Criminalising Dissent, Intimidating Activists: In the World’s Largest Democracy

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

A full time Human Rights activist working on the issues of Dalits, Muslims, tribal and other marginalized and their democratic rights including access to land and other natural resources. As a human rights activist, I continue to voice my concern and solidarity with South Asian friends who are in deep need of it as situation in the entire region turn grim with the rise of religious fundamentalists. Our approach has been to address the issue through the eyes of democratic deficit and through secular agenda.

This article is re-posted from halabol

Pic Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeathialy/5887105274

It is hard to believe that Dr. Sunilam who fought the battle for farmers in Multai in Madhya Pradesh valiantly, is accused as a criminal and that too someone who deserves life imprisonment.  Sunilam is a socialist by thought and action and was leading a farmer’s struggle in Multai in 1998 in which the police had to fire on the farmers. 18 farmers died in police firing including one police personnel. Sunilam had to face wrath of the administration on many occasions where police severely beat him up. He survived because of the immense goodwill that he had with the activists as well as political leaders.

Betul and other districts in Madhya Pradesh were facing crop failure and Sunilam was leading a farmer’s seize at the Multai Tehsil headquarter. As usual the protest turned violent and police had to resort to firing, killing many farmers and injuring others.  Sunilam blamed the then Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and his administration for framing him wrongly. Political parties did not come for the rescue of Sunilam but individual leaders were there to support him including former Prime Minister V.P. Singh.

Sunilam’s popularity with his people never diminished and he won with over 50% margin from Multai constituency for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly. He was made the leader of Samajwadi Party in the state assembly but it looks like, in the ultimate working pattern of the party, Sunilam was not fit. The current generation of socialists are not really samajwadis and hence in the past few years, Sunilam had been a part of wider movements against land acquisition and struggle against Special Economic Zones in India, raising the issues of people’s right over their resources. When Anna Hazare started his anti-corruption stir, Sunilam was among the first to join him much to the discomfiture of many.

Sunilam was attacked by goons at many places when he was raising the issue of farmers in the land acquisition process. It is sad that the political class, while claiming to represent the people, has been largely irresponsible in addressing the issue. Even the social activists have not reported on the matter. Team Anna, of whom Sunilam was a part, remained quiet on the issue.

Sunilam is not the only case of criminalizing the social activists. The anti-nuclear activist S.P. Udayakumar is facing numerous charges against him including war against nation for the huge protest that Kudankulam saw in recent months. Every time the protests reach its peak, the government and authorities bargain for peace to be restored and immediately afterwards different departments are active to file cases against the activists making them criminals, which are unwarranted in democratic polity. It is another way of intimidation so that people do not raise their issues.

The question is while there may be agreement and disagreement on the issue of source of power generation in India, one thing is sure, there may not be any disagreement that those who suffer out of any project including defense, nuclear or power generation must be fully informed and their concerns needs to be addressed fully. The state cannot displace them without providing them alternatives.

But what is happening is the conspicuous nature of the state where notices are been sent to people in such a way, which makes them vulnerable to take over without questioning the state. The idea that the state has unquestionable right over the people including taking their lives in the name of ‘national interest’ has to be questioned and not only politely but loudly.

It is not for unknown reason that for the first time in history, over 3000 people have been charged with ‘War on nation’ simply because they were not assured of the safety by the authorities on Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. They had seen the horrific stories emerging from Japan and remained unconvinced with the answers given by the authorities.

Today, Udayakumar, who left everything including his well-paid job in the United States, is virtually hiding. It is disheartening to see how a person who is embedded with the ideals of peace and non-violence is being terrified as well as demonized by the government and its different agencies who are out and out there to prove that Udayakumar is anti-national. If fighting for people’s right is anti-national then we all must do that too.

The story is not over. The latest news is from Jharkhand. Dayamani Barla, a well-respected tribal right activist is behind the bar. Barla lead the protest against the huge land acquisition for Arcel and Mittal in Jharkhand.  Her difficult circumstances never hindered her spirited work. She is the first tribal woman journalist from Jharkhand. Today, because of her struggle, the Aadivasis of Jharkhand have been raising voice against the land acquisition and violence against them.

Dayamani Barla became the voice of the Aadivasis of Jharkhand but the state of Jharkhand felt that she must be silenced and hence false cases were filed against her as her organization Aadivaasi Moolvaasi Astitva Raksha Manch launched the agitation and was not ready to give a single inch of land for this purpose. Barla has mobilized the tribal against this illegal land grabbing as she feels that land is fundamental to livelihood and tribal cannot outsource their land to alien forces. Land, water and forest are inherent part of tribal heritage and giving them for commercial greed is a betrayal to the great struggle of tribals lead by Birsa Munda. Barla’s message ‘we would not allow our ancestral land to be given to these companies’ has gone down very well with the Aadivasis who are solely behind her.

In an interview to BBC, Barla explained the land nature relations of the Aadivsais. For any tribal community, land is not an asset to be sold, it is their heritage. They are not masters or owners of it, but its protectors for the next generations,” she says.

Ms Barla said “The corporate houses are simply ignorant of the concept of the subsistence economy of a tribal society that is rooted in agriculture and forest produce.The natural resources to us are not merely means of livelihood, but our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture have been built on them for generations. These communities will not survive if they are alienated from the natural resources. How is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate us?”

It is shocking to see how an 8 year old case has been opened against Barla where the court declared her absconder. She is now in jail. One must not forget that the case is not related to her individually but a case of fighting the irregularities in NREGA work, where over 1000 people were protesting against the same in 2006.

The criminal jurisprudence system in India needs an overhaul as activists, writers do not know what cases have been filed against them. If the address is wrong the authorities don’t even try to verify. They simply state that the person is not available or absconding. It is shameful how the authorities feel that an honorable woman who is fighting for the rights of Aadivasis and who is the voice of Jharkhand can be termed as an absconder. We all face such farce and we must be prepared for it.

We may have differences in our working approach, ideological framework but it is time, we must stand together holding our hand and come out openly and unambiguously against such onslaught. It is a tough time for India when the urbanized upper caste protests are being promoted by the state itself so that it does not have time to address the issues of tribal and Dalits. These urbanized protests have actually taken the Indian state at ransom though they actually are meant to strengthen the state apparatus. It is not for nothing that we do not hear any voice of condemnation by the so-called ‘revolutionaries’ on our television screens every day.

Unfortunately, Sunilam and the likes too felt that they were ‘revolutionaries’ but would now realize they were fake ideologues who do not want to fight against corruption but wants to ensure their place in the current system. Indian state has been very brutal in every sense against the tribal, dalit and other dissenting voices and it is time this characteristic of theirs must be exposed and opposed tooth and nail before it takes its toll further. All the cases against these friends must be withdrawn and hence a team of legal experts needs to work on this and take these cases to a logical conclusion.