An excerpt from ‘Between Freedom and Unfreedom: The Press in Independent India’ by V Krishna Ananth.

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news Book Excerpt Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 12:10

A news article was published in the Statesman on September 14, 1982; this described the lives of about 135 persons in three villages in the Bilaspur district of the then Madhya Pradesh (part of Chhattisgarh since the new State was carved out in 2000). The 135 persons were all bonded labour found working in the stone quarries in Faridabad (an industrial town near New Delhi) and were released after an order by the apex court, in early March, 1982 and taken back to their villages. The author of the news article, Neerja Chaudhury, then the Civil Rights Correspondent of the Statesman, travelled to these villages–Kunda, Pandharia and Bhairavapura–in Bilaspur district (pretty remote then). The purpose behind this was simple: to see if those who were released and thus declared unbound from the bond they lived in Faridabad were indeed free in the true sense of the term.

They were ordered to be freed by the apex court in March 1982 on the basis of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1975, one of those laws the Emergency regime had enacted, distinct from those that restricted freedom, to gloss over its undemocratic core. Neerja Chaudhury went to those villages to which the 135 bonded labourers from Faridabad were sent as “free citizens” to check on their lives. Her intention, by itself was drawn out of a commitment to the idea of freedom in a concrete sense and not merely as a right in the adversarial sense. And the news article that came out of this and published on September 14, 1982 was one that held the mirror to the society. Arjun Singh, then the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, had declared with much pomp that his Government was taking the hapless poor–the 135 men who were bonded to work in the stone quarries in Faridabad–to rehabilitate them in their own villages.

Her news article, dense with facts, showed that nothing was done by the Government to rehabilitate them and “though about six months had passed since their release and they were living almost on the verge of starvation.” Chaudhury also pointed out that all those who were “liberated” in March that year and back in the three villages she had surveyed “belonged to the Scheduled Castes.” The news article brought out the immense hardship and near starvation conditions in which those released bonded labourers lived, that they were without any land or work; and the danger to their very existence in the absence of any rehabilitation assistance provided by the State Government. 

Chaudhury did not rest with having her article published. She followed it up with a postcard to one of the judges of the Supreme Court. This letter, written on September 20, 1982 (a week after the news article was published) was taken up as a Public Interest Petition and posted before a Bench consisting of Justices P.N. Bhagawati and A.N. Sen. The Bench, directed that Neeraja Chaudhury’s postcard be converted into a petition and this was done by Govind Mukhoty, a lawyer then, and taken up as a Public Interest Litigation and he took up the case on behalf of Chaudhury. A news article in the Statesman of September 14, 1981 was thus converted into a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution.

The case, decided on May 8, 1984, with Justice Bhagawati writing the judgment (and Justice Sen concurring with a short note of his own) turned out to be an instance where the Supreme Court expanded the scope of Article 21 of the Constitution read along with Article 23 (1) to declare that the state was responsible as much to rehabilitate those released from bondage as much it was to secure their release. In Justice Bhagawati’s words: 

It is the plainest requirement of Articles 21 and 23 of the Constitution that bonded laborers must be identified and released and on release, they must be suitably rehabilitated. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 has been enacted pursuant to the Directive principles of State Policy with a view to ensuring basic human dignity to the bonded labourers and any failure of action on the part of the State Government in implementing the provisions of this legislation would be the clearest violation of Article 21 apart from Article 23 of the Constitution. 

In his short note, concurring with the judgment, Justice Sen added: 

If any bonded labourer is only freed from his bondage and is set at liberty, he will in all probability have to slide back into bondage again to keep his body and soul together. Freedom from bondage without effective rehabilitation after such freedom will indeed be of no consequence and in the absence of proper arrangement for such rehabilitation being made, the entire purpose of the Act will be frustrated and the vice of the bonded labour system which the legislature thought it fit to abolish in the larger interest not only of our country, but also of humanity as a whole will continue to perpetuate its evil existence. 

Justice Sen then went on to hold that: 

The real grievance of the Petitioner in this writ petition based on personal knowledge is with regard to non-implementation of the legislative provisions made for the rehabilitation of the bonded labourers after they had been freed. A sad and woeful tale is narrated in the writ petition about the plight of the bonded labourers set free pursuant to the orders of this Court for not taking effective measures enjoined by law for their rehabilitation. It becomes the duty of the Court to see that the legislative provisions regarding their rehabilitation are properly implemented and these poor and miserable persons are allowed to enjoy the benefit which the law and the Constitution of the land afford to them.

This was not the only instance of the kind involving journalists taking up the cause of democracy and the rights of the deprived and the marginalized. 

Excerpted with the permission of The Alcove from the book 'Between Freedom and Unfreedom: The Press in Independent India' by V Krishna Ananth.

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