Office-goers, college students and others who criss-cross Azad Maidan daily may recall running into an elderly woman walking around its expanse. Vimal Pethakar had been camping on the grounds, Mumbai’s official protest site, since 2014 with her son Dattatrey, and until his demise two years ago, her husband Mohan. On Monday, after six years of protest demanding compensation of Rs 2,600 crore for 3.5 acres of ancestral land in Sangli purportedly acquired by the state government, Pethakar died on the footpath opposite the stately headquarters of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
The 70-year-old and her son, from Tasgaon in Sangli, had been forced to vacate Azad Maidan by the local police during the Covid-19 lockdown. On Monday morning, when Dattatrey found his mother unresponsive, he rushed her to JJ hospital with the help of policemen. She was declared dead on arrival. A post mortem was conducted on Wednesday. The doctors have reserved her cause of death until they get histopathology reports.
Pethakar, her husband and son first came to Mumbai in early 2014. Dattatrey, who said he was a civil engineer, had been insistent that the family must be compensated for a 3.5-acre portion of land at Sangli Miraj road owned by his great grandfather, as a portion of it had been acquired by the British colonial rulers in 1881 to build a metre gauge track and the rest by the state government to expand its road network. He had a thick file of documents to show anyone who questioned.
When district level officials brushed off the family’s claims, the Pethakars moved to Azad Maidan to protest against what they claimed was government injustice.
Vimal, her son — and intermittently, her husband — were a familiar sight at Azad Maidan. They would sit at the maidan throughout the day and as no one is allowed on the grounds after 6 pm, they would go to the CST station to sleep. “I had taken permission from the central railway to allow us to sleep there,” said Dattatrey. He said mosques and fellow protesters at Azad Maidan shared food with them. “Sometimes my sister would send food through my childhood friend from Sangli. He is a truck driver and comes to Mumbai often,” he said.
Mohan died at Azad Maidan after suffering a heart attack at the ground in August 2018. “We had to go home to conduct his final rites. After completing the 15-day ritual, we came back to Azad Maidan at the end of 2018,” said Dattatrey.
The protest of the mother-son duo continued until the first phase of the nationwide lockdown began on March 23. Police turned away the two from their protest site. “As trains were not functional, we could not go back to Sangli. Meanwhile I would keep visiting Mantralaya to clear my documents,” he said.
They did not take the Shramik Special trains that began in May, Dattatrey said, because “a government official told me that our proposal is about to be passed and just because we did not want our ten years’ struggle to go waste, we stayed back.”
The two moved to the footpath opposite BMC headquarters, where they had used a tarpaulin to cover themselves from the rain.
But early on Monday, when Dattatrey noticed that his mother had stopped breathing, he rushed to the Azad Maidan police station, from where with the help of police, he took his mother to JJ hospital. He is now taking her remains to Tasgaon, where she will be cremated.
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