By Abhimanyu Singh:
In a scathing report released on Monday, April 18, 2016, titled ‘Blackout in Bastar: Human Rights Defenders Under Threat’, international human rights organisation Amnesty International castigated the workings of the Chhattisgarh government when it comes to dealing with the Maoist situation in the state.
“For the last six months, the central Indian state has witnessed a sustained attack on journalists and human rights defenders. Conditions have been created where arbitrary arrests, threats to life, and organised hindrance to the work of journalists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders have led to a near-total information blackout.”
“Research by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group in prisons in Bastar in 2013 revealed widespread apathy to the rights of pre-trial detainees(or ‘undertrials’). The lawyers found that,between 2005 and 2013, about 96 percent of all criminal cases in Dantewada resulted in acquittals. Yet many undertrials spent long periods in jail awaiting trial. In 2013, nearly half the undertrials in the Dantewada district jail had spent over a year in prison.”
The report, which is quite exhaustive in nature, goes into detailed allegations against the government, pointing out instances of arrest of journalists over trumped up charges. It cites the names of almost half-a-dozen journalists from local and national press, like Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, who have been put behind bars, or forced to leave like Malini Subramaniam. It cites the testimony of their close ones and editors and in all cases, it appears that they were being framed for reporting both sides of the story.
“Santosh Yadav’s reports put a spotlight on the harassment of Adivasis by the state police. Within days of the incident, he was arrested. He was accused of being involved in an attack by Maoist armed groups on security forces on 29 September, and arrested for alleged rioting, criminal conspiracy, murder, and being part of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) armed group, among other offences. He has been charged under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – both of which violate international human rights standards – and other laws. If convicted, he could spend up to 10 years in jail.”
“”There is lot of fear in the villages in Bastar. They are scared of both police officers and Maoists. The local media in Jagdalpur is helpless, the police can harass them anytime if they don’t toe the police line. Truth is a casualty because of this,” said Jinesh Jain, Editor, Patrika.”
“Malini Subramanium is a journalist who contributes to the news website Scroll, and has consistently written on allegations of human rights violations by security forces in Chhattisgarh, including cases of sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and torture of journalists, and fake Maoist ‘surrenders’.”
The report also mentions the case of Bela Bhatia, an independent activist and the hounding she faced from vigilante groups like the Samajik Ekta Manch. The report makes it known that Bhatia faced persecution due to the help she provided to Adivasi women who reported rapes and sexual harassment at the hands of the security forces. Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal, lawyers with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group were also similarly targeted, the report alleges, for providing legal support to these women. It mentions three alleged instances of the widespread sexual abuse at the hands of the security forces.
“On 21 January 2016, as Bela Bhatia and other activists were assisting Adivasi women from Bijapur in filing an FIR, a group named Naxal Peedith Sangharsh Samiti (Committee of Naxal Victims) shouted slogans against them for ‘defaming’ the image of security forces. On 29 January, the same group held a protest march in Bijapur against Bela Bhatia and Adivasi activist Soni Sori, in which they burnt effigies and warned the activists against returning to Bijapur.
“On 19 February, the police visited Bela’s home and questioned her landlord and his wife, and the head of the village council. The next day, the police called her landlord to the police station for questioning. Three days later, the police visited her home again and took photographs of her house.”
At the same time, it describes the travails of Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist, who has been active in highlighting the misuse of the law by the security forces. The overcrowding of the jails of Chhattisgarh with under-trials over flimsy charges of being a Maoist is also mentioned. The state has the most over-crowded jails when compared to the national average, for the last six years, according to the report.
The report recommends repealing the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for being draconian, unsound in law and denying basic human rights to the accused, along with the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. It also recommends the release of all the journalists put behind bars and exhorts the authorities to conduct free and fair investigations into the charges.