When I first found Gayatri Devi, she was a lonely crumpled figure, roaming around the emergency ward of RML hospital, here in the national capital. I watched her for a few minutes, wondering if she was in fact the person I was looking for. All I had was a name and a description, '90 years old, a tiny woman but with a great spirit, speaks Maithili.' It didn't take me long to figure out I had found her. She was the only unaccompanied person in the ward, and was asking the staff for directions in the dialect of Bihar.
So this is my freedom fighter, I thought to myself as I approached. What a terrible state to be reduced to, so old and all alone in this cold and hostile place. A friend had told me her story. 'There's an old woman from Bihar who claims she was a former freedom fighter. She was getting her pension from the government but it stopped a few years ago. She's been on dharna at Jantar Mantar for four years, in protest. I think she has some papers, it may be worth checking out.' So here I was, checking it out.
She was almost in front of me now. 'Gayatri Devi?' I ventured. Two bright eyes peered up at me, then without missing a beat, 'Oh beta, help me. I'm in terrible pain and I don't understand, they've given me all these papers but where am I supposed to go next?' She didn't ask my name, why I approached her or even how I knew her. She simply accepted that I had come to help, handed me her reports and sank down on the ground, exhausted and short of breath. And just like that, I became part of her story.
'I've been looking for you,' I said. 'I went to Jantar Mantar and your hut was empty. The cops told me that you were ill so they'd brought you to hospital. Err... where is he, the policeman that brought you?'
'Hmpf' she scoffed. 'He left me and went away'.
This statement encapsulates how the administration has treated Gayatri Devi's case for the last eight years: 'NOT OUR PROBLEM'. A freedom fighter, an aged woman, ditched by the system she helped establish 62 years ago.
As a young girl around the time of the Quit India movement, she was in hiding from the law. She was wanted by the British government in connection with the burning of some items of the Tarapur post office. So she went underground for 18 months. She has documents to support this fact. Documents that are locked away in a file in the Home Ministry (File No. CZ/114Mungher/98744/84/FF/ Bihar, Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India, Date: 20/11/1997).
From 1997-2002, she drew 'samman' pension as a freedom fighter from the government, with arrears for 20 years. Her documents show her - a younger face but undoubtedly hers - her account number; and even the occasional increments in pension.
But that's all she is left with now. A few scraps of paper of little use to her now. Eight years ago, she says she was approached by a dalal (middleman) who threatened her asking for Rs. 40,000. When she refused to pay, he made a complaint against her, claiming that she was not really a freedom fighter. Shortly after, in 2002, her pension stopped.
It's here that things get murky. Who was this man who complained against her? On what grounds was her pension stopped? All the official correspondence on this matter is gathering dust in the Home Ministry. So in late December, I filed an RTI on her behalf, asking for the contents of her file to be divulged and the reasons for stoppage of pension to be revealed.
Earlier this week, I received the reply to my RTI, and was allowed to go through her file. I spent hours, buried in government paperwork, trying to figure out the complex of what had happened. This is the story the papers tell:
Gayatri Devi's pension is sanctioned by the Non-Official Screening Committee (Special Audit Team) in 1997. At the time, she submits all her documents, including one to prove that she was on the run from the British Government during the freedom struggle. This is a copy of the original police report from 1942, when she went into hiding. Her name is listed under column 7, as 'Absconder', along with several others. This is a physical replica of the original document (not a xerox copy), complete with revenue stamps and the signature and stamp of the issuing authority in 1968.
The Special Audit Team accepts this as grounds for granting her pension. Meanwhile, a man called Aditya Suri (whose is also mentioned in the same police report), submits a xerox copy of the same police report, in support of his pension claim. That's when confusion arises. According to the Home Ministry, there are some discrepancies between Mr. Suri's copy and Gayatri Devi's. So the Home Ministry writes to the Bihar State government, and an inquiry is conducted in Gayatri Devi's home district, Mungher.
The District Magistrate, Mungher confirms that Gayatri Devi's copy has been issued by his office, but Mr. Suri's copy has not. By now, the original police report from 1942 is now in too poor condition to read all the names clearly.
The SAT is more than satisfied with this clarification from Mungher, and they decide to go ahead and grant Gayatri Devi's pension. They say that there has already been too much delay in her case, although she has submitted all the relevant papers. They add that her copy of the police report was made in 1968, long before the pensions scheme was announced, and so she could have had no reason to forge it. So, Gayatri Devi begins receiving her pension soon after.
In 2002, there is a media report about fake freedom fighters drawing pension in Bihar. A harried state government must now examine all the pensions sanctioned in 1997, and with it Gayatri Devi's case.
There is one possible explanation about why her pension was withdrawn, and it's frighteningly simple. Gayatri Devi may be living penniless on the street because of administrative fumbles. In 1997 she had been verified and declared bonafide by the DM, Mungher dist, Bihar, but this time around the query is sent to Khagariya dist.
The letter from the District Magistrate, Khagariya entirely dismisses Gayatri Devi:
'...She has never gone to jail nor was she underground.
She has never claimed to be a freedom fighter herself.'
Another argument made against her seems to be that she cannot confirm her age:
'.. Regarding age, she did not produce any proof. Her pension
paper shows her date of birth as 12/1/1922. Generally,
her age seems to be around 75 years in my estimation.'
Why should her age be under investigation? And why does the DM think his 'estimation' of her age is more acceptable than official records that state it? The DM does not cite any documents or references to support his claims.
So why hasn't her case been re-investigated? Despite the fact that several leaders such as Oscar Fernandes, Ch. Ranbir Singh and Motilal Vora have written on her behalf? Despite the fact that she has been pushed from pillar to post over the last eight years. That's the kind of official apathy that Gayatri Devi has faced. She can't get a fair hearing, she has never been clearly told why her pension was withdrawn and she has a hope in hell of redressal.
Gayatri Devi's last years, spent on the street, are a bitter comment not just on the way we treat our freedom fighters, but also on the way we treat our aged. As temperatures dropped far below normal in Delhi this New Year, we all shivered in our homes while this poor lady shivered out on the street. She has chronic high blood pressure, but no medicines to take. She has been asked to get an ultrasound done, but has run out of money and energy to do it. All her strength has been spent fighting the system, one that has left her permanently out in the cold.
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