The first Saturday of July, 2010. Mandy, Jondy, Manja and I were to leave for Manchikere. The documentary Footprints Of The Black Soil on the Siddhi community in Manchikere and Yellapura, made by Shrisha, Shishira, Vijay, Manjunath and group as a partial requirement for the fulfillment of their cours was to be screened at Manchikere for the Siddhi people the following day. We were told that there is a bus from Udupi at 21:45 hrs to Manchikere. So we went Udupi at 21:15 hrs itself and realized that the bus is at 22:30 hrs.
Thankfully I had bought that week’s Gauri Lankesh Patrike. I opened it and sat on the stairs of Mythri complex located at the service bus stand of Udupi. Mandy who then was just completing his master’s degree in social work started narrating to us the rumors he had heard at Kolagiri about Naxal movements in the village. Kolalagiri was the village where he was placed for his field work as a part of his course in Social Work. Mandeep’s narration of the rumor heard at Kolalagiri triggered a discussion on Operation Green Hunt etc and other related issues. Obviously! We had to spend time till the bus would arrive.
At 22:30 the bus arrived. We got on to it and took our seats. Around 23:00 hrs the bus stopped at Kundapur bus stand, 30 kms from Udupi, as the driver had to have his dinner. Late dinner. The driver went to the hotel which is within the Kundapur bus stand premises. Jondy said, “I want to have a smoke”. “I want some fresh air,” I said and we both got down. Manja joined us. Mandy was asleep so we did not want to disturb him. After getting down we went and stood under a tree which was some fifty steps ahead of the bus. Jondy lit his cigarette. Half the cigarette must have turned into smoke and suddenly we were blinded by the headlight of a jeep. We closed our eyes partially and simultaneously with our hands we shielded our eyes partially. Through the slight opening of the eyes we saw that it was a police jeep. As we realize this the jeep cames close to us and stopped a few steps away from us. A man in civil dress got down from the jeep hurriedly and ran towards the bus. Meanwhile an inspector and two constables in their uniform got down from the jeep. We were trying to make sense of things and the man in civil dress who went running towards the bus caught hold of a lean man in lungi and a faded shirt. Holding him by his collar from behind the police in civil dress brought him towards the jeep. The inspector in the uniform, from distance, started throwing the torch light at the man who was caught. That is when we saw that fearful face properly for the first time. He raised he folded his hand and bent his back as he neared the inspector. “He is surrendering,” we spoke among us and walked towards the restaurant to buy a bottle of water, thinking it would be too embarrassing for the man caught if people were around.
We entered the hotel where the bus driver was having his dinner. We asked for a bottle of water. While we were paying for it we heard two voices from the bus asking authoritatively, “Who are your friends? Where are they? Who are they?” We turned around to see whose authoritative voice was it and directed towards whom. What we saw shook us. The two constables were holding Mandeep and bringing him down from the bus. Mandy who was half asleep was rubbing his eyes to keep them open and to brush away the webs of sleep still hanging on to his eyes. We ran towards the bus saying, “We are his friends. What is the matter?” “Oh. So you are his friends! Come this way,” said the inspector and directed us back to the hotel. With the constables on our either sides we walked back into the hotel.
“Did you guys board the bus in Udupi?” asked the Inspector. “Yes” we said. “Did you go to a bar before boarding the bus?” he asked us. “We don’t consume alcohol, Sir” we answered looking at each other to feel a sense of solidarity in a fearful situation. With his eyebrows and voice raised he asked, “Only alcoholics go to the bar, is it?” The very fact that we were being questioned and we not knowing what the matter is and why we were being questioned not just puzzled us but also scared us. “No Sir,” we said. “So answer, did you go to a bar or no?” he repeated the question. “No Sir.” As he was speaking to us he was looking for something in his mobile and not finding it. “So what do you guys do?” he asked looking into his mobile. “Sir he and I are journalists,” said Jondy pointing at Manja. “I am a student of social work,” said Mandy. “I am a research student,” I said. As I finished answering the Inspector turned towards the billing counter and angrily screamed, “There is no network here,” looking at the cashier of the hotel. “Yes sir some issue with the network here inside,” said the cashier apprehensively. “Come out,” instructed the Inspector to us and walked out. The constables said, “Move out move out,” and pushed us out of the hotel. While we were walking out Mandy asked me very innocently, “Where are we? Which place is this?” and I realized that this man dint even know which place we were in. The sheer absurdity of it brought a smile on my face, which obviously I had to swallow. The Inspector crossed the bus and moved to the other side. We were following him. While we were crossing the bus a passenger put his head out of the bus window and asked the constable, “What is the matter?” I looked up at him as a matter of reflex and heard the voice of the constable, “Nothing can be revealed while the investigations are on.” The word “investigation” sent a chill down my spine. I couldn’t even turn and look at the constable though my reflex could have.
We were following the Inspector with the constables besides us. While following the Inspector I kept thinking- Which books am I carrying in my bag? Just few months ago a Professor in Delhi University was arrested by the Delhi Police for having Marxist literature! Then it had angered me and made me laugh at the same time. It was absurd yes but scary too. That incident came back to me and appeared scarier now when we were in the clutches of the police and there was a possibility of me having some Marxist literature in my bag. In a state of fear I couldn’t even recollect which book I had placed in my bag.
The Inspector stopped a bit far from where the bus stood. We went and stood in front of him. People from the bus were looking at us from distance. They were also talking among themselves, probably imagining what the matter could be and what kind of criminals we were.
“Were you guys in the bus stand for a long time before catching the bus?” asked the Inspector. “Yes sir we got the timings wrong and came early.” “Were you guys discussing something there?” he asked. The ground shook for me. My legs started shivering mildly. I thought life had come to an end because what we had discussed was the issues of Naxalism after Mandy had narrated to us the rumors that he had heard about Naxals in Kolalagiri. That could be enough for these state agents to frame us and facts like it being a rumor that was overheard would make no much sense to them. All the 25 years of my life flashed before my eyes! I went numb. I couldn’t respond. “Discussing what?” asked Jondy in an inquisitive way. Inspector piercing us through his eyes said, “About the smuggling that happened in Brahmavar few weeks ago.” I suddenly found some gravitation. “Smuggling? In Brahmavar?” I asked and the Inspector in a curious manner. The Inspector got angry. He yelled, “You say you are from media and you don’t know about things happening around you?” We all smiled. For some reason the Inspector was convinced that we were innocent. “So you don’t know, is it?” “No Sir” “Ok then go back and sit in the bus.”
We turned around and we saw some fifty pair of eyes trying to tear the darkness of night and get a close up view of us and tear the ghostly sound of silence and hear the conversation/ inquiry of us. We start walking towards the bus. The constables marched with us. The Inspector moved towards the jeep where the police in civil dress stood. One of the constables got into the bus first and the four of us followed him. We were followed by the second constable. All eyes in the bus were staring at us. It was extremely embarrassing and humiliating. I wanted to scream at the top of my voice saying, “Don’t look at us like we are some criminals. We are innocents.” Right then whaaaackkkk I heard a slap. It silenced the silent scream in my head! The constable had slapped a person who was leaning on the windowpane and sleeping! The man woke up in fear jumping off his seat and screaming, “aah aah,” holding his left cheek! Before the man could figure out what was happening why was he slapped or before I could ask myself the same questions, the bus conductor’s voice from our behind said, “No no, he got into the bus in Mangalore.” The constable exclaimed, “Oh, I see,” and ordered, “Sleep sleep,” to the man he had slapped. Out of fear the man went back to his sleeping position and closed his eyes. We took our seats wondering what was it all about. The constables looked at every single person in the bus. After scanning through everyone in the bus they moved towards the exit door of the bus. While getting down one constable said to the other, “May be they got into some other bus.” They got down from the bus and within no time the driver started the bus and the bus moved. After some good ten minutes things fell into place in our minds and all four of us laughed aloud at the sheer absurdity of the whole incident. Till then we had only heard read and spoken about black comedy. Now we had lived it!
The story is this: The police get information that some people in Udupi bus stand were discussing about the Brahmavara smuggling case. They are also told that those people caught a bus in Udupi which moved north. The police decide to follow a bus that moved from Udupi towards north and it happens to be a wrong bus (Proof: “May be they got into some other bus.”) They catch hold of us because we were the only people in the bus who had boarded the bus in Udupi. They do their inquiry and realize we were innocents. They leave the bus. They look for other suspects and don’t find any. They go back.
Now let me list the absurdities in this entire episode. One: The police follow and stop a wrong bus. Two: we are inquired just because we boarded the bus from Udupi. Three: a man who was in deep sleep and unaware of things happening got slapped because the constable thought he was deliberately pretending to be asleep. Four: the man who was slapped was instructed to go back to sleep. Police orders to sleep! Five: The man who was caught in the beginning by the police in civil dress was not even a passenger of the bus! He was passing by the bus after having dinner in the hotel where the driver was also having his dinner. He was a localite from Kundapur who got so scared looking at the police that he folded his hands and bent his back which gave an impression that he was surrendering. He was not even remotely related to the entire investigation.
When we were on our way back from Manchikere after the screening at some ungodly hour Jondy woke me up saying, “look out look out.” It was Bhatkal and a policeman was speaking to someone on a bike. Jondy laughed and so did I. But deep inside we knew how horrific the state of affairs are in the world’s largest democracy.