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Monday, June 09, 2014


In India's Conflict Zone: Civil Society Activists become targets of Maoists and the Government


"While development is argued as the solution to conflicts growing in the out-reach and tribal populated India, civil society activists who work as agents of development in the places of conflict in Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, are being targeted either by Maoists or by the government, says the Human Rights Watch Report 'Between Two Sets of Guns'."


Basudev Mahapatra


When two Italian citizens were abducted by one faction of Indian Maoists operating in the forests of south Odisha and government invited for names to act as interlocutors on behalf of Maoists, few of the people named initially by the Maoists denied to participate as mediators from the Maoist side, rather wanted to participate if the government invites them for the said job. Then, some members of the civil society couldn’t approve to such rejection by the people named by Maoists but said, there was no wrong in mediating for a party. Now, the recently released Human Rights Watch report ‘Between Two Sets of Guns’ gives the clues to get an answer to why the interlocution proposal was turned down.


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 in Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, the 60 page report concludes with a note that 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.

Documenting human rights abuses against activists in India’s Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh states, the report found that grassroots activists who deliver developmental assistance and publicize abuses in the areas of Maoist conflict are at particular risk of being targeted by government security forces and Maoist insurgents, otherwise known as Naxalites.

While the activists working with people in the conflict areas are often accused of being police informers and agents of the government for implementing developmental programs, the police on the other hand asks that activists serve as informers or undergo the risk of being accused as Maoist supporters and face 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’, says the HRW report while calling 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, the author of the report happens to be the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch as well, urging that, ‘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 media release regarding release of the HRW report mentions that, “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 because the Maoists have been brutal particularly 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) that do not come close to meeting international standards of independence, impartiality, competence of judges, the presumption of innocence, or access to defence”.

Killing of an activist Niyamat Ansari, who helped villagers access the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Jharkhand, is cited as an example to say how activists are falling target to Maoist violence. The Maoists abducted him and later killed him on claims that he was punished for ‘being under the influence of the police administration, carrying out anti-people, counter-revolutionary activities, and challenging the party’.

The report also says that ‘Government authorities in Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh have arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and otherwise ill-treated many civil society activists. 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 pre-trial detention.

‘Anyone, including activists, engaged in criminal activities should be fairly prosecuted. However, local authorities should act on specific evidence of criminal activity, not a blanket assumption that critics of the state are supporting Maoist violence’, said Ganguly urging upon the national government to step in and bring an end to politically motivated prosecutions.


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