Crusader for Justice, Peace and Truth
Nirjhari Sinha - from Jan Sangharsh Manch to Alt News
Sometimes, it is just one link that holds a long chain together. Nirjhari Sinha, a veteran social activist from Gujarat's Ahmedabad city, is one such crucial link. She has, for over three decades, fought for the common people's struggle for justice, peace and truth.
Nirjhari Sinha's journey in public life started in the company of her husband, Mukul Sinha (1951- 2014) a renowned human rights activist and lawyer. Mukul and Nirjhari were physicists to begin with, engaged in research at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, in the early 1970s.
Mukul, a Bengali and Nirjhari, a Gujarati, would not only fall in love and marry in 1977, but also go on to build a wonderful, life-long mission of social service, impacting the lives of hundreds and thousands of fellow-citizens.
Never one to tolerate injustice, scientist Mukul Sinha protested and complained against a sanitation worker being kicked and humiliated on the PRL premises. The management told him to keep out of workers' issues and to stick to his role as a visiting scientist. The PRL employees, on the other hand, were delighted that an academician was taking interest in their problems.
Gradually, Mukul Sinha started getting more involved with the PRL Staff Welfare Association. Matters worsened when senior security guards were suddenly terminated and replaced by CISF guards. Under Mukul's guidance, PRL workers filed for the registration of their own trade union, which was approved by June 1979.
The angry PRL management ordered all its workers to refrain from participating in any trade union activities. The 133 PRL employees, who refused to follow the orders of the management, were banned from entering their office premises. Mukul Sinha and his associates fought for the rights of these workers. The PRL workers were taken back after a month in September 1979.
However, on 30th December,1979, despite his excellent academic performance, Mukul Sinha's contract was terminated by a furious management, which realised he was leading the agitations for workers' rights. In those tough times, Nirjhari Sinha continued to work with the PRL and take care of the family as the sole breadwinner, while supporting all of Mukul's initiatives.
Her unconditional personal and professional support turned out to be the anchor of Mukul Sinha's lifetime of peerless social activism. As their son Pratik Sinha puts it, "My mother was my father's equal colleague in his legal practice and social activism, apart from running the home."
The experience at PRL gave a new mission to the Sinha couple. They turned to more intensive struggles for the rights of workers. Mukul Sinha made the first systematic efforts to organise employees of other academic, research and development, and other government institutions in Ahmedabad, such as Indian Institute of Management (IIM), National Institute of Design (NID), Textile Industry's Research Association (Atira) and B.M. Institute of Mental Health, to secure employee rights and to protest against high-handedness and oppression by the management.
From the scientific and educational sectors, they turned to private industrial workers, who they found were in a worse condition than government workers, and finally to workers in the unorganised sector, ultimately forming a federation of trade unions across various sectors. They also actively worked with the Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions to achieve their aims.
In 1981, they fought for reservation for the oppressed castes, amid a highly charged atmosphere of caste conflict. When the anti-reservation struggle turned communal, they stood by Dalits' reservation rights and also spread the message of communal harmony.
Mukul Sinha graduated as a lawyer in 1988, joined the Gujarat High Court in 1989, and in 1990, co-founded the Jan Sangharsh Manch (translated as: People's Struggle Forum) along with Nirjhari. The Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM) consisted of leaders and activists drawn from the Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions. "Working with trade unions for workers' rights, especially the right to shelter, right to education and minority rights was our main focus initially," recalls Nirjhari Sinha, referring to those early days.
Gradually, JSM grew into a banyan tree that would seek out and connect with workers and their families. As Nirjhari puts it, "We realised that it is not only the workers but also their families, their conditions of living, educational and sanitation facilities for their children and family members, all these were also very important. So, we started connecting with their families and working for their all-round progress. Mukul argued over 60 PILs for the Right to Shelter and as a result, scores of people were allotted houses under different government schemes."
The result of this crusade for justice for the working masses resulted in the JSM forming a deep bonding with workers and their families at various levels. The JSM became a platform for educating workers about crucial issues and training them to work unitedly for a better future, overcoming all the barriers of gender, religion and caste. Years of such positive training and education were to bear their fruits in the near future.
The JSM naturally extended its mission from economic justice to peaceful conflict resolution. Its members were quick to realise the dangers of religion mixing with politics when the 1992-1993 Hindu-Muslim riots broke out all over India, especially in nearby Mumbai, following L.K. Advani's divisive Rath Yatra.
Ahmedabad, which had already seen a major riot in 1969, witnessed incidents of violence in 1992-93 as well. Nirjhari Sinha clearly recalls that the leaders of the JSM had called upon the workers to remain united at all costs.
When political leaders were dividing the country in the name of religion, trade union leaders in the Manch were telling people that religion was a clever means to distract them from real issues. The real issues were economic: poverty, unemployment and exploitation of the working classes. The workers listened to their leaders and the social fabric remained largely intact.
However, the 2002 Gujarat riots left everyone shocked. "Things were very bad. If 1992 was the beginning, 2002 was the culmination. We realised that there was a vertical divide among people due to religion and we had to bridge that divide. So, we started actively spreading the message of communal harmony through our trade unions," Nirjhari recalled..
The first step was to unite all the workers across the religious divide and make it clear to them that indulging in rioting at the behest of politicians would only lead them to prison and orphan their families. Peace meetings and peace marches were taken out by workers. In the first meeting held after the 2002 carnage, Mukul Sinha brought two Muslim workers to a meeting of 200 Hindu workers, remembered Nirjhari.
"He challenged the gathering that they could burn the two Muslim workers alive, if such burning could solve their financial problems and increase their wages. The Hindu workers were shocked and replied that they could not imagine doing that to their fellow workers.
"Mukul then asked them if what was happening in Gujarat was right. With that, all of them resolved to overcome the religious divide and workers of all communities together took out a peace march. Since then, every year, February 28, the day when the 2002 Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg massacres took place, is celebrated as Kaumi Ekta Din (Communal Harmony Day).
"Men and women, especially Hindu and Muslim women in large numbers participate in our various gatherings and activities to spread the message of inter-faith unity and harmony. We are also connected with the Safai Kamgaars, the sanitation workers. So, we can connect with a large number of Dalit workers and can build up a Dalit-Muslim unity, especially among the women workers," said Nirjhari.
However, the real challenge came when Mukul Sinha represented the riot victims before the Nanavati Commission. He represented the riot victims in the courts and became one of the most vocal critics of the Gujarat administration. The Sinha couple not only represented the poorest who had lost everything, but also exposed the misdeeds of the Gujarat state government.
Nirjhari Sinha carried out the crucial data analysis of mobile phone records of prominent Hindu right-wing leaders, Gujarat Chief Minister's office, Gujarat Home Minister, other Ministers of the Gujarat government, the Gujarat Police Commissioner, the Godhra District Collector and other vital figures.
"Those calls were crucial to the investigation. There was enough material in the calls to prove how the 2002 Gujarat riots were engineered in Ahmedabad, and how police and politicians connived with the accused," she explained.
The road ahead was exceptionally tough, but Mukul, supported by his wife Nirjhari, fought for legal justice for the victims of the Naroda Patiya massacre as well as victims of several other 2002 atrocities. Their attempts finally led to the arrests of several high-profile rioters including ministers of the government.
They also fought for justice on behalf of the victims of fake encounters in the state. "I completed the mobile call data analysis in the encounter cases of Sohrabuddin, Ishrat Jahan and Sadik Jamal. These data are crucial in any crime investigation. But, unfortunately, the Gujarat government refused to grant permission to prosecute the accused police officers," Nirjhari recalled.
Post 2002, Nirjhari played a crucial role in the fight against the misuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) by the Gujarat government. "POTA had been systematically used by the Government of Gujarat to terrorise the Muslim community into submission. At the end of 2003, 286 Muslim were men booked under POTA on flimsy grounds, and a deliberate attempt was made to make it appear as if the Muslim community as a whole had taken to terrorism, as a reaction to the post-Godhra violence directed against it.
"We organised anti-POTA demonstrations in five cities of India: Ahmedabad, Bombay, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. The women from the families of the arrested men were traumatised, helpless and clueless. They approached the JSM for help," said Nirjhari.
She assisted these women in their fight for justice and helped them to legally challenge the POTA arrests, all through 2004 and 2005. She remembers their remarkable courage and patience in the long legal battles. Eventually, POTA was repealed by the Central government. Of course, Nirjhari's own courage and never-say-die attitude was exceptional, remembers Pratik.
As they focus on peace and conflict resolution, Nirjhari makes two observations. The first is her deep anguish on seeing divisive tendencies flourish in the form of hate speeches, targeting of minority groups and curbs on the freedom of worship and expression, "it is sad that minorities live in fear and have to prove their patriotism repeatedly."
She predicts that big riots like 2002 may not happen in the future, because they affect the big businesses and capitalist community. Instead of that, smaller incidents of violence and killing will keep on happening, all through the year, across the country. This might be a new strategy to create religious polarisation, by politicians and capitalists with vested interests. Dialogue is the only way out of this fierce hate-mongering, she feels.
The second observation is vital: The only way to counter religious intolerance and extremism is to educate and financially empower the masses, give a better life to the working classes and then make them the instruments of social peace and harmony.
But, for that, they need to be taken into confidence. They need to be convinced that fighting for religion and caste will only land them in trouble, while their instigators escape. Their fight should be for socio-economic justice and development.
"I am very much from the trade unions, and even today, our major focus is trade unionism. See, if you work for labourers, if you work for people, for their right to shelter, then they are ready to listen to you. If you just go and tell them something, why should they listen to you? So, you have to connect with them, be a part of them, fight in their own struggle, then they connect, when they find you are genuine…," said Nirjhari.
The JSM has deep roots in Ahmedabad and Gujarat. It gains its credibility from the years and years of patient, honest, painstaking and risky work done for the welfare of workers from every walk of life. Its transition from fighting for justice to striving for peace has been organic and successful.
Quest For Truth
In 2014 Mukul Sinha, the fearless crusader for justice, lost his battle to lung cancer. However, his legacy is carried forward by his companion, Nirjhari Sinha and their son Pratik Sinha. Pratik's work clearly reflects his value-based upbringing by his mother. "My mother has always led from the front, has led the struggle on the streets protesting against injustice; after my father's demise, she bravely led the JSM and its activism," recalled Pratik.
In 2016, following the brutal assault on an innocent Dalit family in Una, Gujarat, in the name of cow protection, the JSM played a prominent role in helping the Una Dalit Adhikar Ladat Samiti to organise a ten-day 'Chalo Una' march, from Ahmedabad to Una. A public meeting was convened at Una on August 15, 2016, which was attended by over 20,000 Dalits and Muslims.
Nirjhari and Pratik Sinha played a leading role in this march and shared all the events along the route on the Twitter handle and Facebook page of 'Truth of Gujarat', a website launched by Mukul Sinha in 2013. "It was only after this that the mainstream media took notice of the Una march. This media attention motivated us to get more involved in the media sphere, as the mainstream media was also being captured and manipulated by vested interests. We started busting fake news through our website in 2016, ultimately leading to the registration of AltNews company in 2017," recalled Nirjhari Sinha.
AltNews has proved to be a turning point. Pratik Sinha and Mohammad Zubair, co-founded Alt News in 2017. Alt News is a non-profit fact-checking news website that specialises in detecting fake news and is committed to true facts reaching the public domain.
Nirjhari Sinha is one of the directors of Pravda Media Foundation, the non-profit parent company of Alt News. She is deeply involved in managing the day-to-day working of the company, its financial and legal matters, and its business strategies since its inception. "I exercise independent judgment, reasonable care, and diligence required for the smooth functioning of the company," said Nirjhari.
Despite death threats and even the imprisonment of Mohammad Zubair in June-July 2022, AltNews continues to do a remarkable job. Pratik Sinha reiterates how his mother has been a modest, silent, unassuming yet larger-than-life presence in the work of both JSM and Alt News.
"Alt News would not have survived without my mother's impeccable management of its finances in this day and age of tremendous pressure on alternate media," said Pratik. Alt News and its founders were declared by Time Magazine as one of the favourites to win the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, a testimony to their determined fight for truth.
Despite all the sadness she feels about the state of affairs today, Nirjhari Sinha is clear about one thing: that solutions should come from politics, that we need genuine political leaders. "We need to have good politicians, who think first about their nation and then about their votes. It is difficult, but that's the reality, you know," saud said.
Renowned social and women's rights activist, author, and co-founder of the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) Zakia Soman said, "It would be no exaggeration to say that, Nirjhari Sinha symbolises a lifetime of tremendous dedication and commitment to justice, peace and truth.
"Her exceptional support to Mukul Bhai, and her role in the JSM, which has made tremendous interventions for workers' rights and the 2002 riot victims are examples of her contribution. She has been extremely courageous in facing so much antagonism from state agencies and political parties.
"She has continued her activism all through, despite so many obstacles, including Mukul Bhai's death, her successful battle with cancer, and several other health issues. She continues to fight for the rights of women and workers, for the most downtrodden and oppressed, and now with her son Pratik in fighting the decline in the media through AltNews.
"Her impact on the lives of women and workers is immeasurable. Her tremendous passion for selfless service and her undimmed zest for life is a great inspiration and support in these difficult times, when all forms of social service and activism are discouraged. It is a great joy, honour and privilege to have known and worked with her."
Indeed, the selfless commitment of Nirjhari Sinha stands out as a powerful and comforting beacon of light in the challenging times we live in.
Dr Rositta Joseph Valiyamattam is a visiting professor in English literature, specialising in postcolonial and subaltern studies.