By Irena Akbar, Indian Express
As if overwhelmed by the sea of humanity and media frenzy that engulfed it during the week-long Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption agitation, Jantar Mantar, Delhi’s protest street, looks unusually calm on a Thursday. There are three protest stalls, all by Hazare wannabes clamouring for a corruption-free India, except that this time neither the media nor the public has bothered to stop by to listen. Or perhaps, it’s just that the harsh sun has got the better of protesters and their supporters.
Around noon, the silence at Jantar Mantar is disturbed by a cavalcade of 20 vehicles that includes SUVs, vans, a water tank, and a generator, all with posters that read, “Yamuna Bachao Padyatra”. Some 100-odd men and women dressed in dhotis and lehengas are part of this procession, the women dancing and singing bhajans in praise of Radha and Krishna. Kusum Sharma is part of this procession, singing into the mike and dancing, her lehenga obliging with neat twirls. The cavalcade comes to a halt. There is no podium, no stall, but this pavement abutting the Jantar Mantar has no marked out spaces, at least not on this unhurried sultry afternoon, so Sharma and the other protesters take out mats and bed sheets and spread themselves across the pavement.These are protesters who have set out from Allahabad, ascetics of Braj Mandal who have been on footsince March 1, campaigning against the defilement of “Yamuna Mata”. So while pollution in the Yamuna is the central theme of their protest, there is a generous mix of mythology and bhajans to back that message.
Sharma adjusts her mike and starts singing a devotional song. In the background are placards, neatly placed against the railings, that advocate the purification of the Yamuna river.
Sharma says she and her fellow protesters set out on March 1, when the “950-km-long padyatra” began from Allahabad, and went through Kaushambi, Fatehpur, Kanpur, Agra and Mathura, before finally reaching Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, their final stop. Sharma, a 30-year-old “Krishna devotee” from Barsana village in Mathura district, suddenly stops to ask, “Is this Jantar Mantar? All I know is that we are in Delhi.” But after the initial surprise, Sharma says she couldn’t care less. “I can even protest in hell to make the Yamuna in the land of Krishna—Mathura and Brindavan—free of the dirt and waste that comes from Delhi,” says the self-proclaimed “sadhvi”.
Sharma, who has been walking “25-35 km a day” since the protest began, says she is part of the campaign not for any personal gain. “I want to save every thing that’s holy. After I get the government to purify the Yamuna, I will campaign for cleaning up of the Ganga,” she says. Sharma, whose father is a “businessman” and whose siblings lead “married, worldly lives”, says she earlier sat on a dharna at Kama, in Rajasthan, to protest against mining in the Krishna hills.
Sharma tells us that she’s been on her feet since 3 a.m. and has been singing since 6.30 a.m. It’s 1 p.m. and she’s still singing, getting up in between to speak to us. “If I don’t sing, I’ll fall asleep,” she says, as she munches on roasted chanas, bites into a cucumber, and empties several Bisleri bottles to keep herself going.
After last week’s high-profile hunger fast, Sharma doesn’t see the need to follow in Hazare’s steps. If anything, she has a word or two of advice for him, “I think Anna Hazare should have based his movement on religion—only that can help you through anything in life.”
A member of the protest group brings out a steel bucket filled with khichdi to distribute among his fellow protesters, now famished at 3 p.m. and low on energy. But the sight of the stray camera rejuvenates them, and they leave the khichdi to the flies. The girls start singing, dancing and playing the drums, and the men wave their hands and shout slogans on cleaning up “Yamuna mayya”. Sharma, tired by now, dances with far less flourish unlike her grand, lehenga-twirling entry into the Jantar Mantar lane. She poses for the cameras for close to half-an-hour, and then finally gets up for her lunch.
Does she plan to tour Delhi? “I don’t like it here. I like protesting in the hills and forests. This is too crowded,” she says. “But I do believe, that here, our demand will be met,” she says. Time for a siesta.