We Spoke to People Who Faced a Police Crackdown While Trying to Protect Mumbai’s Trees

People who were at the scene at Aarey Colony over the weekend open up about what it's like to stand up to the aggressive stance of the state authorities and try to protect the environment.

by Pallavi Pundir
08 October 2019, 1:00am

Scene from Aarey Colony on October 5: Chopped trees and barricades on the road installed by the Mumbai Police. Photos: Shreelove Patel

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

Months of activism to protect thousands of trees at Aarey Colony in Mumbai have culminated into a rather aggressive crackdown on activists, citizens and Adivasis (tribals) of the controversial land. On Saturday, Mumbai Police sent 29 people into judicial custody for five days, while more than 50 others were detained, all for protesting against cutting of trees in Aarey Colony.

In a move that’s being seen by many as nothing short of suspicious, local authorities started chopping the trees on the proposed site where the metro car shed is to be constructed sometime around midnight. The move came right after, the Bombay High Court greenlit the cutting of over 2,600 trees by Mumbai’s Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on Friday. Once activists and citizens realised what was happening, huge crowds turned up to protest the felling of trees, following which the Mumbai Police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans unlawful assembly. By Saturday morning, some 150 protestors had been detained. Within a few hours, a crowdfunding campaign successfully collected funds amounting to Rs 2.3 lakh ($3,221.84) (Rs 7,000 ($98.06) per person for bail for the 29 persons who were arrested), to help bail out the arrested ones.

Today, the Supreme Court has given slight relief to those who were caught in the middle of the Aarey brutality, detentions, and arrests, by directing the state to stop cutting the trees and releasing those arrested for protesting (October 21 is the next date of hearing). But hundreds of witnesses and participants in the protests are still reeling from what transpired over the weekend. There are stories of assault and various forms of aggression by the state police. As Aarey continues to witness the imposition of Section 144 and claims of around 2,000 trees already hacked to pieces coming up, VICE reached out to a few to share their experiences:

‘People were crying. It felt like murder’

aarey mumbai
Photo courtesy Cassandra Nazareth

When I reached in the evening, there were some 100-150 local people and a handful of those outside Aarey. The locals were hammering away at the barricades, talking about how the trees are being cut. Slowly the crowd swelled to probably a thousand. I appealed to a cop to let the crowd in, otherwise, they’ll break the barricade. So they let a few people in. Inside we saw trees freshly cut on the ground, in pitch darkness. The Adivasis were emotional, many were crying. Many in the crowd were also crying. It felt like murder. We decided to sit there for the night and keep vigil. But the cops decided to push us out, and charged at men with lathis, and picked up women by hands and legs. Till now my hands are hurting. Then they started pulling people and putting them in their vans. I also got dragged to one. A couple was detained just because they were parking their car. One man was picked up because he happened to be cycling there. Later on, we came to know that the cops were just picking up people from across the roads. And they were taking them to different police stations. Twice, they released people and then detained them again for being seen at Aarey. —Cassandra Nazareth, 58

‘They manhandled me and dragged me to the van'

It was one of the darkest days in the city's democratic history, if there were any at all, before. The incident unfolded at the Goregaon Checknaka. Cassandra of Tribal Tadka (a tribal women empowerment program for and by the Women of Aarey) was speaking to the media and that is when the police, for no reason cited, expelled us. They manhandled me and dragged me to the van forcibly for trying to protect myself and Cassandra, all because opinions were being voiced because we stood by each other. We were taken to the Vanrai Police Station and detained there for more than 3 hours. My friends were detained in other stations too. What happened to the lakhs of objections filed by the citizens of the city, who cut trees in the middle of the night like a thief, who, when asked to present a permission letter, isn't able to produce one? Tribals stuck inside their own homes, wildlife murdered.— Pooja Mishra*, 27

‘I jumped out of the police van and ran away because they could have easily charged me with false allegations’

aarey mumbai
Photo courtesy Shreelove Patel

When I reached, the site of the proposed metro car shed was heavily barricaded by the cops, with a lot of crowd and Adivasis inside already. We went ahead and asked them for the permission letter to cut the trees, but they were absolutely mum. One of the activists came out and told us that some 200 trees had been cut. But later on, it turned out there are more. My friend I went there with was literally beaten up when the police started lathi-charging. There was so much aggression that day, against all of us. But despite that, people didn’t stop shouting slogans like “Aarey bachao (Save Aarey)”. We finally found an alternate entry, and upon getting inside, we were pushed inside vans. But I managed to jump out, fearing there’s a possibility of charging me with false allegations too, and managed to get out of there to go home. Once out, I saw the police had gathered at the Western Express Highway, stopping the vehicles from going towards Aarey. Clearly, this was planned.— Shreelove Patel, 20

‘It was unbearable’

aarey mumbai
Photo courtesy Lajan Joseph

I saw a wife braving it all through the day, showing no signs of anxiety, maintaining stoic courage, and then finally breaking down once her husband was taken away in the police van. There was a quiet dignity in the way she broke down. It was unbearable.— Lajan Joseph, 46

‘For every one protestor, there were 10 cops stationed there’

aarey forest
Photo courtesy Shreash Patel

The police weren’t allowing us to go inside Aarey and there was high security. Around 400 trees were cut down within an hour, which a lot of people were not aware of. The police were not responding to any of us. We were yelling and screaming. I came to know from the locals about another entry from the backside. So, my friend and I went there, but there was security there too. They started pulling us in their van. However, my friend managed to get out of it. Women were forced to get in the van too. They started lathi charging the protestors. For every one protestor, there were 10 cops stationed there.— Shreash Patel, 19

‘One of the guys who got dragged into the police van had come to visit a temple in Aarey, while another young girl was waiting for a friend to go to a movie and she was also hauled in’

aarey mumbai
Photo courtesy Faredoon Bhujwala

I was standing across the highway from the Aarey entrance at a paan (betel) shop talking to a resident of the area and he was telling me about the situation. Suddenly 10-20 cops came in two vans and started shouting at us and brutally dragged us into a van. One of the guys who got dragged had come to visit a temple in Aarey and was wondering what to do, while another young girl was waiting for a friend to go to a movie and she was hauled in. Two young boys got out of a car to take pictures and they were also dragged into a van! This is hooliganism on the police part. They didn’t tell us why or anything. The police at Samata police station in Kandivali East refused to talk to a lawyer on the phone. The police even had the audacity to lie to a lawyer when a lawyer came to help—they told him we weren’t detained there. As we were locked in a room just behind him!— Faredoon Bhujwala

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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