold through him, why aren’t interest rate ceilings on loans enforced so debt doesn’t become a downward spiral? Because Aaartiya is a fundraiser of the political parties. Thus, depriving farmers of their legitimate rights.
Q: What needs to change, in Khanauri, for the dignity of the dead? Besides the acknowledgement and larger structural changes?
J: Ambulance, mortuary, lights, nets, need to be installed as a start because so many bodies flow through undetected. There has to be an effort made to investigate every unexplained death. They have now said that they will build a mortuary 30 kilometers away.
People don’t have the money, and they should go another 30 kilometers away to Moonak? A poor man cannot do that. No, right here, bring some transparency and some dignity. Advertise in the newspapers, the photos of those found, before dogs disfigure them. All we are asking for is admission and investigation on what is actually happening.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer & writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the U.S. and South Asia.