Mahesh’s commitment to social justice and his personal valuation of social welfare above personal gains has always secured him respect and adoration amongst his peers and community.
After his term at the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship, during which he was much appreciated for his pro-people work, he stayed on in Gadchiroli – his home district. He began working with people from Bharat Jan Andolan, founded by the retired I.A.S officer Dr. B.D.Sharma. He was a huge hit among people, living and working with them, on implementing laws like the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 and Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA), 1996. He helped amplify a lot of the local indigenous struggles happening there, against the land grab by powerful multinational corporations. Any time you tried to compliment his work, he would say – “I’m just a gram sabha activist. Without the gram sabha (referring to the people and their constitutional rights), I’m nobody”.
Bhamragarh, Etapalli and Aheri were some of the talukas in the Gadchiroli district that he was deeply invested in. In the last few years, he was getting concerned because a lot of local adivasis who were vocal about their land rights were being falsely labelled Maoists or worse, killed in fake encounters. He wanted journalists and human rights activists to visit the area, investigate and release impartial reports on the truth. It was shortly after one such fact-finding visit by several civil society groups in May 2017 that he was charged with having funded the Bhima Koregaon violence and picked up by the police.
Last year, after connecting with him in Brazil, I had visited Gadchiroli to see some of the work he was doing. I saw village after village teeming with a feeling of empowerment, well-being and self-sufficiency. The adivasi villagers had used laws of the land like the Forest Rights Act to secure their land, living and forest rights.
They were using Panchayati Raj institutions like the Gram Sabha and fighting Zila Parishad elections — all completely Constitutional and non-violent methods to challenge the contractors’ lobby, in the sale of forest produce and with a great degree of success.
I thought that this was commendable in a day and age we witness increased centralisation of powers and privatisation of wealth. I brought back those stories of struggle and inspiration to the caste-divided parts of Bihar where I live and work.
While in Gadchiroli, I got to see the Surjagarh Hills in Etapalli Tehsil, considered sacred by the local communities and which the state and corporations are now trying to acquire, in order to set up mines. I also saw paramilitary checkpoints and gun-bearing men of the state in uniform, crowding every village.
I saw JCB machines and shops of automobile parts that had recently come up to facilitate mining in the area. I saw adivasi women sitting in their houses, nervous about going out because of the endless probes, raids and detentions, a prisoner in their own home.
But I also saw the strong resolve of the Gram Sabha members who willed to come together to peacefully think of solutions to their economic exploitation and human rights violations.
Mahesh was highly loved and respected in all these villages and one with the people I visited. They treated him as if he were a member of their own house!
- Sohini, Friend of Mahesh
Mahesh’s commitment to social justice and his personal valuation of social welfare above personal gains has always secured him respect and adoration amongst his peers and community. Since 2013, the police have constantly harassed Mahesh and prior to his arrest police confiscated his passport as well. Raids on his house and detention had become very common for him because of his tireless work with Bharat Jan Andolan, an organisation started by late B.D Sharma (IAS).
Mahesh has been instrumental in mobilizing people for participative decision making in areas affected by mining projects and has been constantly raising voice for the people’s welfare.3 He has led and organised several protests in the region, especially against the Surjagarh mining project. He only followed the constitutional path and ensured he chose only legal options in his fight for rights. His work on PESA and FRA has been noteworthy and acclaimed by the District Collectors and State departments under the Government of Maharashtra.