Rights

Himachal RTI Activist's Murder – a Landmark Case in the Fight for Social Equality?

In September, RTI activist Kedar Singh Jindan was brutally murdered in a corner of Himachal Pradesh in a case that shines some light on the continuing efforts of the upper castes to strangle voices of dissent.

It has been a little more than a month since the small hill state of Himachal Pradesh was stunned by the brutal murder of Right to Information activist Kedar Singh Jindan in the remote trans Giri area of Sirmaur district.

In the weeks since, what has come to light is that the case is not just a simple murder that arose from a personal vendetta. Instead, it is a case that reflects the injustice Dalits and other marginalised communities continue to bear in the district that is amongst the most under developed and under reported in the country. The Jindan case is also a pointer to the continuing efforts of the upper castes and classes to strangle voices of dissent that have spoken up in favour of the downtrodden.

In fact, as it seems, the Jindan murder may just prove to be a landmark case in the journey of activists fighting towards strengthening RTI in the country.

An investigation by an independent fact-finding team that released its report on October 13 underlines the socio-economic and socio-political reasons that make this case fit to be probed by a central agency like the Central Bureau of Investigation and the National Human Rights Commission.

Kedar Singh Jindan.

Jindan was brutally assaulted and then run over by a SUV multiple times in the first week of September. Though it was initially written off as an accident, the police eventually arrested three persons for murder.

The October 13 report, titled ‘The moment of reckoning’, by the fact finding team underlines, “The chilling incident is an unprecedented one in the recent history of Himachal Pradesh.”

The report says the murder was not just a well-planned move to silence an activist who had uncovered several cases of corruption but was also an extension of the caste-based violence and discrimination in the region.

Also read: With Attack on Himachal Man, Number of Murdered RTI Activists Rises to 73

While the state capital was rocked by protests by concerned citizens and activists, Sirmaur witnessed protests by upper castes. “The rallies organized by the Rajput Sabhas of the area immediately after the murder, calling for dropping of the charges under Section 302 IPC (murder) and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) Prevention of Atrocities Act made it evident that the issue was polarised and in such an atmosphere the investigation could be manipulated,” the report says. Members of progressive organisations from Sirmaur, that were protesting in Shimla and elsewhere, were threatened and told to not to come back home.

A member of the Koli (SC) community from Shilai village of Sirmaur, Jindan had been vocal and active on many social issues, mainly caste-based discrimination against Dalits and other marginalised communities. This put him in the public eye and in November 2017, it led to an attack on his life, one which he survived.

The report points out that although allotment of land under the land ceiling, land reforms and Nautodi (common lands) scheme has played an important role in pulling up the Dalits from abject poverty, they continue to face exploitation as social customs and distribution and ownership of resources are still tilted in favour of the upper castes – mostly Thakurs.

It is in this context that one has to understand the growing demand to declare the trans-Giri region as a scheduled area since the practices of the community who refer to themselves as ‘Hattee’ are considered to still be customary in nature.

Also read: As Number of Murdered RTI Activists Rises to 67, It Is the Modi Government That Needs to ‘Act Rightly’

This demand led by a ‘Hattee Samiti’ has been supported by the political representatives of the area and was the plank of the BJP in the 2014 elections.

“However, it needs to be noted that the demand for the ‘Scheduled Tribe’ status has been questioned and denied recommendation by the Office of the Registrar General of India (ORGI) in December 2017. It had made it clear that ‘Hattee’ is a term used to describe the people of ‘Giripar’ in general and there is no ethnographic documentation on such a tribe,” the report states.

ORGI’s correspondence to the state government reportedly said that the ‘Hattees’ comprise Rajputs, Brahmins as well as other communities like the Kolis and Badhais, classified as SCs. It underlines that Rajputs and Brahmins are not STs.

ORGI also made a reference to the caste-based traditional practices of the Hattee community. It pointed to ‘Khumbli Panchayat’ which is a local decision making and dispute resolution body of the upper castes almost always headed by Brahmins. The report mentions that there is another ‘Khap’ like body called ‘Chontru’ dominated by Rajputs.

Sirmaur district. Credit: Google Maps

“If the government accedes to this demand, it needs to be understood that the rights of the SC communities in the area will be completely compromised as they will be placed in the same category as the others who are, in fact, the more socially and economically dominant castes in the area,” the fact-finding report says.

The upper castes saw Jindan as a threat for opposing practices like bonded labour, casteist slurs and sexual exploitation of Dalit women.

He had exposed corruption in government schools where teachers were subletting their teaching jobs. On June 29, 2018, Jindan had filed a case with Anti Corruption Bureau exposing irregularities in providing Below Poverty Line (BPL) certificates in his village. He alleged that a top village functionary Jai Prakash (prime accused in his murder) of the Bakras panchayat had used his position to illegally obtained BPL certificates for his well-to-do relatives through which they were appointed in government jobs. These relatives lost their jobs for which they held Jindan responsible.

This is seen as the trigger behind his murder for which three persons were arrested. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) is investigating murder and charges under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Jindan’s family and civil society organisations want the police to press charges of criminal conspiracy.

Apprehending political influence in the outcome, his wife Hemlata wants the CBI to take over the investigations.

The fact finding report says, “Our observations from various discussions make it obvious that this was not just an incident of personal vendetta but one of planned targeting of an activist by the dominant community because he was a member of the Dalit community.”

It points out that some of the dominant caste groups defending the murder is a clear sign of deep seated caste discriminatory practices carrying on in the trans Giri region.

Also read: Himachal School Asks Dalit Students to Sit Outside During Modi’s ‘Pariksha Par Charcha’

“We are shocked that such an incident could occur in a state like Himachal but this also shows that there is an increasing normalisation of violence in the society around us. It reflects the vulnerability of people who challenge the status quo or expose those who are powerful even at the village level. Kedar Singh Jindan is the 73rdperson to be killed for using the RTI Act for exposing corruption in the country. The team also observed that the ruling government in the state and the local MLA were silent on the matter and had not issued any statement of condemnation of this brutal killing,” the report underlines.

The report recommends that the state government and the investigative agencies will have to ensure that no effort is spared to bring to justice the murderers of Jindan in order to even begin to address the issue. The government will have to draw out an action plan to hold accountable and make transparent the functioning of all government schemes as well as monitor the governance mechanisms in the area and the state. The other part of the long term action plan would have to address the social and economic inequities of the region.

It has been sought that a high-court monitored investigation be handed over to CBI to unearth the wider conspiracy besides pressing the charge of criminal conspiracy. A probe has also been sought in relation to the inaction by the police in all the previous matters raised by Jindan.

The report has further sought safety for Jindan’s family and a government job for his widow besides expediting monetary compensation under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2016. A joint independent investigation by the NHRC, National Commission for Scheduled Castes, Central Information Commission has also been called for along with protection to the eye-witnesses till the conclusion of the trial.

The long term measures suggested are regularisation of land with Dalits and redressal of caste violence through regular monitoring, initiating a campaign against untouchability and atrocities. The activists have also called for an exclusion free Trans Giri river region and no consideration for the area to be declared as Scheduled Area.

Rajeev Khanna has been a reporter for the last 23 years with special interest in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat politics, and has worked in print, radio, TV and online media.