(New York) - The adoption of a draconian law by the Chattisgarh state government to address the Naxalite armed movement and its appointment of a known human rights abuser as security advisor are likely to lead to serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.
The group said the government should repeal the new Special Public Protection Act, or amend it to conform to international human rights law, and remove the special advisor, K.P.S. Gill, who led the Punjab police at a time of widespread rights violations.
“Chattisgarh has a duty to keep its citizens safe, but it should not resort to draconian laws or abusive officials,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The state and central governments must use lawful methods to counter Naxalite violence.”
The Chattisgarh state government’s actions come even as the human rights and humanitarian situation is deteriorating in the 13 Indian states affected by increasing Naxalite attacks. Fifty villagers were abducted by Naxalites in Chattisgarh on April 25.
The Indian government is planning to deploy 11 battalions of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in states affected by Naxalite action, increasing fears of spiraling armed confrontations that would place ordinary civilians at grave risk. The CRPF has been implicated in serious abuses in other parts of the country, including Jammu and Kashmir state.
Recent criminal acts by the Naxalites, such as the April 25 abductions, politically motivated killings, and the use of landmines and bombings, have placed the central and state governments under enormous pressure to maintain public safety and security. The leftist Naxalites say they are fighting on behalf of lower-caste Indians. They have imposed illegal taxes; demanded food and shelter from villagers; abducted and killed “class enemies,” government officials, police officers and others whom they consider to be opponents; and hampered the delivery of aid to the isolated countryside, adversely affecting the lives of the people they claim to represent. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described the Naxal movement as the “single biggest internal challenge ever faced by our country.”
The Special Public Protection Act, which came into force in March, is a vague and overly broad law that allows detention of up to three years for “unlawful activities.” The term is so loosely defined in the law that it threatens fundamental freedoms set out by the Indian constitution and international human rights law, and could severely restrict the peaceful activities of individuals and civil society organizations. The respected Public Union for Civil Liberties in India has filed suit, alleging that the ordinance is “amenable to gross abuse and misuse, arbitrariness and partiality” and “can result in harsh and drastic punishment to innocent persons without hearing or remedy and … can be abused for the suppression of the fundamental rights of the citizens.” The law also criminalizes any support given to Naxalites, with no defense of duress. Thus, persons whom the Naxalites force to provide assistance are subject to detention under the ordinance.
“People can now be put in jail for three years for peaceful protests, or for giving food to the Naxalites at the point of a gun,” said Adams. “This is a mistake. Scrupulous respect for rights is the best answer to the Naxalites.”
Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about the appointment of Gill, who led Punjab’s police force in the 1990s, when it was implicated in widespread human rights violations during counter-insurgency operations. During Gill’s tenure, the Punjab police were responsible for numerous extrajudicial executions, “disappearances” and cremations intended to destroy evidence of those executed. The Central Bureau of Investigation found that at least 2,097 such cremations occurred in just one district.
Human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, who first exposed the cremations, was murdered by members of the Punjab police in 1995. During a trial for Khalra’s murder, in which six policemen were convicted in 2005, evidence was presented linking Gill to Khalra’s death.
Gill has often criticized human rights defenders, saying in an article last year that only a small number of human rights organizations “are actually and innocently concerned about anybody’s rights,” and that the rest, together with “terrorists,” had established a modus operandi “for the manipulation of the media and the systematic abuse of the processes of law to constantly denigrate the police and to protect criminals and terrorists.”
“Appointing K.P.S. Gill is a sure way to undermine public confidence in the security services,” said Adams. “Given his record, the government will not be able to claim ignorance if and when Gill uses abusive methods.”
Human Rights Watch called upon all parties, including the central government, the state governments, the various Naxalite groups and government-backed vigilante groups, to respect human rights protections under Indian and international law. In particular, Human Rights Watch urged that:
- Indian security forces must end the practice of extrajudicial executions of alleged Naxalites and their supporters, and allow the National Human Rights Commission and independent civil society organizations to investigate such allegations.
- All state and national security legislation that does not provide for international standards of due process or fair trials or allows for prolonged and arbitrary detention should be repealed or amended to conform to international standards.
- The government must cease the sponsorship of and take steps to dismantle armed vigilante groups that commit human rights abuses.
- The government should ensure that internally displaced persons are protected according to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
- The Naxalites must immediately cease committing abuses of human rights, including killings and abductions, and allow the National Human Rights Commission and independent civil society organizations to investigate such incidents.
- The Naxalites must immediately end all recruitment of persons under the age of 18 and demobilize all individuals under 18 from all forces under their control.
Background on Naxalites
Named after Naxalbari, a town in West Bengal where the movement first began in 1967, the Naxalites have now spread their influence over 13 of India’s 28 states. The leftist Naxalite groups claim to be waging a violent struggle on behalf of tribals, Dalits (so-called “untouchables”), and others considered to belong to lower castes, peasants and landless laborers. The Indian government describes the Naxalites as criminals and wants them to give up arms.
Although different groups operate in various areas, they have been loosely united since September 2004 as the Communist Party of India (Maoist). An estimated 10,000 members use regular weapons, home-made arms and explosive devices, including landmines. While the Naxalites claim that children do not take part in armed exchanges, they admit that they are used as messengers and informers. The Naxalites have killed civilians, tortured and mutilated those they believe to be enemies, and engaged in extortion and forced recruitment.
Large numbers of civilians have been internally displaced by armed clashes between the Naxalites and government-backed vigilante groups. In some areas, civilians have also been trapped, not just between security forces and the Naxalites, but also armed vigilante groups like the Salwa Judum in Chattisgarh state or the Green Tigers of Andhra Pradesh. While thousands are living in temporary shelters provided by the government, others are hiding in camps run by the Naxalites in the forest.
In some states, Naxalites have been active for a number of years. Initially, the Naxalites were treated as a law and order problem and, therefore, the responsibility of state governments. The police in some states, particularly Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, have been blamed for human rights violations. In Andhra Pradesh, local human rights groups say that a special police squad deployed against Naxalites and known as the Greyhounds was responsible for hundreds of faked “encounter killings.” In Jharkhand state, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, now repealed, was used for the arbitrary detention of hundreds of persons.
While the central government accepts that Naxalism is the result of discrimination and the failure of the state to combat poverty and unemployment and provide for even basic human needs, it has, as yet, been unable to take a rights-based approach to the problem.