“WE know the killers of Lalit Mehta and they will be brought to justice. We will make the perpetrators of heinous crimes such as murder pay with their lives. We have started the process for this and it will soon culminate in strong and decisive action.” So says a leaflet circulated by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) on June 22 in Chattarpur and adjoining areas of Palamau district in Jharkhand. It even names a few Palamau-based contractors who were involved in public works under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) as suspects in the conspiracy to kill the social activist Lalit Mehta. The leaflet further states that Mehta and his associates were on the verge of exposing the rampant corruption practised by the contractors and their colleagues in NREGS activities in the district. This, it asserts, was the primary reason for the killing of Mehta in the third week of May.
The leaflet did indeed create a flutter, not just in Chattarpur, where the mutilated body of Lalit Mehta was found on May 14, and its adjoining areas but also in Ranchi, the State capital.
Senior officials in the State administration and the police as well as a number of social activists are a worried lot. They had not expected the extremist CPI (Maoist) – or naxalites, as the party is referred to in common parlance – to take an active interest in the Lalit Mehta case. Especially since the paths of Mehta and the CPI (Maoist) were different.
Mehta, a 36-year-old engineer-turned-social-activist, was involved in activities that sought to advance rural employment, basic health facilities, right to food, and child rights. His organisational involvement was essentially with foundations that had a Gandhian orientation and outlook. Mehta was a full-time activist of the Right to Food Campaign and the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan; he was also the secretary of the Vikas Sahyog Kendra (VSK), a non-governmental organisation based in Palamau. The VSK, among other things, was involved in the social audit of NREGS in different parts of the district and sought to ensure better and transparent implementation of the prestigious programme of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The NREGS audit was guided by the noted development economist and activist Jean Dreze.
The faltering of government and police officials in the murder investigation could have provoked the naxalites to take an active interest in the matter. The investigation by the local police was, right from the beginning, indolent and raised suspicions that it was designed to protect the culprits. When Mehta’s body was found near the Kandra jungles of Chattarpur, his bike, Rs.12,000 in cash, his mobile phone and other documents were reported missing.
The first reaction from the police, even before they started a formal probe, was to highlight the loss of cash and other valuables and portray the murder as a consequence of robbery. The fact that the murder took place just a day after a team of NREGS volunteers from Delhi and elsewhere arrived in Chainpur and Chhattarpur blocks of Palamau district was not considered at all by the local police. This anomaly was pointed out by many social activists including Manoj Kumar Singh, president of the VSK and a long-time associate of Lalit Mehta.
Even when it was taken into consideration later, the reactions from the local administration and the police were strange. The district administration, in its first official report on the murder dated May 31, rejected the linkage between the timing of the murder and the NREGS social audit by Mehta and his associates.
The report, which was filed by Palamau District Commissioner Nagendra Prasad Singh and Superintendent of Police Deepak Kumar Verma, accused Dreze of orchestrating a campaign to malign the district administration. It claimed that Dreze and his team of social auditors were “creating an environment to paint the Palamau administration, along with the Jharkhand government, as deeply entrenched in corruption and suggesting that works under NREGS in all districts of Jharkhand, including Palamau, are being done only on paper.”
The report also slammed a social audit, done by Dreze and his team, that specifically pointed out to irregularity and corruption by two officials of the Chattarpur block as an allegation “without substance”. It said that Dreze and his team “took advantage of semi-literate tribal workers” and got them to “sign on a complaint” that the two officials had taken a bribe of Rs.4,500 in two instalments.
According to the report, the “substancelessness” of the charge was established through an inquiry conducted by district officials. It claims that it was found out during the inquiry that the workers had got proper wages but Dreze and company misled the complainants who were semi-literate. The report, referring to statements by Mehta’s brothers and wife, suggested that the motive to murder Mehta could well have been monetary gain since “Lalit Mehta played an important role in large sums of monetary transactions” involving the VSK.
“Obviously,” pointed out Manoj Kumar Singh while talking to Frontline, “there was a deliberate attempt to sidetrack the investigation and take its focus away from the real culprits.” However, he added, the attempt had been defeated to a large extent through committed action by a number of social activists and politicians.
The report of the district administration evoked widespread condemnation and many social activists – including Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Annie Raja of the Communist Party of India and senior journalist Prabash Joshi – came together under the auspices of the Daman Bhrashtachar Virodhi Samiti and initiated an agitation in Palamau. Pressure was exerted in New Delhi, too, by a delegation of about 100 social activists who met Union Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and sought a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.
The Minister endorsed the value of social audits and made it clear that his Ministry was committed to protecting people and organisations associated with them.
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, too, took note of the events and said in a message that the killing of Mehta “was engineered by vested interests that were apprehensive of Lalit’s exposing their corrupt practices”.
All these pressures at the high level forced the Jharkhand government to change tack. Chief Minister Madhu Koda recommended a CBI inquiry on June 18. He admitted that this move was necessary because the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the State police and the Palamau district administration had not been able to make much headway in the case. “Though the CID probe, which I had earlier ordered, was following the case very closely, I chose to go for the CBI inquiry as a section of people had started suspecting the role of the State police,” Koda said.
Lalit Mehta’s friends, relatives and associates perceived the announcement of the CBI inquiry as a kind of victory in their struggles and expected a speedy investigation.
However, the intimidating message from the naxalites – four days after the announcement of the CBI probe – has added a new dimension to the sequence of events. The consequences of this involvement are not predictable. There are apprehensions that the atmosphere could be further vitiated by this.
In the meantime, VSK activists, in association with their colleagues who have come from outside the district and even from outside the State, have resumed the social audit that Lalit Mehta had to leave unfinished. “This is our tribute to a dear colleague and it would continue irrespective of the challenges that come in various forms and shapes,” Manoj Kumar Singh told Frontline. He added that there was an environment of fear and tension, constantly created by the nexus of local contractors, middlemen, bureaucrats and politicians in activities relating to the NREGS and food supply under the Public Distribution System (PDS). The VSK and its fraternal organisations are determined not to succumb to any form of intimidation that might come up against them while working in these areas. Clearly, Lalit Mehta’s spirit is very much alive among his activist colleagues.