Over 300 of them participate in a discussion on tribal rights. Participants alleged that the State machinery is trying to crush their peaceful movements against oppression.

The corridors of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) rang with the songs of tribals from the Betul, Harda, Hoshangabad and Khandwa districts of Madhya Pradesh on Friday. Over 300 of them came all the way to Mumbai for a discussion on ‘Who will defend the defenders of tribal rights?’ organised by TISS professor Shamim Modi.

Addressing the tribals, Ms. Modi’s husband Anurag said, “Academicians study the issues related to tribal rights. Assembling you here is a way of bridging the divide between our lived experiences and the things they study from books.” The Modi couple has been working amongst Dalits, tribals and labourers in Madhya Pradesh for the last 15 years.

Fifty-year-old Mangal Singh, a resident of Betul, was a member of the Shramik Adivasi Sanghatan that worked to organise labourers to demand wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) on time. He also tried to resist corruption in the forest department. Three years back, when he went to meet the Collector along with two others, Mr. Singh claimed that they were put in jail under Section 151 (preventive detention).

“They kept us in jail for 14 days,” he said. “It was only when Shamimji intervened and filed a bail application in the High Court that we were released. The High Court agreed that we were detained illegally and directed the police to pay us Rs.10,000 as compensation.”

It was early this year that Ms. Modi, an alumnus of the TISS, decided to move to Mumbai after multiple attempts were made on her life in Madhya Pradesh. “I had filed a PIL against the nexus of the BJP’s mining mafia and the forest department,” she said. “The court ordered an inquiry, which proved that illegal excavation was going on in many areas. I made enemies in the BJP’s mining mafia who tried to harm me.”

However, it was in Mumbai that the worst attempt on her life was made. On July 23, Ms. Modi was attacked at her residence by the building’s watchman, who slit her throat and fled. After the police tampered with evidence, the High Court transferred the matter to the Criminal Investigation Department, which is presently carrying out investigations.

Ms. Modi suspected that the watchman was hired by the people against her to kill her. She also alleged police involvement in destroying evidence and has demanded that the Central Bureau of Investigation look into the matter so that it can carry out investigations in another State (Madhya Pradesh).

During the discussion, Ms. Modi said: “We are strictly Gandhian in our approach and do not believe in violence at all. If the government is genuine about its desire to curb naxalism, the only way is to reward the people who have remained non-violent in their fight against the oppression that tribals are subjected to. It can then exert moral pressure on the naxals to give up arms. Instead, it is the State machinery that is trying to crush such peaceful movements. That is why we want to raise the question: Who will defend the defenders of tribal rights?”

Such violation of human rights forced human rights organisations, institutes and individuals to form the Committee for Justice to Shamim Modi, which includes faculty and students of the TISS, the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Committee for the Release of Binayak Sen, Justice Rajendra Sachchar, Kuldip Naiyar and others. Representatives of these organisations also participated in the discussion.