'I was not scared because I knew I had not done anything wrong. And I was walking for a good cause.'
The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP27 which was held in Egypt from November 5 concluded on the 20th.
One incident that angered human rights activists the world over was the arrest of an Indian who was on an 8-day walk from Cairo to Sharm El Sheikh as part of a global campaign to raise awareness about the climate crisis.
Ajit Rajagopal is a 29-year-old architect turned activist from Kerala.
"The good thing was without walking 500 km, the message I wanted to spread was conveyed to the world," Ajit, who spent 27 hours in Egyptian police custody, tells Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com.
You are an architect by training. How did you become an activist?
Architecture is my profession and I have my own firm in Tirur in Kerala.
The triggering point was meeting the Gandhian activist P V Rajagopal who mobilised 100,000 people from Gwalior to Delhi in 2012 as part of a social movement to acquire land rights for the landless.
I still remember my mother taking me to Rajghat, the resting place of Mahatma Gandhi when I was 10 years old.
How did the trip to Egypt and the walk to make people aware of the climate crisis happen?
Here, I have to tell you about the Jai Jagat movement (external link).
Jai Jagat 2020 is a global campaign for justice and peace as practised by Mahatma Gandhi and his experiences of nonviolence.
We intend to create a movement for nonviolent change in eradicating poverty, ending social discrimination, reversing ecological destruction and the climate crisis, and ending the conflict.
As part of the Jai Jagat movement, we, 50 people from all continents, had planned to walk for 367 days through 11 nations, covering 11,000 km.
We had planned to start from Rajghat in Delhi to Geneva, the headquarters of the United Nations.
We could walk only for 100 days and had to stop the march in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia due to covid.
When COP26 was to happen in Glasgow in Scotland in 2021, some of our members had walked from London to Glasgow.
In 2022, just before COP27 was to happen in Egypt, one of our friends Daniel Elmer from America and P V Rajagopal's wife Jill Carr-Harris, who is also an activist, had planned a march mobilising African youth. I was asked to train these youth in non-violent social movements.
You walked alone from Cairo carrying a banner. Why were you a lone warrior?
I was in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda to train African youth, and our plan was to arrange a walk from Nairobi to Sharm El Sheikh.
Perhaps, we were very ambitious with no resources. Our friends were struggling, and it was also a challenge to walk through Sudan. Anyway, we couldn't execute our plan for such a walk.
When Daniel and the African young men could not be part of the walk, I decided to walk 500 km in 2 weeks -- from Cairo starting on the 21st of October and reaching Sharm El Sheikh just before the summit.
When I shared my idea with my Egyptian friend Makarios Lahzy, who is a lawyer and a human rights activist, he was not very enthusiastic about the idea. He felt it was not practical.
Finally, I could start only on the 29th of October from Cairo. From the banks of the Nile, I started walking carrying a placard in my hand and my luggage.
When were you stopped by the police?
It was on the second day. I had started my walk at 10 in the morning and at 11, I was stopped at a traffic police checkpoint.
They found a man walking with a placard and luggage quite 'weird'.
When I was stopped, I showed them my passport and a valid visa. But they asked me to sit on the footpath and wait, and I did.
Then they called somebody and in came a vehicle with people wearing casual dress. None of them wore any uniform.
Soon two more vehicles came. I didn't know whether they were the police or detectives from a national security agency, or somebody else.
They asked me to hand over my mobile for investigation.
I had three placards with me; one was Cairo to Sharm El Sheikh, another was March for our planet and the third was, To COP27. I had written these messages in Arabic on the back of all the placards.
The police asked me, do you know Arabic? I said, I don't know Arabic.
Next question was, then, how did you write the messages in Arabic? I said, my friend wrote them for me.
I said, 'I want to communicate to the local people. I can do that only if the messages are written in the local language'.
I told them, 'When I walk, people ask me, why are you walking? I show them the placards written in Arabic. This is the only way I communicate with the local people'.
The police wanted to know who my host was in Cairo. I said, 'The person who wrote the placards for me is my host'.
I gave his number to the police. Luckily, Makarios was not just a human rights activist but a lawyer too.
After talking to him, they asked me to wait. I sat there waiting for something to happen.
Remember I was stopped at 11 am and by 11:30 am, these officers came. But I could meet Makarios only at 12:50 pm though he was waiting there for an hour to meet me.
When we met, he asked me whether I was okay. I said I am perfectly fine.
They have taken my passport and mobile phone. The only problem is, they are not allowing me to continue my walk.
Did they ask why a person from India was doing a march there?
They didn't ask me first. But they asked me the same question at the police station.
By 1 pm, they took both of us to the police station.
Once inside the police station, they made us sit in a clerical room, but interrogated separately in another room, and it continued for around 4 hours.
They asked me, why I was in Egypt. I said I was going to COP27.
Then they wanted to know what I was doing in Egypt in the last 10 days.
The questioning was videographed because it was a matter of national security.
In another video, they asked me about the logos in the poster.
I said, they were the COP27 logo, the logo of our organisation and then, the logo of the march for our planet. I had also written, we need climate justice.
By 5 pm, the officers left, but I sat in the interrogation room.
I didn't know where Makarios was. I spent the whole night in the room.
Did they give you food or water?
Nothing. They didn't give me food or water, but they offered a cup of tea while they were interrogating me.
Yes, they offered me cigarettes, but I declined the offer saying, I don't smoke.
I was not violent or offensive, I was humble and fully co-operated with them
Were you scared or nervous? You were detained in a foreign land...
I was not scared though there was a kind of tension thinking about what would happen next.
I was not scared because I knew I had not done anything wrong. And I was walking for a good cause.
Later I came to know that my friend was very scared because he knew what would happen if the national security agency detained someone. I was immature not knowing the consequences.
How did you spend the night in the room? Could you sleep?
I just sat there and tried to sleep as a police officer who came in later slept on the sofa.
There was no communication between us as he didn't know English, and I didn't know his language.
The next day dawned and I was still in the room that was locked. I still had no news of Makarios.
After some time, two officers came in, and Makarios was with them, but when he refused to make even eye contact with me, I knew the situation must be serious.
They took both of us to the next floor, a more secluded area.
I knew things had become quite grave. We were again separated.
The police officers had their breakfast, but they did not even bother to ask us whether we needed anything to eat.
In fact, by then I hadn't had any food for close to 40 hours. It was the 31st afternoon and the last meal I had was on the 29th night.
Then the police officer who interrogated me came and said that they were taking me to the Indian embassy.
When I asked about Makarios, they said he was sent home an hour ago.
He then gave me a sandwich saying, this is your breakfast! I wanted to ask, which day's breakfast!
He gave me back my mobile phone, and he drove me to the Indian embassy. I realised I had become a privileged guest there.
The time was 2:15 pm, which meant I was detained for more than 27 hours.
On the way he said, whenever you come to Egypt, I want to host you. Sorry for the inconvenience!
How did the detention become big news all over the world? Many human rights activists protested online...
Makarios works with many human rights activists all over the world. These people are not tolerant to such behaviour.
Makarios was driving and talking to his mother when the police called him. He must have told his mother about what happened to me.
After we disappeared at 1 pm on the 30th of October, his mother called many times.
When she could not get him, she called his friends and let them know.
So many of his friends started calling him, but nobody could connect to him.
In no time, messages started appearing on Twitter about his disappearance as also of the Indian who was walking.
They were worried as there were many human rights activists in jail there.
Do you feel you were quite lucky to come out unscathed?
I don't know the answer to that question. I would say, it would have been sad if we were harmed.
The good thing was, without walking 500 km, the message I wanted to spread was conveyed to the world.
Due to Makarios, this incident got very good visibility all across Europe.
So, not just climate crisis, but human rights issues also got highlighted all over the world.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com