(Note: An excellent and very crisp article by Chhotebhai. It's an eye-opener on putting citizens' view across authorities in a very civilised manner, unlike destructive agitation and vigilantism which have become rampant now-a-days. Isaac Gomes – Associate Editor, CCV)
At a time when tying an innocent person to the bonnet of an army jeep is commended by the army chief (the one who superseded two of his seniors) there are not many civilians who will dare to stand up to the Indian Army. More so in an atmosphere of nationalistic jingoism hyped by certain TV channels.
Yet the Catholics and senior citizens of Kanpur stood firmly against the diktats of the army. The cause of action arose from a purported declaration from the army’s Station Head Quarters (SHQ) that nobody would be allowed in the Kanpur Cantonment (Cantt) without a valid pass w.e.f. 12th June 2017.
The fee for the pass was Rs 75/- purportedly valid for just one month. The applicant would also have to get the application verified by the police. The applicant would have to specify the hair and eye colour, height etc. There was no guarantee that the pass would be issued. Vehicles would have to pay an additional Rs 75/-. At night vehicles would have to douse their headlights (even though the road lighting is inadequate) and the cabin lights would have to be kept on (a traffic hazard). In the absence of any public written order or circular, the residents and visitors were left to glean information from often conflicting media reports.
What really incensed the Catholic community was the declaration of a restricted area in the heart of the Cantt that housed three churches and two schools. Rubbing salt into the wounds, the members of the prestigious Cawnpore Club (membership fees Rupees Twenty Lakhs, kurta pyjama wearing citizens are debarred) were exempted from getting passes. This prompted chhotebhai, President of the Kanpur Catholic Association (KCA), to quip that this was a case of Suit, Choot, Loot and Boot. The suited ones got choot (exemption), the police got a ripe opportunity to loot the public in the garb of “verification”, and the poor would get the boot (needless to say where)!!
This drastic action would have a devastating effect on the parishioners of St Patrick’s Church (reconstructed in 1860), St Aloysius’ School, and St Patrick’s School (Hindi medium). Police don’t do “verification” without a handsome consideration! Harassment and time consumption apart, a family of 2 elders, 2 parents and 2 children could end up spending upwards of Rs 2000/- just to go to the church for a month. This was blatant exploitation and naked aggression.
Accordingly the KCA President led a delegation of its members, accompanied by senior citizens of the Kanpur Nagrik Manch (KNM) and women and children from the slums who were studying in the Hindi medium school run by the sisters of the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate. They met Sri Harinder Singh IDES, Cantonment Executive Officer (CEO), at his Cantt Board office on 15th June, and presented him a Memorandum that listed 10 cogent reasons why the proposed pass was anti-people, impractical, a gross violation of civil liberties and constitutional rights.
The Memorandum, inter alia, stated that the population of the Cantt was about 4 lakhs, of whom not more that 2% were army personnel (one brigade). Should 98% of the population be harassed to placate the 2%, the Memorandum asked.
This was a peace station (family station) hundreds of km away from the sensitive border areas. Ironically, important defence installations like the Armoured Regiment (battle tanks), Assam Regiment, Ordnance Parachute Factory, Ordnance Equipment Factory, Central Ordnance Depot etc were all located on busy arterial roads where there was no restriction on traffic movement; then why the restrictions on a purely residential area in the heart of the Cantt?
The Memorandum stated that preventing people from practice of their religion was a direct infringement of Articles 25 & 26 of the Constitution of India, and hindrance in running a Minority institution was likewise an infringement of Article 30.
Other than residents or regular visitors, how would casual visitors gain entry? They would need to visit relatives and friends, attend social gatherings, visit the sick or even attend a funeral. Even the Christian cemetery is constructed in the Cantt area. How would the funeral cortege enter the church before burial?
What of the students, their parents and staff of the schools? Would all of them also require passes, the Memorandum queried?
The CEO said that he was in complete agreement with the points raised in the Memorandum. He frankly admitted that even he did not know how the army had made such a hasty decision, and under what provision of law. He assured the delegation that he would forward the Memorandum to the SHQ. Since it was a matter of civil liberties he advocated that the delegation also meet the District Magistrate and apprise him of the facts. The meeting received wide coverage in the local print and electronic media.
The immediate fallout is that the restrictions have been lifted. The rifle toting soldiers have withdrawn and there is now unhindered movement. The army now proposes to put up CCTV cameras and do random checking. This is what they should have done in the first place. It is not yet clear if the orders have been withdrawn. As of now it is the status quo ante. The KCA delegation included Cornelius Kujur, Elizabeth Singh, Praveen Dungdung, Joseph Lal, Angelo Menezes, Peter Fernandes, Prem Kumar, Michael Dass and Brian Thompson. The KNM was led by former corporator Madanlal Bhatia, together with Suresh Gupta, Athar Naim and Arvind Trivedi.
* The writer is the President of the Kanpur Catholic Association.
* Photo credits – Rohit Trivedi, Hindustan newspaper (with permission)