DAYS AFTER he spoke about State-led persecution of social activists at a public hearing on fabricated cases in Delhi, Sunil Mishra was sentenced to life imprisonment on 18 October by a local court in Betul district, Madhya Pradesh. He was found guilty in three of the 66 false cases filed against him in 1998.
Mishra, a noted social activist and founder-president of Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (KSS), has been charged with murdering a fire engine driver, attacking a police officer with the intent to take his life and setting an inspector on fire during the 1998 farmer’s agitation in Betul district.
On 8 January 1998, the KSS had organised a rally of nearly 75,000 farmers in Multai town of the district demanding compensation for crops destroyed in the winter.
Buckling under pressure, the district authorities announced a compensation of 400 per acre. However, this failed to satisfy the farmers and they decided to intensify their protest. On 12 January, more than 10,000 people laid siege to the Multai tehsil office. The police opened fire, killing 24 farmers and injuring 115 others.
Following the incident the Digvijaya Singh-led Congress government filed a series of false cases against Mishra. He was arrested and tortured for three days, ahead of being produced before the magistrate. He was later imprisoned for three months, before being granted bail on 27 March 1998. Of the 66 cases registered against him, most were withdrawn later. However, he continued to face prosecution in 16 cases.
The state government later ordered a judicial inquiry into the firing. The report is yet to be made public. Activists say requests made under the Right to Information Act have revealed that it is untraceable.
The same year, Mishra fought the Assembly election from Multai as the “people’s representative” and won by a margin of over 50 percent.
It did not take long before Mishra became an eyesore for both the ruling and the Opposition party and he has faced the consequences of raising his voice.
The kind of storm he has been able to generate can be understood by the fact that there have been eight attempts to take his life and he has been arrested more than 125 times with over 130 cases filed against him.
Following his latest arrest on 18 October, Mishra, in an open letter, has denied all the charges levelled against him.
“The judgment does not even record the cross-examination done by us. It is disappointing. We are going to appeal against it in the Jabalpur High Court,” says his lawyer Anuradha Bhargava.
Mishra’s conviction has taken the activist fraternity by surprise. Gautam Bandopadyaya, a water rights activist from Chhattisgarh, who has followed Mishra’s work for over three decades, says he is being persecuted for playing the role of an active opposition when political parties have turned a blind eye to the plight of farmers.
“For years, he has taken the issues of the streets to the Legislative Assembly and now false charges are being used to stop him from contesting next year’s election. We will reply to this politically by taking these issues to the people,” says Bandopadyaya.
THAT MISHRA, popularly known as Sunilam, still enjoys considerable support on the ground was evident by the fact that when the judgment was pronounced, the town of Multai suspended all business in protest.
The National Alliance for People’s Movements, an umbrella organisation of several NGOs, has strongly condemned Mishra’s conviction, saying, “This is nothing but a travesty of justice, since those who need to be punished are serving in the police force and have been promoted since then, while those who were struggling for the rights of farmers have been sentenced after 14 years.”
A strongly-worded protest note signed by activists such as Medha Patkar and Prafulla Samantra says, “The wrong sentence given to Sunilam is one thing, but one is left to wonder when the 24 farmers (who were killed) and their families get justice?”
“What happened with Binayak Sen is being repeated with Sunilam,” says Patkar. “He is a non-violent social activist and is being targeted because of his protest against some of the corporate projects. There are loopholes in the judicial process too and the higher judiciary would be approached for relief.”
Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.