Public memory, and often media memory too, seem short. There has been a deluge of coverage about the Occupy Dharna Chowk protests in Telugu and online media. Most of them concentrated on the actual event and what happened there, without referring to the context.
The media described the initial clashes at the venue when the protesters wanting to retain Dharna Chowk arrived to a face-off with those who were already planted, allegedly by the ruling party, to demand removal of Dharna Chowk. The political gist was the united opposition taking on the ruling party and succeeding in reclaiming the democratic right to dissent.
In the larger scheme of things, the loss of face the government suffered by mishandling the event and ceding space to the opposition may not actually deter it from pursuing its original purpose.
Soon after coming to power, the KCR government has been relentlessly trying to privatise public properties and inventing construction schemes. This pursuit has blinded it to public concerns about quality of life, environment and preserving the heritage of the 400-year old great historical city that Hyderabad is.
Attempts to take over the Erragadda lands of the Chest and Mental Hospitals, plans to rebuild and shift Secretariat, shift Osmania General Hospital, attempts to take over Osmania University lands, sudden demolition of the IAS association office to build another Vastu-compliant camp office even as the case was still in High Court, the proposal to demolish the historic stone structure of Moazam Jahi Market to build a new market, are but a few examples.
The project of taking over the NTR stadium and to build a cultural centre called Kalabharati was talked about less than a year after this government took charge in 2014. By April 20, 2015, the CM had already approved the design for the building which was to accommodate “four auditoria with a seating capacity of 3,000, 1,500, 1,000 and 500, respectively. The Kalabharathi building will have an experience theatre, preview theatre, practice and rehearsal area, library, art museum, painting and sculpture galleries, seminar rooms, restaurants and guest rooms … car parking for 3,000 vehicles and a gathering space for 10,000 persons...”, The Hindu reported.
In January 2016, the government has changed the land use “of the 14-acre NTR stadium near Indira Park from open land to that of public and semi-public use, under Section 15 (1) of the HMDA Act, 2008.” The report also quoted an unnamed official saying that such a change in land use is ultra vires, as NTR stadium is a part of the old MCH area.
In a more recent development, when the Telangana JAC proposed to hold a rally at the Dharna Chowk, which is just outside the NTR stadium, the government came up with the new excuse of the local residents complaining about traffic, lack of safety and inconvenience caused by the protests held every day at the Dharna Chowk. The protest rally was not allowed. Later, the government went on to announce four remote locations on various ends of the expanding city for holding protests.
In protest against denial of space for protests, social activists Sajaya Kakarla, Ravi Chandra, Sandhya, Prof Kodandram, Chada Venkat Reddy, Prof Vishweshwar Rao and others began a month long series of dharnas at Makdoom Bhavan. Major political parties including CPI, CPI(M) and several civil society organisations joined the protests.
Each day a different group representing students, teachers, farmers, journalists, women, transgender community, and various political formations took part. During the course of the month, several representations were made to the senior police officers and ministers in the KCR government to no avail.
Then, the Dharna Chowk Parirakshana Committee announced Occupy Dharna Chowk programme for 15 May.
In an earlier instance when mass protests were announced, Prof Kodandram and other activists were taken into preventive custody after midnight raids. This time around, all the activists went underground before the event and the government agencies could not trace any of them. Sensing major embarrassment, the government that remained impervious to all appeals, suddenly announced the day before that protest will be allowed only for one day at the venue, but those who want the Dharna Chowk removed will also be given permission to hold a rally there at the same time.
Overnight, extensive arrangements of tents, chairs and refreshments costing several lakhs of rupees were made. When the rally entered the Dharna Chowk, those already assembled there by the government began to provoke and attack the activists. An intense skirmish broke out in which many plastic chairs were broken, the police resorted to lathi charge and some of the activists sustained severe head injuries.
The government’s dubious attempts at astro-turfing the “local protest” was thoroughly exposed by the local media. Many among the so-called locals were actually police personnel in civil clothes and TRS party members from other localities of the city.
The Walkers’ Association that sprang up overnight to object to Dharna Chowk also fizzled out. Many who have been regular walkers at the Indira Park for decades expressed surprise at the claim that walkers are disturbed by the Dharna Chowk activities. No protest gets going before 11 am and the walkers come early in the morning and leave before 8 am.
The local families in fact served water to the protesters who arrived at the venue in large numbers through the day. Close to 10,000 men and women from different political parties and civil society organisations are estimated to have participated in the occupy effort.
This brings us back to the status of NTR Stadium and the Dharna Chowk. The fates of the two are inseparably linked. If Dharna Chowk is allowed to exist, NTR Stadium cannot be taken over for the Kalabharati project. Irrespective of the dubious claims of the government about traffic problems caused by the daily protests at the venue, the real urgency for shifting away the Dharna Chowk to another location is motivated by the Kalabharati project.
But then, if the Kalabharati gets built, there will be VVIP movement and worse traffic nightmares are likely. One will not be surprised if the government pulls eminent domain rights and evicts the neighbourhood colonies for parking or security reasons! The same local residents who are supposed to be against the Dharna Chowk will have lost their own homes by then. The objections of the local residents will count for nothing then, for the bleeding heart of the government. Protests by the oustees of various irrigation projects in Telangana are testimony to this.
NTR Stadium serves as an urban commons with which the life of the local residents is deeply intertwined. Youngsters use the grounds for playing various games. Book fairs and other community events are held there. A large number of livelihoods are dependent on the activities that happen at the NTR Stadium and at the Dharna Chowk.
Outside the NTR Stadium, at the Dharna Chowk, police statistics tell us that 1900 protests were held in 2016. To assign an out of sight location, away from the Assembly and the Secretariat, like the Dharna Chowk, is in itself a deeply undemocratic move made during the Chief Ministership of Chandrababu Naidu.
Of what use is a protest if it is invisible, and cannot cause any inconvenience to power in a democracy? How will the grievances reach the administrations that are unwilling to heed people’s voices? And how democratic is it to claim that even this location, that is out of sight of the administration, is disruptive and attempt to make it more invisible?
None of the arguments of the government, traffic problems or local objections, seem to explain the real reasons for wanting to shift the Dharna Chowk.
It is quite another debate what actually comes up in the name of Kalabharati, which The Hindu reporter says is designed by Hafeez Contractor. “The building would look like a clone of the White House, but without the setback, it would look like the Meridian wedding hall in Toli Chowki.”
Note: Views expressed are the author's own.