This piece was also published on Times of India (Jul 8, 2013)
It is not one of those Sunday mornings one would wish for. I was looking forward to watching a cricket match and spending a lazy Sunday at home but didn’t quite expect what was about to come. Living in a distant land far away from home, any bad news – big or small – can increase one’s anxiety multifold but to hear that a dear friend is in hospital battling for her life is simply improbable.
I share camaraderie with larger RTI family in India. Having personally known many RTI and transparency activists and following their work very closely for several years, I feel outraged every time I hear about any activist getting attacked or murdered. The feeling of helplessness would be overwhelming. It has been hard to digest the reality that someone working for the good of the society is not only getting crushed by vested interests but also that the culprits get away with it most of the time.
The long list of well-known activists who have succumbed to the attacks includes Lalit Mehta of Jharkand, Amit Jethwa of Gujarat and Satish Shetty of Maharashtra and the list of those severely attacked includes Akhil Gogoi of Assam (assault) and Ramesh Agarwal of Chhattisgarh (shot at). All these attacks caused uproar among people but they continue unabated till today.
When I heard that Santosh was hit by a speeding car which vanished without a trace, it brought back old memories. Santosh, a close aide of RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia, joined their NGO Parivartan to work for social causes when she was barely 18 years old. She is a committed and a meticulous worker, who used RTI very effectively to expose various scams in Delhi neighbourhoods, especially her battle against corruption in Public Distribution Systems. This got her many enemies and earned several threats and attacks. In 2005, local goons affected by her work slit her throat with blades but Santosh not only survived that brutal attack but also emerged stronger to continue her crusade. She resisted all attempts, from both friends and enemies alike, to slow her down and continued with more vigour than before.
Those who didn’t know Santosh before would have hard time believing that this charming, ever-smiling young woman also doubles up as a fiery activist and fights injustice and corruption. She worked out of Parivatan office in Sunder Nagari and is fondly known in that area as ‘Didi’ or Santa. When I was volunteering with Parivartan in 2008, she took me to houses of several poor, working-class families in the neighbourhood whose first line of defense is Santosh. They shared their troubles either in interacting with or getting services from the government and she was always ready to help. She did this with deep love and a passion to help others. In recent times, she has been active on many social issues, especially safety of women. She was announced as the final candidate of AAP for the Delhi’s Seemapuri constituency but is currently put on the ventilator, battling for her life in a hospital, instead of campaigning in the streets.
A case of attempt to murder has been filed by the police as there is a strong suspicion of foul play by family and friends. This is especially after she told her colleagues a week before the incident that she had been receiving threats for making her foray into electoral politics. She was apparently ‘advised’ to stay out of politics if she wished to be alive. Having faced many such threats in past, she continued her work normally despite serious concerns among her family members. Concerned AAP leaders also had asked her not to travel alone and had requested some volunteers to accompany her at all times but alas! One would like to believe that this is a regular accident but the past history of attacks and the freakish nature of this hit-and-run make it hard to do so.
This is outrageous and has to stop – these so-called hit-and-run ‘accidents’, getting shot at, in point blank range, by anonymous miscreants in motorcycles and other kinds of harassments and assaults. Are these attacks becoming common because the culprits believe they can get away with murder easily rather than corruption charges or is it their hope that they can continue their merry ways of swindling once they eliminate the ‘trouble-maker’? It’s high time for all of us – citizens in India and Indians living abroad – to say enough is enough. We should not tolerate any more attacks on activists, whistleblowers and information seekers and demand strong laws and proper implementation of it to protect this endangered species called transparency activists.
It is extremely tragic that a committed social activist like Santosh, who has spent most of her youth working for common good, is lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her life. In a recent TV interview, she said: “You don’t need to be highly educated to change our country, you just need passion in your heart”. This is quintessential Santosh. My heart bleeds for her but I am confident that she will bounce back and continue fighting for a better tomorrow with same energy and passion.
Get well soon, dear Santosh!