It’s close to midnight and Chandigarh’s abandoned smooth roads are inviting. Behind the SUV’s wheel, journalist Mandeep Punia can’t resist negotiating a hair pin curve with the spirit of a rallyist. Shiv Kumar whispers, “Boss, I really don’t want to die in an accident. Thoda Reham karo.” There is mutual agreement that if something happens to these two ‘stars’ of the farmer’s movement, it would be such an anti-climax. There is laughter, and a soft foot on the pedal thereafter.

‘Guddu Ka Dhaba’ in Sector – 11 is always the best bet for an unpretentious meal, and not just when the hour is too unearthly for the city’s posh restaurants. Tungsten light bulbs, running decorative lights forming colourful flowers, creamy chicken, students, artists and strugglers racing each other for bent chairs. Just the perfect place for a late-night celebration — and easy on the wallet.

Shiv Kumar has a bad throat. Of course, besides a fractured foot, bruised toenails and swollen fingers. Way too many interviews ever since he was released.

Granted bail on all three cases, and released on March 4 from the Sonipat jail, the 24-year-old Dalit rights activist who was arrested from the Singhu border by the Haryana Police on January 16, Kumar was in Chandigarh for a full medical check-up including psychiatric evaluation. The doctors did not hold themselves back from giving a detailed evaluation of the injuries, something that went viral on WhatsApp.

Stressing that he was not even on the spot when the clashes between the Police and the workers of Kundli Industrial Association (KIA) took place on January 12, Kumar remembers the first week of beatings after he was picked up by cops in plainclothes.

“They didn’t really waste any time. The punches on the head started inside the jeep itself. Not to mention, the choicest abuses and casteist slurs in Haryanvi.”

The next week was about 12 police personnel taking turns to beat him, he alleges. “Believe it or not, even the person who served food could not get enough of my head.”

Kumar was wearing black track-pants, a yellow t-shirt and blue shoes. “They took away the shoes. What does one say to that?”

The food is now served. He remembers that he would wait tables to finance his education. Many times, his labourer father would not have enough to pay the fee. “Seeing so much struggle since childhood, why would you not feel that the world is way too unfair. Of course that thought may qualify as sedition in times we live in.”

Kumar pauses to think about the year when he started thinking himself as an activist. “I think when I was 18-years old. There has been no looking back ever since,” says the activist who formed the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (MAS) in 2018.

Alleging that the chief of Kundli Industry Association and the Police had colluded as the KIA has always been against unionization of workers, Kumar says, “You can’t even imagine the kind of exploitation that takes place in factories there — non-payment of dues and bonuses to different pay scales for men and women. We conceived MAS to fight for workers’ just rights,” says Kumar who has worked in different factories there since he was 23-years-old.

Adding that the farmers’ agitation has encouraged the workers there to raise their voice, the activist feels that efforts were underway to ensure that the workers don’t stand up for their rights. “And for that, all kinds of fear tactics are being used.”

The police, as he says may have beaten him for hours at a stretch everyday during the initial three-four days, not even asking him a single question on the first… “The interrogation started on the second day. They wanted to know who was giving the guidelines of the protest and where the funding was coming from.They asked for 20 names, and promised to let me go if I did.”

Smiling that he was all set to run away when the cops took him to Haridwar and got “drunk”, the activist says, “I still don’t understand why we went there. Perhaps they wanted an outing. Had it not been for my injuries, I would have surely escaped. And by the way, to be fair to Sonipat Jail,the food there was not really bad.”

The activist feels that after intellectuals, it is now youngsters that the state fears most. “What else would explain so many cases against those in their 20’s? You know, all the beatings and imprisonment has strengthened my resolve.”

The dinner is over. It’s time to get a taste of Chandigarh’s smooth roads again. ‘Guddu Da Dhaba’ has not called it a day. Just like Shiv Kumar.

(Sukant Deepak can be contacted at [email protected])