SPECIAL STORY: Her Prison

So who is Madhuri Krishnaswamy and why is she in jail?
Kavita Srivastava Delhi

 

CJM, Barwani: Don’t you want to be represented by a lawyer?  

Madhuri: No.

CJM, Barwani: Do you want a lawyer from the legal aid?

Madhuri: No.

CJM, Barwani: Don’t you want to file a bail application? Or else, I will have to remand you for two weeks till the 30th in a prison.

Madhuri: ‘For a country in shackles the rightful place of a free citizen is in jail’: Mahatma Gandhi (Gulam desh ke swatantra nagrik ki sahi jagah jail hi hai.) 

On May 16, 2013, in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s (CJM) court, Madhuri Krishnaswamy preferred “to suffer the rigours of jail life rather than submit to unjust and undemocratic laws”. (Quote from Dr Dadoo and Naicker, Gandhi’s disciples in the struggle for freedom in South Africa). Her relentless non-violent struggle has become a political landmark in a country where the rights of the poor are routinely crushed and justice eternally seems far away.

What played out in the Barwani court can only be called Kafkaesque. Madhuri was arrested after the CJM, Barwani, rejected the closure report filed by the Silwad police station and converted it into a chargesheet of a false case made out against her in 2008. The old incident tells a story. Ordinary people and other members of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) had then protested against the dehumanizing and abysmal public health services and the denial of safe delivery to Baniya Bai of Sukhpuri in Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh. This was their crime.

On November 11, 2008, 21-year-old Baniya Bai, pregnant wife of Iddiya, of Sukhpuri village, was brought for her first delivery to the primary health centre (PHC), Medimata, after a 15-km journey on a bullock cart. The next day, on November 12, the PHC compounder, Vijay Chauhan, and nurse, Nirmala, allegedly demanded a bribe of Rs 100. As Baniya Bai and her parents-in-law were unable to pay the bribe, she was thrown out of the PHC. Baniya Bai delivered her child on the road opposite the PHC gate. A local tribal and traditional midwife, Jambai Nana, assisted in the delivery.

Madhuri and other members of JADS heard about the incident. She arranged for a vehicle to transport Baniya Bai and the child to Silawad Hospital for treatment. In the meantime, local people gathered and protested against the callous and inhuman treatment meted out to Baniya Bai. Women knew this repetitive story; this was a routine affair in the area.

Instead of arresting the compounder and nurse for criminal negligence, the Silawad police station went along with the fabricated case filed against Madhuri and five other members of her organization by Vijay Chauhan, the in-charge of the Medimata PHC, on November 12, 2001. They were charged with causing hurt and obstructing PHC staff from discharging their duty (Sec 353 and Sec 332, IPC), indulging in a riotous act (Sec 147 IPC), causing damage of more than Rs 50 in the PHC (Section 427) and under Sections 3 and 4 of the Madhya Pradesh Chikitsak Tatha Chikitsa Seva Se Sambadh Vyaktiyon Ki Suraksha Vidheyak, 2008 — which makes any act of violence or threat to medical personnel a cognizable and non-bailable offence. 

The police arrested two members of the Sangathan in 2010; after a few months in jail they were released on bail. The police in its investigation only took statements of the PHC staff like the ward boy and male nurses. They never cared to examine the versions of the affected woman or her in-laws, or other ordinary people, and instead made Iddiya, the husband of Baniya Bai, an accused. Iddiya, incidentally, was not even at the spot that day.

The compounder was suspended. He was reinstated later, despite protests. He was keen to save his job and let his false version prevail. So he challenged the closure report which categorically said that the people’s outrage was spontaneous since the woman had delivered in the open, and there was no premeditated attack. Thereby, the case ought to be closed.  

The CJM, instead of protecting the civil liberties of Madhuri and members of the JADS, decided to reverse the closure on extremely shaky grounds and took cognisance of the case for trial. The procedure laid out for taking cognisance of the case was not followed by the CJM, making both the chargesheet and the remand order of Madhuri illegal and unjust. Civil society activists have pointed to a possible nexus of the police, local administration and lower judiciary in undermining the basic constitutional rights of Madhuri
and others.

What was also ignored by the CJM was that the case has been documented in various government and civil society reports on the condition of maternal health services in district Barwani and was also part of the petition before the Indore bench of the MP High Court (Dunabai v State of MP, W.P.(PIL) No 5097 of 2011) that is looking into 29 maternal deaths within nine months in Barwani District Hospital. On May 15, the matter came up for hearing when the High Court pulled up the state government for the neglect and suffering caused to women due to the denial of basic health services. Madhuri had assisted the court whenever clarity was required.

The JADS is now protesting outside all police stations in the area. A huge rally was staged, demanding the withdrawal of cases against Madhuri and others; they also demanded improvement in health services. A national campaign of civil society organizations is currently demanding that these false cases be dropped, maternal care services for all women in MP should be ensured, and Madhuri should be released unconditionally.

So who is Madhuri and why is the State so afraid of her?

 The externment notice was the beginning of intensified attacks. This was followed by a vilification campaign when a newspaper published a story that the district collector of Barwani had alleged that JADS had Maoist links

Madhuri Krishnaswamy was born and brought up in Delhi. Daughter of (retired) Air Vice Marshal Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy, she was a student of history at St Stephen’s College, New Delhi. She did her Masters from Delhi University’s Department of History. She was doing her PhD from Delhi University when she gave it all up to work in the slums of Delhi. Having seen the abysmal living and work conditions of rural migrants in Delhi’s slums and after hearing their stories of distress and desperation, she felt that she had to work at the original source, to save villages and stop destitute migration. When I asker her two years ago as to why she did not finish her PhD, she said that she did not want to get trapped in the top levels of policy-making and always wanted to work to influence and mobilize policy at the margins and the grassroots.

She came to Barwani district (then part of Khargone district) in 1996, and worked with the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan where she realized that there was immense potential in the local adivasi leadership leading their own struggles. Thereby, the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan was formed with Dalits and adivasis of the area.

The Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan is a membership-based mass organization of several thousand families. Its members have been campaigning for 15 years for the realization of the constitutional and legal rights of adivasis in Barwani, one of the most backward districts of the country. The main focus has been to campaign for effective implementation of government schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Supreme Court order for all the food schemes like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and Old Age Pension. The JADS also ensures proper health care delivery, fights for the rights of the gram sabhas under PESA and the Panchayati Raj Act following the 73rd and 74th Amendments, and the Forest Rights Act. It also mobilizes support against the sale of ‘illegal liquor’.

With its protracted hard work, the organization is fighting the ritualistic exploitation of adivasis and violence against them by officials and traders, including rampant corruption and non-performance in government schemes.

In 2006, JADS was the first organization in the country to ensure that MNREGA workers who have applied for work are paid unemployment allowance by the district magistrate — for violating the law and not
providing employment.

Madhuri and JADS are connected to various struggle groups, networks and unions inside and outside the state. They have played an important role in pushing the boundaries of recent laws. For instance, in the case of the Forests Rights Act, the Land Acquisition Bill and the Food Security Bill, it was their clarity and vision which helped multiple campaigns to raise the bar of debate. Their stoic, untiring and incredible work and breakthroughs, and concrete achievements, have become a landmark in the peaceful people’s movements in the country.

 Daughter of a (retired) Air Vice Marshal, she was a student of History at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. She did her Masters from Delhi University’s Department of History. She was doing her PhD when she gave it all up to work in the slums of Delhi

Exactly a year ago, in May 2012, we were all dismayed when the Barwani district administration issued showcause notices under Section 8(1) of the MP State Security Act, 1990, to Madhuri, thus beginning the proceedings for externment (zila badar) from the districts of Barwani and nearby six districts. The overt reasons for the showcause notice was that the agitations by JADS are “obstructing the government’s public welfare and developmental schemes” and are “striking fear and terror in the minds of government officials thus affecting government work” and that government officials and the public  feel “terrorized and insecure” as a result of their “criminal activities”; or, that their activities are “criminal, anti-social and anti-public welfare”, and Madhuri is “misleading innocent adivasis”. The notice lists all the criminal cases filed against Madhuri by the administration from 1999 to 2010 as evidence.

Clearly, the criminal cases against Madhuri and her comrades were filed to quell the protests and to help vested interests. Since even false cases could not frighten JADS, externment was used as a new terror tactic to ‘teach them a lesson’.

Of the cases cited as proof of “habitual criminality”, JADS members have been exonerated in all but two cases which are still pending in court. Four cases are still “under investigation” (ranging from two to six years!) — the police have still not made up their mind whether to prosecute or not! Externment proceedings are supposedly meant for “habitual criminals”.  It’s a dark irony. In an area where the entrenched liquor, mining and timber mafia are flourishing, where public funds are being embezzled with impunity to the extent that adivasis are denied even their due wages and paltry rations, where money meant for hospital drugs and equipment is being embezzled, those fighting for constitutional
rights and legality are called “habitual criminals”.

Local BJP leaders and the MLA are allegedly behind the externment notice. They have repeatedly been demanding that Madhuri be externed. The externment notice also cites one event led by BJP office-bearers and MLAs (with Congress participation!) called ‘Madhuri Bhagao Abhiyan’ in which they threatened in a written memorandum that if the administration did not do zila badar they would do it themselves. Interestingly, this ‘rally’ was held after a week-longdharna by JADS in July 2006, demanding proper implementation and transparency in MNREGA projects. It was after this dharna that over 1,500 JADS members were awarded unemployment allowance — for the first time in the country.

The externment notice was the beginning of intensified attacks. This was followed by a vilification campaign in January when a local newspaper published a story that the district collector of Barwani had alleged that JADS had Maoist links and that the chief secretary had asked the home commissioner to look into these charges. Indeed, the next day itself, the Inspector General of Indore refuted these allegations.

Later, the reason behind the story was exposed. The district collector’s role in the Rs 150 crore MNREGA scam was being examined by the Union ministry of rural development. This was exposed by JADS. Thus, the collector used false allegations to hound JADS, including branding them as Maoists. Now, another chargesheet has been filed, she has been arrested, and a five-year-old case has been revived.

In MP, under the BJP regime (as it is in Chhattisgarh), it has become a norm to send activists to jail under false charges. The plethora of cases against activists like Dr Sunilam, Aradhana Bharagava, Shamim Modi, Medha Patkar, Madhuri, Silvy and tribal and Dalit activists is evidence. There is stunning disregard for human or constitutional rights. Indeed, as the political establishment gears up for elections in the state, it deeply resents a questioning, critical, confident and politically aware adivasi and Dalit population. Clearly, the attacks are only going to continue, even while the struggle becomes more resilient and spreads its wings.   

The writer is National Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2013