An Impersonal Death
I first met Bijon Shadangi during the winter of the year 2000, in Jhargram, a small village in West Bengal. I was working on professional health hazards then. What I saw is that even though there are laws regarding compensations for workers in such industries, very few actually receive the amount due to them. There are laws against factories polluting there neighbouring areas — the concerned owner of the factory is supposedly punishable by the law. But there are several such factories prospering in the very hearts of Kolkata. During the late 90’s I came to know that such a hazardous factory had been closed down in far off Jhargram. Under pressure from the local population, the authorities were forced to take action against the factory owner. A court case has been filed against him, and he had to provide monetary compensation to the workers as well. I was certainly surprised to hear this. Even in the state capital Kolkata such a thing was unheard of. And this small uprising for a cause had taken place in the ignominious Jhargram! With a little effort, I heard of Bijon, one among the leaders of this movement in the village. He was the editor of a science magazine called Top Quark. He was fighting a legal battle, as well as spearheading a revolt based on awareness, in the vicinities of Jhargram, against silicosis. He was particularly active in the adjacent village of Chenchurgeria.
Three friends (including myself) visited Jhargram during the winter of the year 2000. We saw the locked gates of the factory and smelled the silica dust still distinctly present in the air of Jhargram. The silica that had attacked the weak lungs of the impoverished village folk, that had killed many of them. Chenchurgeria had been converted into a spitting image of a cremation ground. We also saw the gradually vanishing teak forests — the imposing canopy shamelessly stripped of all its glory by the timber mafia. We spoke to Bijon: his fight against silicosis, his efforts to save the forest, his love for his magazine Top Quark and his efforts to keep the publication going, his tireless strive for the quality of the magazine.
I have met him a few times later. I have had conversations over the telephone many many times. I have written for Top Quark, collected essays from others for it too. I even helped Bijon by working as a guest editor a couple of times. I wonder how sweet that dream was in his eyes, which allowed him the freedom of his thoughts — naming his magazine on a subatomic particle that was only conjectured by the profoundest sections of theoretical physics. I even wonder how intense is the bravery (audacity?) that assumes that people have the time and the need to think about such erudition. Bijon dreamt of building a bridge between the ignorance of rural India and the advances in technology and knowledge of the modern society. For the construction of this bridge he brought out issued of Top Quark that dealt with the Human Genome Project, Dolly, Cosmology, etc. In order to build this bridge he also wrote relentlessly and with utmost honesty on the Gujarat riot, the political motives behind the disastrous river inter-linking project, commodification of water, etc. Top Quark was published for fourteen years. Even though there were times when the issues would not be published before the projected deadline, publishing a magazine for such a long time, almost always alone, that spoke openly and brazenly against all powerful authorities was a rare achievement.
Bijon is dead.
On 22nd May, 2007, his limp body was found hanging from the branches of a tree. His stuck out tongue mocking fate, his wide lifeless eyes resting on the forest he loved. I heard that the police found a suicide note in his pocket. The usual “nobody is responsible for my death”. A few months ago when I had called him, he had appreciated the article I had written for Top Quark. “It’s a good article”, he said, “but is there anyone who reads it? I have not been able to publish the last two issues of Top Quark, but not a single person has asked me about what happened to the magazine.” I had heard that he was under a bout of severe depression, and was also under medication. But there are too many questions unanswered. Too many doubts. The timber mafia is locally all-powerful. They have deep roots in the authorities — the political parties as well as in the administrative offices. They obviously did not love this brave, adamant and lonely warrior.
Bijon’s death will be followed by the routine investigations, and the file will be closed after stamping “SUICIDE” on the cover. Should we, the people who have lost quite a lot of faith on the governments capabilities and disposition, not try to uncover the truth behind Bijon’s death?
Even if this is indeed a suicide, should we not try to know the reason behind the loss of a beautiful dream? And how an untiring soldier gradually lost all his hopes before leaping into the dark endless abyss?
His face reminds me of my mirror. And how I look.
Translated from “ekti obyaktigoto mrityu” by Jayanta Das, from ekok mAtrA*, July 2007.
* ekok mAtrA is a Bengali magazine on socio-political issues.
society mafia corruption life death awareness