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The Sahayog affair

By Rajeev Dhavan
The Hindu, May 19, 2000

SAHAYOG IS an organisation working on `AIDS’ education in the Kumaon Hills of Uttar Pradesh. In September 1999, it published a pamphlet called `AIDS aur Hum’ (AIDS and us) which described sexual acts explicitly. It also portrayed, what it, perhaps wrongly, believed to be the licentious social sexual practices of the area. For seven months, nothing happened. Then, all hell broke loose. By April 20, 2000, fuelled by both politics and anger, Sahayog’s offices in Almora and Jageshwar were attacked. Members of the Uttarakhand movement, who had themselves been victims of outrage, joined the merciless chorus of indictment. Little was done to protect Sahayog. Instead, 11 staff members and some trainees of Sahayog, who had nothing to do with the publication or its aftermath, were arrested – five for `breach of peace’ and six more substantively for `obscene publications’ and `public mischief’.

After this, nothing was easy for Sahayog or its workers. The Sub-Divisional Magistrate increased the bail amounts for the breach-of-peace arrestees to make it more difficult for them to be `bound over’ on their own recognisance. The Almora Bar Association announced that no one should represent the accused; and jeered at the four courageous lawyers who did so. On April 22, a show cause notice was issued to the organisation. An apology and withdrawal of the pamphlet by Sahayog on April 26 was of no avail – even though this was the equivalent of a self-imposed forfeiture order. Faced with this kind of pressure, on May 1, the application for bail was rejected for the alleged offenders. Then, needless public humiliation was added to the brazen denial of civil liberties. On May 4, the four men in judicial custody were handcuffed and paraded with medieval cruelty through the market along with the women.

This sequence of events must give us pause. In 1996, the then Chief Justice of India, Mr. Venkatachalaiah, incisively observed that “the quality of a nation’s civilisation can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law”. By this test, Mr. Joshi, the State of Uttar Pradesh, the Kumaon officials and the leaders of the Uttarakhand movement fail miserably. They have been uncivilised. Everything they have done is contrary to law on at least six major counts. [more]