Activist and lawyer Mukul Sinha succumbed to lung cancer in Ahmedabad on May 12. He was 63. A trade union activist, Sinha also fought many landmark battles for civil liberties and justice – many of them in the heart of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, valiantly keeping alive the hope of justice for victims of communal pogroms and custodial murders.
As a young researcher in a university in Ahmedabad, Mukul Sinha became a trade union organiser when 133 persons were laid off from the university in 1979. Throughout the 1980s, he, along with his wife and lifelong comrade Nirjhari, organised many labour struggles. He acquired a law degree to be better equipped to take up such struggles.
He and Nirjhari formed the civil rights organization Jan Sangharsh Manch, which did sterling work in the struggle for justice for the victims of the 2002 pogrom.
Manoj Mitta, in his book The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra, recounts how in proceedings before the Banerjee Committee, Sinha representing the Jan Sangharsh Manch, sought evidence of the Gujarat carnage: “The upshot was that the mobile phone evidence of the Gujarat carnage became officially public. This enabled lawyers, activists and victims to cite the data…while pressing for action against influential persons such as (former Gujarat minister) Maya Kodnani, (former Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader) Jaydeep Patel, and senior police officers in carnage cases”.
Zahir Janmohamad writes of him, “After the 2002 pogrom, Sinha became known as a human rights lawyer and a Gujarat riot activist. Neither term sat well with him and he always saw himself, and his work, through the lens of a labour organiser. ‘What both 1992 and 2002 did was to fool people into believing that the communal divide is greater than the class divide,’ Sinha said. ‘As soon as you convince a society that Muslims or whatever group is the problem, you have tricked them into overlooking the real problems like labour laws, corruption, housing shortages, and poor infrastructure.’”
Mukul Sinha played an immensely courageous part in the legal struggle to expose the truth of the fake encounters in Gujarat, involving Sadiq Jamal, Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsi Prajapati.
Mukul Sinha will also be remembered for assisting families of fake encounter victims in Congress-ruled Manipur to secure justice. The Supreme Court set up a high powered commission chaired by former Supreme Court Judge Santosh Hegde and two other members, former Chief Election Commisioner JM Lyngdoh and a former DGP of Karnataka, to look into some of the 1000s of custodial killings by security forces in Manipur. Assisting Manipur’s young widows’ association before the commission, Sinha conducted most of the cross examinations of the police and Manipur Rifles personnel. The result was a landmark report by the Commission that declared all the ‘encounters’ to be cold-blooded murders. Writing about the Gujarat and Manipur fake encounters, Comrade Mukul Sinha observed, “The encounters of Gujarat and the encounters of Manipur have several similar trends, but the motives appear to be quite distinct and different. While Gujarat encounters are purely politically motivated to profile the Chief Minister as a Hindu icon, the Manipur encounters are entirely in connection with the siphoning of Government grants. The common thing is that the ordinary citizens are being slaughtered for the benefit of the political leaders be it BJP or Congress.”
Mukul Sinha was among the founder members of a Left party, the New Socialist Movement (NSM).
Comrade Mukul Sinha fought so-called ‘lost causes’ in Gujarat, challenging Modi’s authoritarian regime: as a result of those battles, many of Modi’s top cops are in jail, and the battles for justice continue to be fought.
Regardless of which party forms Government after May 16th, we know that Governments will not defend democracy and fight for the rights of workers, minorities, women, activists. It will always be the Mukul SInhas of the world who are the true life and soul of our democracy. The likes of Mukul Sinha do not die – they live on in the struggles they inspired and in the courage and perseverance of other activists.
At a time when ruling class politics peddles the cult of the individual, it is worth recalling what Zahir Janmohamad says about Mukul Sinha: “Sinha was also mistrustful of the term leader because his whole life was dedicated to finding new voices and empowering them. During the many times I visited Sinha, I met some of Gujarat’s most respected judges, journalists, and activists. But just as often, I also met bus drivers, railway workers, and labourers, each of whom Mukul was training. This was perhaps his finest quality—he taught others and amplified their voices, even if it meant muting his own.” Mukul Sinha’s legacy will live on in those bus drivers, railway workers and labourers, as well as young lawyers and activists.
And Mukul Sinha’s outlook on activism – as told to Zahir Janmohamad – is a useful reminder to us all: “If you believe in a person or work against a person, you are bound to be disappointed. You will develop false hope and you will become fatigued. But if your goal is to change ideas, then this will sustain you.”