SPYF: What led to members being arrested and detained?
The Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum (SPYF) members who had been protesting outside Tashiling, Secretariat since the eve of October 21 demanding the state government to reinstate the public and private transport arrangements to that of the pre-COVID time, on Saturday was reportedly forcefully detained and arrested following an FIR against them. 12 members were detained under judicial custody, who went into an indefinite hunger strike soon after.
Starting from October 19, when SPYF issued a press release/ application letter to the Transportation Department, requesting the removal of all restrictions imposed on public transportation like the 1+2+2 seating capacity of vehicles, the rule of no pillion rider in two-wheelers and the 1.8x increase in fare, also requesting for the SNT buses to start routes in small town and villages in Sikkim.
The Forum through this letter wanted to highlight to the concerned department the predicaments of the common commuters in Sikkim as according to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) from the state government currently in place to deal with the pandemic, both shared taxis and government-run buses are allowed to operate only at 50 per cent capacity, but at double the cost in terms of fares. Besides, two-wheelers are not allowed to carry pillion riders.
SPYF in this letter dated October 19, had also said that as there is ‘no scientific evidence that carrying just two passengers in a seat of 4 would protect people from the virus,’ and that such precautions would guarantee that the passengers would maintain a 6-feet distance inside the vehicle. Moreover, the letter also stated that since the Unlock in Sikkim, the reopening of markets and the resumption of political rallies, etc have not had the same strict adherence to the SOPs as it is for the general public, and many officers of the State government can be seen openly flouting the rules of social distancing and SOPs. Thus, putting the present restrictions on public transportation and causing inconvenience only to the common commuters.
The letter also proposed that the State government instead could make the 1+2+2 seating rule an option rather than a compulsion which would help the passengers who can afford the double to quadruple fare levied at the moment to book the entire seat or vehicle by themself and to not force the rule on the poor people for whom affording the normal fare is also challenging. Adding that the State government could utilize all its buses to the maximum capacity by starting bus services in all the towns, bazaars, and small villages of the state
The following day on October 20, T. N. Bhutia, Secretary of the Transport Department, Government of Sikkim, wrote back to SPYF stating that given the state along with the rest of the world which is going through an extraordinary situation and that the country currently is going through a second wave of COVD-19 cases with cases having crossed the 75 lakh mark as well as Sikkim reporting more than a total of 300 cases with 50 plus deaths, the state would have to follow the directives and guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
Also, u/s 10 (2) (II) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 the Chief secretary of the State government had already directed that both private and passenger can only carry 3 passengers, one in the front and two in the back seat. Further, the contract/ luxury taxi shall carry only 5 passengers, one in the front and two each in the back seats, and that any person violating these measures and national directives would be punished u/s 51 to section 60 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and u/s 188 of the IPC and under the Sikkim Public Health and Safety (COVID-19) Regulations, 2020.
As for the demand for the SNT buses to start routes in small town and villages in Sikkim by the SPYF, Bhutia replied that while the Department is trying to restore bus services in routes such as the Gangtok-Geyzing route since the Metro services and Air Travel COVID-19 SOPs are being followed nationwide the Transport Department of Government of Sikkim would have to obey the said notifications till further notice.
On Wednesday, following the letter from the Transport Secretary, T.N. Bhutia, SPYF made a statement that as they were not satisfied with the reply as it merely quotes the earlier notifications from the State government, a delegation of the Forum would be visiting the Transport Department on October 21, to raise the problems faced by the common cutters in the state, mentioned-above.
SPYF argues that limiting the number of passengers to 5 in place of the usual 10 would not help the cause of decreasing daily COVID-19 cases and is instead only causing financial strain to the common people. Also that many drivers are already not adhering to 1+2+2 restrictions and most often in remote areas of the state are carrying up to 10 passengers while doubling the fares at the same time and the rule had only legitimized looting
While on Wednesday, the Transport Department did agree to the demand for the resumption of SNT bus services and also said that the Department would instruct taxi stands to display a rate board on every counter and to ensure that every passenger receives a ticket against the payment of the fare, the Department would be putting a board in every SNT bus. As for the demand to reinstate the public and private transport arrangements to that of the pre-COVID time and to withdraw the transport restrictions, SPYF in a statement said that as they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Transport Department, the Forum would be paying a visit to the Home Department and the Chief Secretary on Thursday.
On October 22, the SPYF claimed that their delegation met with the Principal Secretary of the Home Department, Ravindra Telang, and the Transport Minister Sanjeet Kharel and that both agreed to meet the rest of the demands of SPYF- the removal of all restrictions imposed on public transportation like the 1+2+2 seating capacity of vehicles, the rule of no pillion rider in two-wheelers and the 1.8x increase in fare, but as the Government notification allowing for the same could not be issued immediately, SPYF would be sitting and waiting for the issuance of the notification at Tashiling, Secretariat.
Members of the SPYF waited outside Tashiling, Secretariat the entire night of October 23, in hope that the notification would be issued soon. After no notification and unreturned phone calls after waiting an entire 24 hours, SPYF made a statement- “ the Government failed to address a genuine demand of the majority of the people but has also failed to correct an illogical, poorly thought-out and unscientific notification. Why does it take so long to take a small decision like changing an extremely unpopular anti-people notification of its Government? What does it take to remove an unreasonable restriction to the people? Why so much hesitation and dilly-dally in removing an unnecessary economic burden from the shoulder of the common man? Is the Government unwilling to address our demand? Why so many delays? Are our demands unreasonable? Are our demands too much for the Govt to address?”
Due to the turn of events from the State Government issuing no such notification despite assuring of the same, after waiting the night of October 22, the members of SPYF started sloganeering and protesting in the premises of Tashiling, Secretariat and reiterated that they would not leave the premises until their demands are fulfilled. The members of the SPYF spent another 24 hours on October 23 at the premises of Tashiling, Secretariat.
On Saturday, or Day 3 of the protest, when police personnel arrived at Tashiling Secretariat, who the SPYF claim tried to take them forcefully out of the premises, even though the members wanted to leave only after a competent authority arrived and initiated dialogue for an amicable solution regarding the issue, leading to the members of SPYF involved in the demonstration to being detained and being taken to Sadar Police Station by the Police personnel.
A criminal case has been registered against them by the police, said DIG Range Praveen Gurung on Saturday. Gurung also said that the members were informed that they were arrested because it was illegal to protest on the premises of the Secretariat.
SPYF members in a follow up of the case say that even though they were just peacefully awaiting the notification from the Government, yet this act was labelled by the State government as a protest. Further, when they were being detained they were lied to saying that they had been arrested under 144 of the IPC. A member of the SPYF who was among the ones who were detained recounts that upon arrival at Sadar Police Station when they were tried to be kept separated in 3 different rooms and police personnel also tried to snatch away their mobile phones, both to which the members strongly refused.
After they saw the statement made by the DIG Range Prawin Gurung, that is when the members decided to go into a hunger strike until and unless they are released unconditionally and until they are called for a talk by a competent Government authority. Later, after the members refused to leave the police station even after being told by the Police personnel that they were free to go, under the guise of a medical check-up at STNM Hospital, the members say that they were dragged out of the Police Station by their hands and foot and forcefully put into Police vehicles and were later made to get out after they departed from Sadar Police Station.
The members of SPYF after their forceful arrest, detention, and then forceful release all in the same day- October 24, spoke to Sikkim Chronicle during which they informed that one more demand of theirs had been granted- the earlier surged fare of the SNT buses has been decreased, and due to this small victory, for now, they are putting the hunger strike on hold. SPYF still demands the removal of the 1+2+2 seating capacity of vehicles, the rule of no pillion rider in two-wheelers, and has criticized the State government for not understanding the situation of the general public.
Furthermore, SPYF members have also clarified that while till now this wasn’t a protest as they were merely waiting peacefully outside the Secretariat, but due to the turn of events, they say that they will now be protesting outside the District Administrative Centre (DAC) as the situation right now as SPYF calls it is ‘a murder of democracy’ and until the last of their demands are met, even if they will miss the festive occasion of Dushera/ Dasain.
Many from the general public have expressed their support for the demands of the SPYF and the Forum themselves on social media platforms, with netizens pouring their support through the use of hashtags like #support SPYF, #MeTooWithSpyf. One user of Facebook commenting on the SPYF Facebook page- “Wasted my vote for change. Now we are seeing who is the real dictator of Sikkim. SKM government this Dusshera gift to SPYF and common Sikkimese citizen will be remembered by us on the 2024 knocking election. #shameonyousikkimgovernment”
Another user has commented- “It's a shame that in the name of democracy where elected Governments show their authoritative nature and youths have to go for hunger strikes. Is our Government so incapable that they even can't handle around 250 COVID -19 patients and putting a financial burden on poor people? Do they forget they are the same public who want to bring change but we all are witnessing a change in a different direction? Is the Government concerned about the public or they are nurturing their vote bank? Where is equality? It is time the government should think about the public else their step may backfire.”
Another user has commented that because the threat of COVID-19 is too high, the restrictions put by the State government should not be removed at this time. Adding that the public will have to be willing to go through this hardship for the time being as per the government protocols since the restrictions are for the safety of everyone.
Meanwhile, SNT has announced that it will charge the earlier fare on its bus service from October 24 to November 1, saying that this has been done keeping in view the Dashain festival, but the rules of social distancing will remain the same. Was this change brought on by the request of SPYF or the overwhelming public support their movement gathered?
While for now, the members of SPYF have already headed down to the DAC and are in protest at the DAC premises, they say that while there is a possibility of rainfall, but the Forum is 'standing under the open sky with the demands of the people...we need your support tomorrow...we won't step back from here until our demands are fulfilled.'