Azamgarh, India – Cradling her toddler in one arm, Arti Sharma adjusts her saree with another as she picks up the placard that says: “Zameen nahi denge, jaan bhi nahi denge [We will neither give our land nor our lives].”
It is a placard her husband Deepak Sharma had made, days before he succumbed to a heart attack at 31.
Oblivious to the reality, the toddler tries to wipe his mother’s tears as she marches to Khiria Bagh in Uttar Pradesh state’s Azamgarh district, where a protest against the acquisition of land for expansion of an airport has been going on for months.
Arti clutches the placard close to her chest. “It keeps our struggle warm with his memories,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Tens of thousands of people residing in eight villages of Azamgarh call their protest a “fight for survival” and it looks like one. On January 26, as India celebrated its 74th Republic Day which marks the adoption of its constitution in 1950, hundreds of villagers were protesting at Khiria Bagh park.
A 90-year-old man, his frail legs shivering with cold, held a small tricolour – the national flag – in his hand as he declared, “We will fight till our last breath. We won’t move until they bring the bulldozer and run it over us.”
There was an air of desperation at the park. A man in his 30s dragged his wheelchair with a tricolour tied to its handle. A woman held a placard as she ran barefoot on the damp mud. A handful of coins clunk to the walls of the rusty tin box meant to collect donations for the protest – meagre savings from meals skipped to feed the movement.
Children had skipped school, women left their chores half-done, daily wage workers who had not earned for months, farmers forced to postpone weeding of their crops – all stood under the sea of tricolours waving over their heads, protesting against the land acquisition for the proposed international airport at Azamgarh.
‘Which caste are you from?’
In 2004, an airstrip was built in this eastern district of Uttar Pradesh. It was not used until November 2018 when state Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced its expansion and building of an international airport under an ambitious scheme aimed at upgrading India’s underserved air routes.
A budget of nearly $2.4m was allocated the following year for the proposed airport. According to the statements by Vishal Bharadwaj, the district magistrate of Azamgarh, about 270 hectares (670 acres) of land were meant to be acquired from eight villages – Gadanpur, Hichchanpatti, Jigna Karmanpur, Jamua Hariram, Jamua Jolha, Hasanpur, Kadipur Harikesh, Jehra Pipri, Manduri, and Baldev Manduri – for the project.
Of the residents facing displacement due to the project, an overwhelming 90 percent belong to the Dalit and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) communities with an average family of five earning less than $1,200 annually. Dalits, the former “untouchables”, and OBCs fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have been historically marginalised.
The area is also the basin of the Tamsa River and is known for its diverse crops, including mangoes, high-quality pulses, jackfruit, potato and pigeon peas.
India’s Land Acquisition Act, 2013 recommends a social impact assessment before any land is acquired by the government. After the local government’s approval of the project, a notification regarding the acquisition is published in the official gazette and in at least two local newspapers.
The elected members of local village councils are then notified of the proposed acquisition, and at least 60 days are given to people to raise their objections. After the physical survey of the land, claims regarding the acquisition are addressed and a report is submitted to the government.
But the Azamgarh administration bypassed all these procedures on October 12 last year as district officials, accompanied by armed police, barged into one of the villages without any prior notice to the village head, activist Rajiv Yadav of local NGO Rihai Manch told Al Jazeera.
Since then, the area has been on a boil.
Sunita Bharti, a 22-year-old resident of Jamua Hariram village protesting at Khiria Bagh, recalled the horror.
“They claimed they had come to check the quality of crops. When I asked why they had brought chains and measuring tapes, the subdivisional magistrate shouted at me: ‘Which caste are you from?’”
Bharti, the only person in the eight villages to have reached post-graduation, said she stood her ground.
“I said ‘I am a chamaar, sir’,” she recalled, referring to a social group within Dalits, who are also known as Jatavs.
“To this, he replied, ‘Being a chamaar, you have the audacity to talk to me?’ I was dragged into the police van, threatened and abused. I want to remind him today that it was a Dalit who gave India its constitution.”
India’s first law minister, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was born a Dalit but converted to Buddhism in his last days in protest against the caste system, is hailed as the architect of the country’s constitution.
‘Blatant abuse of power’
Kismatti, 46, from Jigna Karmanpur village, said the villagers were beaten by the police when they protested against the measuring of their land.
“They fractured the hand of a 65-year-old and broke the legs of another man. Four pradhans [village heads] were picked up and falsely charged with consumption of drugs,” she alleged.
Vikas, a high school student from Hasanpur, said he had a message for the district magistrate. “You must have read the constitution. If you had really believed in it, you wouldn’t have done this to us.”
“The district magistrate says the survey was done via drones and official land records. This is completely unlawful,” activist Yadav told Al Jazeera.
District Magistrate Bharadwaj denied the allegations, calling them “concocted”.
“People are putting all these allegations without any proof. It is something they might have now come up with. The survey was conducted only to find out how much, whose and what type of land is required as per the master plan of the airport authority,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We have made it very clear that no one’s land or property will be taken without their consent. There is no need for people to agitate.”
The protests in Azamgarh saw some of India’s prominent activists, including farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, anti-big dam crusader Medha Patkar and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Sandeep Pandey, extending their support.
“This is vinash [destruction] in the name of vikas [development]. It is a blatant abuse of power by the government which is trying to snatch away the land of poor farmers,” Patkar told Al Jazeera.
“Despite two-three international airports being close to Azamgarh, this project is being forced upon the people … Why this sudden need for an international airport?” she asked.
Azamgarh is about 260km (160 miles) from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow and nearly 800km (500 miles) from the national capital of New Delhi.
Yadav said activist Pandey was detained on December 24 during a march from Varanasi, a spiritual city in the state, to Azamgarh.
“When we were returning from Varanasi, my brother and I got down to drink water near the Cholapur station. Some people in civil uniform attacked us, snatched our mobiles and dragged us into a numberless white Tata Sumo car. They were shouting, ‘Where is your pistol? Who funds you?’” he said.
“On the way, the kidnappers were receiving a call by the name ‘SSP Azamgarh’. We later got to know that they were from the Special Task Force, Crime Branch. I was dropped at Kandhrapur police station late at night,” he added.
On February 2, two activists belonging to the Purvanchal Farmers Union were attacked by goons who pointed a gun at them. “They said, ‘You are farm leaders. We will kill you,’” the activists said.
So far, three rounds of talks with the administration have remained inconclusive. Also, the police have not registered any report against the attackers.
‘We will be forced to beg’
In a speech on November 22, local parliamentarian Dinesh Lal Yadav “Nirahua”, belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the people of Azamgarh “have lost their minds”.
“There are only three ways to deal with them: fracture their knees, jail them or kill them,” he allegedly said.
Arti recalled her husband Deepak listening to the speech and struggling to control his anxiety over the loss of his land. “He used to say if they take our land, where will we go? We will be forced to beg,” she said.
Devi (name changed), Deepak’s neighbour, added: “When he went to sleep, he felt immense chest pain. He couldn’t move his limbs. We rushed him to the hospital but lost him on the way.”
“Today, the family is dependent on Deepak’s father’s meagre pension of 1,000 rupees [$12]. All they have is 2.5 biswa [0.07748 acres] of land. If the government snatches it, all of them will die of starvation.”
Residents say at least 20 people from the eight villages, including seven women, have succumbed to the shock and pain of losing their land and livelihoods since October.
“We will die if they snatch our land. Then why not die fighting for it? We are farmers. Land is our first love. They are demanding that we, the poorest of the poor, sacrifice our land. How dare they?” Devi said.
As the dusk fell at Khiria Bagh, Bharti, the postgraduate student, was seen painting another placard that read: “Naari shakti aayi hai, nayi roshni laayi hai [The woman power is here, it has brought a new light].”
“Since I am at the forefront of the protest, my mother worries about my marriage,” she said. “I don’t care about marriage. I have to save my land, my rights and most importantly, my people.”