(Hyderabad) - Andhra Pradesh should protect and assist thousands of families who have fled the conflict in neighboring Chhattisgarh, Human Rights Watch said today. State officials should act immediately to end the government’s discrimination against the displaced people, Human Rights Watch said.

In a 182-page report, “‘Being Neutral is Our Biggest Crime’: Government, Vigilante, and Naxalite Abuses in India’s Chhattisgarh State”, Human Rights Watch documented how since mid-2005, the Andhra Pradesh state government has failed to provide indigenous tribal communities displaced from Chhattisgarh state with basic assistance, including food, water, shelter, medical services, sanitation, and livelihood opportunities. The authorities have repeatedly burned down at least nine hamlets of those displaced, and deny them existing government welfare benefits.

“The Andhra Pradesh government should be protecting and helping displaced tribal communities, but instead it’s punished them for seeking refuge here,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch and member of the research team. “Andhra Pradesh should give these people the help they’re entitled to.”

Since mid-2005, 30,000 to 50,000 people have fled to Khammam and Warangal districts of Andhra Pradesh following escalating violence in southern Chhattisgarh between Naxalites, an armed Maoist group, and state-backed vigilante Salwa Judum groups. More than 50 eyewitnesses who fled from 18 different villages in Chhattisgarh described to Human Rights Watch direct participation by government security forces in violent Salwa Judum raids. Their accounts contradicted government claims that Salwa Judum is a “peaceful citizen’s movement against Naxalites.”

Once in neighboring Andhra Pradesh, many displaced tribal families settled in protected forest areas. The authorities say these settlements are illegal, and have repeatedly burned down the hamlets of hundreds of displaced persons and forcibly evicted them from forest lands, in violation of international safeguards. They gave no prior notice, nor did they follow due process. Of the 17 displaced-person hamlets that Human Rights Watch visited, villagers from nine hamlets reported repeated destruction of their hamlets, beatings, and forced relocation by forest department officials. In some instances, displaced persons, including women and children, were forced into trucks and transported to the state boundary, a two-day walk from their settlement. Forcible evictions and harassment has decreased since the intervention of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in September 2007, but they continue.

Andhra Pradesh officials have tried to absolve themselves of responsibility by portraying the attacks on displaced-person hamlets as a conflict between local tribal communities and those displaced. However, Human Rights Watch’s investigations, which included accounts from displaced persons, indicate that forest department officials were involved in all instances of hamlet destruction; animosity between local tribal communities and displaced tribal communities were recorded only in three of the nine hamlets. Moreover, police officials have failed to take suitable action when they received complaints.

Displaced tribal communities settled in Andhra Pradesh face harassment by Salwa Judum members and government security forces, and live in constant fear. The Andhra Pradesh authorities have taken no measures to prevent such harassment or initiate criminal action.

Many displaced children drop out of schools because of the language barrier in local government schools: schools in Andhra Pradesh teach in Telugu, while schools in Chhattisgarh teach in Hindi. The Andhra Pradesh government has yet to sanction a single Hindi-language residential bridge course to help displaced children integrate into local schools.

Human Rights Watch called on the Indian central government to immediately draw up a plan to address the specific protection and assistance needs of displaced persons, including children, in Andhra Pradesh. The government should take immediate steps to prevent the Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments from unlawful forced relocation, and extend all government welfare schemes to displaced persons without discriminating against them.

The Indian government should also develop a comprehensive national policy for internally displaced persons in consultation with displaced persons, governmental, nongovernmental, and inter-governmental organizations, and in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

“Thousands have been driven from their homes by the violence in Chhattisgarh, only to find themselves persecuted once again in Andhra Pradesh,” Becker said. “It’s high time that the central and state governments act to protect these people so that they can live as normal a life as possible until they can go home.”

Select accounts featured in the report:

“One of the villagers had saved 5,000 rupees [roughly US$125] and they burned that also. When they were about to burn everything, we begged them to at least allow us to take our food grains and money but they beat us more and set everything on fire. They also took away our poultry, goats, and cattle … We had no where to go and so every time our huts were burned, we used to stay under the trees over here. One time they came during the monsoons – we stayed under the trees for three days because we could not go out and get help. The nearest help is 14 kilometers away. So we starved for three days.”
– Displaced person settled in village in Khammam district, December 2007.

“In June or July 2007, four forest officials came here and took away the adult males to the [forest] range office and locked us in a room overnight. The next day, the children and women were taken, loaded in a truck, dropped in Cherla, and threatened. After forcibly putting people in trucks, the forest officials burned our huts. They burned about 12 huts and left five or six huts. The women and children walked for two days to return to the village.”
– Displaced person settled in a village in Warangal district, November 2007.

“Immediately, about two or three days after the incident [burning of hamlet], the police called everyone to the police station and made us sign papers. Later we were told that it was the razinama [settlement between parties] saying that we agreed to withdraw the case. Then they booked a case against the five of us who had gone to the police station to complain [against the officials for burning the hamlet] … for illegally occupying the land. We were produced before the magistrate in Bhadrachalam and were in jail for 12 days. I got my relative to stand as surety for us and we were released on bail.”
– Displaced person settled in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh, who had sought police protection against unlawful forced eviction, December 2007.