Curious case of South Gujarat tribal rights activist, sought to be silenced by state authorities

romelBy Jignesh Mevani*

The curious case of Adivasi Kisan Sangharsh Morcha’s (AKSM’s) Romel Sutariya is becoming increasingly more curious. Gujarat police appears to be desperately finding ways to throw him out of the forest areas where he has worked relentlessly for the poorest of poor tribals for the past one year, using all the democratic methods his ideologue, Dr BR Ambedkar, had to offer through the Indian Constitution.

Romel is just 25, but he is asking tough questions to the Government of Gujarat, that too at a time when the voice of dissent is considered to be the greatest obstacle for the emergence of ”acche din”. The Gujarat police is so uncomfortable with Romel’s never-die spirit to struggle against mining mafias and corrupt BJP workers that it has started filing frivolous and vexatious complaints against him, so that substantial grounds are prepared either to dub him a Naxalite or put him under some draconian law, including Prevention of Anti Social Activities Act (PASA). 

This became clear, when some days ago, Romel was compelled to obtain bail in three chapter cases registered under CrPC 151, 107 at Chhotaudepur division. Some legal activists might wonder, what is there to worry about chapter cases, under which one is produced before an executive magistrate and made free within minutes.

But things are not so simple in the case of Romel. There is precedence: Early morning at 00-45 am on April 28, 2015, just two days prior to Gujarat Foundation Day celebrations, he was picked up by Vyara police, and an offence was registered against him under sections 151 and 107 of CrPC. He was kept in judicial custody for five long days in blatant disregard to jurisprudence that has developed all these years to protect the individual liberty as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Romel was picked up from the office of AKSM, a civil rights organization which he has founded, even without letting him know under what charges he was picked up or giving him an opportunity to give a call to him family or lawyer. His colleague Manisha Solanki, who was there in the office, desperately asked the police officer present on the occasion as to why did they picking up Romel in the dark of night, with so much of hurry and under what charges, but the official and his sleuths did not utter a word.

Early morning, along with AKSM workers, Manisha went to Vyara police station, but Romel was not there. Nobody was telling her where he was taken. She called up the district superintendent of police (SP) inquiring about Romel’s whereabouts, but the SP said he had no idea.

Manisha again went to the Vyara police station and met the police inspector (PI) she had met earlier. ”Bhatt told me – tuje bahut charbi chadhi hai na, teri charbi utarta hoon, bahut andolankari ban rahi hai tu aajkal” (you see to be becoming increasingly over-active. I will teach you a lesson), Manish narrates the story, “Then I went to the SP’s office and told his staff that until I am informed about Romel’s whereabouts I wouldn’t go out and begin hunger strike. Only after this the SP told me that Romel was under custody of Vyara police and he would be produced before executive magistrate. So I went to executive magistrate’s office. To our utter shock Romel was denied bail in a chapter case and was asked to produce a solvency certificate and surety bond of 25,000, which was obviously not possible to provide over-night as it was a time taking process. He was sent to Vyara sub-jail where he was kept for four days  under the pretext of so called apprehension that he might commit some offence.”

Romel told me, “The first thing executive magistrate, Vyara, told me, when I was produced before him, was that ‘hu tane be tarikh sudhi tane chhodvano nathi’ (I am not going to give you bail till May 2). I told him that what he was doing was completely illegal and he had no such powers to keep me under judicial custody till May 2. I also told him that as per the order of the Supreme Court of India in Arnesh Kumar versus State of Bihar police, the bail should be given in the police station itself in all the cases where the maximum punishment is less than seven years. The same rationale would apply in my case also, but the executive magistrate, SP, Deputy SP, PI, all had planned to ensure that I remain under judicial custody till Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel’s function was not over on May 1…

“Earlier, I had asked the authorities that I be permitted to commit suicide if they were not willing to make due payments of sugarcane workers, but later on, upon the assurance of some government officers that Anandiben was going to make some announcement on May 1, I changed my game-plan and withdrew my application seeking permission to allow me to commit suicide. But then the authorities decided to take revenge under the pretext of preventive detention and put me behind bars for five days in blatant disregard to the rule of law.”

Romel has been doing tremendous campaigns for the issue of non-payment of wages of sugarcane workers of the tribal area of southern Gujarat. A sugar mill called Shri Ukai Pradesh Khand Sahkari Mandali, completely under the clutches of BJP politicians, bought 93,000 tonnes sugarcane, got it crushed into the mill, and produced sugar worth Rs 50 crore. However, even after running from pillar to post not a single penny was paid to the 1,300 tribal farmers who sold the sugarcane to the mill. Romel took the lead and campaigned for months, but when nothing happened with rallies, agitations, protests, applications, memorandums, right to information (RTI) applications, he had to resort to this “threat” of committing suicide if the payment were not made to the farmers.

“I should have avoided that,” admits Romel adding, “In fact, I had categorically written to the district magistrate that I was assuring him I was not going to take any such step, but now I realize that it gave them an opportunity to arrest me under the pretext of preventive detention.”

Finally, Romel was granted bail on May 4 by the sessions court, Vyara. The sessions judge Gita Gopi observes in the judgment: ”The executive magistrate passed an order onerous, leading to a figurative load which could not be borne by the sureties without effort. The surety amount of Rs 25,000 would require a solvency certificate, which would have to be produced from the mamlatdar, which comes to be issued after inquiry of the viability of the surety, which certainly would take time, leading to imprisonment… So the order is illegal.”

Immediately after coming out of the jail, he started taking up various issues before authorities, including filing a complaint against an influential BJP worker, who was caught in the camera behaving obnoxiously with a tribal girl against her will. Upon Romel’s continuous effort not only an offence was registered against Rajput but the girl also came out openly against the accused and complained that, while she was being abused, one of this BJP worker’s friends was taking her video clip. Romel says, ”This is nothing but a part of a larger racket of immoral trafficking. It is this expose due to which BJP has become most uncomfortable with me and is using police to arraign me in some criminal cases to create such background that if am booked under 4-5 offences they can have something to justify the illegal and arbitrary arrests which I am expecting anytime.”

It is only after his efforts that the village Chilatya of Chhotaudepur has seen electricity. After his sustained campaign, the Gujarat government passed a resolution proposing to make arrangements for payment to tribal farmers who were not paid for sugarcane they had sold to the cooperative mill. The government also announced that farmers would be ensured at least 50 per cent of payments to begin with. Contrary to rumours spread by both BJP workers and police, Romel and his supporters have organized dozens of seminars on peace and harmony in many schools of Chhotaudepur and Vyara reaching out to at least 5,000 students and youth. However, he is not a do-gooder kind of social worker; he is fire-brand in his own self-respect.

Romel is taking up cudgels against mining the mafias of Chhotaudepur district, a rich source of minerals. The mafias are completely hand-in-glove with the local administration. It is pertinent to mention here that, frustrated with Romel’s never-ending campaign against mining mafias, on one hand, and constant struggle for the land rights of tribals, on the other, the Chhotaudepur district collector had to make a childish statement in the media that this 24 years youngster was running ”a parallel government in the area”.

Again, it is pertinent to mention that the day Chhotaudepur collector made this statement against Romel and his organization, he invoked section 144 in the whole of the district, stating in the order that due to the on-going terrorist activities in the area he was imposing prohibitory orders. News-hungry local channels immediately flashed the news toeing government line — ”Chhotaudepur ma lal-aatank” meaning ”red-terror in Chhotaudepur”.

Romel immediately rushed to Ahmedabad and sought an explanation from the collector by way of holding press conference with the help of activist friends, following which the collector deleted the word ‘terrorism’ from the order. But then this was going to generate more feeling of revenge on the part of the administration for Romel, and as it was expected, it has recently charged Romel under various sections of IPC, alleging that he hatched a conspiracy and instigated the tribals to make an attempt to kill forest officers. Even charge-sheets have been filed against Romel in this case.

The day he went to police station to record his statement in this case, he was booked under three more cases. At present Romel is busy exposing Rs 230 crore scam of a company operating in South Gujarat. This company has cheated thousands of Gujaratis under the garb of multilevel marketing scheme. Romel is questioning the role of the government in this scam, and therefore he is an obvious trouble for the authorities, the local administration and BJP workers, who have a stake in it. Only time will tell whether Romel will be allowed to work freely for the betterment of poor tribals, or some conspiracy is underway to frame this radical youth who calls himself not just Marxist, Ambedkarite but feminist as well.

We know from experience that when the state has nothing against you, it tries to frame you the way they framed Binayk Sen and GN Saibaba or Prashant Dayal, a journalist who charged for ”waging a war against state” for two articles against Ahmedabad police commissioner in 2008.

*Ahmedabad-based human rights lawyer

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