Revenge attacks

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

Sand dredging beingdone at Bankot creek on the Konkan coast. The vehicle of activists who visited an illegal dredging site here in March was attacked.-COURTESY: SUMAIRA ABDULALI

Sand dredging beingdone at Bankot creek on the Konkan coast. The vehicle of activists who visited an illegal dredging site here in March was attacked.-COURTESY: SUMAIRA ABDULALI

In Maharashtra, attacks on citizen-activists have increased with the greater use of RTI; four activists have been killed in the last seven months.

IN the late 1970s, a woman named Shobha Shirodkar was the victim of a hit-and-run in Mumbai. It was no accident. It was a case of murder because Shobha, who was the principal of a prestigious school in the city, had opposed the land mafia and was believed to have been killed by hired gangsters. It was the first time an ordinary citizen had been targeted by criminals because she had raised her voice against an illegality. Though citizen activism was not as prevalent then as it is now, Shobha Shirodkar's murder was a precursor to a new category of crime murders of activists.

This seems to be more prevalent in Maharashtra than elsewhere. In the last seven months four activists have been murdered in the State. In January, the social worker Satish Shetty was murdered near Pune after he exposed land scams. In February, Arun Sawant was shot dead in Thane district when he was on his way to file an RTI application. In April, Vitthal Gite was killed in Beed district after he exposed corruption in local schools. Many saw the murder of Dattatreya Patil in Ichalkaranji as revenge for exposing corruption in the handloom industry. As far back as 2002, Navleen Kumar was stabbed to death for opposing the land mafia in Thane district ( Frontline, August 16, 2002).

Attacks on citizen-activists in Maharashtra have also been ominously frequent this year. In January, the activist Nayana Kathpalia was shot at in her home in Mumbai. In March, in Ratnagiri, environmentalists Sumaira Abdulali and Naseer Jamal's vehicle was rammed after they visited an illegal sand dredging site. In April, in Jalgaon district, unidentified persons attacked the house of Abhay Patil, an advocate, after he made corruption charges against a member of the Assembly belonging to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In May, the environmentalist Debi Goenka was assaulted when he visited a site of environmental damage. The latest case was in July when an RTI activist, Ashok Shinde, was beaten up for filing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition against Public Works Department (PWD) officials in connection with the siphoning off of money they claimed had gone into the repairs of the Bombay High Court.

In the early 1980s, an activist, Nergish Irani, was threatened and attacked when he protested against the construction of a power plant in the eco-sensitive zone of Dahanu and a proposed port at Vadhwan on the Maharashtra coast. In 2000, an activist, Edwin Britto, was threatened and attacked over civic issues. The year 2004 saw the attack on Sumaira Abdulali by the sand mining mafia. In 2005, Suryakant Panchal of the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) was assaulted over an environmental issue. Again in 2005, H.S. D'Lima, who campaigns on civic issues in Mumbai, was attacked for protesting against illegal water connections. In 2006, James John of Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI) was attacked twice in the same year over similar civic issues. In 2009, Navin Pandya, also of AGNI, was threatened and attacked. A few months after that another activist, S. Ganesan, was also assaulted over civic matters.

The list is by no means comprehensive since RTI users operate as individuals, one of the reasons why their vulnerability is quite high. In all cases, FIRs were registered by the police but this brought the activists little relief; they had to face either false charges or threats from their attackers.

How does one explain this steeply rising crime graph in a State that, compared with others, has a reasonably fair record of law and order and an open mind to citizen participation?

Political involvement

Maharashtra has a history of citizen activism. This, combined with the weapon of RTI, has given activists a high profile, which has automatically made them targets. Besides, there is the perception of a high degree of political involvement in illegal activities. The economic growth of the State has put a premium on every resource, especially land. All these together have increased the potential for aggression.

Shailesh Gandhi, Information Commissioner at the Central Information Commission (CIC) in New Delhi, who fought for the introduction of RTI, has a simple explanation: Unless the rule of law improves, the killings will go on. Analysing the case of Maharashtra, he said: In 2003, when we got a fairly good Act, Maharashtra started using it well. I partly ascribe this to Anna Hazare, who took it to the rural areas and taught people how to use it. In Maharashtra, citizens are slightly more aware than in other States and use RTI extensively. Perhaps the high number of killings reported is owing not only to the high usage of RTI but also to the high reportage of such killings. It is possible that in some States even something like murder is not reported, but not so in Maharashtra.

Sumaira Abdulali is a citizen-activist who has faced attacks and threats. She is the convener of AWAAZ Foundation, which works for socially oriented causes, and a member of MITRA (Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists). She ascribes the situation in Maharashtra to the closeness the political class has with illegal activities. She alleged that politically backed mafias' have been involved in almost all the killings. She said: When an illegal operation is run by a politician, the police, who are dependent on politicians and the administration for their transfers, do not act to stop the illegality. In fact, when an activist interferes, the whole system unites to block him out and, far from offering protection, often actively opposes him by filing counter cases. In Maharashtra, the need to keep activists from getting too close to illegal activity by politicians is well understood.

On March 16, Sumaira Abdulali was attacked after her visit to the Bankot creek where sand dredging was choking the mangrove and destroying the habitat for migratory birds and marine life. When she left, a dramatic car chase ensued and ended in her car being rammed from the rear and then surrounded by other vehicles. The presence of a journalist on the scene did elicit a quick response from the Mahad Police Station, but though they registered a first information report (FIR) they did not arrest the accused who were present when the mob was threatening to kill her if she continued to interfere.

False cases

Filing false cases on activists to deter or discredit them is a common practice. When the RTI activist Dattatreya Patil was killed in the south Maharashtra town of Ichalkaranji, it was because he had exposed corruption in the local handloom industry. After his death, rumours were spread that he was an extortionist. The RTI activist Gaurang Vora pointed out, If Patil was extorting money why was he not reported to the Vigilance Department? Why was he murdered?

Despite the violence they face, most activists do not ask for police protection. Shailesh Gandhi also does not find it desirable because RTI is about rebelling against the power structure. If we introduce protection, it would bring in a new class of power brokers.

Abdulali said a suo motu PIL petition by MITRA now in the Bombay High Court demanded justice for activists who had been attacked in the past and systems to ensure the safety of activists working in public interest causes in Maharashtra. As a result, the Mumbai Police have issued various notifications and formed a participatory committee with known activists. A more effective solution would be to clear RTI applications quickly. Vora said that as applications went back and forth in government offices, the chances of the applicant's identity being revealed increased, thereby increasing the potential for danger.

Part of the problem is that RTI was introduced into a system that was already weakened by corruption. But Sumaira Abdulali believes the government is quite committed to the RTI Act at an ideological level and also supports it practically except in matters where a strong level of direct political interest exists. Even then, individual officers do cooperate. It is not unusual to encounter officers who are glad to pass on such information as they feel they are helpless parties to illegality. Of course, both kinds of officers exist, but, on balance, the ones who support the politician while doing lip service to stop illegality outnumber those who do not.

Gaurang Vora says that one way of strengthening the system is to see that Information Commissioners are appointed with due process so that there are good chances of them doing justice to the Act rather than working to the contrary.

Shailesh Gandhi, too, is critical of the system. He says, The process of selection is flawed. Actually, there is no process at all. It's a political decision and this is extremely undesirable. But this weak link can be strengthened, he believes, and adds: It's a very powerful tool and citizens can use it to hurt powerful interests. I have this great hope that RTI will change the face of democracy.

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