On July 16, a group of around a dozen persons kidnapped 36-year-old school teacher and RTI activist, Babu Ram Chauhan, beat him brutally, shaved his head and forced him to drink urine before attempting to throw him in the Indira Gandhi canal. Chauhan is currently recuperating at a hospital in Gujarat.
A report by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative says that in the last ten years, 39 RTI users have been killed and 275 assaulted in India.
I hope Chauhan, whom I met three years ago as part of research on victimisation of RTI users, does not end up as just another number in that tally.
Chauhan's village lies over 60 km from Jaisalmer near Longewala, the famous post of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Ramgarh is also the last settlement where the water from Indira Gandhi canal irrigates fields.
The land around the canal is meant to be allocated to landless farmers at subsidised rates. However, the land mafia has gained a foothold there, encroaching upon the area and depriving many deserving farmers of their titles.
In 2008, Chauhan, fresh from his successful use of RTI to get salary of local government teachers disbursed on time, decided to take on the land mafia. But it was a different ball game. Besides, being financially strong, the encroachers were from the traditionally dominant Rajput community while the landless farmers mostly belonged to Scheduled Caste Meghwal community. Since Chauhan is also a Meghwal, he knew that using RTI against encroachers would also disturb local power equations
To deal with this, he involved the community in his work from the very first day. Since he was not the one to personally benefit from land allotments, his credibility rose. Around 200 villagers, who were awaiting land allotment, contributed money to support Chauhan's effort, who also trained them in filing of RTIs and scrutinising the government records. Villagers filed around 60 per cent of all RTIs to access land records, another departure from most RTI activists who prefer to be in the limelight themselves. Chauhan also kept an account of the donated money, which is open to scrutiny by anyone
When I had asked what made him focus on the land grab issue, he had said: "My father was able to support my education because he had a piece of land to cultivate. Imagine how many poor families will be able to improve their lot if land is allotted according to rules."
The information accessed through four years of consistent efforts found that around 17,380 hectares were under encroachment. Instead of 30 per cent quota fixed for those belonging to scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST), only 18 per cent of the land was allotted to them.
The efforts also alerted the culprits who started issuing threats. An anonymous complaint was sent to the local administration in 2010 accusing Chauhan of being a Pakistani spy helping the neighbouring country procure maps of the canal area through the RTI Act.
Separate inquiries were initiated into the allegations by the CB-CID and the education department, but the allegations were found to be baseless. During these inquiries, villagers came out in full support of Chauhan. The movement got further strengthened in 2010 when 30 of the deserving were allotted land due to the community effort in using RTI.
The Colonisation Commissioner (Bikaner) also admitted that 17,380 hectare was under encroachment and could be allocated to the SC/ST applicants who have not been given their due share. This further irritated the land mafia which finally caught up with him last weekend while he was returning from his school at desert village of Ranau, 32 km from Ramgarh.
That the attack included humiliating acts of shorning his head and forcing urine down his throat signifies that the assailants wanted to reassert the caste supremacy as well. Even as the police looks for eight absconding accused, Ramgarh continues to see local protests by Meghwals. A parallel protest by Rajputs, on the other hand, tries to counter them claiming innocents from their community were being framed.
I am sure Babu Ram will return stronger. He has that thing in him. But will this nation also stand up in his support or betray him like it has so many others?
(Manu Moudgil is a Chandigarh-based freelance journalist.who was granted a DoPT fellowship in 2012 to research on victimisation of RTI users in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)