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30 September, 2009

AHRC criticizes advertisement campaign against Naxalites

The following is a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:

A newspaper advertisement published by the Government of India on Sunday, September 20, 2009, reads 'Naxalites are nothing but cold-blooded criminals'. This advertisement is part of the government's intensified campaign to combat Naxalite activities in the country. It comes a few weeks after the Prime Minister's declaration--later confirmed by the Union Home Minister--that Naxalite activities are the single largest threat to India’s security.

Naxalite cadres in India have repeatedly resorted to violence, and their armed campaigns have resulted in loss of life and property. Their activities have intensified over the past five years, particularly affecting the entire eastern corridor; the states of Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Orissa, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.

While exact data regarding Naxalite activities, including its manpower, is limited, it is estimated that at least 63 districts in the country are seriously affected. There is also no clear information regarding the movement’s sources of financial and logistical support. What is clear however, is the movement’s intense operations in India’s tribal areas. It is no coincidence that these areas are the most neglected and exploited parts of the country.

These are the areas where the poorest of the poor live. Primary government facilities like schools and health care centres are practically absent here. Infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world in the region, owing to malnutrition and hunger. Estimates suggest the infant mortality rate to be at 47 per cent in the Naxalite affected regions of the country, a condition worse than Sub-Saharan Africa.

India’s 'Naxalite problem' is complex and tends to find its justification in the deep-rooted and centuries-old exploitation of the poor, particularly the tribal community, by local landlords and corrupt politicians. There is a high incidence of crimes committed against the tribal community. These include bonded labour, rape of women and girls, and silencing any opposition or dissent by murder and other violence. Petty landlords who commit these evils escape prosecution and punishment due to the support of corrupt and failing state agencies like the police. The Indian government has made no attempt to reach out to these citizens and address their problems, or to prosecute those who have committed crimes.

Of particular concern is the plight of poor families who are systematically denied official assistance to address issues including food security, unemployment and the depletion of natural resources. Neither the state nor the central government has attempted to identify whether official schemes such as public food distribution shops or government health services are available to people in the region.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has documented several cases outlining the role played by local landlords and corrupt government officials in routinely preventing poor families from accessing government sponsored health and food programmes. The lack of cultivable land and the depletion of the forest -- their habitual source of livelihood -- makes tribal communities increasingly dependent upon government sponsored food distribution shops. It is often the case however, that food grains intended to be distributed to the poor through these shops are sold on the black market in distant cities.

Attempts by human rights activists to intervene in these situations result in threats and harassment. When the AHRC reported a case of food distribution corruption in July from Khandwa district, Madhya Pradesh, the minister for health and family welfare accused the organisation of receiving foreign funds to malign the state administration. Needless to say, no investigation was conducted into the allegations of corruption.

Also in Khandwa district, 62 children died from acute malnutrition during 2008. Despite this, in July 2009 the state administration closed schools and other public services like the Anganwadis (child care centers) due to ‘the Naxalite threat’. Within weeks of these closures, three more children died of malnutrition.

In addition to the failure of public welfare schemes, the government is also responsible for sponsoring indiscriminate mining and the destruction of natural resources in the region--all in the name of development. In Chhattisgarh for instance, several large-scale mining operations have been commissioned in the past six years with complete disregard to the life and security of community members living there. A government website highlights the state’s 'red-carpet' policy to private entities extracting mineral resources, but makes no mention of policies regarding people’s loss of livelihoods and displacement, or the operations’ environmental impact.

It is thus clear that state governments in Naxalite affected regions have failed to address deep-rooted issues plaguing the population living below the poverty line. Haplessly, it is this deprived and oppressed population that falls prey to the Naxalite ideology.

Repression and violence against a population forms fertile ground for rebellious ideologies. The Naxalite movement is thus made up of individuals who believe in and justify defensive violence. It is unfortunate that the response by the Indian government has also been the use of force, often brutal. The only lesson to be learnt from the experience of the past 40 years is that violence can neither resolve problems nor be a mode of communication. Any call for violence negates the premise of rule of law. Violence presupposes guilt and perpetuates disagreement. Moreover, it affects and diminishes the space for dialogue, an essential component in any democracy.

The government of India's advertisement campaigning for the rejection of Naxalite activities is also indirectly a call for violence. The premise of the advertisement is the same as that of a Naxalite cadre who views the state and its agencies as criminals. It will encourage 'encounter killings' and justify murder on mere suspicion, denying individuals the basic guarantee of fair trial. Ultimately, it undermines the rule of law and the role of justice institutions. By not taking these effects of the advertisement into account, the newspaper has demonstrated a lack of professionalism and commitment to rule of law and justice.

In a country where even terrorists are given the opportunity of fair hearings in a court of law, the words 'Naxalites are nothing but cold-blooded criminals' negates the constitutional premise within which a government is formed and expected to function. The government has a constitutional duty to listen to the people, to form policies after consultation. Instead of perpetuating violence, a responsible government must take steps to ensure that its citizens’ grievances are heard and addressed. Unfortunately, the government of India does not seem keen to follow this path of non-violence.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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