× Close
citizen activism

Assaults, false cases: Mumbai RTI activist's murder highlights dangers faced by civic crusaders

Bhupendra Vira, who battled illegal constructions, was shot dead in his home last week.

In the past six years, Bhupendra Vira filed more than 3,000 applications under the Right to Information Act regarding encroachments and illegal construction in his neighbourhood in Kalina, Mumbai. On the night of October 15, the 61-year-old’s activism was brought to an abrupt halt when he was shot dead by an intruder at home.

Two days later, on Monday, the Mumbai Police arrested Razzaq Khan, a former corporator, and his son Amjad Khan for the activist’s murder. The Khans were the biggest targets of Vira’s RTI inquiries. They had allegedly taken hold of the activist’s godown illegally and had also been arrested in 2010 for assaulting his son.

Vira’s murder has not come as a surprise to activists like him who routinely use the transparency law and public interest litigation to take on the land, mining and sand mafias. Since the RTI Act came into force in 2005, citizens who have used it have been vulnerable to threats and attacks from those they have targeted. In the first 10 years of the law, at least 39 activists have been killed across the country and another 275 assaulted.

In 2011, the Whistleblowers Protection Act was introduced, and amended in 2015, but it has been criticised as an ineffective paper tiger. Activists in Mumbai, where real estate irregularities are rampant, claimed they have learnt to live with the death threats, intimidation, false cases and assault.

“Expecting police protection is pointless for many of us,” said Dayanand Stalin, an environment activist with Mumbai-based non-profit Vanashakti. “I have found that the police often end up protecting the offenders rather than the activists.”

Saving a mangrove

Harish Pandey did not know Bhupendra Vira, but when he read about the latter’s murder, he could not help but think that it could easily have been him instead.

Pandey’s apartment in Dahisar, Mumbai’s northernmost suburb, is close to a notified mangrove forest. In 2009, when he noticed that nearly 425 acres of the dense forest had been destroyed by bunds, he decided to file an RTI application. Several queries later, he uncovered some dubious dealings. The forest land, originally owned by an old salt manufacturing company, had been handed over to a real estate group, which had obtained questionable approval from city authorities to start building bunds on the land.

“The approval had ostensibly been given for the purpose of cultivating salt, but it came with a rider that the mangroves could not be cut,” said Pandey, a businessman and secretary of the New Link Road Residents’ Forum. “How is that even possible?”

Over the next three years, Pandey and his team at the residents’ group filed numerous complaints with the state’s revenue department to bring the violations on record. The state, in turn, filed police cases against the builder, which Pandey diligently followed in court. As a citizen activist, he had fought illegal construction before, but this time the backlash was intense.

“From 2009 to 2012, I was threatened with dire consequences several times,” he said. “I once got a call from someone who said I would be killed and buried in the mangroves if I did not stop. At one point, the builder’s goons attacked my car. Once, a group of them surrounded my building, came up to my doorstep and threatened my wife and son. My watchman was thrashed. They openly offered me crores to give up the case.”

Pandey went to the police to ask for protection. He said he was called to the police station several times to give his statement, but was never given protection. He feared for his life and that of his family. But he was determined to follow up on his complaints as a matter of integrity, he said. Even when a few members of his team opted out of the fight.

“I had to take some hard decisions," he said. "I sold my car so we could travel untraced, and our movements had to be restricted.”

The real estate group filed a counter case against Pandey and two of his fellow activists, accusing them of attempt to murder and demanding Rs 10 crores in extortion money. “This is the standard modus operandi, implicating activists in false cases,” Pandey said. “In this case, the builder’s allegations were quashed when we moved the High Court.”

Finally, in 2012, Pandey won the fight with a court order to the builder to pay a fine for destroying 425 acres of notified forest land. Since then, Pandey has worked on several other cases of land grab and continues to face threats and bribe offers from affected companies and politicians.

“I am not going to give up, but one precaution I have taken is to make myself debt-free,” said Pandey. “That way, no one can blackmail my family if something happens to me.”

Police involvement 

Like Harish Pandey, Dayanand Stalin – a full-time environment activist fighting to protect mangroves, wetlands and forests in Maharashtra – is no stranger to threats, intimidation and false cases.

“When I enter mining sites, my exit routes are often blocked by the mafia, and I have to use my influence with the residents to help me get out,” said Stalin. “At least on three occasions, I have been charged with trespassing on government or private property. But they have never been able to prove these allegations in a court of law.”

Three years ago, Stalin was leading a campaign to block illegal mining in the Western Ghats in Sindhudurg district. “I had already been threatened by the mining mafia multiple times and on one occasion, when I was supposed to address a village meeting, there was an attempt to kill me,” he said.

Stalin was on his way from Goa to Sindhudurg to attend the meeting when he got a call from well-wishers telling him to stay away because an attack on him had been planned. As his car approached the meeting venue, Stalin said he saw what appeared to be a group of protestors standing outside. “When my friend approached the mob, the goons engulfed him but when they realised it was not me, they began to ask specifically for me,” he said. “It was clear that they were not there just to protest.”

Stalin also claimed there was a clear nexus between various land and mining mafia and the police. He said that on several visits to the Kanjurmarg landfill in Mumbai last year to document garbage dumping violations, police vans had met him within 10 minutes of his arrival. “They would tell me I could not enter the site without permission, but they did not target any other civilian going in,” he said. “And how would they even find out I was there? Clearly the contractor at the dumping ground had a lot of influence with the police.”

Despite Vira’s murder and his lack of faith in the police, Stalin said he was committed to his work. “These dangers are an occupational hazard,” he added.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BULLETIN BY 

As corporate India changes from strait-jacketed to stylish, here’s how you can stay on-trend

For men and women, tips to make your office style game strong.

Office wear in India tends to be conservative. For men, the staple blue or white shirt and dark trouser arranged in a monotonous assembly line has been a permanent feature of the wardrobe (a tactic shrewdly administered to ensure minimum time is spent shopping). For women, androgynous work wear has been ever reliable and just as dull.

But camouflage is of no use in the corporate jungle anymore. The Indian office is no longer a place for dull, unthinking conformity, it is a place that expects vibrancy in thought and action. With a younger workforce and a greater mix of multinationals and jobs, there is a greater acceptance of edgier trends. Men are stepping away from their blues and greys and women are reshaping their workwear to be more interesting and distinctly feminine. As corporate India is proving its mettle on the global stage and to itself, it’s also growing confident in expressing individuality and style in the formal work environment. From clothing to office décor and fashion accessories to work tools, the workplace is becoming a place to display merit as well as taste.

Work clothes have shed their monochrome and moved into the light of technicolor. Bright colours have steadily become popular as Pantone’s annual colours of the year show us. For the corporate warrior who wants to be stylish here is our pick of trends worth considering.


Statement jacket. A statement jacket is one that doesn’t merely stand out in a crowd, but blows it open for you. How do you recognize one? You’ll know it when you see it. Most statement jackets have a non-traditional color. They could also have subtle prints on them if you want to go funky.

Technicolor socks. Multicolored socks (or hipster socks as they are known in some quarters) peek out every once in a while and brighten things up in the workplace. From polka dots and caricatures to geometric patterns, you can choose a pair to suit your mood or your workplace. A great way of telling people you don’t take fashion rules seriously (except these ones).

Plaid: Well played is well, plaid. Great for your 9-to-5 and even performs well after. Plaids, in shirts and jackets, are perhaps the most versatile tool in the corporate warrior’s armory, and straddle the fine line between formal and casual effectively. They’re also age-resistant meaning a young buck in his twenties can rock them as much as your seasoned forty-plus campaigner. Plaid, though Scottish in origin, has an Indian connection too, in the Madras checks that became popular all over the world after the World War.

Inside collars and cuffs. If you like to keep it classy but still a little edgy, nothing does it like contrast or printed insides of your collar and cuffs. After the work day, when it’s proper to roll up your sleeves, it even adds a touch of evening character.

Coloured Shoes. Alternate your staid blacks and browns with variants like burgundy, light buttery browns and ashen blues. Play with moccasins, tassel loafers and lace-ups. Go beyond leather and try suede and maybe even canvas. But do remember to take a quick course in matching.


Floral prints. Flowers are back (though one could argue that they never went out) and now they’re storming the bastion of your office. Even the traditional Indian paisley is making its way into formal wear. With the prevalence of digital printing, with a little hunting, you’ll even find beautiful florals in watercolour style.

Scarves. The first rule of wearing scarves is to rid yourself of the notion that they are to be worn only in winter. A colourful scarf paired with a monochrome top works wonders. A dozen online videos will teach you to wear it in a dozen ways. Plus, it always comes in handy when the thermostat isn’t to your liking. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw wears scarves frequently, and is a great example of how you can use it strikingly.

Pants. Yes. Pants. Experiment with different styles and you’ll be surprised how they can really spruce up a boring look. Silhouette is everything when it comes to pants. Choose from high-waisted, wide legged, pleated to ankle length pants and what not! The best part is offices rarely prescribe silhouettes, so you can always get by with some style even if your workplace demands a uniform.

Houndstooth. The houndstooth pattern is at the sweet intersection between casual and formal and can be worn to make a splash in either occasion. Whether its jackets or a dress or a simple top, a houndstooth pattern is incredibly versatile.

Chic suits. A sharp suit is a must for a modern professional’s wardrobe. And please don’t even look in the direction of black. Pastel colours or even greys with patterns are great options for suits. Uncoordinated suits are also a great option depending on how edgy you want your office attire to be.


It isn’t enough to be well-dressed in the modern workplace. A good professional is known by his or her tools and how they carry it.

Designer laptop sleeves. Your high-precision instrument deserves a cover chosen with as much care. Black Neoprene is out. Pastel monochromes, geometric patterns and bold designs are very much in. Different materials like cotton, leather and even paper are a great option.

Natural fiber or leather bags (yes kill your black synthetic one now). Briefcases are ancient and black messenger bags are done. Go for a color variant or a subtle pattern. Pay attention to the different leather finishes. Adding a few nicely done metal trims can make all the difference. But convenience and ease are top priority. If you travel a lot, get a stylish strolley and thank yourself later.

Commute pack. The urban corporate needs to be productive at all times, or at the very least, needs to be accessible. A modern commute pack should include wireless headphones, a USB battery pack (power bank) and a wire/gadget organisation pack just so that you’re always prepared.

Machine. We’ve all showed off our latest smartphones. Your work machine is way more important. And like in smartphones, a good laptop is no longer only about performance. The specifications must be top-notch but it has also become an expression of your personality. It can up your style quotient and significantly impact your experience.

Source: Dell
Source: Dell

The Dell XPS 13 is one device that achieves excellence in both form and function. With a virtually borderless infinity display that maximises screen space, and measuring a super slim 9-15mm, the Dell XPS 13 is an unalloyed delight. A sixth generation Intel® Core™ processor and the latest Intel HD graphics gives cutting edge performance for 18 hours and 14 minutes per charge—the longest battery life in any 13-inch device. The Dell XPS 13 epitomises the ethos of the modern day corporate warrior—chic and smart. To make even more of a fashion statement, you now get a free TUMI laptop sleeve worth Rs. 9000 with your XPS notebook purchase (offer valid till 31st October). For more information about the Dell XPS 13, see here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Dell and not by the Scroll editorial team.

× Close