The difficulties and dangers faced by human rights defenders (HRDs) in India continue to arise unabated. The United Nations Special Rapporteur (SR) on HRDs, after her visit to India in 2011, pointed out that “HRDs are often labelled as ‘Naxalites (Maoists)’, ‘terrorists’, ‘militants’, ‘insurgents’, ‘anti-nationalists’ and ‘members of underground’ and their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and movement is on many occasions unlawfully restricted.” HRDs throughout India continue to face harassment, false charges, threats, abduction, arrest and/or detention and assault; in extreme cases they can be tortured and killed.
Journalists, writers, students, filmmakers and activists questioning government policies were not only targeted with threats or physical attacks by both State and non-State actors but illegally arrested on fabricated charges, tortured, threatened, restricted from traveling abroad by state authorities and even killed. Antiquated, colonial-era laws like the sedition law have been used to harass and intimidate the HRDs. The last few years witnessed a disturbing new trend regarding HRDs with the Right to Information Act (RTI) being used against them.
Specific Cases of HRD Harassment
Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA), a national platform of HRDs for HRDs established in 2015, intervened in one hundred five cases of HRDs with the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) and various United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms. HRDA also filed since January 2015 two hundred twenty five complaints at the NHRC, whose independence is repeatedly questioned and which failed to provide relief not even in a single case. During that year, HRDA intervened in twelve cases of killing, sixty cases of harassment, physical assault, physical and verbal threat, thirty-three cases of arbitrary arrest and detention. Nearly 80 percent of these cases involved HRDs working to protect land, natural resources, and tribal rights and to expose corruption. Among them, twenty-four cases involved Right to Information (RTI) applications and eleven cases are on reprisals against journalists, writers and “rationalists.” In seven cases, peacefully protesting citizens faced severe crackdown and excessive use of force by State machineries. In the 2016, HRDA intervened in more than one hundred twenty five cases. This period witnessed a rise in systematic attacks on journalists, lawyers, researchers and activists, crackdown on student movements and charging them under fabricated cases including sedition charges.1
In 2016, HRDs in Chhattisgarh state continue to witness an upsurge of attacks by State and non-State actors. The attacks were primarily orchestrated by the Inspector General of the Police of Bastar region, SRP Kalluri, to silence the voices of those exposing cases of State brutality. On 20 February 2016, Soni Sori, advocating for the land rights of indigenous people and exposing cases of killings and torture, was attacked by unidentified assailants on her way from Jagdalpur to her home in Geedam in Chhattisgarh. Her attackers threw a chemical substance on her face and she had to be admitted to a hospital and then taken to New Delhi for further treatment. At the time of the attack, she was working on a case of extra-judicial killing that implicated the police. During the attack, her assailants threatened her of another attack if she continued working on the case. Following the attack, her relatives were targeted next. On 10 March 2016, her brother-in-law, Ajay Markam, was arrested and questioned about the attacks on her and was released two days later. Her sister, Dhani, was arrested on 11 March 2016 and interrogated at a local police station before she was released. On 1 August 2016, she was threatened by Kalluri, after holding a press conference in which she condemned the extrajudicial killing of a citizen by the police. Several other activists in Chhattisgarh are routinely targeted. On 18 February 2016, members of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), a group of young women lawyers providing pro-bono legal aid, were barred from practice and evicted from Jagdalpur. JagLAG played a critical role in the cases of State brutality by intervening in courts and also providing legal aid to those arrested under fabricated cases.
On 19 February 2016, Malini Subraminam, a journalist, was also evicted from Jagdalpur in manner similar to JagLAG. Malini was critical of State brutality and wrote extensively on sexual violence by security forces. On 21 March 2016, police arrested journalist Prabhat Singh, a reporter from the Hindi daily newspaper Patrika, after he posted messages on the social media (WhatsApp) critical of the police and requested that a law be passed to protect reporters in the Bastar region. Police in plainclothes seized him from outside his office in Dantewada District. He was charged with sharing an insulting message under the Information and Technology Act. He was physically
assaulted while in custody. Prabhat reports on human rights issues and extrajudicial killings and has in the past raised issues critical of the police during press conferences. On 26 March 2016, police arrested another journalist Deepak Jaiswal, a reporter from the Hindi daily newspaper Dainandini in Bastar. He was arrested for a case against him and Prabhat which was filed seven months before by the principal of a school in Geedam. The case was in relation to a report written by them, accusing teachers in the school in Geedam of being complicit in exam malpractices. Deepak was charged with trespassing, preventing state officials from doing their work and assaulting staff. On 29 September 2015, journalist Santosh Yadav was arrested and charged with supporting Maoist rebels and his name was subsequently added to a case where eighteen villagers are in prison, charged with an encounter on 21 August 2015. On 16 July 2015, another journalist Mr. Somaru Nag was arrested and falsely charged with keeping a look out on the movements of the police while a group burned a crusher plant employed in road construction in Chote Kadma on 26 June 2015.
In West Bengal, HRDs associated with Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) working on torture and extra-judicial killing cases attributed to state police and Border Security Force (BSF) in Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts have been facing continuous and systematic harassment, physical intimidation, illegal arrest, detention and persecution. Mr. Kirity Roy, present Secretary of MASUM, was arrested by the Anti-Terrorist Cell of Kolkata Police on 7 April 2010 for coordinating a People’s Tribunal on Torture on 9-10 June 2008. The police charged MASUM with illegally staging a tribunal. A police case was registered at the instance of the Detective Department of Police at Taltolla Police Station under sections 170 (Personating a public officer), 179 (refusing to answer public servant authorized to question), 229 (Personation of a juror or assessor), and 120B (Criminal Conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code against Kirity and others. The case is pending in the Supreme Court of India after the Calcutta High Court rejected to quash the case. The Government of India has also refused to grant Foreign Contribution and Regulation Certification/License to MASUM; the refusal has been challenged before High Court of Delhi.
Ajimuddin Sarkar, District Human Rights Monitor (DHRM) of MASUM, has been implicated in several false criminal charges by Murshidabad district police. He was in jail for seventy days. In September 2015, Ajimuddin was implicated in two fabricated criminal cases by Islampur Police Station. Kirity is co-accused in two criminal cases initiated by the police in Murshidabad district. Mr. Mohor Mondal, DHRM of 24 Parganas (North) was detained at Swarupnagar police station under 24 Parganas (North) district on 27 July 2014. He suffered verbal abuse and was heckled at the police station by the officer-in-charge and on-duty police personnel. He was threatened and told to withdraw from human rights work. Durbadal Majumdar, DHRM for Jalpaiguri district was illegally detained at New Jalpaiguri police outpost in August 2015. He was implicated in a false case for helping a woman. Ajijul Haque, DHRM for Coochbehar district was brutally beaten by the hooligans in police presence at New Coochbehar station in February 2015. Tilak Barman, DHRM of Coochbehar was illegally detained and harassed by police personnel of Mekhliganj Police Station in May 2016. She is working for the deprived erstwhile enclave dwellers of Coochbehar district and three rehabilitation camps.
On 30 June 2015, Roma Malik, National Secretary, New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) and Deputy General Secretary of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) and Sukalo Gond, Executive Committee, AIUFWP were arrested and interned at the Mirzapur jail. Many activists were arrested with them from the AIUFWP office in Robertsganj, Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh state while preparing for a public meeting of the All India Peoples’ Forum (AIPF). The other activists were released later in the day. All arrests, by the police, and the remand, by the Sonebhadra Court, of Roma and Sokalo are based on three First Information Reports in which no individual has been named. On 26 April 2016, Lama Lobsang Gyatso, General Secretary of the Save Mon Region Federation, a group consisting of monks in Arunachal Pradesh state, opposed to construction of 7000 MW hydropower plant in Tawang district, was arrested for allegedly leading a group of people from Gongkhar village where another hydropower plant project was coming up.
He was arrested based on FIR filed by the personal security officer of a local Member of Legislative Assembly Pema Khandu for disruption of peace.
On 10 August 2015, HRD and RTI Activist, Jawahar Lal Tiwary, was kidnapped in Muzaffarpur district, Bihar state and his mutilated body was discovered four days later. He was brutally assassinated because of his campaigns for accountability for funds that were disbursed for victims of floods in Bihar in 2012. He was a member of the Sahebganj Vikas Manch an organization created after the floods in Sahebganj.
Data compiled by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative shows that Maharashtra has recorded the highest number of attacks (sixty) on RTI activists since the law was passed a decade ago, followed by Gujarat (thirty-six),
Uttar Pradesh (twenty-five) and Delhi (twenty-three). For murder cases, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh come second with six each, followed by Karnataka and Bihar with four murders each. On attacks on RTI activists (harassed or killed), Gujarat comes second with thirty-six, followed by Uttar Pradesh at twenty-five and Delhi at twenty-three.
In the world’s largest democracy, fundamental rights including the right to dissent and protest are under brazen attack. India needs a national law on the protection of HRDs. Civil society and human rights groups in India have long been demanding that the NHRC should work closely with them in drafting a proposed national law on the protection of HRDs. But the NHRC has so far failed to adequately respond to this demand.
1 All the cases undertaken by HRDA can be accessed at www.hrdaindia.org.