The brutal murder of tribal rights activist Navleen Kumar in Nallasopara, a distant suburb of Mumbai, has proved that the land sharks in India's commercial capital are just as hungry as they were during the construction boom of the late 1970s and the 1980s.
Kumar had been receiving threats ever since she began fighting the land mafia on behalf of the tribals of Thane district, who had been dispossessed of their ancestral lands, usually unfairly.
On June 19, at about 7.30 am, she was walking her two Pomeranian dogs on the terrace of her building when she was attacked by some men with choppers. The assailants inflicted 19 stab wounds on Navleen Kumar, killing her on the spot. One of her dogs also suffered a deep gash on its head when it tried to save her. The dog survived.
A wave of anger has since been sweeping the western suburbs of Vasai-Virar-Nallasopara and people want those behind the murder brought to book quickly. Though four goons belonging to the Jayendra 'Bhai' Thakur gang active in the region have been arrested, the residents want the real culprits arrested.
"When my mother's relentless pursuit of legalities in the first few cases brought success," says Navleen Kumar's daughter Neela, "the Warlis [a local tribal community] grew to trust her. As her reputation spread by word of mouth, tribals from as far as Palghar, Manor, Bordi, Dahanu and even Vikramgadh began to flock to her for help." Neela is now determined to continue her mother's work.
The dogged determination with which Navleen Kumar, a graduate in social work from Mumbai's Nirmala Niketan Institute, pursued every case had made her many enemies. In fact, she had complained to the Nallasopara police as early as March 2001 that she was receiving threats. The threats, she had said, were coming from the Bhai Thakur gang.
In fact, she had named three of the four men accused -- Ulhas Ramchandra Rane, Sanjay Kadu, Gajanan Shankar Patil and Hajigaru Kuppuswami Naidu -- who are now under arrest.
Tribal rights activist Vivek Pandit, whose orgnisation, the Shramjeevi Sanghatana, also works in the area, told rediff.com: "The accused merely did what their bosses ordered them to do. The police are also in the know of this. It remains to be seen whether they will act on the information that the interrogation of this quartet will reveal."
Vasai, Virar and Nallasopara were born in the late 1970s chiefly out of the greed of builders and the need of Mumbai's growing population for cheap housing. What were sleepy villages till the early 1970s were transformed into bustling, congested towns by the early 1980s as hordes of Mumbaiites left their small, cramped quarters in the city for more spacious flats in the suburbs.
Without a care for basic amenities like water and sanitation, buildings began appearing on this predominantly forest land like a rash. With a serious shortage of potable water, the builder mafia soon joined hands with the water tanker mafia. The illicit liquor mafia, matka joints, and prostitution soon followed.
The money involved saw five gangs fight for a piece of the action between 1976 and 1981. These gangs were led by Bharat Pendari, Nandiya Raut, Bhai Thakur, Naresh Bhaiya and Afzal Nizam. Reprisal killings became the norm as gangs tried to wipe each other out. By the mid-1980s, Bhai Thakur's was the last gang standing.
As the Vasai-Virar-Nallasopara belt became saturated, Thakur's men began grabbing land in the Warli tribal interiors of Thane district. Soon, the sylvan greens of Palghar, Manor, Bordi, Dahanu and Vikramgadh became home to the rich and famous of Mumbai who built plush farmhouses complete with swimming pools and walking tracks.
Unlike the semi-literate residents of Vasai-Virar-Nallasopara, who had at least put up a token protest at being divested of their land, the illiterate Warlis were sitting ducks for the builders. They were robbed of their farmlands for shockingly small sums ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 5,000. All the builders needed to do was to get the tribals to put their thumb impression on some papers. If money did not achieve the objective, muscle did.
Every day for more than a couple of weeks after Navleen Kumar's murder, hundreds of tribals visited her residence in Nallasopara to pay their respects. Some walked overnight from their villages to reach Nallasopara. Most forwent a day's wages in the busy paddy season just to be with "Navleebai's" daughter.
"What better indication would one want that the grit and spirit of Navleen Kumar will live on?" asks Pandit.
Design: Rahil Shaikh
The Rediff Specials
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