Sarvodaya activist externed from five Gujarat districts before PM’s visit to launch seaplane service

Published : September 30, 2020 14:08 IST

On the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, a jetty being erected at the site of the seaplane aerodrome which the Prime Minister is scheduled to inaugurate on October 31. Photo: Photo : Vijay Soneji

The Gujarat government has ordered the externing of the well-respected Sarvodaya worker, Lakhan Musafir from the five south Gujarat districts of Narmada, Bharuch, Tapi, Chotta Udepur and Baroda for a period of six months. He has been charged with “inciting locals against government, trading in liquor and being part of anti-social groups”.

Essentially the externment order which was issued on September 14 is meant to keep Lakhanbhai, as he is commonly referred to, away from these districts while preparations are made for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kevadia in Narmada district on October 31 to inaugurate the seaplane service from Ahmedabad. The seaplane service will be from the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad to the Statue of Unity in Narmada district.

The September 14 order was issued by Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Rajpipla, K.D. Bhagat. It states, “In view of the application submitted by the Superintendent of Police of Narmada District, the accused Lakhan Musafir is a dubious person. I know that he does not have any honest means of livelihood and along with his accomplices, is continuously inciting local villagers in Kevadia around the Statue of Unity as well as the Narmada dam. Along with many anti-social elements, Musafir is known to organise public gatherings to mislead the people into anti-government activities.”

The SDM’s order also says that Lakhanbhai is known for “anti-government slogans” and interrupting government works to breach law and order. It says, “…In several incidents in the past he and his accomplices, have indulged in fights with government officials as well as officers of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam limited (SSNNL) and broken the peace and law in the area.” Furthermore, the order charges Lakhanbhai with “targeting” the Statue of Unity and says that no villager is willing to speak out against Lakhanbhai because they are fearful of him. “Time and again, he has targeted the Statue of Unity located in Kevadia by gathering his group of anti-social elements as well as people from the villages close by to indulge in anti-government activity…,” says the order. In his order the SDM also says that a “private inquiry” conducted by him disclosed that Lakhanbhai used to have people “assaulted by his group of anti-social elements”.

The externment order used two FIRs registered against Lakhanbhai in 2019 for rioting, unlawful assembly, causing hurt to public servants and criminal intimidation. It also accused the 59-year-old Sarvodaya worker of being involved in the illicit trade of liquor, though oddly enough, no complaint has been registered against him under the Prohibition Act.

Over the last 10 years Lakhanbhai has been working with the Adivasis in Kevadia area of Narmada district and the people of the six villages of Kevadia, Kothi, Navagam, Vagadia, Limdi and Gora who lost their lands because of the Sardar Sarovar dam. A statement was issued in his support by prominent activists like Jyotibhai Desai, Daniel Mazgaonkar, Rajni Dave, Swati Desai, Anand Mazgaonkar, Mahesh Pandya, Dev Desai, Parth Trivedi, Rohit Prajapati, and Krishnakant Chauhan. It said, “This externment order is not only meant to scare and harass Lakhan Musafir, it is an attempt to silence the Adivasis of Narmada district. It is an assault on the freedom of expression, people’s democratic rights. It will neither scare Lakhan nor the people he works with and represents. The struggle against injustice shall carry on.” The statement also said that the order was issued only on the basis of police complaints and there was “no evidence, no witnesses, no arguments, no cross-examination, no proper hearing” before the order was pronounced. However, the SDM maintains that the two cases registered against Lakhanbhai is evidence enough.

Supporters of Lakhanbhai say there is no doubt that the externment order is like a gagging of local peoples wishes in the Statue of Unity area. The Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Act, 2019 has already been executed and Modi is due to inaugurate the seaplane service in October. It is in view of this that the order has been given. His supporters say that antagonism to the Statue was not whipped up by Lakhanbhai. Local people did not want it because they believed it would destroy their lives. In fact, issues relating to land acquisition and submerged areas are yet to be addressed by the government. The most recent example was in May and June when the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited fenced in lands that it had acquired in 1961 after the Gujarat High Court dismissed a petition of six villages that had laid claim to it. Enraged by this violation of what they saw as their lands, the villagers protested against the fencing. Local tribal identity is also being eroded by the sudden ‘development’ of the area.

Although the initial hearing on the notice of externment under Section 56(A) of the Gujarat Police Act 1951 was scheduled for March 24 this year, it was shifted to July 13 owing to the lockdown. In his reply to the notice of July 13, Lakhanbhai called himself a “Gandhian” and denied the accusations levelled at him by the state.

Lyla Bavadam

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