One always wishes that Diwali should bring joys to the rich and poor alike. Yet, sometimes Diwali is merely an occasion to express the happiness whose reasons lie elsewhere. One such Diwali, which I witnessed as a journalist, is sketched in my memory for being different from all others. The episode is related to the work of a social organisation, Shramik Elgar, and the difficult times they were facing at that time. Paromita, who originally belongs to Kolkata and who came to Chandrapur after working briefly in Mumbai, is today well-known to us, but this was not the case in 2000. I met her when she was working on the case of Chinna Mattami (a tribal boy killed in police encounter) and later we became good friends. Paromita helped to form Shramik Elgar as a forum to raise social issues and Chinna’s case became famous. The organisation selected the villages in Mul block as its work-area. This area is represented by Shobhatai Phadnavis as the sitting MLA. Shobhatai became uncomfortable at the entrance of a young Bengali woman in the rural area, who raised issues of the poor, the agitations for the rights of the marginalised and at the growing number of youths who joined Paromita in the struggles. Shobhatai calculated that if the popularity of the organisation grew it could potentially undermine her political dominance in the area.
Meanwhile, Paromita and Shramik Elgar, continued to work oblivious of the apprehensions they had caused in the mind of the MLA. In 2002 the organisation brought forward the case of Vishwanath Shende, a bonded labourer, and demanded his release and rehabilitation. This created a good deal of trouble for the District Collector, J.P. Gupta. Shobhatai took this opportunity and gave a written complaint to the District Collector in which she alleged that Paromita was working for Naxalites and her organisation was helping anti-national elements. The District Collector, who was already angry, immediately reported the matter to the central home ministry and brought out a public notice that no person or organisation should make any donations to Shramik Elgar. Apart from this, the district administration initiated independent enquiries against the organisation. Certain newspapers started a series of articles portraying Paromita as a Naxalite. Paromita, who was sincere in her efforts, and her colleagues started to feel the pressure. Even ordinary people started to look upon her with suspicion because she was a Bengali. All donations to the organisation came to a halt. The IB started an enquiry on the orders of the home ministry. Some of us feared that the organisation formed by the youths would be crushed by the politician-bureaucrat nexus.
At that time Loksatta decided to stand by the organisation. In March 2002, I wrote more than one articles clarifying that there were no linkages between the Naxalites and this organisation. Some other journalist friends also wrote in her support, yet the atmosphere of suspicion created by the district administration refused to be dispelled. If a District Collector so wishes he can find many ways to harass a person, because the District Collector enjoys enormous powers. Under the garb of enquiries, the district administration started to find ways to harass the organisation – from making activists sit for the whole day without doing anything under the pretext of hearings, checking account books, interviewing activists about family background, to demanding the definition of Naxalism. All this was aimed to demoralise the young people who were committed in their desire to work for the poor. On the one hand ordinary people started to keep a distance from the organisation which hampered their work and saddened them, and on the other hand the gruelling enquiries continued endlessly.
Finally, Paromita decided to file a writ petition in the High Court where she pleaded that the district administration was violating her rights, maligning her purposefully with the intention of destroying her as well as the organisation. She agreed to submit herself to in-depth enquiries with the only condition that these should be completed within a time-frame and she should be given justice. The High Court at Nagpur admitted her writ petition with an interim order passed in July directing the central, state and district administrations to file the findings of the their respective enquiries. Paromita and her colleagues had, in the meanwhile, decided on a wait-and-watch policy till the court arrived at a conclusion. As weeks passed, it pained me to see the change in the young activists from a energetic and lively group to an increasingly withdrawn one. Paromita or her colleague Vijay would phone me up as a rule to inform me about the happenings in the High Court at each hearing. In November 2002, the central government filed its enquiry report before the High Court in which it gave a ‘clean chit’ to Paromita and her organisation on all counts. The report brought the District Collector J.P. Gupta to his senses. In his own enquiries he had not found any anomalies to present before the High Court. This final hearing on the a few days before Diwali brought back great happiness on the faces of the activists of Shramik Elgar. After the report of the central government was filed, the High Court asked the district administration if they had any objections. The district administration had no objections and the court passed final orders on the same day. Loksatta reported the matter prominently the next day. Soon thereafter, J.P.Gupta paid a visit to the organisation and presented the Certificate of Release to Vishwanath Shende at a public function. In his speech he described Paromita as a person who was sincerely working for the poor and even said she was like a sister to him! I can never forget the joy and sense of achievement with which Paromita and her friends celebrated the day.
The victory in High Court, the sea change in the District Collector’s attitude and the positive reports in the media only increased the public credibility of the organisation putting all suspicions at rest. After this, Shobhatai never opened her mouth on the issue. Slowly she realised that Paromita’s ambitions were not political and she too change her mind over the years. These days if the two ever meet on the same dais they exchange polite courtesies. Recently, when Paromita raised the issue of the gaps in the Forest Rights Act, Shobhatai suggested that they both should work together. I have noticed how the intervening years have reduced the bitterness between the two.
Indeed there are very few people who sincerely work with a social consciousness. The backlash against such persons or organisations puts their patience and courage to test. The way in which Paromita and her organisation crossed the river of fire made the Diwali of 2002 an unforgettable one for me.
(Devendra Gawande, the writer of this article, is a very senior journalist. He is the district correspondent of Loksatta and member of the State Accreditation Committee for Journalists. He can be reached at 9822467714.)