Human Rights Day in the World’s Largest ‘Democracy’

What do a teacher, cultural activist and human rights worker have in common? They can all be branded anti-state elements and be jailed. Just like the people whose testimonies you will watch in the below videos. “I was just a teacher trying to educate tribal children in our area. Why was I dragged into this?” asks Soni Sori of the false charges against her that kept her in jail for 2 painful years. Her only fault had been to raise her voice to get her tribal community, caught between the government and Naxals, their rights. Soni’s is one of those rare stories that have received attention outside the usual human rights and activist circles. Across India there are millions of stories like hers that have been silenced. In the course of VV’s work across India, we have come across many of these stories, some have been reported by our own Community Correspondents. When a country dubbed as the largest democracy in the world has a human rights record like India’s, it is worrying. This situation exists despite the fact that the Indian constitution guarantees multiple protections to all its citizens including special provisions to safeguard marginalized groups like Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and other communities. This includes visionary laws like the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 [PESA] and Forest Rights Act 2006, which grant local communities a final say over the utilisation of natural resources. For large parts of India’s citizens their fights for basic rights like food, shelter and access to livelihoods end on a less than inspiring note. All the State’s promises of being a custodian of human rights remain just those. Join all the dots and it becomes evident that development and self-determination go hand in hand with state repression. The most common manifestations of this repression are forced evictions, the implication of civilians in false cases and a high presence of armed forces in ‘troubled areas’. The implementation of draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Public Safety Act in Indian administered Kashmir, Manipur and several regions of the North East have thrown up several issues of violations by the armed forces. The 21 year long insurgency in Kashmir has left 70,000 dead and 8,000 have disappeared while in prison. A toll higher than under Chile’s dictator, Pinochet. The prominence of forced evictions and state repression is not a new page in Indian history. According to UNHRC’s Status report on Human rights in India 2012, India has the highest number of people displaced as a result of development projects. Of the 60-65 million displaced since 1947, 40% are tribals and another 40% are Dalits and rural poor. The central Indian sates Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha exemplify this situation. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are relatively new states that were formed in 2000. Since then, their governments have signed over a 100 Memoranda of Understandings with private firms on projects like mining for iron, coal, bauxite and other minerals, power generation plants, factories etc. And here lies the crux of the issue—the resource rich areas are home to a large percentage of India’s tribal and indigenous people; as India marches on the road to economic development, it is these indigenous people that get trampled on. Out of India's 30 states, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh rank 19, 20 and 23 respectively in state-wise rankings of the Human Development Index (2007-08 report). Clearly the profits and benefits of the industry don’t reach the already dispossessed. Activist and writer Gladson Dungdung from Jharkhand elaborates. In most cases the process for land acquisition is non-consultative. While laws (like PESA and FRA) give the decision making power to people, they seldom get to exercise it. Protests by the people are met with state force, as VV documented in Odisha where people are protesting being forcefully evicted by the government that plans to build a steel plant. The Indian landscape is dotted with People’s Movements that have taken up the issues raised here today. Madhya Pradesh is home to perhaps one of the largest such movements— The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada). Movements like this are fuelled by the injustice done to the thousands of families that will be displaced. In this case it is to build 30 large dams and 3000 odd, small and medium dams on the Narmada River. Alok Aggarwal from the Narmada Bachao Andolan says: “This mistrust and violation of human rights rose from the fact that the State didn’t take interest in ensuring the rehabilitation, resettlement and compensation to these families from whom they had snatched away all means of continuing a dignified life." In the cases of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand the problem is further complicated by the presence of Naxalism. Their presence is posed as one of India’s largest internal security threats and more importantly to the smooth functioning of proposed industries. This has become an entry point for the State to come in and use force against civilians. In 2005 the Salwa Judum– a civilian militia, trained and equipped by the State—was commissioned to help “fight the Naxals” in Chattisgarh. All the civilians from the Naxal affected areas were forced into government camps that were far away from their sources of livelihoods and lacked shelter, food, sanitation and even schools. Any refusal to move was met with brute force. When human rights activists pointed out that the Salwa Judum was wreaking havoc and started rehabilitating the survivors of the crossfire, they too were hunted. Kopa Kunjam is one such activist who lives to tell his story of surviving a prison for 22 months for a murder he did not commit. “It was clear that after the case was documented, my name was added in the end in order to implicate me. This was done in order to ensure that we couldn’t take forward our work of assisting the tribal’s to relocate to the villages from which they had been forcibly evicted”, says Kopa. The heightened presence of the army hasn’t done much to quell the Naxals but has definitely made life hell for tribals like Barnabus Bodra who become easy targets for gun toting officials. The Indian State also has an issue with activists who use their rich heritage of songs, dance and theatre to bring their communities better lives. Aparna and Jeetan Marandi were doing precisely this in Gumla, Jharkhand. Jeetan spent 4 years in prison and Aparna 6 months along with her son. Both were implicated on false charges of being Naxals and committing murders. Some secrets must not be let out. The Indian government has many. When individuals from a community have the ability to report violations, they become dangerous enemies of the state. Lingaram Kodopi’s journalism degree ended up sending him to a prison in Chhattisgarh for 26 months. The Marandis, Lingaram, Soni and Kopa are now putting their lives back on the tracks that they were derailed from. As of the last year, Aparna and Kopa have joined Video Volunteers as Community Correspondents and will be documenting the daily travails of their people. Community media in such conflict-ridden states is a very important tool to document the real situation of the country. When a majority of the media and the State is obsessed with peddling the Incredible and Shining versions of India, a reality check by those who form a majority of the country is in order. For many of our Community Correspondents, reporting on issues related to state repression and forced evictions is indeed a security threat. It is a step that they are willing to take, for keeping quiet is not an option. If they dare to pick up a camera then it is our duty to sit up and pay attention. On this Human Rights Day lets pledge that we will make every voice count. We dedicate this blog to Nelson Mandela. His revolution to create a society free, fair and equal continues to inspire all of us starting our own revolutions today. Read the blog written by Community Correspondent Sajad on Kashmir here.   -Written by: Kayonaaz with inputs from Tania Deviah
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