Illegal bungalows: Did you know of Arundhati Roy’s bungalow on illegally grabbed forest land?

So Shahrukh Khan’s vacation home in Alibaug has been ruled as “Benami property” and attached by the Income Tax Department. It is not hard to see what comes next : some statements on rising intolerance, Bollywood moralizers coming together to protect their own, etc. Then, some small aspiring celebrity gets trolled for speaking in favor of benami property and next thing you know, everything is again the fault of the ‘Bhakts’. Well travelled path.

Usi ka shehar, Wahi Khuda, wanhi ke gawah. Mujhe yakeen tha Gunaah mera hi niklega.

But this thing about bungalows reminds me of a story. A story from the pristine Panchmarhi hills of Madhya Pradesh. Where the sun shines bright, where the sky is a wonderful blue, where the animals of the land lead their lives undisturbed in the virgin forest.

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Then, one day in the early 1990s, this virgin forest has a visitor. A visitor who sees this lush green forest and falls in love with it. And decides that he must have it to himself. He must grab a piece of this virgin forest, solely for himself, get everyone else out of there and make it his vacation home.

Who is this visitor? Some Brahmanical colonizer from the RSS? Well, not exactly.

This visitor has made his fortune out of sensitising city dwellers and rich foreign audiences about the importance of the environment and protection of tribals. His films have made him wealthy and he purchases the land without difficulty. A few years later, he marries into his own intellectual caste, another firebrand author, writer, activist who stubbornly opposes the Brahmanical Indian state taking the forests away from the tribals of the heartland.

The happy couple who love their vacation home in the forest? Pradeep Kishen and Arundhati Roy.

Because nothing serves the purpose of India’s tribals more than making sure that Arundhati Roy has a vacation home built on their land where she can reflect on their deprived status. Where else will the powerful intellectual opposition to the Sardar Sarovar Dam come from? And wouldn’t Arundhati Roy need a vacation home in the area if she plans to oppose the “new development plan for the Pachmarhi area in which a hotel-building would be allowed at the cost of despoiling the beauty and sylvan backdrop of the colonial hill station”?

I don’t know if the word ‘colonial’ in the linked India Today article from 1999 was used by Arundhati Roy herself, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if she insisted on it.

Vacation home building for intellectuals? Yes!

Hotel building? No, no, a thousand times no!

Hotels have a way of attracting the middle class crowd that can’t afford to have private vacation homes. You let them build a hotel near their vacation home in the Panchmarhi hills and next thing you know the place becomes like every other city where the writers and activists have to use the same streets and breathe the same air as everyone else.

In fact, Pradeep Kishen even became a member of a government committee to hear objections against the building of the hotel. In the course of discharging his duties, he presented objections from the “people” against the evil capitalists. The objections against converting “Panchmarhi into the Las Vegas of Madhya Pradesh.

Here, “people” obviously means Kishen’s wife, Ms. Arund***ti Roy. Did you think any other people matter?

And then it happens! In 1999, the noble activists of Panchmarhi end up receiving a notice about their own vacation home being built on illegally grabbed forest land. Thus begins a long battle in the bourgeois courts of India’s broken republic.

In the course of this battle, powerful arguments are presented by those in Arundhati Roy’s favor. One such argument published in India Today:

The alleged violation of the law in Bariaam, even if technical, by the landowners pales into insignificance when compared with illegal developments on the other side of the Bariaam Lake. Many senior government officials have purchased land in areas falling within the Pachmarhi wildlife sanctuary.

Hmmm… seems like Bhakts did not discover whataboutism after all.

Or this one:

A house nearby is owned by the sister of Vikram Seth, another author, who wrote A Suitable Boy.

See? Members of the same caste group live nearby. The sister of Vikram Seth. Mr. Pradeep Kishen and Ms. Arundhati Roy need to be near their own kind. Not Vikram Seth himself, mind you, but his sister. It’s all about the bloodline. It’s a caste group after all. Not every chaiwala or pakodawala or beggar can get in.

The last I know of this long battle begun in 1999 is that the local court declared the bungalow illegal in 2010, upholding a decision of an earlier Revenue Court. An appeal was filed with the Hoshangabad Divisional Commissioner, which was also dismissed in 2011. But our activists are determined not to let go. They had filed a petition with the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2003 itself.

I wish Ms. Roy and Mr. Kishen the very best of luck in the High Court. May you get justice.

Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.

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