By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
“That anger has placed the gun on the shoulder of the Superintendent. So we want to know the truth and only the Superintendent can tell us (the truth).” Piyush Manush, the social activist of Salem Citizens Forum, who was arrested on July 8 with two other members of the Forum under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, told YKA over the phone. He has alleged that he was tortured inside the prison by several people including the Jail Superintendent, M. Senthil Kumar, and wonders whether this is due to his work as an activist. The DIG (Prisons), Coimbatore Range, has since asked for a detailed report on the issue from Salem Central Prison. The State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has also issued a notice to the ADGP (Prisons) asking for a report on the alleged assault.
Manush was arrested following a protest against the construction of a railway overbridge at Mulluvadi Gate in Salem. The Salem Citizens Forum had raised objection to the construction of the bridge because the land for the same had not been acquired. The notice for the construction had been reportedly put out only a day before the construction began.
Manush has been charged with, among others, Section 506(2) (criminal intimidation) of the IPC, which is a non-bailable offence. However, a conditional bail was granted to him on July 20. A bail is granted for non-bailable offences under Section 437 of the CrPC, subject to certain conditions. Manush will be required to sign before a Judicial Magistrate twice a day for three weeks.
Detailing the alleged torture, Manush told YKA that everything went according to procedure for a while. Then he was asked which caste he belonged to. When he responded that he is from ‘open caste’ and that he is a Jain, they said that he was ‘talking too much’. He was then dragged to the Jailor’s room, where the Jail Superintendent was present, and was beaten up.“A slap hit me on my face, a blow on my head. I fell down. I asked ‘Why the beating?’ Just those words and the Superintendent got up and started hitting me left and right with his baton. Immediately 25 or 30 odd people – I was not able to make a count – all of them started hitting me,” Manush told YKA.
He further added that he was beaten up by “lathis”, was intimidated with a “barrage of abuses”, and “made to lie on a table” for further beating. The other two accused were also beaten up, Manush said.
Prison officials have denied the charges according to reports. They have questioned why the charges were levelled later if the torture had begun on July 8. Responding to this, Manush told YKA that he was only been able to meet a lawyer on July 9 and was not comfortable with revealing the torture as “two very strong men were placed right next” to them. He, however, did tell him that they had been put in solitary confinement. However, Manush says that the lawyer, for reasons unknown to him, did not convey the message to his family.
He was finally able to meet his family on July 11, Manush told YKA, and then there was pressure on the family to get the two others accused released. He added that he had been himself feeling guilty about “having dragged them into it”. He had previously pleaded before the police to not arrest the two other activists as they were “young boys” who had joined him in protest. Moreover, he argued that as the meeting-session is noisy, due to several inmates meeting their families simultaneously, he only asked his family to get bail for the other two accused, believing that his bail was likely to be rejected.
But Manush says that he was again beaten up by the police on July 13 and after the two other accused were granted bail on July 14, he was transferred to a different cell in the same block where nobody else was present. “That really scared the wits out of me,” Manus told YKA. He subsequently informed his family about the torture, prompting his wife to report the torture to the media, of which the SHRC has taken suo motu cognisance.
The Court, while granting bail to Manush, also reportedly expressed concern over Manush obstructing policemen in doing their duty. He had, according to reports, chained himself to a road-roller to prevent the construction of the bridge along with the two-other accused. This step Manush attributes to his frustration with the district administration.
He explained that they had taken out a similar notice when one Anandha bridge’s construction was stalled, because land acquisition had not been done before beginning the construction. That’s why, he told YKA, they wanted the construction of this railway flyover to be planned well. Their forum wanted a public consultation organised, where the public could be shown the design. In addition, they wanted the land acquired beforehand and alternate roads laid out if possible. To avoid any inconvenience to the people, Manush claims that they had shown two alternate sites to the administration 100 metres away from the site.
When they learnt of the construction of the new flyover, the members of the Forum went to the area to learn whether land acquisition has been completed and were told that it had not been done.
Detailing the day of the arrest, Manush told YKA that they had been talking to the district administration before they protested. On the day of the arrest, he had met the Divisional Revenue Officer (DRO) at the collector’s office, who Manush says, “was very rude outright” with the people who went to talk to the DRO.
Thereafter, they showed the construction site to the Deputy Commissioner, Law and Order and the Deputy Commissioner, Crime and Traffic, suggesting the alternate site. The police then suggested that they meet the Divisional Railways Manager (DRM). “I proceeded and as I was midway, within 20 minutes, I got a call that the work had started, (that) they have dug up the pit. So I returned back. Out of frustration I got inside the pit in presence of 40 policemen. As soon as I got down the pit, the video is there, they hauled me up immediately. So the matter was over in 2 seconds. I don’t know within those 2 seconds how I can threaten, how I can obstruct, how I can threaten to kill,” Manush told YKA, challenging the grounds on which the arrests were made.
The Public Prosecutor had also argued against the bail plea of the activist because he had previous cases pending against him. These cases, Manush told YKA, also relate to his work related to activism.
On January 26, 2010, he had planned a cycle rally from Salem to Sivaganga, the then Minister of Home Affairs P. Chidambaram’s constituency, to protest against Operation Greenhunt. “I was asking for peace in this country and (asking for) stopping the war against the tribals in Chhattisgarh, especially in Dantewada,” Manush told YKA. He says that he was booked for sedition for this. After he got bail in the case, he has not been summoned to the court, he claims. “They (the Police) obviously felt that the case is going nowhere,” he told YKA.
Another case, Manush said, relates to a protest against the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. Manush, who is known for his work towards protecting lakes in Salem, was protesting against effluents being disposed in the Kumaragiri lake of Salem. He says their Forum made multiple complaints before the Board but no action was taken. “So what we did was that we took out a symbolic protest in front of the Pollution Control Board office saying that ‘Boss, you are dead. Now this is your death ceremony’. We conducted the death ceremony for the Pollution Control Board,” Manush said speaking about the protest that got him into trouble.
This is also the only case that is pending against him, Manush claims. In most other cases, that have arisen, he says, in the course of his activism he has been acquitted. However, this case too has been in doldrums according to Manush. “Out of the twenty seven people (accused), the police didn’t know who fifteen people were. They had mentioned some names but they had no clue who they were,” he told YKA.
He has also been arrested, he says, for showing solidarity with Nandigram, Bhopal, and Mettur, where there have been protests against corporates. “There are many other rich people whom we have been opposing. We have stopped them from making unscrupulous profit. They have been trying to make profit from greed and loot. We have been able to stem it,” he says, before wondering whether this is the reason he has been tortured in jail.
Several activists have expressed solidarity and protested against his torture, along with DMK MP Kanimozhi who has condemned the incident. However, Manush says that he has always kept a distrance from political parties, although he welcomes “their solidarity with all humility”.