A tribute to a social activist known for her fight against corruption, especially in the public distribution scheme
The last three years have been historical in India’s independent history. The illusion of freedom of speech, India being the world’s largest democracy, saviour of human rights and so on, has been shattered repeatedly on our supersized TV screens. To many of us, these are turbulent times in India’s modern history, a socio-economic change of unprecedented scale, another war of independence. This is battle between classes, crusade of entitlement, of even the lowest strata of society demanding their share in country’s decision making process. In other words, India wants Swaraj and like any other war of independence, this struggle has its fair share of tragedy. RTI activists, Swaraj supporters, political activists, honest bureaucrats, whistle-blowers are modern-day freedom fighters and many of these have lost lives to the corrupt, oppressive class. Aam Aadmi candidate from Seemapuri and a known RTI hero Santosh Koli is the latest casualty in this freedom struggle.
Born 7 February 1984, she lived for the people of Seemapuri and Sunder Nagri in North East Delhi. Her short stature was in no comparison to her fiery and feisty nature. People who know her claim her enthusiasm and optimism was contagious. She knew no fear, in-spite of being attacked nine times for her opposition of corruption in the Public Distribution System, her more-often-than-not face-off with local politicians and babus. She was declared as AAP’s candidate from Seemapuri area of North East Delhi, challenging the sitting Congress MLA Veer Singh Dinghan. Mr Dinghan and his army of political goons were reportedly threatening her of dire consequences, if she went ahead with her political career with as AAP candidate.
Santosh met with an accident on 30 June, when going to AAP’s office in Kaushambhi Ghaziabad. She was on a small bike and was hit by a car. Apparently, it was a typical hit and run case, when the car almost deliberately hit the bike from the back and sped off, without a trace. The police were either too complacent to do their job of finding the culprit or were plain uninterested. Either way, it was a seemingly deliberate attempt to end this precious life prematurely.
AAP’s national convenor Arvind Kejriwal alleges foul play that she was killed for standing up for the rights of the poor and against a corrupt local government and the accident was not, by any means, an error of judgement. The murder theory gains more support, on knowing that she was being harassed by current local Cong MLA Veer Singh Dinghan, who she had fought against for many years and who was facing the threat of political defeat for the first time, at the hands of AAP and Santosh. In the bid to save her, many prayers were held across the world and doctors at the Gurgaon hospital, where she was being treated, tried their best to save her. She underwent many surgeries on her head and was on life support for more than a month. Unfortunately she gave in to the injuries and breathed her last on 7 August 2013.
Looking at Santosh, there was nothing remarkable about her, short and dark but she defied all the stereotypes associated with a Dalit girl from a modest background. It was her grit, determination and fortitude that made her different from girls her age. Her journey of social service began in 2002 when she got associated with Parivartan (positive change), an NGO started by a disillusioned Indian Revenue Officer, Arvind Kejriwal. She was one of the first employees at Parivartan and one of the most trusted aides of AAP leader Kejriwal in the journey of Parivartan, the Janlokpal movement and later AAP.
At the age of 28, when girls of her age dream of their knight in shining armour, her armour was the Right To Information Act 2005. With the help of RTI, she fought against the corruption in PDS (commonly known as ration shops). She created so much uproar in the corrupt camp that there was a violent reaction in the form of several attempts on her life.
In 2005, local goons slit her throat twice with a scalpel. This was believed to be a reaction to her RTI application on disbursement of ration for the poor in her area. Her RTI activism threatened to uncover diversion of public ration towards the black market, robbing poor people of essential supplies. She was back in action, in a short while, after the stiches on her throat healed. At this point in time, there was considerable opposition from her parents who asked to walk away from her social activism and settle down. But she resisted the well-meaning opposition and was back to her usual work. There were many attacks on her for taking on various causes. She fought for the right of poor children to get admission into local private schools, helped many get their entitlement of PDS ration, battled for an effective RTI Act and many more small and big wars on corruption and political goonda raj (hooliganism). It takes more than just courage to continue the selfless work, relentlessly after not one or two but nine attacks on life and limbs.
In 2006, she also started work with the Public Cause Research Foundation, another NGO started by Kejriwal. This one was fighting for the cause of RTI, a great step forward towards achieving greater political transparency. She was with Kejriwal marching alongside during the Janlokpal movement in 2011-12 and also when the movement took the political plunge in the form of AAP in October 2012. Recently, during Kejriwal’s Anshan against sham electricity bills in Delhi, he choose to camp at Santosh’s house in Sunder Nagri. Her house was a hub of political activism at that time, something she was immensely proud of.
Santosh came from a modest background, her father, a labourer in the garment industry and her mother, working for an NGO. She did not feel the necessity to study beyond Grade 10. She always said her heart was in social service and did not feel handicapped by her lack of formal education. Her lack of education was compensated by her grit, determination and experience in fighting the corrupt system. She was instrumental in gathering crowds and support during various agitations and protests organised by AAP.
There is no doubt that if Santosh could achieve so much in such a short span of life fighting against the system, she would have been a formidable leader of masses, had she been elected as a Member of Legislative Assembly in upcoming Delhi elections. This was a precious life cut short by a cruel political system. She was a modern day freedom fighter. She fought for democracy, transparency, equality and swaraj (self-rule). We promise Santosh that her sacrifice will not be in vain and her dreams will be fulfilled. Salute to you my friend and inspiration, dear Santosh, you will live forever in our hearts and you will be our inspiration forever.
The writer is an Australia based member of Aam Aadmi Party and can be reached on +61 426250072 or on email@example.com