PUCL Bulletin, May 1981

Why was Niyogi Arrested

It was 9 p m From 10 a.m., that morning thou
sands of mine workers had peasants had begun to gather at Pathartola, 3 kms. from Dalli-Rajahara, to welcome Shankar Guha Niyogi and Sahdev Sahu of the Chhatisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh who. had been released after seven weeks of imprisonment under the NSA.

The route from the sub-divisional headquarters at Balod to Pathartola was decorated with improvised arches made of bamboo and twig and welcome banners. The air crackled with expectancy. Despite the late hour, 5000 people remained. "Jail ka taala toot gaya, hamara saathi chhoot gaya," chanted the workers. Crackers exploded and a cloud of holi colours enveloped Niyogi and Sahu as they finally entered the village.

"It is not my victory," commented an excited Niyogi. 'To say so would be to trivialise it. In any case, it is not a victory but a challenge." He continued, "It became an issue of dictatorship versus a democratic movement." With gratitude he referred to the efforts of the press, lawyers and civil liberties organisations which had raised their voice against his illegal detention and the wanton and indiscrimi-nate use of the NSA. "I've had a lot to learn from this process and the efforts have added a new dimension to our struggle." The People's Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights in Madhya Pradesh has formed a legal aid committee for taking up cases of illegal detention under the NSA or the abuse of Cr. P.C. 151 for detaining political and trade union workers.

Niyogi and Sahu were released on March 24, 1981 after the Advisory Board set aside their detention. The charges against them were considered vague and flimsy. In fact Justice Verma of the Board reprimanded the administration and urged it to be impartial.

Though Niyogi and Sahu were accused of indulging in Naxalite activities, conducting gheraos of contractors and mine officials, harassing traders, stealing wood and beating up workers belonging to other unions, except for two specific charges contained in the grounds of detention which ran into 20 pages, the rest pertained to the period before the NSA came into effect. These two charges related to two men who were alleged to have been beaten up by Niyogi after they had left the CMSS.

"But both the concerned people," maintained Raipur lawyer V.K. Munshi, "have filed criminal complaints in courts citing someone else as responsible." There was, in any case, no justification for the use of NSA. The administration could have taken action against Niyogi under normal legal provisions.

Furthermore, according to recent Supreme Court verdicts in a series of cases of preventive detention, not only must the grounds of detention be furnished to the detainee but he must also be supplied with all the documents and statements on the basis of which the government decided to arrest him. This is to enable him to make an effective representation to the Advisory Board. Though Niyogi's lawyer requested the Collector at Durg repeatedly to-send these papers to his client, the District Magistrate refused to comply. He stated that it was not in the public interest to do so.

In fact, while Niyogi was in prison, the government dissolved the worker's co-operative societies owing allegiance to his union. These societies had been revived by Niyogi in 1977 to replace private contractors. On March 3, 1981, the Assistant Registrar of Co-operatives served notice to all seven CMSS-aligned co-operative societies, claiming that they had been superseded on the recommendation of the Steel Authority of India. Incidentally, Union Minister Pranab Mukherjee denied this on the floor of Parliament. Under normal law, the Registrar has to give a show cause notice to the societies before resorting to super-session. This was not done. With their dissolution, a government administrator replaces the executive committee of the society. His decision will be binding even if the super-session is set aside later by the Court where its legality has been challenged.

The PUCLDR (Raipur) sent a team to Dalli-Rajahara to investigate the arrest of Niyogi, Sahu and their colleagues as also the factors that led to it. Reproduced below are excerpts of their findings.
On February 11 this year, the Collector at Durg invited Sahdev Sahu and Shankar Guha Niyogi, President and Organsing Secretary of the CMSS respectively, for discus-sion of the dispute relating to the payment to the workers' cooperative society, which had been withheld for the preceding four months by the Bhilai Steel Plant manage ment. On arrival they were put under arrest-with five others accompanying them.

Around midnight that day, Section 144 was promulgated in the area. Next morning when the news broke out about the arrests, the workers started gathering around the CMSS office at Lal Maidan. Before long, two police jeeps and four truckloads of CISF jawans, armed with lathis and guns, arrived on the scene. Without any warning, they started beating the labourers and arrested seven of them. Subsequently, in a notification issued to the Press, Mr. Raghunath Prasad, Commissioner, Raipur division, and Mr. B.K. Mukerji, DIG Police, confirmed the arrests under the NSA, 1980 and charged them with anti-national and Naxalite activities.

A 10,000 strong police force was deployed in the area. A reign of terror was let loose. The police picked up labourers at random, beat them up and occupied the office of the CMSS.

About 8,500 workers, members of the CMSS, who work in the manually operated section of the iron-ore mines, were forced to stop work owing to the imposition of Sec. 144.

Mathew Samuel, Joint Secretary of CMSS, charged Jhoomuk Lal Bhedia, Minister for Industries of Madhya Pradesh, who hails from the area, for being responsible for the arrests. According to Mathew, Niyogi had succeeded in not only getting the wages of the workers increased, but in bringing about other social reforms. About 25,000 workers and peasants had left drinking, he maintaincd. This had caused a great loss to the liquor contractors of the area, who were also financiers of Jhoomuk Lal Bliedia. One of the major contractors, Surjit Singh Bhatia had last year paid Rs. 14 lakhs for one liqour shop in Rajahara at the government auction. Incidentally, Bhatia is also the treasurer of the district Congress (I) Committee.

Three journalists, Madhuker Kher of PTL R. Kuppu-swamy of UNI and Ramesh Nayyar of Madhya Pradesh Chronicle were harassed for taking photographs of the CMSS office swarming with police.
On February 15, about 1,200 workers defied prohibitory orders and took out a peaceful procession through Dalli--Rajahara. They were led, among others, by Asha Niyogi, wife of the arrested leader. When they reached Gupta Chowk, the police burst teargas shells and started wielding lathis. But the women labourers sat down on the spot surrounded by the police. In the evening, about 460 women and children were loaded into two trucks and a BSF bus and driven to Manpur jungle, 40 kms. away from the township, where they were forcibly dragged outand left. They had to trek back to the town. Many women also complained of police misbehaviour.

Twenty five workers, including three women, were arrested for defying prohibitory orders that day. Almost every day workers agitated only to face the lathis of the police. The police had changed their tactics; they would beat up the labourers but not arrest anyone.

The non-CMSS labour began to vacate the colonies. They feared another massacre of the type that was witnessed on June 1 and 2, 1977 when 12 workers, includ-ing a pregnant woman and a 12-year-old boy, were killed and about a hundred injured. There had also been another firing on September 27,1980 when the workers had protested against the attempted rape of a 15-year-old adivasi girl by a CISF jawan, in which one person died and forty were injured.

Today Shankar Guha Niyogi and Jhoomuk Lal Bhedia are arch rivals in politics. But this was not the case earlier. Following the defeat of the Congress party in 1977, Bhedia supported Niyogi by condemning the police firing. He also stated categorically that Niyogi's trade union activities were not Naxalite in nature as had been alleged. But in the 1980 assembly elections, Niyogi fielded a candidate against Bhedia, provoking his wrath. Bhedia started a poster war against Niyogi and branded him a Naxalite. Pamphlets and advertisements containing these allegations were widely distributed in the area.

At Bhedia's behest, externment proceedings against Niyogi and two other CMSS leaders were also started. However, the administration could not take definite action due to absence of sufficient proof. In the meantime, Niyogi's anti-liquor campaign had gathered momentum. He counter-charged Bhedia with being hand-in-glove with the liquor contractors.

On December 19 last year, Niyogi's Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, which is closely aligned to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and A.K. Roy's Marxist Co-ordination Committee, celebrated the death anniversary of Vir Shahid Naravan Singh, a tribal freedom fighter. Bhedia's group tried their best to obstruct the rally attended by 35,000 workers.

The bitter infighting in the Congress(I) in Madhya Pradesh between Chief Minister Arjun Singh and Vidya Charan Shukla who is from Chhattisgarh, is an open secret. Arjun Singh has won the first round with the ouster of V.C. Shukla from the Union Cabinet. The conflict between them came to the fore only after Vidya Charan Shukla got a clear verdict from the Supreme Court against a petition challenging his election to the Lok Sabha in 1980.

Bhedia openly accused V.C. Shukla, Union Minister for Civil Supplies at the time, of hobnobbing with the "Naxalite" leader, Shankar Guha Niyogi. In retaliation, Shukla referred to Bhedia as mentally unbalanced at a public meeting on February 8. Anti-Bhedia slogans were raised at the meeting; the crowd also demanded the resignation of Bhedia.

On February 10, 1981, the Durg District Congress (I) Committee made a representation to the Prime Minister, demanding disciplinary action against Shukla for publicly criticising the State Minister for Industries,

On February 11, Shankar Guha Niyogi and Sahdev were arrested with five fellow-workers.
Niyogi, who is from a middle class family of West Bengal and came to Durg in the early sixties for studies, has totally identified himself with the area. He has married an adivasi girl and speaks Hindi and Chhatisgarhi fluently. Since he launched the CMSS in 1977, 'he has repeatedly raised his voice against the contract system of employing labour. This has angered the contractors who have over the years mercilessly exploited the poor adivasi workers.

After its investigation, the People's Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (Raipur) reached the conclusion that the arrests of Shankar Guha Niyogi and Sahdev Sahu of the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, under the National Security Act, 1980 was politically motivated. It was clear that the triangular politics between Jhoomuk Lal Bhedia, Vidya Charan Sliukla and Shankar Guha Niyogi was a major factor behind these arrests.

The functioning of the administration at Durg bypasses all respect for civil liberties and democratic rights. Innocent citizens and workers protesting against these arrests were harassed and arrested; so were journalists and political leaders visiting the area.

There was not only misuse of the National Security Act, 1980, but also of Cr. P.C. 151 under which it is mandatory for the administration to produce the person along with the charges before a magistrate within 24 hours. No such legal procedure was followed. Lok Dal leader Purushottam Lal Kaushik and eight others were detained and taken on remand for fifteen days withotit producing them before the magistrate.

The administration has used arm-twisting tactics to curb genuine trade union activities. The administration has also used delay tactics in sabotaging legal procedures in represent-ing the cases of those arrested. For example, the members of the Legal Aid Committee set up by the PUCLDR (Raipur) were not able to get permission to meet the arrested leaders, simply because the appropriate authorities were not available.

Till April,149 people have been detained under the NSA in Madhya Pradesh alone. Contrary to the govern-ment's statements, the Act has been indiscriminately used against trade union and political activists. The government is increasingly resorting to it to bypass normal judicial processes and suppress democratic movements.

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