With its incredible variety, India stands apart from the rest of the world. It has within its borders people in social and economic conditions of every kind. Consequently we have to deal with human rights violations of every kind too. Needless to say, the worst sufferers are the marginalized people and those defending their rights.
It is impossible to do justice to the topic of discussion -- Human Rights Movement and Human Rights Defenders: Challenges and Prospects -- in a short talk. I shall, therefore, confine myself mainly to the most vulnerable sections.
The Adivasis -- officially labelled as the Scheduled Tribes – face grave threats to lives and livelihood all across the country. They generally inhabit interior forest lands or distant hills, having been forced by successive waves of migration to withdraw from the coasts and the plains. With no place left to withdraw to, they are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival.
In Odisha (Orissa), the Adivasis have been fight for seven years to prevent acquisition of their homelands by South Korean steel giant POSCO to establish what has been conceived as the world’s biggest steel complex. A year after the company signed a memorandum of understanding with India authorities Parliament enacted the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, which grants them certain rights regarding use of forest lands and resources. Some environmentalists oppose the law, saying it will come in the way of effective protection of the forests. Good or bad, the law, which came into force four years ago, does not allow the company to proceed with the project. The MoU expired last year. However, the threat to the Adivasis remains as the company and the Central and state governments have not given up the project. Severe repressive measures have been taken against them and their leaders.
Women and children have been in the forefront of the anti-POSCO agitation. Since the presence of children has often come in the way of harsh police action, the state government issued an order banning their participation in the agitation. While exploitative use of children is deplorable, can they really be kept out of a struggle to secure their future.
In the predominantly tribal state of Chhattisgarh, the Adivasis are caught between the devil and the deep sea. Extremist groups have established bases in remote villages and gained followers among the Adivasis by taking up their cause. Security forces engaged in operations against the extremists make no distinction between armed rebels and unarmed villagers. Vigilante groups, armed and funded by the authorities, are still operating in the state, despite a Supreme Court order to disband them. Human rights defenders championing the cause of the Adivasis are branded as extremists and jailed, as happened in the celebrated case of Dr Binayak Sen, whose prolonged incarceration ended only after a strong international campaign.
A more recent case to come out of this rogue state is that of Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher, hauled up for alleged involvement with the Naxalites. A letter she wrote to the Supreme Court from the prison last month makes pathetic reading. Here are translated excerpts from the Hindi letter:
Today I am alive because of your verdict. You gave the order at the right time so that I could be medically treated again. I was very happy during my treatment at AIIMS hospital in New Delhi, but, Your Honour, I have to pay for it now. I am being harassed and tortured here. I request you to have mercy on me. Your Honour, I am suffering mentally.
1. I am made to sit on the ground naked.
2. I am suffering from hunger.
3. I am frisked in an uncomfortable manner, each part of my body is touched.
4. Labelling me traitor and Naxalite, they torture me.
Your Honour, how long will the Chhattisgarh and police administration keep on stripping me naked? I am an Indian tribal woman. I also feel shame and I am unable to save my modesty here.
It would have been better if you had given me Death Penalty.
Soni Sori is at a point where human rights violations of different kinds converge. She suffers as a villager, as an Adivasi and as a woman.
The Indian government evades the obligations cast on it by international instruments guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples by dishonestly claiming there are no indigenous people in the country although the term Adivasis itself means first inhabitants and testifies to their status an indigenous people.
The Dalits -- officially classified as the Scheduled Castes – constitute another segment of the population which is subjected to social exclusion and systematic repression. Six decades after the Constitution came into force its commitment to abolish untouchability remains unfulfilled in many parts of the country. In a state like Kerala, where overt practice of untouchability does not take place but complaints about derisive use of caste names, which is prohibited by law, are common. Among the offenders are political leaders, some of whom have cast themselves in the role of feudal chiefs. From Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to Bihar and West Bengal, under different political dispensations, Dalits continue to suffer discrimination. In Uttar Pradesh, Dalit empowerment has made much progress but social disabilities remain.
In the area of civil and political rights, there are problems that are a hangover from the colonial period. A conspicuous example is the operation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants impunity to security personnel called in assist the civil administration in maintaining law and order. This law, in force in the northeastern states for half a century, was extended to parts of Jammu and Kashmir two years ago. The apathy of the so-called mainstream to the problems of largely tribal population of the northeast and the predominantly Muslim population of Kashmir allows the government to use AFSPA, an extraordinary law conceived as a short-term measure, even when there is no major insurgency. Irom Sharmila, a young woman of Manipur, on an indefinite fast for 11 years demanding withdrawal of AFSPA, is kept alive through forced nasal feeding in custody at an Imphal hospital.
Terror attacks are a new form of human rights violation the country has to contend with. Reports of killing of alleged terrorists in fake encounters surface from time to time. Doubts exist about the extent to which the police forces, contaminated by communal propaganda and infiltration, can be relied upon. Some instances in which acts of violence committed by Hindutva elements were falsely attributed to Muslims have come to light. Reassertion of authority by khap (caste) panchayats in some northern states -- they have been ordering so-called honour killings and curbing the rights of women – points to return of rights violation of the feudal era. In the absence of political will to put down the attempts by feudal elements to take the law into their own hands, judicial interventions have been of little avail.
Wanton destruction of the environment in the name of development is a new area of concern. If it is not checked, it may not be possible for the present generation to bequeath to the next an inhabitable planet.
The political complexion of the government makes no difference to the human rights situation. The early promise held out by bodies such as the Human Rights Commissions, Women’s Commission, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission and the Information Commission, which came up at the national and state levels during the past two decades, has faded. The primary cause of failure lies in their composition. They are headed by retired judges or bureaucrats, many of whom look upon the new assignments as rewards for past services and are slack in using the new instruments at their disposal to advance the cause of human dignity. The members of these bodies are political nominees who put party interests above human rights.
While the Indian authorities are ready to ignore the most strident voices from within the country they are somewhat sensitive to foreign criticism. The law providing for human rights commissions was enacted under pressure from aid givers. For years, the government blocked attempts by the United Nations to look at the human rights situation in the country. It now allows visits by UN Special Rapporteurs. Although the government determines the places they can go to, civil society representatives are able to meet them and place facts before them. Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, was in India last year and Christoff Heynes, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution early this year.
Sekaggya said at the end of her visit that she had heard “numerous testimonies bout male and female human rights defenders and their families, who have been killed, tortured, ill-treated, disappeared, threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, falsely charged, under surveillance, forcibly displaced, or their offices raided and files stolen, because of their legitimate work in upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
She added, “These violations are commonly attributed to law enforcement authorities; however, they have also reportedly shown collusion and/or complaisance with abuses committed by private actors against defenders. Armed groups have also harassed human rights defenders in some instances.
“In the context of India’s economic policies, defenders engaged in denouncing development projects that threaten or destroy the land, natural resources and livelihood of their community or of other communities, have been targeted by state agents and private actors, and are particularly vulnerable.
“I am particularly concerned at the plight of human rights defenders working for the rights of marginalized people, i.e. Dalits, Adivasis (tribals), religious minorities and sexual minorities who face particular risks and ostracism because of their activities. Collectivities striving for their rights have in fact been victimized.
“Women human rights defenders, who are often at the forefront of the promotion and protection of human rights, are also at particular risk of persecution.
“Right to Information (RTI) activists, who may be ordinary citizens, have increasingly been targeted for, among others, for exposing human rights violations and poor governance, including corruption of officials….
“I am troubled by the branding and stigmatization of human rights defenders, who are labelled as ‘Naxalites (Maoists)’, ‘terrorists’, ‘militants’, ‘insurgents’, ‘anti-nationals’, ‘members of underground’. Defenders on the ground, including journalists, who report on violations by state and non-state actors in areas affected by insurgency, are targeted by both sides.”
Christoff Heynes said, “Evidence gathered confirmed the use of so-called ‘fake encounters’ in certain parts of the country. When this happens, scene of a shoot-out is created, in which people who have been targeted are projected as the aggressors who shot at the police and were then killed in self-defence.
“Moreover, in the northeastern states and Jammu and Kashmir, the armed forces have wide powers to employ lethal force. This is exacerbated by the high level of impunity that the police and armed forces enjoy, due to the requirement that any prosecutions require sanction from the central government – something that is rarely granted.”
Both Sekaggya and Heynes have recommended a number of measures to improve the human rights situation. So far there is nothing to indicate that the government is ready to act upon their recommendations. A sustained campaign at national and international levels is needed to make it budge.
Based on a paper presented at the National Seminar on “Human Rights Movement and Human Rights Defenders: Challenges and Prospects”, organized jointly by the Vigil India Movement and the Ecumenical Christian Centre, at Whitefield, Bengaluru, on August 9 and 10, 2012.