India is days away from celebrating its 70th Independence Day: A remarkable journey for a large and diverse nation with a flourishing democracy that accords its citizens powerful social and economic freedoms.
Independence has helped people and communities to smash barriers of caste, class, gender, ability and faith and achieve their dreams. But structures of oppression persist, and many people languish in islands of darkness where freedoms are few and choices absent.
HT brings you stories from across our nation, of hope, courage and perseverance in “free India” that reflect the actual promise of independence, and of isolation, hate and despair that stalk the “unfree India” among our midst.
In Part 3, read about the inspiring story of an RTI activist story and about a woman who is fighting free India’s bane: Caste. Read RTI activist Kailash Mina’s story here:
It’s difficult to reach Kailash Mina after eight at night. An automated voice from the service provider greets people, saying the mobile is switched off.
But few know the reason behind this strange routine that Mina, an RTI activist, religiously follows.
“If my phone is kept functioning at night, the threats never stop, with the callers constantly hurling abuses at me. I get enough threats in the day to keep up with more in the night,” says Mina.
For the last two decades, Mina has been a lone ranger in Rajasthan’s Sikar, a major mining hub. His journey reveals the challenges of taking on powerful lobbies, but also the possibilities of civic action in free and democratic India.
It was in a bus in the early 1970s that Mina first experienced social discrimination.
“I had fever and my mother was taking me to the doctor in the nearest city when an upper caste family boarded the bus. My mother had to vacate her seat and sit on the floor because we were from the Mina caste, which is considered low,” he recalled.
This incident came back to haunt Mina in 1999, when children in Bhudoli village had their faces blackened and heads shaved by upper castes over a petty dispute.
“The kids were made to ride donkeys which circled the entire village. We helped organize a huge movement against it,” said Mina. He then got engaged in activism, and soon began using RTI.
In 2005, an RTI application by him revealed that hundreds of stone crushers were operating in Neem Ka Thana locality without approval, putting at risk people in nearby villages from the dust cloud that mining produced.
“Over 1,000 mines are operating in Neem Ka Thana area which has resulted in severe degradation of environment. Following our RTI application in 2005, we successfully managed to stop the government from acquiring land of the villagers for mining purposes after declaring it barren,” said Mina.
This, however, generated a backlash.
“I was standing a few feet away from Mina near Badiya Mod, when I saw around 7-8 men armed with iron rods attack him. If we hadn’t rushed to his aid, they would have killed him,” says agriculturist Chagan Singh.
Nobody was arrested for the assault as the police submitted a final report on the matter saying that no case could be made out.
The price of activism in an area dominated by the mining mafia is steep. Apart from the personal attacks and life threats, Mina also had to face the brunt of the law, resulting in close to two dozen cases on him.
“There would be times when I would sit on a dharna at a village and the police slapped cases on me saying that I was trying to grab the land and treat me as an encroacher,” said the activist.
His phone rings and a conversation in Marwari follows with Mina as he inquires whether work on a road being built near a Dalit settlement has started.
“The local administration had overlooked the Dalit colony when it came to building the road. This is what we are fighting against, the social discrimination,” said Mina.
The deep rumble of stone crushers can be heard as one drives along the serpentine roads leading up to the many clusters of mines that have been dug up in this area.
“Such is the clout of mining mafia that if the villagers object to the constant blasting that result in earthquake-like-situations every day, they call the police to silence the dissenters,” said Mahesh Saini, a 21-year-old associate of Mina, who too has now started facing threats.
As Mina and his associates inspect a mine barely a few hundred meters of Kansawati, a small water body flowing through the area, the stone crushing unit in front of him abruptly comes to a stop.
A few men with their faces covered throw furtive glances at Mina’s direction, still more than five hundred meters from the mining site.
“Now all the mine owners have been notified over phone that I am in the area, that too with journalists. We won’t see much mining action today now that they have got alerted,” said Mina.
But after thinking for a moment, he smiled wryly, “It seems that I will be getting more threatening calls than usual today evening. I will have to switch off the phone much earlier.”