ANOTHER ACTIVIST TARGETTED BY THE STATE - Summary of a report on the arrest of Shamim Modi

ANOTHER ACTIVIST TARGETTED BY THE STATE

Summary of a report on the arrest of Shamim Modi

Newsletter Jan – Apr 2009

Shamim Modi, an activist of Shramik Adivasi Sangathan and the Vice President of Samajwadi Jan Parishad (SJP), was arrested on February 10 and remanded to 14 days judicial custody by Harda Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) court. She has been working on the issues of adivasis, hamaals and mill-workers in Betul and Harda (M.P.) for many years. The ongoing struggles of workers in saw-mills and plywood factories demanding proper working conditions and against the rampant violation of labour laws had led the industries association of Harda to demand the arrest of Shamim Modi. The government obliged by promptly arresting her. The industrialists ultimatum was part of a larger conspiracy by the ruling BJP to check the growing popularity of SJP and to teach lessons to the social and political activists in the state. Her bail was denied on the ridiculous ground that a well educated lady having legal knowledge, involved in anti state activities cannot be granted bail".

The criminal charge levelled against her pertains to a case filed two years ago. This case was filed against her because her organisation had intervened in an instance of brutality against tribals by a forest officer R.M. Patel and his staff even though the F.I.R. clearly states that she was not present at the site of the incident. Shamims arrest was being continued on the basis of the government's claims in court that she has been indulging in anti-state activities. The issue is serious since mere utterances by the prosecution without a scrap of evidence of any anti-state activity was being accepted by the court to prolong detention. More so, because the arrest was being conducted at the behest of mill owners to prevent workers from expressing their legitimate and just demands. Following Shamims arrest, there were two protests at MP Bhawan in Delhi and a press conference was also organised. A petition was also circulated which was signed by hundreds of people. It was felt that a team should visit MP to put some pressure on the district administration, to meet Shamim in jail and also to give solidarity to the protesting workers in Harda. Saheli was part of a fact finding team that made a day long visit to Hoshangabad and Harda on February 26, 2009.

MEETING SHAMIM IN HOSHANGABAD JAIL

Team members met Shamim at Hoshangabad in the presence of the jailer. Many of the incidents that Shamim narrated to us were said in hushed tones when the jailer was distracted by other visitors.

Shamim appeared upbeat and told us that the first 5 days in Hoshangabad prison were really hard and she faced a lot of harassment and threats from the jail authorities to fall in line (keep quiet) or face the consequences. When this team met her, she had already spent 2 weeks in jail and fearing for her safety had managed to reach some compromises with the jail authorities. For several days she was not being allowed to meet anyone, including her lawyers, but the situation changed after she complained to the CJM Harda when she was presented before him. She informed the team that she was arrested from her bedroom without being given any time to make phone calls or collect her belongings and shockingly was not even informed about the charges under which she was being arrested. But at least there were policewomen who were present when she was arrested. She also complained to us that she was being kept with murder convicts etc., and not separately as a political prisoner should have been kept.

There was a lot of coverage in the local press about her arrest and about her situation in jail. Any such reporting led to her facing harassment in the hands of the jail authorities, further complicating the situation for her. Shamim expressed feeling completely helpless in jail, sometimes fearing her safety. She also requested the team to not talk to the press about her condition in jail. While narrating about the situation in the jail, Shamim told the team about the horrific conditions of other women inmates in the Hoshangabad jail. These women have been denied their basic rights, like access to clean drinking water, proper food and the less said the better about hygiene with women being denied access to sanitary napkins. Women use pieces of the old discarded blankets for sanitary protection, often leading to rashes and infections for which hardly any treatment is offered.

MEETING IN HARDA

After meeting Shamim in Hoshangabad Jail the fact finding team went to Harda to meet with Phoolwatibai and Ramnath Nisodh, both supporters of Samajwadi Jan Parishad. Phoolwatibai narrated various incidents to us that gave a clear picture of how she is being victimised ever since she stood for Panchayat elections that has been a stronghold of Jats and Bishnois. She angered the men from the upper caste and they in turn tried to use her support of Samajwadi Jan Parishad as an excuse to harass her. Ramnath Nisodh, who used to work in the mill, talked to the team about the working conditions in the saw mills around Harda - long working hours, even minimum wages not paid, women paid less than men for the same work. He said that around 70-100 workers formed the Aara Mill Mazdoor Kranti Union last year and since Diwali they started to demand Rs. 100/- as daily wages. This led to these workers becoming the targets of the mill owners anger. Last assembly election, Ramnath along with some other workers was canvassing for Shamim who has been supporting them in this struggle to get minimum wages. This canvassing, which was being done only on Sundays, did not go down well with the mill owners and the workers were ordered to canvass instead for Kamal Patel, the sitting BJP MP! The workers refused and were promptly thrown out of work and no one is willing to hire them either. Situation for these 11 workers has thus become very precarious and they are unable to make ends meet.

This team also met with the District Magistrate (DM) of Harda, Pushpalata Singh, but despite her assurance that the workers who have lost their jobs will get some Sahayata Rashi', the team was not sure if the DM will keep her promises. The DM also promised us that she will look into the alleged poor conditions in the mills, promptly adding that only one mill comes under the Factories Act!

The team also met with some of the mill owners in Harda. They admitted that that they had given an ultimatum to the District administration that if they did not take action against Shamim Modi they would move their industries from Harda. On repeated questioning about the abysmal working conditions in the mills, they agreed that there could be some scope for improvement, but also added that the way the workers were being organised was not the way to improve things, clearly showing their displeasure at the workers demanding minimum wages and better working conditions. They kept mentioning that if social activists were interested in working for the poor then they must get involved in running schools, holding health camps etc. and not such activities. Organising workers against them was not going to be tolerated.

We live in times when the State is increasingly cracking down on activists to silence any voice of dissent. Any utterance or action that challenges the State or is perceived as challenging it, is labelled as an anti-state activity. We have no choice but to continue to challenge the State to ensure that free speech and right to dissent remain a part of our democratic rights. Last few years have seen several incidents of activists in various states being unlawfully detained and denied bail. Denial of bail has become a weapon that is being used to silence these voices. It is this growing trend that led to the arrest of Shamim Modi and the subsequent denial of bail. Shamim was fortunate enough to be granted bail on March 2, 2009. She came to Delhi soon after and in a meeting spoke more freely about the conditions of women in prison that can only be described as inhuman. Another concern that has come up is that members of Samajwadi Jan Parishad, Anurag Modi and Sanjay Arya, had requested for an anticipatory bail which has been rejected by the court stating that "the incident is beginning of Naxalism and there is primafacie evidence of involvement of the accused, so bail cannot be granted.

THE TEAM DEMANDED THAT!

- All false cases against Shamim and other activists in related cases be quashed immediately.

- The State Government and the State Election Commission should ensure that Shamim Modi and other members of Samajwadi Jan Parishad are not harassed, especially when Parliamentary elections are in progress.

- All the workers who have been unduly fired be immediately reinstated and in the meanwhile, the district administration of Harda should provide necessary financial relief to them.

- The district administration of Harda should protect the democratic rights of each and every worker of the saw mills in Harda to campaign for any candidate of their choice and to ensure they do not face any harassment by their employers in this regard.

- It is the responsibility of the district administration to protect the constitutional rights of the workers of saw mills in Harda and we urge them to urgently take up the matter of minimum wages and better working conditions of these workers.

Members of fact finding team: Deepti, Saheli Women's Resource Centre, New Delhi; Rina, Kashipur Solidarity Group, New Delhi; Pyoli, Pratidhwani, New Delhi; Rinchin, Madhya Pradesh Mahila Manch, Bhopal; Jyoti, Madhya Pradesh Mahila Manch, Hoshangabad; Smita, Samajwadi Janparishad, Kesla; Laury, Sahmat, ltarsi; Uma and Giri (from Shahpur); Bablu, Samajwadi Janparishad, Distt. Harda.

The team was joined by the following in Harda: Sylvie (Chittroopa Palit), Bhagwan Mukhati, and three other comrades of NBA (Krishna Bai, Village Bichola, Distt. Harda, Sushila, Village Lotia, Distt. Harda, Kala Bai, Village Kutch Khedi, Distt. Harda), Prachi, Manasi, Indore.