Can you estimate the price of the freedom we enjoy today? Naturally, our thoughts drift back to the freedom fighters we have learned about in our school textbooks. Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Tantia Tope, Maulana Azad, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru… it’s a long and illustrious roster of names that age cannot fade. They live on in textbooks, contemporary media and, from time to time, propaganda.

Yet, we take our freedom for granted. Or forget, in the throes of being free, that freedom for some is not freedom for all. Freedom from colonial rule does not equal freedom from social ills, or corruption, or degradation of moral fabric. For our society, the war for freedom is an ongoing one. 

An anniversary, by definition, is a time for remembering. As we approach Free India’s 67th birthday, we remember the freedom fighters whom we most tend to forget – those everyday men and women whose lives were sacrificed so that others may be free. While we ought to take no credit away from heroes immemorial, let’s crank our memories back to the ones we have let disappear into the cracks.

Even before the Right to Information Act came into force in 2005, an early whistleblower paid the price for his honesty and courage. Indian Institute of Technology alumnus Satyendra Dubey, a project director with the National Highways Authority of India, managed the Aurangabad-Barachatti section of National Highway 1, better known as the Grand Trunk Road. The highway was part of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral Corridor Project. Dubey suspended three engineers for serious financial irregularities. He also had the contractor rebuild a six-kilometer stretch of highway. Dubey also observed that the firm contracted to construct the highway was subcontracting work to low-skilled agencies. His complaints to higher-ups yielded no response. When Dubey wrote directly to the Prime Minister he was reprimanded for the “impropriety” of his act but went on to secure a promotion and used his additional responsibility to expose more corruption in the project. As he returned from a wedding on the night of November 27, 2003, Dubey was shot dead. His murder sparked off a movement pressing for a whistleblower law to root out corruption.
Shanmugam Manjunath, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, was a marketing manager with the Indian Oil Corporation. He had ordered the closure of two petrol pumps in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri for selling adulterated fuel for three months. Manjunath had received repeated threats. When a text message from his father went unanswered, it raised suspicion. That night Manjunath’s body, riddled with bullets, was found in the back of his car, which was being driven by a worker of the petrol pump.
Writing to Yahoo! India, Manjunath’s friend and classmate Akhil Krishna said, “Soon after this, the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust was formed as an international IIM alumni initiative to fight the case and, at a broader level, work to improve governance in Indian public life. Thanks to the efforts of the Trust and the lawyers fighting the case, six of the accused in the murder case have been sentenced to life imprisonment by the High Court.” Remembering his friend fondly as “a popular student, noted for his passion for music, sincerity and integrity” Krishna told us that a Mumbai filmmaker is working on a script to make a biopic on Manjunath. “The story is about how an ordinary person like any of us is capable of the extraordinary,” he said. “Manjunath’s story shall hence be immortalized, as an eternal inspiration for young India.”

Realtors with murky dealings sent goons to hack Satish Shetty to death as he set out for his morning walk on January 13, 2010. The 38-year-old RTI activist had blown the lid on major land scams around the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Many of his associates had earlier been assaulted and threatened. Reacting to the murder Anna Hazare, pioneer of the RTI movement in Maharashtra, commented, “This audacity to commit such a heinous crime against a person who was selflessly working for social justice by highlighting corruption cannot be mustered unless the perpetrators enjoy the blessings of those who are in power.”
Politicians with criminal connections also killed Amit Jethwa, an environmental activist in the Gir Sanctuary area in Gujarat. Besides targeting poachers who had killed lions in the sanctuary and litigating against the killing of Chinkara gazelles by actor Salman Khan, Jethwa had been actively campaigning against illegal mining in the sanctuary. He had accused Bharatiya Janata Party MP Dinu Solanki of involvement in the activity. July 20, 2010, Jethwa was shot by assailants on a motorcycle. Wounded, the activist grabbed and tore off his attacker’s shirt, yielding a laundry tag that helped trace his killers. The MP’s nephew was arrested as the main accused in the case.
Datta Patil, an activist from Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, had filed a petition in a local court against horse trading in the municipal council elections. Further, he had enquired into the assets of retired police inspectors and complained against a prominent builder for his questionable construction activities. Patil was murdered on May 22.

The list of martyrs is incomplete without mention of Lalit Kumar Mehta, a 36-year-old campaigner for the Right to Food and Right to Work in Jharkhand, and NREGA activist Kameshwar Yadav among those whose sacrifices have gone unnoticed. Inevitably, in this continuing freedom struggle we shall see many more casualties.

Since the original version of this article in appeared in 2011, just before India’s 64th Independence Day, more whistleblowers have laid down their lives for the cause of freedom. 

On August 16, 2011, RTI activist Shehla Masood was shot dead in Bhopal by hired goons while she was setting out in her car to attend a protest in support of Anna Hazare. Masood was a strident wildlife enthusiast and anti-poaching activist. She had filed about 40 RTI applications involving forest officials and politicians, and was the founder of the activist group RTI Anonymous.  

Company Secretary of Malabar Cements V Saseendran, 46, along his two young sons, was allegedly murdered in Palakkad, Kerala in February 2011 for exposing corruption and misappropriation of funds in the public sector company. Saseendran had written to the Chief Minister of Kerala alerting him to widespread corruption in the company. Saseendran was forced to retract his allegations and he resigned from his post. Shortly after vigilance proceedings were initiated against the persons named in his letter, Saseendran was found dead. An investigation ordered by the court is ongoing. 
S P Mahantesh, a 48-year-old Karnataka Administrative Service official, was an auditor who exposed irregularities in several controversial land allotment cases. He was attacked a few times and warned by mysterious callers on his cell phone. On the night of May 15, 2012, five persons attacked Mahantesh after stopping his car. He died of his injuries in hospital a few days later.

Every day, hundreds of RTI activists work tirelessly to expose the deception and dishonesty of rich, powerful and influential people and organizations. The government is accountable for providing them with a safe environment. However, that is far from the case. Whistleblowers are the freedom fighters of today and, often, they pay that price with their lives. Their small but significant actions help make our society cleaner, safer and our systems more accountable. 

On August 20, 2010, the Whistleblowers Protection Bill was introduced in Parliament and on December 11, 2011 it was passed in the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha passed the Bill on February 21, 2014. A legal provision is in place to protect our freedom fighters. What will the government do to ensure that the praise heaped on them is not posthumous? 

Photo courtesy for Shanmugam Manjunath’s pictures: Akhil Krishna