The Tata Institute of Social Sciences [TISS], Mumbai recently witnessed a strange conference.
The delegates were mainly tribals coming all the way from Madhya Pradesh.
About 300 of them came to Mumbai to attend a discussion held in TISS on November 27. The topic was not how to defend against terrorists coming from across the border.
They were there to discuss ‘Who will defend the defenders of tribal rights?’
The meeting was convened by Ms Shamim Modi, an Assistant Professor of TISS.
Why such a conference of tribals and academicians in TISS about defending tribal rights? Let me give you some background.
The S A S Movement
Ms Shamim Modi was working in the tribal hinterland of Madhya Pradesh for the last 13 years with her husband Anurag Modi.The Shramik Adivasi Sangathan [SAS] in which they worked was trying to enable the tribal people to fight for their land rights and to protest against their exploitation by Forest Department officials and local landlords.
Last year SAS helped sawmill workers and porters of Harda unionise against exploitation. The tribals who formed the majority of work force were a source for cheap labour. The SAS made it possible for sawmill workers to organise and protest against the denial of basic rights such as minimum wages and mishap costs.
Staus quo of exploitation threatened
The Modi couple, who were also among the leaders of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, faced stiff opposition from forest contractors and industrialists and also the district administration and the Forest Department. Shamim contested the elections (twice to the Assembly and once to the Lok Sabha) on the Samajwadi Jan Parishad ticket from Harda. That made her an enemy of many local elite and Political bigwigs.
One such political heavy weight was Kamal Patel, the local legislator belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Kamal Patel, a powerful Jat leader was four-time MLA from Harda and was also once the Revenue Minister in the State. He is known to secure the interests of Jats and Gujjars, who form the bulk of the landlords.
Matters worsened between Kamal Patel and the SAS during the Assembly elections in 2008 when Natwar Patel, a close aide of his and president of the sawmill owners’ association, was detained by an order of the Election Commission for threatening Shamim and preventing her supporters in the sawmills from campaigning for her. A few months later, when the mill workers, under the SAS, called a strike for their basic rights, the mill owners’ association told the District Collector that the mills would be closed down unless Shamim was arrested in 48 hours. The very next day Shamim was arrested and was detained for more than a month on charges as old as two years – instigating the tribal people and organising a dharna at the collectorate. She was shifted to the Hoshangabad jail, in the neighbouring district, and was allegedly tortured mentally and physically.
The SAS movement jolted the local political mafia led by Kamal Patel as it not only was a threat to the exploitative status quo but also encouraged the tribal people not to exchange votes for cash. Shamim received several death threats. A few attempts were also made to physically harm her.
In a tactical move Ms Shamim decided to shift to Mumbai and joined the TISS as a faculty. But the most horrific attack on her life was on the afternoon of July 23 at her Vasai residence in Mumbai.
The watchman of her apartment barged into her house in an alleged attempt to kill her. Her throat was slit, her hands were broken and her head was smashed. Shamim had to have 118 stitches all over her body.
The Mumbai Police refused to register a case of attempted murder and allowed the assailant to flee out of the Country. Only when the High Court was approached that the case was handed over to CB CID and was asked to complete the probe in 3 months.
It was against this background that this discussion was organised by Ms Shamim Modi.
In the conference Modi said
“I had filed a PIL against the nexus of the BJP’s mining mafia and the forest department, The court ordered an inquiry, which proved that illegal excavation was going on in many areas. I made enemies in the BJP’s mining mafia who tried to harm me.”….
“We are strictly Gandhian in our approach and do not believe in violence at all. If the government is genuine about its desire to curb naxalism, the only way is to reward the people who have remained non-violent in their fight against the oppression that tribals are subjected to. It can then exert moral pressure on the naxals to give up arms. Instead, it is the State machinery that is trying to crush such peaceful movements.
That is why we want to raise the question: Who will defend the defenders of tribal rights?”
A Committee for Justice to Shamim Modi has been formed which includes faculty and students of the TISS, the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Committee for the Release of Binayak Sen, Justice Rajendra Sachchar, Kuldip Naiyar and others.
It is always risky to raise voice for the oppressed, to fight against injustice:
But such risks have to be taken if we want to see India shining for all its citizens.