When Shameem Modi was granted bail by the Madhya Pradesh High Court two days ago, after 21 days in jail, it was a sweet but hard-won victory. The demand for her arrest had come from the Harda Industries Association and Vyapari Sangh, following her involvement in the struggle of saw mill workers and hamaals (coolies) of Harda, who have been denied minimal legal entitlements. Shameem was up against the nexus between politicians and forest mafia; a battle she and her activist husband Anurag have got used to.
In 1990, after completing her M Phil from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and getting a job with Oxfam, Shameem traveled to tribal areas in MP. “Having lived in Mumbai and Delhi I had never seen how people live in rural areas. What I saw there was a revelation of sorts and I realised that independence is only in name and somebody has to take up the cause of marginalised sections,” she says.
In 1994 she met Anurag while working among tribals displaced by the Bargi Dam on the Narmada river and got married the same year. From 1994 to 2003, they worked in Shahpur, a hamlet in MP’s Betul district, where they set up a night school for tribal children and then moved to Harda.
In 2003, Shameem’s activism took another form when she jumped into the political arena. “We had set up the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan to educate and provide aid for tribals but felt change can be brought about only through direct political participation,” explains Anurag. So the Samajwadi Jan Parishad was set up. Shameem, its vice-president, has contested three elections — two assembly and one parliamentary.
With three electoral defeats, 10 criminal cases, three trips to jail and a perceptibly hostile government, what keeps Shameem’s spirit going? “The government has sent her to jail on trumped up charges three times at the behest of a powerful politician-businessman nexus. So our work must be affecting those who exploit tribals and workers. That’s our victory and that’s what keeps us going,” says Anurag.