Travelling with Medha Patkar

She personally travels light. The legal papers, annexures and miscellaneous documents fill 4 heavy bags. I struggle to carry them; light weighted as I’m and as I pause for breath she marches on forward, occasionally turning back to ask “Ashwin bhai, jaldi chalo”. I nod my head, too tired to even reply “Haan, didi”; I nod and proceed carrying my laptop bag around and a satchel containing a couple of books, I assumed I would have time to read.

I meet her in Indore in a Pad Yatra against the recent demolition drive in the old part of the city. To claim I was slightly late would be an understatement; I had to quicky purchase a jeans to substitute the pajamas I was travelling in; pajamas aren’t apparently allowed in a Court of law. Following the purchase, another saathi and I hire an auto to an old locality in Indore. We haven’t any clue of what we are supposed to be doing there except for receiving directions to the locality. Demolished buildings, broken roads and an open sewer welcome us; displaying efforts of the local authorities to transform Indore into a ‘Smart City’. The residents of the area are understandably angry; I try to spot didi when I notice that the residents have encircled her; each person wants to make sure she writes down her names and experiences. Everyone is keen to say, “kuch kijiye didi” and she replies “hume ek saath sangarsh karna padega”. Sangarsh, who would know better about organizing and spearheading a non-violent struggle after independece than her? She spots me amongst the residents and immediately asks me to shoot as many photographs of the demolished buildings as possible. The task is too much; realizing I’m with Didi, people start to crowd around me. In order to avoid multi-tasking, I relegate the job of photography to the other saathi and begin to furiously jot down notes; I think I’m faster than her in writing things down. Only, she takes down the relevant details; everything else is registered in her memory, is she eidetic?

As I make my way across the area, I come across huge open drainage pits and before I can caution her, she has crossed over muttering “hum to pahad chadte hain, tum sambaalke aana”; I decide never to caution her again, it is too embarrasing for me. After the Pad yatra I follow her to a private meeting where after listening to the members of the local society on the demolition for the proposed ‘Smart City’; she readies herself for an impromptu press conference. Listing out all relevant laws, sections, orders and city plans from memory she proceeds to question the current government’s disposition. She makes sure to make a reference to the people of the Narmada valley and the destruction they have witnessed in the name of the development since the Sardar Sarovar Project started off. She has championed their cause for over three decades now, doesn’t she ever tire? I’m sweating, unacquainted as I’m with North and Central India’s heat. My mentor had warned me about the summer and I brushed him aside with the statement, “I’ve lived in Chennai”; I keep wishing I could retract those words. No, there is no time to crib about the heat – Didi has already made her way to a local community centre and library on their invitation. When I make my way inside the community centre, she looks out for me specially and motions me in with a “aao Ashwin bhai, dekho”. I think she knew I’d be happy; the place was catered to my Marxist sensibilities – numerous photographs of Ernesto, a collage of photos containing Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Maradona (probably for the ‘hand of god’ goal alone) and slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. I’m visibly impressed but I cannot stay for long and must get to the High Court and the Railway Station in less than 20 minutes.

I make it to the station at exactly the 20th minute only to witness the train pull out of the platform. The responsibility of delivering the package falls on the other saathi, I get to travel with Didi. I see this as an opportunity, I’d like to ask her about her experiences and the one question that I’ve been meaning to ask her – What keeps her going after all this while? She is there at the station rummaging through files; she is extremely organized but to watch her work and work with her is to be caught in a whirlwind. I’m tired chugging the luggage, she is already ahead and has called me to ask where I’m. When she spots me she says “Ashwin bhai, jaldi chalo”. “Haan didi”, I say and proceed.

In the train to Jabalpur, she is searching for a file and asks me if I had left it in the bag. I panic due to nervousness, I do remember keeping the file in but don’t remember which bag in exactly. We had left one of the bags at the station and she is worried that the file is missing. I’m trying to reassure myself, convinced as I’m that I had left the file in and breathe a sigh of relief when I find it in one of the bags; she laughs on receiving the file. Even her brief mirth is interrupted with other preoccupations – she has to prepare for the next day, check up on a host of other issues and coordinate with multiple people at once. I’m an absolute novice, I’m still struggling to grasp most of the words in the Hindi spoken in these regions and try hard not to confuse one term for the other. I curse myself under my breath and prepare myself for the next task; this time I want it to be perfect. I have a mental map listing out the tasks at hand and get started on one when she remembers that I haven’t eaten during the day and forces me to eat some wonderful thepla and pickle, a token of gratitude to her from some of the countless people whose struggles she has championed. There is a little girl sketching in the seat opposite ours. Didi requests her to draw a forest but the girl is not interested. She then tries to offer her some thepla but the girl is content with her kurkure. There is sense of disbelief in Didi’s eye but also an acknowledgment of the consumerism that drives modern societies. A day alter on the train to Delhi, I notice the expression again, this time fascinated with a young man indulging in selfies.

Her eyes are droopy and she is dropping to her right as the train gradually picks up speed. I ask her to go to sleep and this works as an energy booster for her. She begins dictating a few notes regarding the Pad Yatra against the demolition drive in Indore and in the process lists out at least 10 names which I immediately forget. She patiently repeats the list again and checks up on a survey form I have prepared while asking me to make corrections where necessary. “Ashwin bhai, yaad rakhna, haan; aaram se karna aur sab kuch vyavasthit rakhna”. In the time I’ve spent with her, the word vyavasthit is most frequent, it means ‘organised’ and I register that in my mind. After a moment’s pause, I ask her “Didi but why do you continue to take legal recourse even 3 decades after what you’ve experienced with the Courts?” I do not know if she heard my query, or if she chose not to respond. She just kept listing out tasks as she regularly does.

She still hasn’t answered me, I think she wants me to figure out the why; in any case I’m only further perplexed following the day’s events at the Jabalpur High Court.

When I fall asleep, it is close to 12:30; she woke up once to remind me to check the Court listing; it is Item 3. At 5:30 am sharp she is up and immediately wakes me up, I jump down from the upper berth and draw the luggage out. It is early in the morning but the Railway Station is bustling with activity. We request a labourer to help us carry the bags and make our way to the Waiting Room where she has already set up a work station and is preparing herself for the day’s pleading. I don’t need to be prompted anymore; I have identified my tasks and am already on the first on the list. After a frantic 4 and a half hours, she realizes that she is due in court in about 15 minutes and we are a couple of papers short. My shower foregone, I hail an auto and rush to get the necessary print outs before meeting her outside the Court Room.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam
Created with Nokia Smart Cam

In the Court, a sea of black engulfs me. Some of the men (and it is mostly men, an evidence of how gendered certain professions are) recognize her and offer their salutations; the others walk by perhaps not even aware of the social movement she represents. Inside the Court Room, I’m trying hard not to laugh as every lawyer bows down before the Judge uttering only the occasssional “Yes, your lordship”. I maintain my decorum, standing beside her in front of the Judge. The Judge has about 200 cases to attend to that day and grants our case 2 minutes; he quickly passes the order and we are immediately moved out of the Court room.

She is still optimistic about the Judiciary. This is also the day the Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court is leaving to join the Supreme Court and there is a brief send off for him. She insists we stay back and wish the now promoted Chief Justice good luck for his next assignment. She manages to meet him for just about 10 seconds as he rushes to leave for the airport and on returning to me she says “I met him and told him thank you for his patient co-operation and wished him the best”. We rush to the train station and board the train to Delhi, there is a hearing in the Supreme Court the very next day.

In the Supreme Court, I see some of the senior most advocates and personalities, while Didi awaits her turn. She is visibly tensed and is constantly reminding herself of certain poitns while also instructing the Junior Advocate to makes sure everything is is order. From the Visitor’s gallery, I notice Kapil Sibal, Salman Kurshid, one Bhushan, and Harish Salve enter the Court Room; I’m tempted to ask some of them if the heat doesn’t get to them in their black robes; they hardly seemed to be sweating too with not a hair out of place! Item no. 35 is finally listed and is over before I begin to make sense of what has happened. I was relieved to see the former chief Justice of Madhya Pradesh on the Bench; he has a good idea of the case and I was certain that Didi would be allowed to make her case. I was wrong; the Court refused to even hear Didi and the advocates; the decision is made in a matter of minutes and all that Didi had fought for is made redundant.

She is set to visit Mumbai and another mad rush to the railway station follows. On the train, the caterers recognize her and make sure she is comfortable. She knows all of them by name and inquires on those absent as well. As we sip chai, she sees me fidgeting with my notes and says “Ashwin bhai, have your tea. Work later”. She doesn’t pause for breath but here she was asking me to take a breather and initiating a conversation. She tells me that she quit her PhD midway to work in the adivasi areas in Gujarat first before leading the Andolan in Madhya Pradesh. She senses that I’m interested in poetry after having spotted me scribbling a poem before and asks me to read some. I’m too embarrassed to say anything and divert attention to Faiz and Habib Jalib and how we should use their songs. She puts me at ease and tells me that the press notes I wrote were well written; I apologize for an extreme tone in the same where I’d suggested that the Courts were hand in hand with the executive and blinded by their own scaffold. She chuckles at that statement, ideologically she knows where my sentiments are.

I began the trip with her, nervous and trying hard not to make a fool out of myself. I tried to be consicously aware of my responsibilities and what she entrusted me with and so when she told me to get down at Badodara and take a bus back to Barwani from there, I was determined to follow her instructions. I set the alarm for half hour before the estimated arrival but upon looking at the time (2:45 am) I decided to take a short nap with disastrous consequences. At around 4:40 she woke me up and as calmly as possible said “Ashwin, tum Badodara mein nahi uthre kya?” I wanted to bury myself at that point; taking evasive action I pulled my bags and made quickly for the door to get down at Surat cursing myself on the way and hoping she wasn’t angry. I was amazed she wasn’t, on the contrary she directed me to the bus stop and insisted I eat on the way before leaving with the following words “Tum bi kamaal karte ho Ashwin bhai”.

She is yet to return to Barwani at the point of writing this piece. A lot of what I’ve written is drawn from memory, I wish I could’ve written right away to preserve the immediacy of the experience. However, that would be filled with too many embarrasing details – stepping on her toes twice, mistaking files and being delayed at the wrong counter; perhaps some things are best left unsaid.

She has fought a 3 decades long battle with the State, has been dragged from one Court to another and organized countless Satyagrahas. In the process she has always lent her voice and support to multiple other movements and issues. In Delhi, she was disappointed she couldn’t visit JNU and say a few words of encouragement to Comrades Kanhaiya, Umar, Anirban, Sheila etc. She reminds everyone she meets of the people of Narmada; on the train to Mumbai she asks me to write something for the people of Narmada of their stories and the violence they’ve faced. I do not promise her but her words sting my conscience as I sit in the office looking at heaps of files and meeting multiple villagers who drop by the office.

I still want to ask her why she persists with the Courts after all this time. I want to tell her that in her place I would’ve utterred Habib Jalib’s words “Aise dastoor ko, subh-e benoor ko, Main nahi maanta! Main nahin jaanta” and be done with legal recourse even if after all these years it has helped achieve minimum compensation to the people. She never did answer that question directly but as I think about her, I’m struck by the image of her sitting at the end of the corridor in the Jabalpur Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Her silhouette, lost deep in thought beams in the raging sun. She is not burdened with any files on her lap then and is wiping her face with a solitary red towel. What is she thinking of? In all probablility I may never have the chance to ask her but her voice rings clearly in my head, “Ashwin bhai, write about these people and remember them”.


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Ashwin Written by:

Ashwin works as an Independent Researcher, having graduated from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.


  1. Banri K Kongor
    May 25, 2016

    Kong Agnes Kharshiing is someone like this but she should practise law not just raise a hue and cry over everything. She will lose all her energy that way without real results.

  2. A. R . Sengupta
    June 1, 2016

    Thanks to Ashwinbhai for closely acquainting id with the great fighter spirit .

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