It was January 1998 — eight years since the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan was set up, four years since its first public hearing, and three months after the then Bhairon Singh Shekhawat-led Rajasthan government passed an order allowing the general public to seek information related to rural works and public welfare schemes.Under that order, the first request for information from a public official was made by the MKSS.
Between February and April 1998, leaders and members of MKSS say they visited the offices of panchayat, panchayat samiti, zila parishad and district collector 73 times to seek information regarding government works from Kishangarh’s Harmara village panchayat, then led by sarpanch Pyare Lal Tank.
The MKSS had got complaints against Pyare Lal over money meant for, but not spent on, construction of toilets, houses under Indira Awaas Yojana, and wages for development works such as those under Jawahar Rozgar Yojana that had not been paid.
Nineteen years on, the activists are still entangled: a court in Ajmer’s Kishangarh Ajmer on Tuesday sentenced MKSS’s Nikhil Dey and four others to four months’ imprisonment. On February 6, 1998, they took an application to Pyare Lal’s office but he allegedly refused to receive it. On February 27, they submitted the application with the local development officer. Finally, on April 23, 1998, the development officer wrote to the sarpanch directing him to release the information.
With the letter — though the government order would have been sufficient — Dey, Norti Bai, Ram Karan, Babulal and Chhotu Lal, all either associated with Rajasthan Mazdoor Kisan Morcha (RMKM) or MKSS, went to Pyare Lal’s office. As he wasn’t there, they went to his home on May 6.
Once there, the activists allege that the sarpanch and his family assaulted and abused them when they sought information from Pyare Lal, while the sarpanch’s family alleges that they were the ones assaulted by the activists. “We were punched and kicked around by Pyare Lal and his family. His brother Om Prakash filed the FIR and claimed that Pyare Lal was not there even though he was very much there,” Dey told The Indian Express. Dey, who championed RTI and other civil causes along with Aruna Roy and others, said, “We never lifted a finger and if this can happen to us then it also speaks about other cases.”
“I and my brother Pyare Lal look quite similar so they thought I was Pyare and started questioning me, while Pyare was away. They threatened me and when I protested, they misbehaved with me. They pushed my mother Kesar Bai and when my handicapped niece Manisha came, they also shoved her and she fell,” said Om Prakash, now 50, the younger brother of Pyare Lal. “I wasn’t home then,” says Pyare Lal, 69, now bedridden, having suffered paralysis about seven years ago.
“We wouldn’t have filed a case against them but Norti Bai, being a Dalit, filed a case against us under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. So we filed a case against them,” Prakash said. Norti would later become the sarpanch. Says Aruna Roy: “Norti and Pyare Lal are neighbours. She gained prominence when she demanded equal pay for men and women in 1981 and later when she opposed the practice of Sati; she represented India at the United Nations. So Pyare Lal has always had this animosity towards her, especially after she and others tried to highlight his corruption. We’re all shocked that the real culprits got away and the social activists were convicted in a superficial case.”
Police filed a final report in Prakash’s case against Dey, Norti and others in June 1998, yet Prakash filed a “protest petition” and had the case reopened in May 2001. As for Norti’s complaint, “the police filed a final report as they couldn’t find any evidence to back her claims,” Prakash said.
Rajasthan’s Additional Director General, Law and Order, N Ravindra Kumar Reddy, who was posted as Ajmer SP then, said, “I had asked the SHO for an impartial inquiry in the case; it was simple case, they had gone to meet the sarpanch for a legal purpose. But both cases were closed since the SHO must have found that no case was made out. However, the complainant (Om Prakash) later said a case is indeed made out and filed a review petition.”
Over the years, the prosecution brought one witness after another — “Brajmohan, Durga Prasad, Om Prakash, Banna Ram, Manisha, Mahaveer, Rajendra and Polu” to back their claim of assault. “I told the activists Pyare Lal wasn’t home, but the five shoved me and Dey punched my nose. Chhotu tried to pull my mother’s clothes. It is a densely populated area and others heard it. All this went on for 5-7 minutes,” Prakash claimed in the court.
His niece Manisha said “the man from Delhi hit my uncle on his nose and also manhandled my grandmother Kesar Devi.” Manisha claimed that she did not get a medical check done as she didn’t receive any serious injuries. The defendants said a false case had been lodged against them as they were looking into allegations of corruption against the sarpanch. But the court said the defendants were unable to establish a clinical defence of their role. The defence lawyer said the witnesses were from one family but the court said this was inaccurate. The defence also questioned the lack of a doctor’s testimony but the court observed that a lack of doctor’s testimony didn’t rule out an assault.
The sentence has been suspended pending an appeal by the activists.