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Visually challenged lady seeks appointment with Gujarat CM, is 'unofficially' detained

Ranjanben Vaghela in DYSP office, Khambhat
By Pankti Jog*
It was a usual noon of November 10. I got a phone call on our Right to Information (RTI) helpline No 9924085000 from Ranjanben of Khambhat, narrating her “disgraceful” experience after she had requested for an appointment with Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani. She wanted to meet Rupani, on tour of the Khambhat area in Central Gujarat as part of his Janvikas Jumbesh (Campaign for Development).
“I was compelled to sit in the DYSP office and then in a police outpost for at least two-and-a-half hours. They recorded my statement. We were called at 10:00 am and they allowed us to go only after 12:30 noon. They insisted that a lady constable would accompany me till I reached home. Why I was treated like an accused? What was my fault?” she wondered.
Ranjanben Vaghela belongs to a socially and economically marginalised family. She resides inside the compound of a crematorium, Muktidham, as it is called, as her parents lay wood on the bodies that come for cremation. She lost both her eyes when she was two, but with the moral support of her father and uncle, she completed her SSC (high school). She learned cooking and other household work, is able to walk independently.
Ranjanben has always wanted to help others. She began working on issues of disability in her own village and nearby rural areas. She would use RTI to get information on issues related to disable citizens, and advocate policy changes. She is part of the core group of the Disability Advocacy Group (DAG), an NGO operating in Gujarat. Today, she is known as an RTI and human rights activist in Khambhat area. 
“Disabled citizens are looked down upon, we are not respected. We want hurdle free access to offices. We want effective implementation of the laws meant for the disable citizens. I wanted to meet the chief minister to discuss these issues. I wrote a letter seeking appointment way back in May 2019, to which I never received reply”, she said.
“When I got to know that the chief minister would be in Khambhat for his campaign, I approached the deputy collector and handed over a letter to him, stating my desire to meet him. What was the problem in meeting him when he was on campaign trail? Can’t he meet citizens?”, she asked.
On the day the chief minister was to come in Khambhat, she was asked to reach the DYSP office at 10:00 am. Ranjanben and Ishwarbhai, who helps her, had no idea that they would be detained or compelled to sit there till the chief minister had finished his programme.
Ranjanben's letter to Gujarat CM

She was also made to sign a strange statement, which read, “I was not aware that one cannot meet the chief minister without Sachivalaya permission. Police have explained this to me today. I will follow the procedure henceforth.”
She asked me on the helpline, “Was everyone who attended the chief minister’s programme in Khambhat given permission from Sachivalaya, as they told me?”, adding, “I am going to file an RTI application to get all the details.”
As I could sense the feeling of insult and humiliation for not being allowed to meet the chief minister, and instead made sit in the DYSP office, I thought of inquiring about this first with the DYSP office. The person who picked up the phone denied that the incidence had ever occurred, asking me to inquire with the city police station.
This person out-rightly refuted the information I had with me, stating no one called Ranjanben visited the DYSP office on November 10. I was a little surprised. When I inquired with the city police station, the police inspect told me, “No, it was DYSP office, not us”.
After playing the shuttlecock game for half an hour, an official in the DYSP office admitted that they were asked to hold Ranjanben in the office and not allow her to go to the chief minister’s programme. “We gave her snacks and tea, and there was a lady police all through. Ranjanben was very comfortable”, was the reply.
This was the justification given by a police officer, whose office had earlier denied that Ranjanben had visited the DYSP office. He was quite insistent: The police attitude was quite well-behaved towards the visually impaired lady.
Ranjanben is no exception to be treated like this by the Gujarat police. During several of the Prime Minister’s visits to Gujarat, human rights activist are known to have been detained, are kept at some place for a few hours, even offered tea and snacks.
The Gujarat Police, in fact, appears to have institutionalized this method. They detain individuals who are suspected as trouble makers, are offered snacks and tea at no cost, and are set free after the VVIP programme ends. This has been going on for the last 10 years.
Ranjanben's letter to deputy collector
Some years back two veterans, late Gautambhai Thakar, human rights activist, and Indukumar Jani, social worker, were detained for the whole day. They were prevented from attending an important human rights meeting. A similar treatment is known to have been frequently meted out to farmer rights activist Sagar Rabari and many others, who are detained and prevented from organizing or participating in a peaceful protest.
Off the record officials, of course, deny that this could be called detention. One official confided to me that it’s an unofficial detention, as no records are kept. However, Ranjanben is adamant. She has decided to file RTI application to find out on whose orders she was detained and why, who from the deputy collector’s office informed the DYSP office, which called her. She would also seek bills and vouchers of the snacks and tea offered to her.
In one of its orders (Writ Petition No 154/2019), the Kerala High Court has expressed its deep concern about refusal to follow procedure during detentions. There should be an official detention order from the magistrate, which the police could execute, it ruled. At the same time, the order said, those sought to be detained could take legal help.
“There are no proper guidelines for the lower rung police officials regarding detention. It is being done in a haphazard manner”, said Harinesh Pandya, executive secretary of Janpath, a state-level network of voluntary action groups. “This leads to suppression of fundamental rights,” he added.
After local media took note of preventing Ranjanben from moving freely or attempting to attend the chief minister’s programme on November 10 at Khambhat, the RTI helpline started ringing more frequently the next day. Callers wanted guidance on what could be done to ensure that police acted responsibly.
Many of them told me they were going to file RTI applications to Gujarat police offices, district collectors and the chief minister’s office about this. They would be demanding copies of detention orders from the magistrate, of the food bills, and of the orders on how the detainees are kept, for how long, where, how is the place chosen, whether there is availability of medical and other facilities, especially for women detainees.
---
*With Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel, Ahmedabad

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