It is around 4 am, Saturday, more than 24 hours since the pitched battle at Jawahar Bagh in Mathura between members of a cult group and the police, which has left at least 24 people, including two police officers, dead. At a rickshaw stall near the city’s old bus stand, all 95-year-old Goba Devi wants is to go home.
For the last more than a year, ‘home’ was the once-sprawling park in the city, gradually taken over by members of Swadheen Bharat Subhash Sena, followers of Jai Gurudev, a self-proclaimed spiritual leader who died in 2012. But now, home for the nonagenarian means her village in Kushinagar district at the other end of the state, nearly 700 km away.
It has been 24 hours since Goba Devi’s grandson, Rajesh, carried her on his back and left her here. Since then, she is at the mercy of people around — for food, and for water.
Having arrived at Jawahar Bagh a year ago for a “promised darshan of the current Guruji”, Goba Devi had been staying at the park, which had turned into a protest site for nearly 3,000 members of the cult since March 2014, with her daughter’s family. Thursday’s violence has left her shaken. In retrospect, she believes the “satyagrahis” should have vacated the illegally occupied government land.
Recalling the battle with the police, she says, “All I heard was the sound of firing, and people screaming. Suddenly people started running…. My grandson, Rajesh, lifted me on his back and he, too, ran.” She asks whether it is true that all houses at Jawahar Bagh had been gutted, before whispering, “We had two houses there…they should have vacated the place. At least we could have been together now.”
For now, she is waiting for Rajesh to return. “If anyone comes looking for me, I will tell them to drop me at my village,” she adds, ready to go off to sleep on a cardboard spread on the road.
Barely 200 metres away, inside the bus stand, is a 30-year-old woman, carrying her 15-day-old girl child and one-year-old son. Having shuffled from one spot to another within the bus stand to avoid any confrontation with policemen since her arrival here on Thursday night, she is watchful and discreet. Around 2.30 am, Saturday, she is hiding by a closed eatery, the children sleeping on the floor. A man approaches and hands her a pouch of milk. “I had requested him for milk for the newborn,” says the woman, unwilling to give her name. A few minutes later, as a police patrol vehicle passes by, she grabs the children and runs in the opposite direction.
She claims she arrived at Jawahar Bagh only a week ago from her home in Shahjahanpur district. She was staying at a relative’s house in the park, awaiting a “darshan” of the guruji of the sect — incidentally, she believes Ram Vriksh Yadav, who led the group of protesters, and who, by Saturday evening, was declared dead by UP Police, had taken over as guruji after Jai Gurudev’s death.
On Thursday, her husband “got involved” in the fight. “He was there, carrying a stick, but we could not imagine the situation will go so bad. As we started running to escape the melee, the police caught my husband and started beating him…I escaped,” she says. Asked if she is aware of the ongoing problem, she says, “Hum pardesi hain, humko kuch nahi pata (We are not from here; we don’t know anything).”
Moving away from the mother of two, The Indian Express comes across another escapee from Jawahar Bagh – a 36-year-old (refuses to give her name) hiding under a bus with her five-year-old daughter and one year-old son and continuously watching legs of people passing by, trying to identify those of policemen. “We don’t want to confront them,” she says. “For more than 24 hours I am waiting for my husband. I don’t know if he is dead.”
Around 3.15 am a few policemen approach a tea stall. Both women run to a corner where men urinate. The stench is overpowering, but they sit down quietly. “We have noticed no one comes here at night,” they say. The stench is a small price to pay.