23 Mar 2023  |   05:41am IST

Will the State muzzle the Right to Protest?

“When one person makes an accusation, check to be sure he himself is not the guilty one. Sometimes it is those whose case is weak who make the most clamour.” These words of American author Piers Anthony resonate too well in the case of the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) which has filed FIRs against 14 Velsao residents for protesting against the ongoing double tracking work, alleging that the protestors assaulted the railway workers and damaged the excavator being used at the site.

The incident brings back the memory of the November 1, 2022, midnight protest at Chandor, which had compelled the railway authorities to back out from carrying out the work despite being granted permission to carry out the work during the night hours. Those accused then are still facing the consequences as the process to seek justice has become a punishment in itself.

In the current incident, protestors have been accused of carrying deadly weapons but quite surprisingly decided to pelt stones at the machinery and the workers and none of the ‘deadly weapons’ have been mentioned in the FIR. Secondly, police claimed that they have been absconding since the incident occurred on Sunday afternoon. The accused have been in the village, to the extent that one celebrated his birthday on Wednesday.

O Heraldo*even in the past has questioned why the Indian Railways has shied away from convincing the locals and protesting villagers about their ownership or the land acquisition. Why haven’t the Railways produced documents to satisfy the villagers who claim their ownership and accuse the railways of encroaching into their private land?

By not paying heed to the concerns of the villagers and by bulldozing people’s property, the government is furthering the social and economic distress of the people of the State and especially the people affected by the double-tracking project.

The way ahead for the double-tracking project will only prove to be difficult as the project enters the tip of the expansion plans, entering the three western-most constituencies of Mormugao. Further ahead as the double-tracking work enters the crucial spaces of the Dabolim Assembly constituency, more protests are to erupt as the authorities will have to bulldoze homes, small cafeterias, and even a primary school, all existing for decades.

Also in the line of fire will be the lone Kabrastan (Muslim graveyard) in Vasco. Just last week, on March 14, RVNL workers having little knowledge of the sanctity of the place, desecrated three graves using excavators. Locals and the Kabrastan committee members protested and with the help of Vasco MLA and the police stalled the works. The community members were pacified by the Vasco MLA assuring them of a joint inspection by the three MLAs of Port Town, the State government officials, the Railways, and the community representatives in the presence of the police.

A senior Minister in the present government, the Dabolim MLA who has in the past batted for regularising unauthorised homes will have to ensure that his voters who have been residing for decades along the stretch are provided with adequate compensation and/or alternate housing. Livelihood of hundreds of people in areas of Dabolim, Shantinagar and New Vaddem will be at stake due to the expansion project. The issue could ignite a united protest by the affected locals and Muslims from across Mormugao as the Kabrastan is the lone place of burial and is under the ownership of the Muslims in Vasco.

While in the current incident, the FIRs against the activists is clearly an attempt to muzzle the spirits of the protestors, the State government ought to protect the citizens’ right to protest, guaranteed under the Constitution of India. Therefore the question arises; will the government mediate in the smooth ‘development’ of a parallel track of the Railways for freight transportation? Or will it ensure that the people of Mormugao undergo hardships and affect their livelihood?


Iddhar Udhar