(New York) - Government forces and anti-government Maoist fighters should ensure that civilians are protected during armed operations in central India and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said today.
"Government and Maoist claims to be acting on behalf of India's poorest people can be undermined by the atrocities by both sides against these very same people," said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Local people are at risk of being caught in the middle of the fighting - killed, wounded, abducted, forced to take sides, and then risk retribution."
On November 4, 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, noting the "systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse" of tribal communities, said that "more could be done; more should be done." However, he also warned that the threat of violence by the Maoists will be countered with "determination." The Indian government's new counter-insurgency measures, "Operation Green Hunt," has deployed national paramilitary forces, along with state police forces, to end armed resistance by the Maoists, also called Naxalites, and to secure areas that had been under rebel control.
The Maoists claim that they are fighting for the rights of the poorest of the poor in India, particularly tribal groups, Dalits, and landless peasants. The government, while agreeing that there is a desperate need for development in Maoist-dominated areas, says that the Naxalites are blocking government development initiatives and should engage in peaceful advocacy. A key factor in the dispute is access to natural resources, particularly huge mineral deposits in many of the states suffering conflict.
The Naxalites operate in nearly 200 of India's 600 districts and recruit local villagers to support the combatants, leaving the villagers vulnerable to arrest and torture by government forces. Villagers accuse the Naxalites of forced recruitment, including the recruitment of children, and widespread extortion. The Naxalites attack government installations, including schools, raid police stations and armories, and use landmines and improvised explosive devices. In recent attacks, the Naxalites have hijacked a passenger train, abducted police officials, attacked employees of industry or mining companies, and beheaded police and suspected informers.
"The Maoists have used violence to highlight the government's failure to address poverty and the harm caused by big infrastructure projects," Ganguly said. "But their own abusive methods call into question the sincerity of their claims."
Human Rights Watch and others have documented widespread abuses by Indian government forces, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and unlawful killings, all of them unpunished, during previous operations against Maoists.
In Chhattisgarh, the state government has backed a vigilante movement called the Salwa Judum, leading to killings, rapes, and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of civilians. Human Rights Watch supported a statement on October 30 by Home Minister P. Chidambaram condemning the Salwa Judum, in which he said that the government does not "favor non-state actors like Salwa Judum taking to arms."
Human Rights Watch urged the government to ensure that Salwa Judum members and state forces responsible for human rights violations are properly prosecuted. Yet with large numbers of paramilitary forces also being deployed, there is reason to be concerned that the abuses will increase.
"While senior officials have been saying the right thing, the real test is what happens on the ground," Ganguly said. "The government needs to send a strong message to Operation Green Hunt forces that human rights violations will not be tolerated and prosecute those responsible for past abuses."
Human Rights Watch called on the Indian central government and state governments to protect freedom of expression and to avoid conflating sympathy for concerns expressed by the Maoists with criminal complicity in acts of violence or intimidation. The state government of West Bengal has recently accused some filmmakers, writers, and activists of supporting the Maoists merely because they supported groups protesting police violence.
Human rights activists have repeatedly come under attack or been arbitrarily arrested on unsubstantiated accusations of Naxalite links. Binayak Sen, a physician and human rights activist, was detained from 2007 to 2009 for allegedly acting as a courier for a Naxalite leader in jail, even though Dr. Sen had visited the leader under the supervision of jail authorities. In 2008, Dr. Sen was awarded the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights; rights groups, doctors, and ordinary citizens all over the world signed petitions for his release.
While the Supreme Court order to release Dr. Sen on bail in May was a positive step, days earlier, the police surrounded the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, a nongovernmental organization run by the human rights activist Himanshu Kumar in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district. Himanshu, who has criticized the Salwa Judum and atrocities by state forces, was given half an hour to move out, and then bulldozers were brought in to destroy the center. The reason given was that the center, which had been there for two decades, was encroaching on protected forest land.
"The government should ensure that those who stand up for human rights are not branded criminal collaborators with the Maoists," Ganguly said. "This is not how a democracy behaves. Above all, both sides need to understand that a continuing cycle of abuse will not solve the problems faced by India's most impoverished people."