The second half of 2019 (July – December) was both a very trying yet sobering experience. Jharkhand police was after me and I was after the police! The difference was that the police acted illegally and I acted legally. The issuance of the ‘arrest warrant’ (June), declaration of me an ‘absconder’ (August), the raid of my workplace cum residence and the confiscation of my personal belongings (October) by an order of the lower court! The actions of the police were declared illegal by Jharkhand High Court (December 2019).
What did I do during the six-month sojourn ? I was in the three southern states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka. I met with several socially concerned persons, groups, organisations, movements. Migrant labour from the north to the southern states is stupefying. There are 36 lakhs migrant labour in Kerala alone, another 10 lakhs in Tamil Nadu, the counting process is on in Karnataka! These mostly young people hail from the tribal belt of central India, north-east, Bihar. They go to the south in waves hoping to get some employment, thereby earn something for their families, which they are unable to do in their home states. But their working and living conditions are appalling. They are mostly performing hard labour: laying roads, construction of buildings, fly-overs, metro lines. A vast majority of them are in the grip of unscrupulous labour-contractors who fleece them of their meager earnings. With the exception of Kerala, the other state governments shut their eyes to the exploitation and demeaning of dignity of this vast section of migrant labourers. I pleaded with my friends not to ignore their presence in their midst. To not simply pass them by. I urged them to meet them in their work/living places, find out whether or not they are getting government-prescribed minimum wage, physical security and help them to approach the respective government offices to rectify when things go amiss. In short, I tried to persuade friends to show a human face to them.
What happened within me ?
Initially it was like walking into a thick dark cloud. Where all would I go…who all would I meet…would they take me in…and if they do, what repercussions it could have on them…for how long would I have to be on the run… etc. Another important concern was the cases my Jesuit colleagues and lawyers were handling back home both in the lower as well as in the high court… who will argue the cases…how long will the hearings go on…the needed finance toward court expenses/lawyers fees… and at the end of it all, will I and my co-accused colleagues get justice…etc etc.
An enduring pain within me has been whereas I have been privileged to have so many contacts where I could go, be protected and take on the state government in court and get legal protection, there are so many more innocent persons who have been unjustly imprisoned and are still languishing in jails. There is no one even to bail them out. And when I think of Bhima-Koregaon case, in which also I’m implicated as a “suspected accused”, so many eminent intellectuals, lawyers, poets, human rights defenders are still behind bars. They are some of the best human beings I’ve come across in my life. They have given the most and best of their life for the cause of the poor and marginalized. More than a year has passed and they cannot even get bail. My heart aches for them. The only way I can find some justification is that I redouble my efforts to bring relief to the thousands of under-trial prisoners in Jharkhand on whose behalf I’ve filed a PIL in Jharkhand HC.
Knocking at doors:
Renewing the contacts I already had with individual activists in people’s organisations/movements I took the liberty of knocking at their doors. They not only took me in but also went out of their way to contact other socially concerned persons/groups/organisations. We met and shared what is happening locally, in their states, in the country as a whole. They were eager to understand what compels the migrant labour to leave their hearth and home and come to the south where everything is alien to them. They also assured me they would take up their cause to the extent possible.
The Jesuit communities whose doors I knocked, accepted me not just as a visitor or a guest but as a member of their communities. They shared all they have and were keen to know the developments with regard to the cases I’m facing and the situation of the indigenous peoples of central India. All the Jesuits I met expressed their solidarity with me and what I was going through.
The happy news from Jharkhand end of December, the defeat of communal party paving way for secular democratic forces, meant a lot to me and my co-accused colleagues. The very first decision of the cabinet, within a few hours of swearing-in ceremony, was to withdraw all cases related to the Pathalgadi movement and this has brought a big relief to all of us. The whole nation stands in adulation of what the Adivasi/Moolvasi people of Jharkhand have been able to achieve to restore values of secularism and democracy. The Indigenous Adivasis, in their own inimitable quiet way, will show the way to the rest of the country is my belief.
‘Truth will finally win’, yes, but after how long?
My Jesuit colleagues and lawyers kept me updated about the proceedings in both the district and high courts. I was, and am, deeply pained about the type of accusations against me formally placed in open court by the Advocate General of the state: that I am a ‘dreaded criminal’… that I was the ‘mastermind’ behind the Pathalgadi movement leading the “poor ignorant adivasis” (sic) to violent action against the state with the intent of seceding from the Indian Union and therefore an act of ‘sedition’. He also told the court that if the state can crack me, it can easily crack the pathalgadi movement. He tried to link pathalgadi movement with Bhima-Koregaon case implying that both the revolts were done at the behest of Maoists. It is a small consolation that these accusations were aptly countered by my lawyers.
Light at the end of the tunnel !
We are witnessing a new mass upsurge in the resistance movements against the imposition of CAA, NRC, NPR all over the country. People of all ages, all religions, all races, all regions are coming down on the street. They are speaking in very clear words that they will stand by our Constitution, secularism and democracy. The conscience of the nation is being tapped. May we hope that this conscience-awakening will also spread to other spheres of life, that those in power & position, the bureaucrats, the legal professionals, the intellectuals, will not lag behind in hearing the voice of their conscience. We live on, in hope.