Martyr for a cause

Print edition : August 03, 2002

The gruesome murder of Navleen Kumar, a social worker in Maharashtra's Thane district, points once again to the nefarious alliance among local politicians, builders and the land mafia.

NAVLEEN KUMAR's associates say she knew that one day she would be killed by the land mafia of Thane district in Maharasthra. She had survived several attempts on her life during the 15 years that she spent in the Mumbai suburb of Nallasopara. The last and most lethal of these came early in the morning of June 19; she was stabbed while walking her dogs on the roof of her apartment building. The police say at least two men inflicted the 19 stab wounds and the 54-year-old social worker bled to death.

Navleen Kumar.-

Until the time of writing, the investigation had yielded little. One person, a hitman known to be associated with a local don, Bhai Jayendra Thakur, has been arrested. In Nallasopara, Navleen Kumar had become something of a legend. "Kumar bai", as she was referred to, realised that manipulation of land records was a common feature in most cases of land acquisition. A trained social worker, she took up the cause of the Adivasis whose land had been taken away from them by local politicians and builders. In doing so, she became a natural target of powerful groups.

Thane district has a complex history of illegal land acquisition. It borders Mumbai and has a large population of Adivasis who are settled cultivators. Since the late 1970s, when Mumbai's expanding needs forced the urbanisation of regions north of the city, the price of land has been increasing steadily. Vilas Vichare, a resident of the area and district president of the Janata Dal(S), recalls that in 1979 land was available for approximately Rs.20,000 an acre (Rs.50,000 a hectare). The present rate is about Rs.60 lakhs. The phenomenal price increase made land-related murders common in the area. Vichare said, "Navleen's is not the first murder. There have been so many before her."

There was large-scale acquisition of land, and the most prominent name in this regard was Hitendra Thakur, a Nationalist Congress Party MLA (he is the brother of Bhai Thakur, who is at present in jail).

In the early 1980s, Hitendra Thakur set about acquiring land in Thane. There are allegations that his modus operandi included the use of threats and force. Once the original owner withdrew from the scene, the land records were allegedly manipulated (Adivasi land can be sold only to Adivasis. Hence the need to alter the original land deed). It is estimated that the Thakur family officially owns about 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of land.

There is a link between Hitendra Thakur and Navleen Kumar. One of the residential complexes he proposed was in Nallasopara - the Sriprastha complex. The land set aside for this totalled about 90 acres (36 ha). In the early 1990s, Navleen Kumar legally challenged the ownership of the land and ensured that about 40 acres (16 ha) was returned to the rightful Adivasi owners. This blocked the possibility of the rest of the land being developed and ensured that the complex itself was never built. One activist said, "Now with Navleen out of the way, there is no one to pursue the case."

The murdered social worker was also a witness in the case relating to the murder a few years ago of one of the brothers who run Dubey Builders, a construction firm. The Dubey and Thakur families are rivals. The murdered man was gunned down at a railway station.

Navleen Kumar preferred to work alone; she shunned any association with other organisations. Jaya Menon, who works with the Justice and Peace Commission, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the field of the rights of the marginalised, was one of the few persons whom Navleen Kumar had an association with. She said that Navleen felt that most NGOs were bogged down by ideology and this hampered their work in tackling the immediate problems of Adivasis. "She was uncorruptible, worked within the system and was successful in her work," Jaya Menon said.

Farida Lambay and Navleen Kumar graduated together in 1971 from the Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work. Lambay, who is now the Vice-Principal of the college, believes that Navleen was killed because "she had become a parallel power in the area". She remembers her former classmate as "a person who had a lot of anger in her about the exploitation of those who have no voice." After her murder, over 50 NGOs came together under the banner of the Darshatvad Virodhi Kruti Samiti (Action Committee to Fight Terrorism), and on July 23 the group petitioned Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh demanding that the investigation should be carried out in a fair manner, failing which the case should be handed over to the CBI. They demanded that security be provided to Navleen's family and to the Adivasis who had worked with her and that all pending land cases that were initiated by Navleen be expedited.

Many people say that it was Navleen Kumar's integrity and commitment that caused her death. One of the activists said of her: "She was not a person. She was a power".

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