A legal-political advocacy group completes 10 years fighting injustice of state and police, reports Pratikshit Singh
In 2008, the Bar Association of Lucknow issued a nuncupative diktat against defending the terror accused in serial bomb blasts outside court premises in Lucknow, Varanasi and Faizabad. Nevertheless, amidst threats of a social boycott, lawyer and social activist Mohammad Shoaib decided that he was going to help the accused. “When mother of Kolkata based, Aftab Alam Ansari approached me to take up the case and presented some evidence, I was convinced that the boy was innocent and I could go to any extent to save him,” says the 73-year-old President of Rihai Manch.
Aftab Alam Ansari ,who was arrested on 2nd of January 2008 was subsequently acquitted on 16 January 2008. On the basis of a medical prescription diary it was proved that he was not in the city on the day of the blast.
Yet Shoaib’s defiance was met with opposition and he was attacked in the court campuses of Lucknow and Barabanki, but he remained unfazed and asserts, “I believe that every accused has the right to free legal aid as mentioned in the article 39A of the Indian Constitution which is also the essence of Rihai Manch.” His stand got a further boost, when in 2010 supreme court ruled that a bar council cannot pass resolution against defending the accused, no matter how heinous a crime, as it is a violation of the Indian constitution.
Although Shoaib and his companions began his crusade against illegal confinement in 2008, it was only in 2012 that the name Rihai Manch was adopted. Rebutting the claims that Rihai Manch is a Muslim rights organisation the lawyer turned human rights activist says, “If you are aware of the issues raised by us, you will see how absurd these allegations are and let me tell you one thing, most of our associates and office bearers are non-muslims.” Rihai Manch counts amongst its associates, lawyers, former bureaucrats, journalists and includes former Lucknow University vice-chancellor Rooprekha Verma and former IPS Officer S R Darapuri.
The Rihai Manch office in Lucknow, doubles up as the residence of its General Secretary Rajiv Yadav, who is also the public face of the advocacy group and one of its founding members. Yadav’s penchant for activism goes back to his days as a student at Allahabad University. In 2005, when riots broke out in Mau, “we went there seeking to restore communal harmony. While there, we observed that the riot had spread in the same pattern as Gujarat and current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, had a crucial role in fanning them through his incendiary speech “recalls Yadav. For the next few years after Mau, Yadav and his team focused on documenting hate speeches through documentaries. “It was during this time that the very real threat of Hindu fundamentalism dawned on us. We observed that most hindutva propagating political leaders idolised Savarkar and his philosophy of militant Hinduism.”
In order to understand the relevance of this advocacy group you have to understand the psyche of the policing and those in power in Uttar Pradesh. According to S.R. Darapuri, casteism is deeply rooted in the police force, “I first came across it in 1976, when I saw lower caste policemen eating separately from their upper caste counterparts in Gorakhpur,” delineating on the composition of the police, the former IG says, “there is over-representation of one particular section in the Police and dalits are under-represented and Muslims even less.” It is no wonder that the police force remains prejudiced against minorities at large.
Since its inception, the organisation has helped over 18 people out of” illegal” detention so far, it also works for communal harmony and is addressing scores of issues that afflict the weaker sections of society.
Its latest campaign has been against NSA—the National Security Act, which allows the detention of people simply on the assumption that they could compromise national security. The NSA as it exists today denies those detained an access to a lawyer or a hearing before a court of law. Yadav calls it “a tool of oppression of the manuvadi system.” According to Yadav, it is the always the poor and the marginalised who are exploited under the NSA. The Rihai Manch team has spent 3 days meeting the families of the accused in the rural areas of Bahraich and Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh. They have also started #WhyNSA a Facebook campaign that raises awareness against this draconian law.
Welcoming the Supreme Court’s decision to seek response from the UP government on fake encounters on a PUCL (peoples union for civil Liberties) plea, Yadav says that these encounters selectively target only the dalits, OBC and muslims. “Why is the police reluctant to share a copy of the FIR and post-mortem reports? “He is also demanding for the disclosure of the names of “encountered criminals.” Targeting the current Chief Minister, Yadav says, “He himself has so many cases registered against him and he speaks of eliminating criminals.”
It didn’t come as a surprise when the advocacy group received threats of being ‘encountered’ themselves last month. In a press conference in Lucknow, the Rihai Manch team alleged threats of violence against them, but despite that they remained unfazed. “We have documented the cases of illegal confinement and found the level of atrocities committed on young activists has not found space in the media, not even social media,” says Yadav. He says the reason for this is that not only does BJP feel threatened by these activists, but also the so-called ‘social justice crusaders’, who see these activists as disruptors and a visible threat to their own leadership.”
Yadav has just returned from a tour of Azamgarh and exudes optimism when he says, “the much touted unity of the oppressed class has started materializing at the grass root level.” He will soon leave for another tour of Western UP where he and his team hope to forge Dalit-minority –OBC unity. The organisation is also planning a state-wide march against lynchings. Maybe, with their activism expanding to different spheres, they do away with the name, “Rihai Manch” but however the organisation takes shape in the future— it will continue to rescue people from the illegal detention of hate politics.
This article is a part of our Voices of Dissent series, aimed at throwing light on people who have been speaking against abuse of power. If you have an interesting story and wish a person featured, please send us an e-mail