A Munsif Magistrate Court at Kishangarh in Rajasthan convicted senior activist Nikhil Dey, Naurtibai, Ram Karan, Babulal and Chotu Lal Malakar, who are fighting corruption using the Right to Information (RTI) Act. All the activists are associated with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and were demanding information from the Sarpanch of Harmada panchayat in Rajasthan in May 1998.
In a statement, Aruna Roy from MKSS says, "We are deeply disappointed by the verdict...19 years after the first information report (FIR) was filed, Nikhil, Naurtibai (former Sarpanch of Harmada), Ram Karan, Babulal and Chotu Lal have been convicted in an utterly false case filed by the a corrupt powerful Sarpanch who misused his influence and power and who had himself physically assaulted them for demanding information. This was a case where the activists were fighting for the rights of the poor, through means that were completely within the ambit of the law. The process of this case that has continued for almost two decades, and the final decision, is a body blow to the effort of citizens to fight corruption and stand up for the rights of the citizen. It is a clear case of miscarriage of justice."
The sentence has been suspended pending an appeal to be filed by the four activists in the ADJ Court at Kishangarh in Ajmer district.
MKSS says it will leave no stone unturned to bring out the whole truth of this case, and along with the transparency and accountability movement in the country. "We will not allow vested interests to misuse the law to suppress the voice of people demanding transparency, and demands for justice by the poor," it added.
The decision of the court pertains to an incident, which occurred when the RTI activists made a demand for information from the local Sarpanch in response to large number of complaints of corruption in development works in Harmada Panchayat. MKSS says, "The corruption allegations were against the Sarpanch - Pyarelal - a liquor contractor of the village. These included payments for toilets, Indira Awaas houses, and labour payments for development works, that had not been made to the beneficiaries."
On 6 May 1998, the activists went to ask for information from the Sarpanch of Harmada, carrying with them a letter from the block development officer (BDO). "Since his (Sarpanch's) office was usually closed during working hours, the activists went to his house to deliver the letter from the BDO. It is then that the Sarpanch came out of his house and physically assaulted the activists present."
"Despite this violence, MKSS activists decided not to file an FIR, thinking that Right to Information cannot depend on police cases, and that it had to depend on dialogue with the Sarpanch and the exercise of a legal right under the Panchayati Raj Act. On 6 May 1998, when the activists were assaulted, there was no one apart from the activists and the Sarpanch and his immediate family members present on the spot."
On the same day, Aruna Roy of the MKSS wrote to the Collector noting the incident and asking that the Collector to ensure that information would be given by the Sarpanch.
On the 8 May 1998, the Sarpanch filed an FIR accusing the activists of assaulting him. On the same day, Naurtibai, disturbed by his slurs and violence towards her, had also filed a case against the Sarpanch under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
The case filed by the Sarpanch was closed on the 30 June 1998 and for several years, nothing happened. On 5 July 2001, the very same case was revived once again. Since then the case has carried on with the Sarpanch producing false witness, after false witness, it says.
"This case is yet another reminder of the backlash and attack that RTI activists consistently face when challenging entrenched centres of power," MKSS concluded.
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