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How a Magsaysay awardee is leading fight against Azamgarh airport expansion in UP

Lucknow: Two days after they were stopped from taking out a padyatra (foot march) protesting the land acquisition for the Manduri airport expansion project in Azamgarh district, Sandeep Pandey, an activist and Ramon Magsaysay award winner, Monday led farmers in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh city to protest the alleged police action against two activists at the forefront of the agitation.

The two activists — brothers Rajeev Yadav, general secretary of the Rihai Manch, and lawyer Vinod Yadav — have said that six to seven plain-clothed policemen had “abducted” and assaulted them Saturday before handing them over to the Sadar sub-divisional magistrate (SDM).

Pandey, too, was detained by the Varanasi police Saturday at the city’s cantonment railway station, where he had arrived to participate in the planned padyatra — starting at Kachahari Chauraha of the holy city and ending in Azamgarh’s Khiriya Bagh.

Pandey was taken to the Police Lines guest house where he remained under observation for five hours.

On Monday afternoon, Pandey and the Yadav brothers led the gathering of farmers, mostly women, and staged a sit-in outside the office of the Azamgarh superintendent of police (SP) demanding that an FIR be lodged against the “abductors” and an inquiry be conducted in the entire incident.

“They have given a memorandum to me which has mentioned some issues. I have assured them of an inquiry. The discussions were held in a civil manner and they have been assured that police will ensure law and order is maintained. Police has not indulged in misbehaviour with anyone and it won’t in the future either,” Azamgarh SP Anurag Arya said in a statement to the media.

For the past 76 days, close to 100 farmers from eight villages have been protesting the land acquisition process for the Manduri airport expansion project.

Speaking to ThePrint, Pandey said, “This is development for them? We call it destruction because 10,000 people from eight villages are getting displaced.”

On the intervening night of 12-13 October, a team of the Azamgarh administration had reached the Jamuwa Hariram village along with a team of the provincial armed constabulary (PAC) and started a survey for the acquisition. This had faced strong resistance from the farmers and the Rihai Manch, who accused the teams of assaulting them and misbehaving with the women while conducting the survey at night.

The farmers subsequently started an agitation at the Khiriya Bagh area in Azamgarh district.

The protest has received the support of activists Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey and Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Rakesh Tikait, all of whom visited Azamgarh last month to join the farmers. The district administration, though, has called the protest “politically motivated”.

Hinting that the protests had the support of Samajwadi Party (SP), BJP MP from Azamgarh Dinesh Lal ‘Nirahua’ had earlier remarked that “those protesting against vaccines were the same ones protesting against the project”, attracting criticism from many who alleged that the administration completed the survey and sent the report to the government without taking the consent of 80 per cent farmers who will be affected by the project.

According to The Land Acquisition Act, consent of 70 per cent people affected by acquisition is required for a project of public-private partnership, and 80 per cent for a private project.

While the district administration thinks a total of 783 houses will be affected in the process, Rihai Manch claims the number is as high as around 4,000.

The Manduri airstrip was chosen for expansion under the state’s regional connectivity scheme with the aim to enhance air connectivity to Azamgarh and nearby districts.

Azamgarh administration officials said the “initial survey” of the 640 acres of land to be acquired is complete and a report has been submitted to the state government. ADM Mishra told ThePrint that 330 acres and 310 acres of land will be acquired in two phases and farmers whose lands are being acquired will be given “four times the compensation (than the circle rate)”.

Also read: Worried about ‘law & order’ at home, Punjab industrialists meet Yogi, pledge investment in UP

Padyatra interrupted

Pandey, who was supposed to march Saturday from Varanasi to Azamgarh’s Manduri to participate in the protest against this project, was detained by the Varanasi Police soon after he deboarded the train at the Varanasi Cantonment railway station. Five of his supporters were also detained.

ACP (Cantt) Manish Kumar Shandilya told ThePrint the protesters were stopped simply because “they did not get the permission for going ahead with the march”. “In such conditions, the march cannot be allowed because it would be a violation of section 144 of CrPC and Covid protocol,” he said, adding that no FIR was lodged against anyone.

Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) empowers the magistrate of any state to prohibit the gathering of four or more people in a specified area.

Pandey, however, told ThePrint that they were in touch with officers of the local intelligence unit who were briefed about the proposed march and did not think that permission was required since the Manduri protest was already on.

“They would not have given the permission because we are protesting against an international (airport) project…. The kisan andolan (farmers’ protest) at Manduri was not stopped and we were in touch with the local intelligence unit and told them that only 10-15 persons would walk and there won’t be any big gathering,” he said.

“We were told they have orders from Lucknow to stop the padyatra and also because Varanasi is the PM’s constituency. They detained us for five hours and wanted to ensure that we left Varanasi. I was made to sit in a police vehicle which had instructions to stop only in Lucknow,” he added.

‘Abduction’, detention

On the same day Pandey was detained, Rajeev and Vinod Yadav were allegedly “abducted by plain-clothed cops seated in a white Sumo” while on their way to Azamgarh from Varanasi.

Speaking to the media, Rajeev said that when they stopped at Taraon, someone called him by his name and proceeded to rough them up and abuse them.

“I want to clearly say that we were stopped and threatened as per the ‘thok do’ policy followed by the UP government. The one who was talking identified himself as Vinay Dubey and was repeatedly getting calls from a phone number that was flashing on his phone as the Azamgarh SP’s. If the Azamgarh SP is talking to someone who abducts people in daylight, it shows the police were involved,” said Rajeev.

Rajeev and Vinod were taken to various police stations, including Kandharapur police station, and were finally produced before the Sadar SDM.

“They were produced before the court for their protest against the airport project and delivering provocative speeches,” said Azamgarh SDM (Sadar) Ram Chandra Gupta to ThePrint, adding that the Yadav brothers were made to fill a bond under section 151 of the CrPC (arrest to prevent the commission of cognizable offences).

“The bond states that they will not create any nuisance further. They would have been released after a few hours following the bond being filled,” he added.

On Monday, between 50-60 persons — mostly women — reached the SP office to protest against the alleged abduction and subsequent detention and had arguments with the police who were initially refusing to allow women to enter the office premises, but eventually relented.

“I have been told that the men who abducted me were from the crime branch,” said Rajeev.

When asked about Rajeev’s allegations that he was “beaten up” by the crime branch team, Azamgarh SP Arya said the allegations are part of an application submitted by Rajeev and the same will be investigated.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

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Source: The Print

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