Chhattisgarh Home Minister Nankiram Kanwar has accused the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) of supplying arms to Naxalites and threatened to ban it, according to news reports.
He is also reported to be considering prohibiting Swami Agnivesh from entering the state.
There were also other reports targeting the appointment of Dr. Binayak Sen as a member of the panel on health care.
These reports have come in the wake of the arrest of Ramesh Agrawal and Harihar Patel last week and the former’s hospitalization in inhuman conditions. Today the sessions court denied them bail.
It is important that we respond collectively against these attempts to malign PUCL and oppose the continuing harassment and detention of human rights workers in Chhattisgarh as well as other states.
Individuals and organizations may endorse the following statement by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and publicize this statement:
In Defence of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Chhattisgarh
Free Ramesh Agrawal and Harihar Patel!
Free Kopa Kunjam and Sukhnath Oyame!
Stop harassing Swami Agnivesh, Binayak Sen!
Hands off PUCL!
Hands off Human Rights Workers!
Defend PUCL! Defend Human Rights Workers in Chhattisgarh!
Defend the Indian Constitution! Defend the Rule of Law!
It is with grave concern and utmost urgency that we write to protest the continuing threats to human rights workers in the state of Chhattisgarh. On Saturday, June 4, 2011, Dainik Bhaskar reported the state Home Minister Nankiram Kanwar’s public statement that the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was supplying arms to the Naxalites and that the Minister was considering banning the organization.
PUCL is a Gandhian organization founded by Shri Jayaprakash Narayan to uphold and defend the Indian Constitution. PUCL has had an illustrious track record nationally and in Chhattisgarh of ensuring that the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution are available to all the people of India. When elected and unelected public officials have usurped or attempted to usurp their powers, PUCL has often been among the few organizations that provide the only line of defense for many Indian citizens. Lacking access to normal judicial processes, it is to PUCL and other similar organizations that the poorest and the most marginalized often turn.
This is particularly true in the case of Chhattisgarh, where, in the name of fighting Maoists, the state machinery, including the police, has created for itself a documented history of acting with impunity, engaging in violence on a massive scale against defenceless people. In December 2005, the state unit of PUCL in Chhattisgarh, under the leadership of Binayak Sen, along with several other human rights organizations, has investigated and documented the atrocities - burning down entire villages, murder, rape, mutilation - committed by Salwa Judum, a vigilante force financed, armed and supported by the state. Petitions filed by Prof. Nandini Sundar and others and by Himanshu Kumar of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) have led the Supreme Court to order the state government to disband Salwa Judum and rehabilitate the displaced villagers. The state government has largely ignored these orders. Interestingly, immediately after PUCL conducted its investigation in 2005, the then Director General of Police O. P. Rathode declared to the press, Hum PUCL ko dekh lenge (we will take care of PUCL).
PUCL Chhattisgarh has been consistent in opposing violence of all kinds, including violence by the state and by private actors, whether Salwa Judum or the Maoists. PUCL has also been consistent in advocating dialogue with the Maoists as a means to end the violence in the state. It is in this context that the work of an upstanding citizen like Swami Agnivesh has to be seen. It should also be noted that Swami Agnivesh’s work has had the support of Home Minister P. Chidambaram in his attempts to initiate dialogue with the Maoists, though the attempts had to be aborted subsequently when the Maoist interlocutor was killed by the police. It was also the peace mission of Swami Agnivesh, with the support of Chief Minister Raman Singh, that led to the release of five policemen kidnapped by the Maoists last February. Sadly, when Swami Agnivesh and other activists went carrying relief supplies to the victims of a five-day long police operation in which the villages of Tarmetla, Timapuram and Morpalli were pillaged and burnt down, three men were murdered and three women raped, mobs of Special Police Officers attacked their vehicles with stones, threatened and turned them back, causing them to abandon their peace mission.
Binayak Sen has given his entire professional career to the well-being of the poorest of the people of India, particularly the mine workers and the adivasis of Chhattisgarh. As an individual practitioner, as a founder of Shahid Hospital and as an advisor to the state public health programmes in policy formulation and as an advisor to the volunteer organization Jan Swasthya Sahyog, his contributions have been immense. It is in recognition of his lifelong work and contributions that the National Planning Commission has accepted his nomination as a member of the Health Advisory Panel. However, his human rights work with PUCL angered the state officials and the police, ultimately earning him conviction to life imprisonment under false charges based on fabricated evidence. To the great credit of the Supreme Court, it has seen through all this and has granted him his freedom, while he continues to challenge his conviction in the state High Court. The reprieve given to Dr. Sen by the Supreme Court and the legitimation of his work by the Planning Commission have proven irksome to the state and have led to a series of protests by the youth wing of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state.
The Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), under the leadership of Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar, has had a long record of working with the adivasis of Chhattisgarh on issues of nutrition, health and development, often with the support and funding of the state government. After the Salwa Judum was created, VCA found itself having to providr refuge to the victims of its violence. The state government turned against VCA when VCA started to document the massacres committed by the Salwa Judum and the state police in the villages of Singaram, Matwada, Gachanpalli and Gompad in 2009 and to file cases in a state court and the Supreme Court seeking redress for the victims and punishment for the culprits. The state police summarily tore down the Ashram buildings in May, 2009, and ultimately hounded Mr. Kumar out of the state by the turn of the year. Two of its volunteers, Kopa Kunjam and Sukhnath Oyame, are now in prison on trumped up charges.
Ramesh Agrawal and Harihar Patel are two outstanding, committed and non-violent activists who are among the latest victims of the state government. They were arrested on May 28, again on false charges. Requiring urgent medical care, Mr Agrawal was taken to a hospital where he is now being held, chained to his bed, in contravention of Supreme Court directives issued in 1995.
For many years, both Mr. Agrawal and Dr. Patel have been raising concerns about the social and environmental impact of indiscriminate industrial expansion in the Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh. They have actively participated in the public hearings mandated by the environmental clearance procedures under the law. Mr. Agrawal is also a longtime Right To Information (RTI) activist and has frequently brought to light numerous irregularities related to environmental compliance, water pollution and social impact issues of different projects being proposed in the district. Dr. Patel has been leading the Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Ekta Sangathan, which has been fighting against takeover of people’s land for industrial and mining activities in and around his village. Both Mr. Agrawal and Dr. Patel have also taken up several matters before the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) and other regulatory authorities, raising concerns about faulty impact assessment, ineffective public hearings and instances of construction before mandatory approvals. In their most recent work, they exposed corruption in the grant of clearances to the Jindal Steel and Power Company, earning them the displeasure of the government officials and their arrest and detention.
The state Home Minister Kanwar’s statement and other recent statements and actions by other Chhattisgarh government officials and BJP leaders are clearly desperate attempts to malign PUCL, Swami Agnivesh, Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar, Ramesh Agrawal and Dr. Harihar Patel. These and other handful of human rights workers are the only remaining independent witnesses to the lawless conduct of the state officials and the last line of defense of the people against the depredations of the state machinery. PUCL and Dr. Binayak Sen brought to national attention the horrific history of the violence of Salwa Judum. Swami Agnivesh raised public awareness of the atrocities committed by the state security forces last March. Mr. Agrawal and Dr. Patel brought to light the corruption of the state officials and their collusion with a private corporation. The state finds these witnesses getting in the way of its machinations to conduct its business without the hindrance of the law and the Indian Constitution. Arresting them or threatening to ban PUCL and prohibit Swami Agnivesh’s entry into the state is but a prelude to getting these witnesses out of its way. It is incumbent upon all those who believe in the Indian Constitution and the rule of law to speak up and come to the defense of PUCL and Swami Agnivesh, Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar, Ramesh Agrawal and Harihar Patel.
We dmand that the officials of the government of Chhattisgarh must cease its attempts to malign and harass PUCL, Binayak Sen, Swami Agnivesh, Himanshu Kumar and other human rights workers in the state.
We demand that Kopa Kunjam, Sukhnath Oyame, Ramesh Agrawal and Harihar Patel be released and that the charges against them dropped immediately.