Those who know Nikhil Dey or may have seen him speak on TV channels are shocked at the gentle, soft spoken activist sentenced to four months in jail for alleged ‘trespass and causing simple hurt’ 20 years ago to a Sarpanch in a Rajasthan village. Four of his associates, Naurti, Ram Karan, Babulal and Chotu Lal, have also been found guilty by the Additional District Judge’s court in Kishangarh.
The five men ironically have been found guilty on the basis of accounts given by as many as 78 prosecution witnesses, most of them relatives and associates of the Sarpanch who also happened to be a liquor contractor.
Sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan wrote, “Nikhil Dey is probably the most civilised activist in India. Gentle, a perfect listener, ready to see the humour in any situation, Dey lacks a sense of hysteria, rhetoric or ideological fundamentalism which we associate with many activists today. His gentleness is deceptive because his commitment to democracy and to truth is rigorously impressive…To accuse such a person of violence and assault is not only surreal but also creates a sense of hypocrisy…” His piece can be read here :
While Dey and his four associates were accused of assaulting the family members of the Sarpanch at his home, Dey has consistently maintained that they were the ones who were manhandled and pushed around by the Sarpanch and his brothers. But then Dey and his associates, not surprisingly, had only their own words, and no other witnesses, to fall back on. It was their words against the 78 alleged witnesses.
Rajasthan Government had amended the Panchayati Raj Act and given people the right to inspect records and get certified photocopies. Naurti, from the Sarpanch’s village was upset with corruption, lack of development work and non-payment of wages. But the Sarpanch first refused to accept the application for information. When the District Development Officer directed him in writing to release the information, Ram Karan was asked to contact the Sarpanch for information.
But when they went to the house of the Sarpanch, having found his office locked, they were accosted by a mob well outside the house on the approach road. “There could not have been any trespass,” says Dey and laughs over the phone.
They had already visited the Panchayat, Zila Parishad and District Collector’s offices 73 times to get a ruling that the Sarpanch had to release the file. But they were roughed up when they arrived with the letter and the order. While the activists filed an FIR, the Sarpanch filed a counter FIR. The police filed a final report in 1998 and closed the case and the activists thought it was the end of the unsavoury but relatively small incident.
But they had reckoned without the Sarpanch’s clout. Three years later in 2001 the Sarpanch got the case reopened and the court went along with him although the case was barred by limitation.
“I got an exemption in mid-2000 from personal appearance, but my colleagues didn’t. They were all from the area, so they have had to go all the time,” adds Dey. They have had to go to court at least 76 times in these 19 years, making it a minimum of four times a year. “We haven’t compiled the costs yet,” admits Dey.
“We already feel we have been punished. The punishment is in the process – the number of hearings we have had to go for in all these years. More than five judges have come and gone. Pyarelal had produced one false witness after the other in court – his niece, his brother and his neighbours have all testified,” adds Dey, who goes on to share an incident during one of the court meetings.
“Interestingly, after one man had testified against us, he died the next day. So, the next witness they brought to the court refused to testify and he was termed ‘hostile’. Later, when their lawyer questioned him, he quipped ‘the other man lied and he died, but I don’t intend to die’,” he recalled.
In a moment of candour, Dey shares, “We couldn’t understand who else or what else is behind this case. We have no idea why this case had dragged on for years. We have been abused and threatened by them, but we hadn’t gone there to raise a furore. In most cases, we do know if there are legislators working against us, but not this time. And the Rajasthan government has never shown any propensity to help us,” adds Dey.
Far more telling is Dey’s conviction that, “If this can happen to us, how much more difficult can it be for those without our kind of network or support. There are others who are fighting lonely battles and we need to create an atmosphere where those fighting such battles are not threatened. People who fight such cases are most often whistle blowers and there has always been a reaction/backlash against them.”
“If you want to punish someone, file a case. This is a good way to harass people.” says Dey.