In the case of the school in Katkut the possibility of good education for adolescent tribal and dalit girls was tossed out by the presence of a corrupt Dalit headmistress of the school. The funds for the food and other accessories of the girls came to a bank account that had to be operated by two of the girl students. Once again an admirable arrangement to ensure transparency. However, the headmistress used to get the girls to sign on blank cheques that she kept with herself and which she used to withdraw the money as she pleased. The standard of food served obviously deteriorated and so the number of girl students also went down. But on paper the numbers were maintained at a healthy level of about twenty girls per class so that the funds continued to come to the bank account. Now, the headmistress could not have done such a big ripoff continuously over the years without paying off other people. She paid off the local non-tribal leaders of the village and her bosses in Khargone who were supposed to monitor the operation and performance of the school. So for many years together funds meant for the education of adolescent tribal girls were being siphoned off leaving them stuck in the same dark patriarchal morass in which their mothers were.
Then things changed for a time. The Adivasi Shakti Sangathan became active in the area in 1996 raising demands for justice and the rule of law. One of the parents of a girl studying in the school complained to the Sangathan in one of its weekly meetings about the sorry state of affairs prevailing there. A special village meeting was held in Katkut, the Gram Sabha, in which in the presence of hundreds of tribals a resolution was passed that the Sangathan should take up the issue of good governance in the girls' residential school. A delegation went to the school and recorded the statements of the girls about the defalcation of the funds. On the basis of this a formal complaint was filed with the higher authorities in Khargone. Since the Sangathan had already established itself as a feisty campaigner in other spheres the complaint was taken seriously and the girls' hostel began functioning properly for the first time since it had come into existence. The power of the Gram Sabha was visible. Grassroots democracy had become potent.
However, the State struck back. It announced that the Sangathan had become a parallel authority undermining that of the State and this could not be allowed. If the villagers assert their rights and demand transparency, justice and the rule of law then the authority of the state will obviously be reduced and it will have to share power with the Gram Sabha. This is what, in fact, is envisaged in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution for tribal areas and in the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA). Thus, the Sangathan, like on many occasions earlier in the post independence era had brought to the fore the contradictions in the Indian Constitution between its centralist and anarchist provisions.
While many horrible things were done by the State to crush the organisation it will be fruitful here to follow the tale of the girls' school to its end. The local non-tribal leaders and the headmistress, who had been deprived of their illegal earnings, obviously with the support of the State, succeeded in getting a police case registered against the five member delegation of the Sangathan that had carried out the inspection of the girls' school alleging that they had threatened to kill the headmistress and prevented her from doing her administrative duty. The police then proceeded to catch these people one by one, beat them up and send them to jail. When this happened the second time the whole Sangathan rose up and immediately surrounded the police station and refused to let the arrested member from being taken away to jail. A long day's sit in later the higher administrative authorities came down to Katkut and promised to take action against the guilty tormentors of the tribals and the demonstration ended. But like in earlier such instances the police instead of acting against the guilty government servants filed yet another criminal complaint against members of the Sangathan alleging that they had once again threatened to kill them and prevented them from doing their duty! This was in 1998. The focal point of this tale and the one that is the sting in it is the court case that resulted from the filing of this complaint.
Sixteen people were arraigned including three old men in their sixties and four women. Then started the most frustrating part of the whole exercise. For thirteen long years the accused had to make rounds of the court at Barwah the nearby town at regular intervals. Despite many efforts in between to expedite the case it dragged on. Finally due to the huge public opinion building up against the delay in court cases the Madhya Pradesh Government in consultation with the High Court decided to appoint a few more magistrates across the state to clear the backlog. An extra magistrate was posted in the Barwah court to dispose of the older cases among which the one involving the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan members. This should have brought cheers at the prospect of an end to the case. However there was a twist. Over the years the higher judiciary has taken note of yet another public outcry. This is the tendency of the police to do shoddy investigation against criminals and then the lower judiciary taking a lenient view of their crimes, both after receiving bribes, resulting in a very low conviction rate. Consequently, the higher judiciary has sent down strict directions to the lower judiciary that they should convict at the slightest hint of criminality and on the flimsiest of evidence. Thus, the combined pressure of disposing of cases quickly and of convicting the accused has made the lower judiciary insensitive to the context of the case. This has proved to be a bane for activists of mass organisations fighting for rights. They are frequently arraigned under criminal charges but the magistrates these days do not make a distinction between them and begin treating them as criminals and convicting them.
The new magistrate in Barwah, after taking charge, immediately began convicting the accused in the cases that came up before him. The lawyer of the Adivasi Shakti Sangathan activists became jittery and told them that the situation was serious. Neither was it possible to delay the case and nor was it possible to avoid conviction he said. This is when I thought it was time I stepped in. I too along with my wife Subhadra were among the accused. However, I had not paid much attention to the case and nor had I been attending the court proceedings as the other co-accused would file exemption requests for me. But now with the lawyer feeling cowed down by the magistrate I had to take things into my hand. I sat down with the charge sheet and the evidence given and found a number of flaws starting from the first information report filed itself. I then found out a host of previous rulings of the Supreme and High courts pointing out that such flaws were enough to dismiss the case. I also unearthed enough evidence to show that the police had concocted evidence to falsely implicate us. A defense argument was prepared on the basis of this which the lawyer, now emboldened with all this preparation, argued very well in front of the magistrate. Consequently not only were we acquitted but the magistrate also recorded in his judgment that the police had concocted the case!
We had won the case no doubt but only because I am not just a field level activist but also have considerable knowledge of the law. A knowledge that has been built up over the years by fighting innumerable cases at various levels. Especially the one that the State foisted on us after killing four of our colleagues in police firing in Mehendikhera in 2001. I spent two and a half months in jail at that time being denied bail solely on the suspicion that I was a Naxalite. These days there is a lot of heartburn in the higher judiciary about denial of bail being a form of injustice because some high profile people have been arraigned in corruption cases, but for activists of mass movements there is no sympathy in the judiciary at all yet. We had to fight tooth and nail and do a lot of hard legal research to win that case and get ourselves acquitted. It is of course another matter that the State has appealed against our acquittal in the High Court. However, after that incident of 2001 we took a decision never again to undertake any action that would call for the State to foist criminal cases on us and put us behind bars. The costs in terms of money and time lost in fighting legal cases has become prohibitive these days and so the militancy of mass movements has decreased considerably. This is the final sting in the tail in the form of lengthy and expensive court cases that in many instances result in conviction that keeps the surging discontent among the masses in leash.
When a simple effort like trying to ensure that tribal girls get a good education can end up in so much harassment and require so much skill to avoid conviction in criminal cases foisted on the campaigners, then it is easy to see why more fundamental and challenging campaigns like ensuring the right to work, food and housing have never been successful.