(Ranchi) – Indian authorities and Maoist insurgents have threatened and attacked civil society activists, undermining basic freedoms and interfering with aid delivery in embattled areas of central and eastern India, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 60-page report, “Between Two Sets of Guns: Attacks on Civil Society Activists in India’s Maoist Conflict,” documents human rights abuses against activists in India’s Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh states. Human Rights Watch found that grassroots activists who deliver development assistance and publicize abuses in Maoist conflict areas are at particular risk of being targeted by government security forces and Maoist insurgents, known as Naxalites. Maoists frequently accuse activists of being informers and warn them against implementing government programs. The police demand that they serve as informers, and those that refuse risk being accused of being Maoist supporters and subject to arbitrary arrest and torture. The authorities use sedition laws to curtail free speech and also concoct criminal cases to lock up critics of the government.
Human Rights Watch called for an immediate end to harassment, attacks, and other abuses against activists by both government forces and the Maoists.
“The Maoists and government forces seem to have little in common except a willingness to target civil society activists who report on rights abuses against local communities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Aid workers and rights defenders need to be allowed to do their work safely and not be accused of having a political agenda simply because they bring attention to abuses.”
The report is largely based on more than 60 interviews with local residents, activists, journalists, and lawyers who were witnesses to or familiar with abuses by Indian security forces and the Maoists primarily in Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh from July 2011 to April 2012.
While human rights defenders have rarely come under direct attack from Maoists, they operate in a climate of fear and are at great risk if they criticize Maoist abuses. The Maoists have been particularly brutal towards those perceived to be government informers or “class enemies” and do not hesitate to punish them by shooting or beheading after a summary “trial” in a self-declared “people’s court” (jan adalat). Jan adalats do not come close to meeting international standards of independence, impartiality, competence of judges, the presumption of innocence, or access to defense.
For instance, in March 2011, Maoists killed Niyamat Ansari, who helped villagers access the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Jharkhand. The Maoists abducted him and later admitted to his killing by claiming that he was punished for “being under the influence of the police administration, carrying out anti-people, counter-revolutionary activities, and challenging the party.”
Government authorities in Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh have arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and otherwise ill-treated many civil society activists, Human Rights Watch said. They have frequently brought politically motivated charges against them, including for murder, conspiracy, and sedition. Sedition charges are brought despite a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that prosecution under the law requires evidence of incitement to violence. Often these cases are dropped only when prosecutors are unable to support the allegations in court. But by then the activists have already served unnecessarily long periods in detention because their bail pleas are routinely denied. Police have often attempted to justify these actions by discrediting activists as Maoists or Maoist supporters.
For example, Rabindra Kumar Majhi, Madhusudan Badra, and Kanderam Hebram, activists with the Keonjhar Integrated Rural Development and Training Institute in Orissa, were arbitrarily arrested in July 2008. All three were severely beaten until they falsely confessed to being Maoists. Majhi was hung by his legs from the ceiling and so badly beaten that his thigh bone fractured. However, when James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, expressed concern about their safety, the Indian government, relying on police claims, insisted that the men had confessed to committing crimes. All three were later acquitted, exposing the government’s failure to independently investigate police claims, but each suffered two-and-half years in pretrial detention.
“Anyone, including activists, who engage in criminal activities should be fairly prosecuted,” Ganguly said. “However, local authorities should act on specific evidence of criminal activity, not a blanket assumption that critics of the state are supporting Maoist violence. The national government needs to step in and bring an end to politically motivated prosecutions.”
Activist Himanshu Kumar had to stop his grassroots work with the predominantly tribal population in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh because of state intimidation. He had built a network of local activists to implement government food and healthcare programs, and work on other development projects. After the Chhattisgarh government began to support the Salwa Judum vigilante movement against the Maoists in 2005, he started filing complaints against Salwa Judum abuses. He became visible in the media and during protests. In retaliation, the district administration declared that his organization’s office was located illegally in protected forest land. In May 2009, police demolished the structure. Unable to secure any other space in the area, and because of threats and arrests of several of his workers, Kumar had to leave Chhattisgarh.
“The Indian government has repeatedly asserted that a parallel approach is needed to resolve the Maoist problem by delivering development while undertaking security operations against Maoists,” Ganguly said. “However, the government has failed to stop local authorities and the security forces from attacking and intimidating civil society activists who are often implementing the very programs that could deliver development in these remote and long ignored areas.”
“The police say, ‘You travel all over the place. Why don’t the Maoists kill you?’ But the thing is the Maoists are angry with me, too. The local leaders say I am inciting people against Maoists. All I am doing is telling people that they should protest to protect their lives. They are stuck between two sets of guns, and they should say that they are suffering. I was told by the police, ‘We are watching. You talk too much, and you will be in jail, defending murder charges.’”
– Human right activist in Chhattisgarh, August 2011 (details withheld)
“They [the police] started beating me… They kept asking, ‘Are you a Maoist?’ I said, ‘No.’ They said if you deny it, we will beat you more. Finally, I said, ‘Yes.’”
– Madhusudan Badra, Orissa, July 2011
“My colleagues were arrested under false charges, even murder…. The number of violent reprisals kept increasing. I began to feel my strategy had backfired – instead of protecting them, I had made these tribal people more vulnerable. Continuing to work in Dantewada would only bring more harassment, more attacks, more arrests of people I was trying to help. I decided to leave Dantewada.”
– Himanshu Kumar, Chhattisgarh, August 2011