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Frontier Hallucinations

The implication of an innocent man had Jaisalmer protesting as never before—the town even called a bandh for the first time in its history.

Frontier Hallucinations
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Devikot is at the other end of Jaisalmer district from Nachna, the southern edge. But for the national highway that dissects the village, Devikot would have remained an obscure corner of the desert. Until the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Devikot was one of the many transit points along the highway for the heroin that came in from Afghanistan. On account of the highway what it has become is, in the American language, a one-horse town. Except that it is still not really a town, but a dusty village with a frontier feel to it. And frontier it once was; between Jaisalmer state and Mallani, now Barmer district. It was through Devikot that my ancestors raided lucrative, and brave (or foolish?), caravans that undertook the desert trade route to Sindh, Baluchistan and Persia. A crumbling fort is evidence of that lawless period. Little after Devikot, the road drops down into Barmer, leaving behind the rocky expanse of Jaisalmer, and opening into the sandy vastness ahead. It was on this road, in Devikot, that Jaisalmer police mounted an operation which proved to be a great learning experience for me.

Paras Mal looks as dusty as Devikot, and as small in size as is his village. He runs a roadside stall, like the many that come up around highways, and he is also a commission agent for the state roadways. Paras confines himself to his business, but with a periodical political interest that was incited by elections. He did get beaten up in 1993—during the state assembly elections—by the local Congress election agent. His life story makes him an unlikely villain for the operation that Jaisalmer police mounted, and his selection still perplexes me.

A source on the narcotics trade informed the Jaisalmer police that a Paras Mal in Devikot was dealing in charas, and that the source would ensure a seizure for them. A party was despatched with a most dubious constable—a man who had once been suspended for smuggling liquor! They arrived a little after noontime one day and drove around the area where Paras runs his shack. A most conspicuous reconnaissance as it turned out. After sunset, the raiding party returned and told Paras that they wanted to search his premises. Unfazed, he coolly asked them to go ahead. And sure enough, nothing was found in the shack. The constable then went behind the shack, and exclaimed loudly that he had found the charas. Paras was taken to the spot, and as soon as he was handed the bag to see for himself, the cameraman travelling with the raiding party took a photograph. Bombay films are not entirely fictitious after all. And with this evidence, Paras was arrested.

That evening, I heard of the affair through a multitude of phone calls from Jaisalmer. Since the arrest, Paras' old mother had stopped eating, strong emotions were at work all around. The police refused to hear our side of the story, or to entertain requests for a new inquiry. Crowds poured in from all parts of Jaisalmer district, and a citizen's action committee was formed which resolved to pursue the matter until justice was ensured for Paras. A Jaisalmer bandh was called, the first time in the history of the town, and it was a great success. Every shutter was down. And a round-the-clock vigil maintained at the district secretariat.

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By the third day, the crowd had swelled to over 2,000, and amongst them was the very man who had beaten up Paras in 1993. During his speech, he said: "Paras and I disagree politically, but I swear he could not be involved in drugs. " The situation report was obviously available to the government in Jaipur, for, the very next day, the citizen's committee was called into the collector's office for a meeting with the district SP. When the SP insisted that he was going by the source report, five voices told him simultaneously that they knew his source was a man called Govind, and that he was a rogue of the highest order!

A highly educated and intelligent man, it was clear that the SP had been taken for a ride by his underlings and trapped in a situation just as Paras had been. I told the collector that there must really be something fishy about the whole thing since every community in the vicinity of Devikot was represented in our dharna, including those who beat up Paras, and all were swearing by his innocence. The collector promised to give the report to the state government and called us the next day for another meeting. On the morrow, we were informed that Jaipur had instituted an inquiry by the crime branch and the report was to be submitted to the narcotics court in Jodhpur within three days. It was obvious that Paras was innocent even in the government's eyes, so I asked the collector as to who the real guilty party was since the charas had been 'placed' by human hands. There was, obviously, no reply from the police, and neither did we press the point too much, since Paras' release was of greater importance. And within a month, the liquor smuggling constable was dismissed from service, and Govind, the source, came to me later to ask for help since he was being harassed out of his illegally occupied dwellings. I actually laughed!



(The writer stood for elections as the bjp candidate in Barmer, Rajasthan. He now works full-time in the constituency and is writing a column on life and development issues in Barmer.)
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