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Indian activists under attack

Defending the rights of India’s poor has always been risky, but with murders like that of activist Satish Shetty on the rise, the situation appears to be getting worse.

Satish Shetty (left) with fellow activist Anna Hazare

The day Satish Shetty died started like any other. Shetty, a tall, heavyset man known for his stubbornness and love of Hindi music, woke shortly after 6am.

Dressed in a white t-shirt and navy track-pants, Shetty left his home for his usual morning walk. Rickshaws rumbled loudly by and commuters waited at the bus stop as Shetty headed towards his regular newspaper salesman.

Back at the Shetty house, sometime around 7am, Shetty’s younger brother Sandeep was surfing the net when a man at the door brought news that someone had attacked Shetty.

Sandeep ran from the house. When he reached the newspaper stand, he found Shetty, his white shirt stained red, lying in a pool of blood. “I knew at the very moment I saw him, I had lost him,” Sandeep says.

What happened next remains a blur for Sandeep. In shock, he remembers hailing a pick-up truck to take his brother’s bleeding body to the nearest hospital.

Sandeep nursed his brother in his arms, but by the time they arrived, Shetty was dead from multiple stab wounds to his face, neck, hands and arms. He was 39 years old.

News of the tragedy, which took place on 13 January 2010, quickly spread through Shetty’s home town of Talegaon. Bordered by mountains on one side, and a river on the other, Talegaon was historically a farming and working-class town. Recently, a new highway linking the nearby city of Pune to India’s financial capital, Mumbai, had seen land open up around Talegaon and new people move in.

For 15 years Shetty worked as an activist and social worker for local farmers in and around Talegaon. He helped with everything from loan and passport applications to domestic abuse problems. As his work increased, so did the size of the problems he dealt with.

In 1996 he exposed an agent working for the government’s Public Food Distribution system who had been funnelling subsidised food to the black market. After India passed its Right to Information Act (RTI) laws, Shetty was among those activists across India who began using the RTI provisions to shine a light on irregularities in government processes. Then, in 2009, Shetty shot to fame by exposing a series of illegal land grab schemes in the Talegaon area.

“That’s how he started creating enemies. Whenever he fought for someone’s rights he was actually challenging someone else … As he started to work more, the size of corruption that he was working on multiplied tenfold,” his older brother, Santosh, recalls.

“He had no plan or organised effort of helping … There was a rural belt around here and people used to come from far off places saying, ‘I have this issue,’ and he would go with them and help.”

“In terms of personal assets, he had six pairs of clothes, two pairs of shoes, one cell phone and a collection of music — he was crazy about music … That’s all he had.”

In the hours following Shetty’s death, reporters flooded into Talegaon — writing stories about his remarkable life and death. Less than 12 hours later, local police got what seemed to be a very lucky break.

On the night of the attack at 7pm, police were approached by convicted criminal, Santosh Shinde, who alleged that 16 months earlier he had been offered 1 lakh rupees (approximatelyAU$2,500) by local lawyer Vijay Dabhade to kill Shetty.

Shinde allegedly took the money but later refused to follow through on the deal. Shetty was wanted dead, reported the police, because he had exposed a slew of illegal activities involving Dabhade and was about to reveal more. Fearing the repercussions, police allege that Dabhade along with two associates and a relative hired two hit men to silence Shetty for good. By the end of January, all six were in custody.

Meanwhile, on 21 January, Mumbai’s High Court took an interest in Shetty’s case and raised concerns about “the protection of activists” in the state. Shetty’s death, the court discovered, was the most recent tragedy in a string of violent attacks involving Indian activists.

Two weeks before Shetty’s murder, shots were fired at the home of Mumbai activist Nayana Kathpalia. Since 2000, numerous activists have been the victims of violent crimes, including the killing of well-known land rights activist Navleen Kumar in 2002. Sumaira Abdulali, founder of MITRA (Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists) has seen plenty of violence against activists in the Mumbai area.”I think it has happened to almost every activist in the city. It’s a part of the job here to receive death threats,” she says.

Abdulali, who was bashed in 2004 while protesting the illegal removal of sand at a Maharashtran beach, says many of the cases remain unsolved despite activists naming their attackers in police reports.

What’s perhaps even more concerning is that instead of getting better, the situation for activists in India appears to be getting worse. In 2007 India was ranked 72nd on theTransparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world. By 2009, India had slipped down to 84th place. Abdulali blames this culture of corruption for the lack of justice.

It’s that climate of corruption that leads Satish’s brothers, Sandeep and Santosh, to fear that the police investigation into Shetty’s murder will accomplish little.

In the year leading up to his death, Shetty had been uncovering many illegal land acquisitions in the Pune district, involving multi-million dollar companies with large-scale development interests. In October, his investigations led to the suspension of land sub-registrar, Ashwini Kshirsagar. Shetty alleged that Kshirsagar wrongfully registered land so that it could be developed. It was at this time that Shetty began to fear for his life.

In a letter to police on 11 November 2009 requesting police protection, Shetty wrote that he had registered a complaint against a company called IRB Infrastructure Developments, as well as against an IRB subsidiary called Aryan Infrastructure Investments and against local farmers for preparing bogus documents about government lands.

“[The Kshirsagar case] has shocked the concerned companies,” Shetty wrote in his protection application. “They are trying to pressure me with the help of a third party … I had heard from many places that they have decided to cause danger to my family and me.”

At the time of Shetty’s death, his request for protection had not been granted, which has led to an inquiry into the delay, acknowledging the possibility that it was deliberately stalled by local police.

Sandeep is convinced that Shetty’s death was organised by powerful interests which wanted to see him gone. He alleges that the six men who currently stand accused of the murder are merely “red herrings to protect and insulate the real culprits” who stood to lose millions through Shetty’s advocacy.

Sandeep Shetty

Frustrated by the direction of the investigation into his brother’s death, Sandeep took matters into his own hands. On 10 March he filed an affidavit with Mumbai’s High Court, alleging that police had not seriously pursued those named by Shetty in his protection application.

“The police are now interrogating the most obvious suspects only as a formality,” Sandeep wrote in the affidavit.

Now, more than four months after his brother’s death, Sandeep and his sister Shobha have moved from their family home in Talegeon to an apartment in Pune, in an attempt to distance themselves from the bad memories.

Sandeep’s despair is now mixed with anger at the lack of public outrage. “When a couple of guys get beaten in Australia there is a huge outcry. But what about when a guy gets killed in his street? Forget about his killing, nobody is interested in his work.

“When Ghandiji [Mahatma Gandhi] fasted for one day, thousands of people went to the streets and that was a deterrent for the government to touch that guy. Today a man is hacked to death in broad daylight after working for locals for 15 years and he doesn’t have a witness in the whole town. That is the state of our country.

“No Gandhi can thrive in this society.”

When newmatilda.com spoke with the investigating officer on Satish Shetty’s case, Dilip Arjunrao Shinde, he said the six accused remained in police custody and had been charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to kill, but would not comment further.

When questioned about allegations of land fraud and his involvement in Shetty’s death, IRB managing director, Virendra Mhaiskar told newmatilda.com that neither he nor any of his employees had ever met Shetty and that he had “no clue” as to why Shetty filed a protection application against him. All land acquired by the company had been acquired legitimately, he said. Mhaiskar said he had given a detailed statement to police.

After Sandeep filed his affidavit, the Mumbai High Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct an inquiry into Satish Shetty’s murder.

That investigation continues.

Published by newmatilda.com on May 18, 2010.

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