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Defending Human Rights

Many human rights defenders were physically attacked, while others were labeled threats to national security. On December 9, 1999, six armed men entered the office of the Save the Narmada River Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan, NBA) in Baroda, Gujarat, assaulted an activist, and vandalized the office. They warned the activist that the NBA, which had been campaigning against big dam projects along the Narmada river, would face dire consequences if it did not leave the state. When the NBA organized a march in Khargone district, Madhya Pradesh, in January, over 500 protestors were arrested for demonstrating in defiance of the local authorities' orders. Among them was prominent author and activist Arundhati Roy. All were released the following day. On October 18, in a major setback to the fifteen-year old anti-dam campaign, the Supreme Court ruled that construction on the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam along the Narmada river could continue. Large-scale protests followed the decision which activists criticized as sanctioning the continued displacement of hundreds of thousands of villagers.

On April 20, a mob of local residents and politicians raided the Almora and Jageswar offices of SAHAYOG, a NGO working primarily on women's health and empowerment in Uttar Pradesh. The attack was in response to a pamphlet SAHAYOG had published in September 1999 on HIV transmission, which made reference to a specific sexual practice of the area. By day's end eleven staff members and trainees had been arrested; some were physically assaulted by the police and protestors. Six were charged with the "production and distribution of obscene literature to under-age persons," and "inciting Army/Airforce to violence/mutiny." The remaining five were charged with disturbing the public peace. Five of the eleven were released within days and on April 24, after their offices had been closed and bank accounts frozen by order of the district magistrate, SAHAYOG was made to issue an unconditional public apology for hurting public sentiments with their study. On May 10, the National Security Act was invoked against four staff members, but later revoked after much public protest. On May 29, the remaining six detainees were released on bail after spending forty days in jail. As of this writing, the charges against SAHAYOG were still pending.

In July, the national convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, John Dayal, asked for and ultimately received armed protection through the National Human Rights Commission after numerous threats to his life. He was publicly accused by a member of India's National Commission on Minorities of engaging in "anti-national activities," and threatened with treason charges by a spokesperson for the BJP.

On the eve of Human Rights Day 1999, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights presented Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee with a petition bearing 2.5 million signatures. Collected from across the country, the petition demanded the abolition of untouchability and full implementation of national legislation criminalizing abuses against Dalits. On April 18 and 19, the campaign held a "national public hearing" in Chennai to "try" fifty-eight cases of atrocities against Dalits, selected from over a dozen states. A jury of three former high court judges and several senior lawyers issued a statement condemning India's caste system as "hidden apartheid."

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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