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Who Is Piyush Manush And Why Are So Many Lobbying For His Release?

The green activist was denied bail and allegedly tortured in custody.

19/07/2016 5:21 PM IST | Updated 19/07/2016 5:48 PM IST
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Piyush Manush, environment activist (left).

If you've noticed the hashtag #IStandWithPiyush on Twitter recently and wondered what it was all about, here's what you need to know:

On 8 July, renowned green activist Piyush Sethia, who likes to call himself Piyush Manush, went with two of his associates to protest against the construction of an over-bridge at Mulluvadi Gate in Salem, Tamil Nadu.

Their fight was against Southern Railway, which, they said, had neither given notice to the people in the area about the project nor acquired the land necessary to build it. They demanded compensation and rehabilitation for those affected by the construction. The initiative had been announced by the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa.

The police arrested all three men under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including wrongful restraint, assault or criminal force to deter a government servant from discharging official duty and criminal intimidation. While the other two were released on 14 July, Piyush was denied bail and kept in solitary confinement. He was allegedly tortured from the very first day, his family and friends say. In the past week, at least 30 people have abused him mentally and physically, Piyush has reportedly told his lawyer. He hasn't been allowed any reading material or to speak to his wife, Monica.

Piyush's case has been taken up by human rights activists Madhumita Dutta from Chennai Solidarity Group and Radhika Rammohan from Safe Food Alliance, along with members of Salem's Citizen's Forum, of which Piyush is the convener. A petition lobbying for his release on change.org has been signed over 12,000 times. Human rights group National Alliance of People's Movement has written to Jayalalithaa for Piyush's release as well.

During the devastating floods in Chennai, Piyush and his team had helped tirelessly with the aid work. Ironically, in spite of his people-centric work, or rather because of it, his run-ins with the government had never stopped.

As a college student in Salem, Piyush stood up against the injustices of the system. In his third year, he was wrongly charged with the murder of the principal. It was then that he realised the full horror of the power of the state in muzzling dissenters, though the knowledge has never deterred him in any way.

After graduation, Piyush began planting trees around the city, discovered composting and started making his way into the murky world of green politics. Salem, which is rich in natural resources, is vulnerable to being exploited by industrial lobbies. Through years of work at the grassroots level, Piyush has made its inhabitants aware of their environmental rights and duties.

Around 2008, mining companies became interested in the Kanjamalai Hills in Salem for its rich deposits of iron ore. Sensing the potential intruders, Piyush began educating the locals on the effects of mining and working with other activists to regulate the entry of corporates in the region. Eventually, his efforts were successful in putting a stay on the project.

In 2010, Piyush was arrested for his involvement with the Campaign for Justice and Peace, which was fighting against human rights violations in Chhattisgarh, and charged with sedition. In the same year, he founded the Salem Citizen's Forum with fellow crusaders for the protection of the environment. The first project they undertook was the cleaning and restoration of the Mookaneri Lake. Since then, they haven't looked back.

From the disposing of garbage to building a 'co-op' forest, Piyush has been instrumental in transforming Salem and its inhabitants in fundamental ways. His detention and alleged torture is being perceived by his supporters as the ruling government's intolerance of criticism of its policies.

The Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Prisons) of Coimbatore Range has asked for a report from Salem Central Prison authorities on the accusations of attack on Piyush. Activist Medha Patkar condemned the incident on Twitter.

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