Chattisgarh: Veteran Human Rights Activist Rajendra Sail Passes Away

A 'giant of a man', Sail was regarded as 'a rare institution builder and a great friend of social movements across India'.

New Delhi: Veteran human rights activist and former president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) Chhattisgarh chapter, Rajendra Sail passed away this Sunday afternoon. According to a friend of Sail’s, he had suffered from a massive heart attack and a paralytic stroke in November last year. Since then, his mobility had been curtailed.

Several senior activists, lawyers and journalists have expressed their grief at his sudden demise, terming it a big loss for human rights in India, especially in Chhattisgarh.

According to Raipur-based Dalit rights activist, Dr. Goldy M. George, Sail was one of the doyens of the human rights movement and one of the earlier members of PUCL, which was founded by Jai Prakash Narain. Sail served as its national organising secretary from early 1980s until the late 1990s.

“His association with rural bonded labor led to the popular case on bonded labor in the Supreme Court of India in the 1980s, which eventually led to the release of nearly 25,000 Dalit bonded labourers in Chhattisgarh. Later on, he became the Supreme Court-appointed Commissioner on bonded labor issues,” George wrote in a social media post.

Apart from PUCL, Sail was associated with several other organisations working in the field of human rights and social justice. He played a central role in the formation of the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), a confederation of people’s movements in India.

Rajendra Sail along with Irfan Engineer, Dr. Goldy M George and others. Photo: Facebook

Speaking to The Wire, senior activist and one of the founders of INSAF, Anil Chaudhary said, “Sail was a rare institution builder and a great friend of social movements across India. He was rare because he never compromised on saving an institution or an organisation, or building it at the cost of people’s rights, as we often see in the development sector.”

As per Chaudhary, Sail was a fiercely anti-establishment activist and his office was always open for ordinary people. It also doubled up as a co-working space for activists, workers, rights activists and ordinary people.

“He was always approachable and would speak his mind out without mincing any words,” Raipur based senior journalist Alok Putul told The Wire. “When no one was willing to speak on the plight of Adivasis in Bastar due to Salwa Judum, he took on to the establishment holding the state government,” recalled Putul.

According to Putul, there will not be anymore Sails as he was a rare activist in the state, a true comrade of legendary trade union activist Shahkar Guha Niyogi. For his bold take on issues, he had to pay a heavy price. In May 2007, Sail was arrested by the sate police in connection with a contempt of court case.

In April 2005, the Supreme Court had sentenced Sail for contempt of court, which arose out of his statements in the wake of the acquittal of accused of Shanker Guha Niyogi by the MP high court at Jabalpur in June 1998. It can also be recalled that Sail led PUCL Chhattisgarh in its most difficult phase during the 2000s, when its then general secretary Dr. Binayak Sen was arrested and charged with sedition.

As per his associates, Sail was also instrumental in the recent struggles for demilitarisation of Bastar in Chhattisgarh and played a key role in drafting PUCL’s proposed bill on the protection of journalists working in the state that was submitted to the government of Chhattisgarh and the memorandum for the release of Adivasis falsely imprisoned under the pretext of being Maoist. In October last year, when The Wire reported about the draft legislation by the Chhattisgarh government to protect journalists, he took a special interest in it and translated it in Hindi so that it could be read by the public at large.

Recalling his association with Sail, former advocate general of Chhattisgarh Kanak Tiwari said, “He was a courageous and accommodative person. He would listen to criticism patiently.”

According to Tiwari, Sail also persuaded Niyogi to take up issues beyond his trade union work. “He was never afraid of anyone and was always ready to speak up for the people and against the violation of human rights,” he said, adding that his death is a big loss for the people of Chattisgarh.

Sail was also associated with the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and often fought for reform within the church and the community. According to senior activist and former president of the All India Catholic Council, Dr. John Dayal, Sail was a giant of a man. “He was not liked by everybody but he was a giant of a man and fought several battles within the community organisations and churches,” Dayal told The Wire. “He always insisted that the church should follow the true vision of the Christ, that is suffering with the poor and ‘only’ standing for them.”

Sail was 72 and is survived by his wife, Shashi Sail, who is also an activist, and two sons, Akshay and Agnay Sail – both lawyers.