(New York) - Indian authorities should investigate the mass arrests and ill-treatment of activists working on sexual orientation and gender-identity issues in Bangalore and punish those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today.
On October 20, 2008, police arrested five hijras (working-class, male-to-female, transgender people), detained representatives of a nongovernmental organization trying to negotiate their release, and subsequently attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators protesting the arrests. A total of 42 people were detained. The negotiators later informed Human Rights Watch that police officials told them higher-level authorities had ordered a campaign to arrest hijras on serious charges.
"These arrests clearly show that it is time for India's repressive attitudes and laws to change," said Dipika Nath, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "Such blatant police violence points to a system where prejudice trumps justice."
The arrests on October 20 came on the same day the Mumbai-based Daily News and Analysis reported that Bangalore's police had started a "drive against the city's eunuch menace." "Eunuch" is a derogatory term sometimes applied to hijras.
Police arrested five hijras that morning in the Girinagar neighborhood of Bangalore. Such arrests, usually on begging charges, are routine in the city. This time, however, police took them to Girinagar police station, verbally abused them, and beat one severely with a lathi (stout stick), activists involved in the case told Human Rights Watch.
A five-person crisis team from the Bangalore-based NGO Sangama went to Girinagar police station to assist in their release, which has taken only a few hours in previous cases. The team is trained in legal procedures and has frequently worked on similar cases involving LGBT people.
Instead of releasing those arrested, Girinagar police sent the crisis team to the Banashankari police station. Team members told Human Rights Watch that officers there beat, slapped, and kicked them, before returning them to the Girinagar station, where officers sexually abused two members on the team. Police charged all five with "unlawful assembly" and "obstructing a public servant," and locked them up.
About 150 human rights activists, along with lawyers, gathered outside Banashankari police station and began a peaceful protest against the arrests at about 7:00 p.m. Police arrested six activists who entered the police station to negotiate. The activists told Human Rights Watch that the policemen at the station pushed, beat, sexually harassed, and verbally abused them. Police grabbed two of the women activists' breasts while placing them in the lockup, and sexually harassed two hijras. When the activists demanded that police not violate their human rights, the officers responded: "Stop us if you can."
At about 7:45 p.m., police started attacking the dozens of activists still gathered outside, particularly targeting those who had cameras. Police charged at the activists with batons and arrested 31 people, beating some of them while hustling them into a police van. The 31 activists spent about seven hours inside the van, with barely enough room to lie down, and were not fed or allowed to use a toilet for 18 hours. Police sexually harassed some of them.
The activists eventually appeared before magistrates, and by 5:00 p.m. on October 21, all were released. The five hijras originally arrested were freed on bail on October 22. However, many still face charges ranging from extortion (in the case of the hijras) to unlawful assembly and rioting.
"These arrests and assaults on human rights defenders show sheer indifference to the principles of justice as well as the letter of the law," Nath said. "When police can seize dozens of activists on the flimsiest of pretexts, all of civil society is in danger."