Early morning on January 11, I was to leave for London to address a British Parliamentary panel of the effects a London-based British company has on forest communities and regions in India. I was stopped at immigration, my baggage was de-planed, the immigration officer claimed that this was being done on the orders of government of India, and my passport was stamped with the word “offload”. No further reason was given. On a day that several heads of state, millions of people representing every possible cross-section of society, marched for Freedom of Speech, a very poor precedent was set on the same by the largest democracy in the world.
As a lawyer and activist, this incident has only deepened my conviction to keep fighting for equality and freedom in our country.
I’ve been working in Mahan, Madhya Pradesh, since 2011. Mahan is one of the oldest and largest sal forests in Asia. The local communities are dependent on the forest for their livelihoods and the forest is also home to several rare and endangered species. A portion of this reserve was earmarked for open cast mining. Not only would this displace the forest community, but also impact the livelihoods of thousands more who depend on forest produce; and impact the wildlife, water and air in the region. Community members in Mahan formed the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti to protect their forests and rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006. The block had been allocated to Mahan Coal (a joint venture of Hindalco and Essar). Essar is listed in London. I was invited by a British parliamentary panel to talk about my work with forest communities in Mahan. We have equally engaged with all major parties and relevant politicians and administrators in India on this issue, and continue to do so.
Why was I singled out?
The act of engaging all relevant stakeholders is part and parcel of my work as a member of Greenpeace and indeed the responsibility of any vibrant civil society in any functional democracy. Is my profession the reason I was singled out? Surely not, since that would be totally unconstitutional. In this case, the British parliamentary panel were stakeholders as much as the Indian political parties and parliamentarians we engage with. They have the right to be informed of the actions of a British company abroad, and I have the right to supply that information and present the social and environmental impacts of the project – otherwise known as freedom of speech. The act was neither an attack on the Indian government, nor a violation of the laws of our country. Then why was I debarred from leaving the country? The media has reported that my name was on a “lookout circular”.
Protecting community rights
A lookout circular is normally issued when a person is wanted in a case but is absconding; or a red corner notice is pending against him or a person is suspect in a criminal case and is feared to flee the country or has restraining orders from a court against him. I am a mother of a nine-year-old son and I have spent the last three years away from my family with the community in Mahan to save their forest which they call home. Instead of issuing a lookout notice, they need to visit Mahan and speak to the community themselves. Is working with forest communities a criminal activity? Is my fighting to protect fundamental rights the reason behind the government’s action? In that case can we really call ourselves a democracy? Surely these cannot be the reason, since they go against the spirit of our Constitution completely.
I continue to look for the reason of this arbitrary display of power. The government continues its media inquisition and we have not heard directly from them. I have written to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Home Ministry. The totally baseless allegations that social organisations are affecting the GDP of our country also continue unabated with the government offering no insight on how we managed to achieve this extraordinary feat, far beyond our powers in my opinion. A veil of silence seems to have descended and responsibility continues to be deflected, while ministry officials continue to assert they are oblivious.
I continue to be steadfast in my convictions and will continue my work to support rights, equality and freedom. This is not the first roadblock we have faced, and it won't be the last. We are facing a struggle with forces much larger and much more powerful, and the immense support I have received gives me the resilience to carry on.
A version of this post first appeared on the Greenpeace blog.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.