Bhopal: On May 13, 2012, a few weeks before his death, Sitaram Rao Shendiya placed his thumb impression on a single page affidavit instead of signing it. The affidavit declared that during his detention in Central Jail in Jabalpur from August 8, 1975 to March 21, 1977, several villagers of Bansa were also lodged in an adjoining barrack.
Like many others, Sitaram had been detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) during the Emergency. As a result, since June 2008, he had been entitled to a pension under the Loknayak Jaiprakash Narayan (MISA/DIR Political Detenues) Samman Nidhi Rules introduced by the then-chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan. At the time, the scheme offered a pension of Rs 6,000 a month to anyone jailed for over six months for political reasons. Those jailed for three to six months would receive Rs 3,000. Over time, the pension for both categories would be hiked to Rs 25,000.
Sitaram endorsed the affidavit on May 13, 2012. Notary Singhal Ramesh Chand Jain added a special mention that the person (pledge-holder) affixed his thumb impression due to old age.
Sitaram passed away three weeks later, on June 3 – leaving several new people entitled to the detenus’ pension, and many questions about who they are.
For over a decade, activists allege, the state government had modified the rules, allowing more and more fraudulent beneficiaries to draw the pension meant exclusively for those who suffered unjustly during the Emergency.
On this premise, on December 29, 2018, the newly-elected Congress state government decided to suspend the Samman Nidhi pension entirely.
Between 2008 and 2018, the Samman Nidhi Rules 2008 underwent several changes. The amount was hiked three times. Finally, in 2016, the state government notified that anyone jailed for more than a month during Emergency would receive Rs 25,000, and those jailed for less than a month Rs 8,000.
In 2017, a controversy erupted when Union minister Thawar Chand Gehlot said that he got Rs 25,000 although he had spent only 13 days in jail. In response, the Chouhan government simply abolished the distinction and declared all detainees equal beneficiaries.
The rules also changed over time. In 2008, applicants had to submit proof of their time in jail under MISA or DIR, which would be crosschecked with jail and police records. But some claimants said they had no proof of detention; the rules were changed and applicants only had to get two existing beneficiaries to attest that they were in jail or police custody.
Finally, the rules were amended so that anyone who could provide reasonable evidence of having spent even a day in jail during the period qualified for the pension.
In June 2018, a few months ahead of the state polls, the Chouhan government turned the scheme into a law, the Loktantantra Senani Samman Adhiniyam 2018, passed in the Madhya Pradesh assembly’s summer session.
These changes in rules have helped questionable candidates, like the villagers of Bansa, claim these benefits. Santosh Bharti, an anti-corruption activist and a MISA detainee, alleges that the BJP allowed this – and even allowed “hardcore criminals” to take advantage of the scheme.
“The then-chief minister and now vice-president of BJP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan is not unaware of the situation. That’s impossible,” Bharti said. “As per jail records of Damoh district, 32 people were imprisoned under MISA Act. But with the Chouhan government twisting the rules, 136 people became MISA detainees and have been drawing pensions from the treasury. It is wrong to claim that all MISA detainees are fraud and fake, but something smells fishy.”
According to information from the Damoh Collectorate, the 136 names include history-sheeters like Majid Miya, a resident of Civil Ward No 5.
On December 29, last year, the newly-elected Congress government decided to suspend the scheme. “There is a need to make current Samman Nidhi payment procedure more accurate and transparent to stop this trend. Along with this, physical verification of Loktantra Senanis is also required. Directives in detail will be issued separately in this connection,” wrote Dharmendra Kumar Jain, deputy secretary, general administration, in an official to divisional commissioners and district collectors.
“Through this pension scheme, the BJP govt was feeding senior RSS leaders since 2008,” the state Congress’s media In-charge, Shobha Ojha, told reporters in December. “This squandering of public money must stop when the state has a debt of Rs 1.86 lakh crore.”
One government official told The Wire that this decision followed an accounts-audit report from the accountant general, which said that the amount spent on the Samman Nidhi was in excess of its budget provision over the last few fiscal years.
He said the state government cannot explain the over-expenditure to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), in order to request new budgetary provision. The PAC recommends presenting the bill once again to regularise the expenditure.
The BJP has lashed out, accusing Kamal Nath’s Congress government of undoing welfare schemes.
The Loktantra Senani Sangh (LSS), an umbrella organisation of Maintenance of Internal Security Act detenus’, also held a meeting at the state BJP headquarters earlier this month. According to LSS, approximately 2,226 people were drawing benefits in the state.
“After our protest, the state government has announced it will release payment of pension to those detained during the Emergency, after the physical verification exercise gets over,” LSS president Tapan Bhowmick told The Wire.
Bhowmick, who until a few days ago was calling the suspension of the pension an anti-democratic act of political vindictiveness, is now repeating the same words as the new government’s December 29, 2018 order.