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Activists under attack

They’ve been threatened and assaulted. Their cars have been smashed, their property vandalised. And, for the most part, they have had precious little help from the police when it comes to protection from goons, reports Mini Pant Zachariah.

mumbai Updated: Jan 25, 2010 00:54 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah

They’ve been threatened and assaulted. Their cars have been smashed, their property vandalised. And, for the most part, they have had precious little help from the police when it comes to protection from goons.

But they’re toughened Mumbaiites and activists — violence cannot break their spirit or resolve.

And they continue to speak up against the injustices and illegalities that most of us quietly brush aside or, at best, have animated drawing-room discussions about.

Illegal construction, encroachment on public spaces, destruction of the environment, pollution — just some of the issues that these activists have fought at great personal risk.

Two of them, Nayana Kathpalia and Piyusha Mehta, have had attempts made on their lives but survived.

RTI activist and anti-corruption crusader Satish Shetty was not so lucky — he was killed on January 13 in Pune.

Leading MITRA (Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists), the organisation launched by Sumaira Abdulali, to become an intervener in the suo moto notice taken by Justice Rebello on the incidents of attacks on activist Shetty.

What will MITRA be up against? The stories of these four brave activists will illustrate.

Anandini Anand Thakoor, 80: Has fought illegal hoardings, unauthorised construction, hawkers encroaching on pavements

At 80, Anandini Anand Thakoor likes to describe herself as “still active, still working and still fighting”.

No small achievement given that a year ago, when she campaigned against illegal political hoardings in Khar, a 200-strong mob gathered at the Khar police station. The police feared they would attack her place next. The police preempted the attack, but the threat remains.

Two years ago when she tried to clear a garbage dump on 17th road in Khar, a mob from a nearby slum gheraoed her and told her to keep off.

“I was surrounded by all these people, many of them drunk. No one but my son came to help,” she recalls.

Around the same time when she protested against encroachments in the Khar gaonthan, her car was smashed and verbal threats of more violence followed.

But Thakoor carries on regardless. Among her earliest efforts was the rehabilitation of slumdwellers on the foot of Mount Mary Church under Adolf Tragler’s NGO, the Slum Rehabilitation Society, way back in 1975 when no one in the government had even thought of the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme.

Thakoor is the daughter of the much-loved local Samaritan Enna Perriera, who was popularly known as Mummy and even has a crossroad — Mummy Chowk — named after her in Bandra. Inspired by her mother’s work, she developed contacts with key departments like the police, telephone and of course, the BMC.

“They listen to me because I have established my credibility as one only interested in fighting what is against the law,” she says.

Thakoor says her struggle has been made possible thanks to the support of her mother-in-law and husband. “My son Anup, who has two small children, used to worry about me. But now he, too, has learnt that I can look after myself,” says this feisty lady.

Sumaira Abdulali, 48: Has fought against illegal sand mining in Alibaug; is the city’s most vocal crusader against noise pollution

In 2004, when Sumaira Abdulali decided to counter the illegal sand-mining mafia that was dredging the sand from the riverbeds and causing great ecological damage in Alibaug, she found no help forthcoming. “Instead of acting on my complaint, the authorities told me the police would take action only if I caught the culprits red-handed,” she recalls.

So Abdulali did just that. She caught the mafia in the act one night, informed the police, and blocked the miners’ escape route with her car. Three trucks and a bulldozer were in operation and before the police could arrive, the goons smashed Abdulali’s car and beat her up.

“That incident,” says Abdulali, “was only the tip of the iceberg. What lay beneath was the collusion of the authorities with the goons.” She filed a case of assault and illegal sand mining, but the latter charge was quietly dropped from the FIR. “It took me five years to get the sand-mining case back in the FIR,” she says.

Not surprising then, that Abdulali’s organisation, MITRA, has become an intervener in the suo moto action taken by Justice F.I. Rebello and Justice J.H. Bhatia in the Satish Shetty murder case.

But Abdulali also points out the perils of letting just anyone join the fight. “Some traders’ bodies and politicians trying to enter these groups. There is a threat that the activists’ movement may be hijacked by vested interests. Genuine activists need to be very vigilant about whose support they take.”

James John, 40: Has videotaped MNS vandalism, fought illegal tree-felling and water tapping in Andheri

In February 2008, ex-serviceman James John on his way home in Andheri, spotted Maharashtra Navnirman Sena men forcing shops in the area to shut down to protest the arrest of their leader Raj Thackeray. John decided to videotape the vandalism.

But the MNS activists saw him doing so, followed him and attacked him. “Three of my ribs were broken and I was laid up in bed for three months,” he recalls. “But nothing happened to those who attacked me.”

The broken ribs hurt but what aggravated him was the apathy of the police. “I told them that I was in acute pain but they paid no heed,” he says.

That was not the first time that John had been attacked, though. In 2005, when he tried to prevent some illegal tree felling in Andheri’s JB Nagar, he was told to lay off. “It took me eight hours to get an FIR registered against the goons,” he says.

A year later, when he protested against illegal water tapping at Chakala, he was beaten up. “But even before I could reach the police station, the miscreants had got there and threatened more violence if I went ahead with my protest,” says John.

In every case, John took the matter to higher authorities and all that he was offered was armed police guards. He says, “I am just a common citizen who wants the police to safeguard my rights as a citizen. The police is constitutionally responsible to do so.”

Hyginus Sylvester D’Lima, 75: Has fought encroachment, illegal razing, irregularities in SRA scheme

All Hyginus Sylvester D’Lima wants to do is protect his gaonthan, a little village that is a two-minute walk away from Andheri station, that has almost been lost to construction and encroachment.

D’Lima got a stay order against the illegal razing of the gaonthan’s House No. 77 in November 2004. But his celebration was short-lived because, within three months of the order, he was attacked with a sickle. “I would most certainly have died had I not put up a fight and chased away the attacker,” he recalls.

D’Lima managed to call the police before he fell unconscious that day, and since then has been trying to get his attackers booked. To no avail. When he found that the police had closed the case without his knowledge, he filed an RTI application in 2007. Though the case has been revived, there is no action forthcoming, he rues.

Last year, D’Lima filed a case against the sanction for a SRA Scheme in the area, which according to him has been fraudulently acquired. “Three months ago, I got an anonymous letter saying that an influential politician was out to have me bumped off. But I continue to fight,” he says. Though the residents of his gaonthan are sympathetic, they’re afraid to be seen talking to him.