If I wonder about my share of responsibility for the death of Ram Kumar Thakur, what must Sanjay Sahni feel? I have heard Sanjay trying to cope with the murder of his friend and colleague in Ratnauli Panchayat in Bihar, and I can hear a million questions he has, that should be answered by the State, but are left to be answered by the sufferers themselves. The State and most of its functionaries have become brazen, callous and openly dishonest. Even the honest are helpless, and murder has become a pedestrian fact of life. Sanjay Sahni’s story and Ram Kumar’s cold blooded murder needs to be understood, if we are ever going to support the many ordinary people fighting injustice, corruption, and the arbitrary use of power; and stem the attacks on, and even killing of those fighting for justice in this country.
Sanjay, a young self taught electrician who had studied up to the 8th class, had left his village in Bihar to set up a tiny little electric service point in Janakpuri in West Delhi. He had established himself well enough to bring his bright and determined wife, and two young children to come and live with him in the big city. His children had started attending a private “English medium” nursery school, and he had dreams for himself and his family of a better middle class life.
He never imagined that asking questions about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) works in his village, would trigger a series of events that would in the short span of a year, turn his life into something unrecognisable even to himself. The work he and his colleagues have done to fight corruption, injustice, and poverty, is of the highest order, but he is realising the hard way that the cost of courage and commitment to the public cause, is persecution, harassment, and even death. While individuals might care; the State doesn’t, and truth be told, those of us who recognise the incredible tenacity that many ordinary people have shown, do not make the effort needed to even provide the minimal support they need to sustain their struggle. As we read this, let us keep asking ourselves how many times we have stood up to fight injustice, and how much we have done to support those who do.
25 year old Sanjay had gone home to Ratnauli, his village in Muzzafarpur District in Bihar for a short break, when he found his friends talking about the corruption that seemed to be taking place in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the Panchayat. People were poverty stricken and unemployed, but there was no work available. It was rumoured that the Mukhiya (Sarpanch) had filled false muster rolls and pocketed large sums of money. They decided to file a complaint at the Block office. Before Sanjay had left his village there were threats and intimidation which not only seemed to indicate that there was truth to the allegation, but also made Sanjay feel angry and irritated that the ones engaging in corruption seemed to believe it was their birth right, and no one should ask any questions.
Even as he carried on with his work in Delhi, Sanjay got news of the continuing threats and intimidation to all those who had signed the letter demanding an enquiry, and it fueled his determination to carry the matter to its logical conclusion. Every time he went home to Ratnauli, he realised how difficult it was to even get a simple enquiry instituted, and how important it was to not let go. But what more could he, or any of his friends do?
In front of his little electricity booth in Janakpuri was a cyber cafe where Sanjay had watched people come, spend hours at a computer console, pay money, and leave. He was curious about the utility of this shop, where he sometimes left his tools for safekeeping. During this period of growing frustration about inaction on the MGNREGA complaint, Sanjay asked the owner of the Cyber Cafe, what exactly people were spending their time and money on. “You can find out about anything” he was told. Sanjay was skeptical, but he decided to test it out. Through a series of trial and errors, that the internet is so well designed for – Sanjay traced his District, his Panchayat, and made a connection between MGNREGA and his village within the Government of India MGNREGA web site, which had somehow popped up on his screen. He could not believe his eyes when he saw the muster rolls of works carried out and paid for in his panchayat. There were hundreds of names of people he knew who had, in fact, not got a single days work. There were many who desperately needed the work, but had been told by the Mukhiya that there was no work available. With great excitement he asked if he could get copies of these. Armed with printouts, Sanjay left for his village quite sure that he now had the required proof to expose the scam and get action taken.
The scam was certainly exposed, and the village was indignant and angry, but it seemed to make no difference to the Block Office or the Government. Inaction seems to be what Government servants feel they are paid their salaries for. As Sanjay returned to Delhi, frustration and anger growing once again, he returned to the cyber cafe to ask the computer who he could contact who would take action. All he could find was a mobile number of the MGNREGA web site web manager, who gave him our names as people who were known for fighting corruption on MGNREGA, and influential enough to get something done. He got our names, but only the number of some journalist the web manager knew in Maharashtra. Sanjay doggedly pursued this trail until he tracked us down, and two months later he made sure that we met him and heard his story.
We were very excited. We knew the Secretary Rural Development in Bihar, an honest and dynamic officer who was as appreciative as we were about this remarkable effort. He agreed to meet Sanjay in Patna the very next day, and promised to send an officer from the State Government to conduct an on the spot enquiry immediately. He kept his word. However, the officer who had told Sanjay to gather those willing to testify backed out, citing a problem with his coming to the village. He asked Sanjay to bring a few people to the block office to record their testimonies. Sanjay knew that it was a sign that there were troubles ahead, but what could he do but comply? A few people went to testify, but Sanjay and his friends felt the enquiry was a symbolic farce.
We had suggested to Sanjay that he also apply under the RTI for copies of the records he had found on the net. The most enthusiastic and courageous of his colleagues- a young lawyer in the village, Ram Kumar Thakur agreed to file the RTI, as Sanjay had to return to Delhi.
Sanjay’s extraordinary story has actually only just begun, but for the purpose of this column, focus must shift to Ram Kumar Thakur, and the Government.
Ram Kumar Thakur did not receive the information within a month as promised under the RTI Act – he only received threats from the Mukhiya. In fact, as the Secretary of the Department increased pressure on the Panchayat and Block offices to provide the information, he realised how much certain places were a law unto themselves. He issued orders that details of expenditure made under the MGNREGA be painted on the walls of all the Panchayats in the area. The Mukhiyas of the area went on strike refusing to part with any information. He called for the records of Ratnauli Panchayat to be brought to his office in Patna, but the panchayat secretary disappeared with the records. With great difficulty only a small fraction of the records Ram Kumar Thakur had asked for were given to him.
Sanjay and his group persisted, and the Secretary of the Department ordered that a summary of the records available on the net would be painted on the walls of Ratnauli Panchayat, and a social audit would be held under supervision of a team of officials from Patna. While the whole village had gathered for this unprecedented exercise of a public audit, the Mukhiyas gang had warned everyone of trouble if they participated and testified. We were sure that if one person spoke out, the flood gates would open, and even the poorest would tell their own stories. Ram Kumar was the first person to speak out and testify, and he was promptly pounced upon and beaten up by the Mukhiyas men. The State government suspended the social audit, asked everyone who had gathered to disperse, and ordered the block office to file an FIR report against those who had disrupted it and attacked Ram Kumar. The FIR has not been acted upon till date.
Sanjay Sahni, strategically shifted focus, and started asking that people in his panchayat get work. Over a period of a few months, with sustained support from the Secretary in Patna, and new friends he had made in the social sector his group managed to make MGNREGA a credible reality in not only his Panchayat, but in a dozen other villages in Muzzafarpur District. The group formed itself into an informal organisation, that decided to call itself “Bihar MGNREGA Watch.”
Possessed by the processes of change that had begun, and his own sense of responsibility Sanjay changed the course of his life. He left his electricity work in Janakpuri. He moved his family back and forth between Janakpuri and Ratnauli, getting his children in and out of different schools. He applied for an MGNREGA job card and worked on the work sites. Hundreds of landless poor in surrounding Panchayats got together under MGNREGA watch to demand work and receive the wages they were due. Their lives were also beginning to change in unbelievable ways. His wife called me a few days ago and bluntly asked me if anyone who chooses to work for others, has to do it at the cost of ruining their own lives.
For every good reason, Ram Kumar Thakur refused to give up on the issues of corruption in the Panchayat. When he found no action was taken on the earlier complaints, using the bits of information he had, he filed a case in the vigilance court. This infuriated the Mukhiya even more and this time his gang came to attack Ram Kumar, and when they did not find him, they attacked his brother. Ram Kumar filed a complaint with the police, and sent a letter to the DIG of police that his life was in danger. Once again, no action was taken – both on the complaint in the vigilance court, as well as his letter to the DIG. On the 23rd of March, 2013 when Ram Kumar Thakur was on his way back to Ratnauli from the court where he practiced in Muzaffarpur, he was shot three times. He died on the way to the hospital. A nephew of his was witness to the killing and has named the Mukhiya’s son and five others in the FIR he has filed. No arrests have been made so far.
Sanjay has struggled with trying to cope with the many challenges that come with taking up public causes. However, when he got news that Ram Kumar Thakur had been shot and killed, he must have wondered if his worst nightmare had come true. Would he hold himself responsible for the death of his associate? Should Ram Kumar Thakur have been dissuaded from asking questions? Should the corruption of the Mukhiya been ignored? What should be done when the State does not act on the most obvious of cases of fraud and loot?
Ever since the Right to Information Act was passed, hundreds of Sanjay Sahni’s and Ram Kumar Thakur’s have fought individual and collective battles against powerful and corrupt forces. They have paid for it in a million ways – many of them most tragically with their lives. Each case is a huge question mark on our democratic polity.
Where do the answers lie? It would be easiest for us to lay the blame squarely at the doorstep of the State – for that is where it most obviously lies. In the Ratnauli Panchayat case, every legal means for registering a complaint and providing necessary evidence was explored by the residents of the Panchayat. Not a single corruption complaint was properly investigated and taken to its logical conclusion. Ram Kumar Thakur made every possible plea to the government for protection. This was also completely ignored. The law as it stands is not implemented. A whistle-blower protection law that may provide a little more support is pending in parliament and likely to be a continued victim of petty partisan politics. The political class refuses to act, the bureaucracy and police have subverted their own oath of office, the poor fight with their backs to the wall, and the few who stand up for them are either isolated or eliminated. We cannot speak for others, but we can surely speak for ourselves. The most cynical thing for “good people” to do would be to simply applaud Sanjay Sahni, and Ram Kumar Thakur and make them martyrs. We need to understand our responsibility for what is, and more than that, learn from them, and make every effort to fight what should not be.