28 January 2011

How Our Union Organisers Are Harassed

On principle, and as part of its strategy, Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity uses non–violent forms of struggle to raise its demands. Despite this, we find ourselves being harassed by law enforcement agencies, the administration and political parties. We have analysed 19 such pending cases, leaving out many others which are comparatively minor. 
Our analysis has shown that the cases can be grouped into three groups. The first have resulted from our interventions in various anti-land acquisition struggles in West Bengal, while the second has involved our members fighting for our rights under the MGNREGA. A third set of cases has resulted from our attempts to organize people on other issues.

 Land struggles: 

 From 2006, West Bengal has seen a number of struggles by farmers and rural workers against land acquisition. These struggles have by and large been peaceful and the local people have followed a number of forms of non-cooperation, like blockading the cars of officials; symbolic protests in front of walls and barbed wires surrounding the site where land has been acquired to put up a factory etcetera. Each such action has resulted in the filing of a case (FIR) by the police authorities. The cases have certain peculiarities – firstly there are always very serious non-bailable sections put in like attempt to murder, destruction of Government property, possession of lethal arms etc. 


Evidence is also planted to prove such sections as being true (e.g. in a case in Bahadurpur, Nadia, the police were reported to have gone the day after the arrest of the activists to plant stones, swords, scythes etc at the place of incidence and also to film these items there in order to prove that the group of villagers protesting in front of a district official’s car was violent.) 

Secondly, the cases always have a number of unnamed accused i.e. the names of a few accused are given and they are supposed to be accompanied by “50 others” or “200 others”. This is then used as a tool by the party in power to punish all protest. Days after the complaint has been filed, any person who is considered a troublemaker by the party in power is included as one of the accused among the “50 others”.

Thirdly, the cases have often been an attempt to prevent activists from entering an area where people are protesting against a move by the Government and the party in power. Thus, in Singur PS Case Number 8/07, the sub-divisional court banned the accused from entering the area for the next four months, so that the support she was providing to the local people could be stopped. The High Court ultimately declared this order null and void and said it was an infringement of the fundamental rights of the activist. Besides this, Section 144, which makes assembly of more than 5 people a crime, has been routinely and illegally declared in such areas to break the movements and struggles of the local people. People have been physically arrested for trying to enter Lalgarh, Nandigram and Singur. 

In Nandigram, the party in power manhandled in front of the police activists trying to enter the area. In Lalgarh, they went a step further – the party in power organised camps of armed cadres, who instilled fear going as far as to murder, rape and kidnap local people, with the central paramilitary forces and the state police turning a blind eye and often even supporting such actions in the name of taming Maoists.

Fourthly, these actions have been accompanied by a continuous campaign to harass and frighten leading activists. These have taken the form of regular abusive posters in front of one of our offices; writing or planting defaming stories about sources of fund or labeling us Maoists in party controlled media; and even visiting the activists’ homes and threatening to kidnap their children.


NREGA related problems

The union activists have also faced severe problems when fighting for work or timely payment under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. These problems have taken place, no matter which party controls the local Government in the area. There have been physical attacks on the workers at the work site itself in most cases or, even more shockingly, at Government offices in the presence of senior officials. The attacks are organized and led by political party leaders (who are often people’s representatives in the local Government). The intention seems to be to ensure that the weakest sections among the workers, the agricultural workers, remain unorganized and oppressed.

The police and the administration most often have not responded to the complaints of workers who have been attacked. Instead false cases are filed without any kind of verification by the police against the victims of the attack. For example, Narayan Mahato, a worker in Puncha (Purulia district), who was hospitalised with a serious head injury, was accused in a counter-case of grievously injuring those who had beaten him up, even though medical reports showed no such injuries for the complainants  (who were also Narayan’s attackers). 


Preventing Organising

In many instances, the filing of false cases is done to ensure that the workers do not organise themselves.  Thus, in Purulia, the police and party in power tried to make the Secretary of our GP level committee an accused in a bomb blast in which Maoists were suspected of being involved. This was done at the instigation of a local party leader to terrorise our union secretary. Ration dealers who were stealing people’s rations were caught by our women members in Chapra block, Nadia. Not only did the ration dealer and their supporters physically attack the activists and women members, but false cases were also instituted against them to stop them from organizing. 

In 2000, there was an attempt to murder one of our activists. This case is still pending after 11 years. Thus, in cases where attempts have been made to kill union activists and such facts are well known and verifiable, courts take a long time to deal with such cases. Also, police still go ahead to file counter cases, making activism a very risky pursuit.

A review of our experiences has revealed the class bias in the way human rights defenders are treated. In highly publicized anti-land acquisition struggles like Singur, Nandigram and Bahadurpur, whenever upper class activists have been at the receiving end, the defenders get bail after a single night in the lock up; lawyers give pro bono service; media and internet access ensure a quick public reaction. The activists are thus heroes, who get support as well as flak. In the other cases, the victims from agricultural worker backgrounds remain unsung heroes. The union has to make a special effort to make the media pay attention or to get the administration to relent.  Each day’s involvement in these cases means a loss of earning for these activists who anyway live at the margins. The union has to collect money from other sources for their legal support. Class difference thus makes the experience of these cases very different for these two sets of activists.

Our experience has also shown that in West Bengal we have faced a monolith from the Gram Panchayat level to the State administration where the party in power has combined efficiently with the police administration and the bureaucracy to suppress both protests and protestors. Violence and repression seem to be the immediate and prompt answer to all demands for rights.

What outrages us is that the governments at Centre and at the State cry themselves hoarse about the need for poverty alleviation. They declare policies and laws it, yet when the poor start organising for the implementation of these very laws and policies, they face repression and false cases. 

Our demand is that the law should support these activists who are trying to alleviate poverty by protecting them from false cases and from violence. Cases accusing activists falsely must be examined very objectively and without bias before arrest of these human rights defenders and cases where activists have been attacked must be fast tracked to see that attackers are punished quickly.

No comments:

Post a Comment