THIS ONE time, I was late by an hour. But the court did not wait. An arrest warrant was issued in my name. What if I had missed the bus? What if I’d fallen ill and couldn’t move? None of these questions mattered, though. For over 3,000 days — the time it took for my case to be quashed — a bugbear haunted me. For nine years, one day every month, I had to make a trip to Udupi, from my village six hours away, to prove my innocence.
On the days I would be summoned to court, the journey would begin at five in the morning. A hike through an undulating, hilly forest for 2 km, another through coffee plantations, and a further 3 km through paddy fields, would get me to the nearest auto stand. A half-an-hour ride in an auto would get me to the Kalasa bus-stand, from where a 70 km bus ride would take me to Karkala. An hour-and-a-half later, I would reach the Udupi bus-stand, from where the court was another 10-minute ride away by auto. Money spent on the commute: just over Rs 400 — a massive chunk of what I would earn in one month. What went inside the courtroom notwithstanding.
The Edu encounter took place on 17 November 2003. Those of us fighting against the eviction of Adivasis from the Kudremukh National Park had met in a house in the Kudremukh district. Our movement, comprising Malekudiya tribal youth, environmental activists, people’s rights groups from all over Karnataka, was going strong. We could smell victory. Until that night, when the police raided and shot dead two of the people present — Parvathi and Hajima. I saw Hajima breathe her last. I was arrested on charges of being a Naxalite.
I spent five days in the hospital because of bodily injuries, and the next three months and six days in prison. There wasn’t even time for the shock of what had happened that night to register. It was a new battle everyday. At 21 years of age, I hadn’t the faintest idea that 3,000 days of my life would be spent in sheer fear of men in uniform. Once out of jail, I was fair game for the police. I cannot count the number of times I was followed till the Udupi bus-stand by police jeeps. Or the times when there would be a knock on my door at unearthly hours. Or the times they would interrogate my aged father, frail and weakening. He died two years after I got arrested, having heard only the nastiest things about his youngest daughter.
Hailing from a family of agricultural labourers, the fighter’s instinct was not alien to me. My father was a landless peasant who fought for even the basics, all his life. The youngest of five siblings, I studied only up till Class VII. However, you don’t need a formal education to know what is worth fighting for. I began working as a labourer at a very early age. But by 19, I had identified the battles I wanted to fight. I even stood for elections, but lost. But hope was still intact. The urge to fight for the rights of people to have a home of their own came naturally to me. All that I did was completely within the boundaries set by the Indian Constitution and the spirit of democracy.
It was only on 28 October 2011, after persistent efforts by my lawyers Shantaram Shetty and M Jagadish, that the Udupi Court finally acquitted me of all charges. I was neither scared nor apprehensive that day. I knew I had done no wrong. Words fail me when I want to express what it felt to finally be free. I finally got married last year. Working as a daily-wage labourer, I lost a fortune just making trips to the court. I should have been compensated for a lot of things. But then, there is a lot that I’ve lost that cannot be compensated for. But, if what I went through has been of any use to the people, then I have no regrets.
Yashoda is 31. She is an agricultural labourer in Kalasa, Karnataka, and a member of the Adivasi Vikas Parishad