An escalating wave of attacks on social activists has been sweeping the country. Several recent incidents indicate an increase in the number of cases alleging grave human rights abuses against social activists, and a shift from low-level targeting, such as intimidation and harassment, to more serious violations, such as detention, prosecution, imprisonment and threats to their physical integrity. The authorities are also trying to silence them through unfair trial, denial of bail and long prison terms. There is excessive use of force, torture and other ill-treatment by the police. Women social activists are facing further violations, as women and as human rights defenders, including sexist verbal abuse and derogatory accusations.
The run up to an election is often a period of particular vulnerability for them, due to their activities to secure respect for democratic rights and accountability for past human rights abuses of candidates. The oppression of social activists is typically an indicator of a much wider lack of respect for human rights within a State and is directly in proportion to it. Under the international human rights standards, governments are accountable for attacks, harassment, threats and other violations against social activists, carried out by government officials, including the police and security forces. States are required to put in place measures to prevent such violations. There should be an immediate cessation of all intimidation, arrest and prosecution of social activists by the local police and authorities, which is done without an independent and impartial investigation. We should recognise the validity of the work of all social activists and make it clear that acts or statements that denigrate or undermine their aims or legitimacy will not be tolerated. Standing with social activists remains as important as ever.
Take a few examples: Ms. Shamim Modi, a leading activist of Shramik Adivasi Sanghathana and an office bearer of Samajwadi Jan Parishad in Madhya Pradesh state, was arrested by Harda police on 10 February and remanded to 14 days judicial custody by the Harda CJM court. Shamim, who studied in the Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, has been instrumental in organising labour of 60 saw-mills and plywood factories of the city. She has also taken up the cause of more than 1000 load workers of several Krishi Upaj Mandis in Harda district. Sanghathana and Shamim, along with her husband Anurag Modi, are raising burning issues of tribals in the region, including minimum wages, bonded labour, ownership of forest land, illegal mining, atrocities and corruption. They have filed a public interest litigation in the Jabalpur High Court regarding the atrocities on tribals, and the workings of the mining and forest mafia, which is close to the ruling party. On their petition, the Court has stayed the eviction of tribals from the forest lands, till their verification is not completed under the Forest Rights Act, and has also awarded compensation to the tribals. Shamim has also fought in the assembly elections, and their organisation has been contesting the local, assembly and parliamentary elections. The arrest of Shamim has been made on charges of instigating tribals to attack forest officials and kidnapping of tribals with the intention of killing them. The charge was levelled against her in 2007, but subsequently no investigations were conducted. It is said that the saw-mills and factories issued an ultimatum to the local administration that if Shamim and Anurag were not arrested within 48 hours, they would close down their establishments.
Another burning example is of Abhay Sahu, president of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), who has been in jail since 12 October 2008. He was picked up by the Orissa police near Pattamundai in Jagtsingpur district, while returning from a medical check-up. The police have registered as many as 25 criminal cases against him. For more than the past three years, the people of Dhinkia, Gobindpur and Nuagaon panchayats in Kujang tehsil of Jagatsinghpur district, under the banner of PPSS, have been agitating against the establishment of the 12-million tone mega steel plant by POSCO. The area has witnessed repeated episodes of intense violence — such as in February, April, September and November 2007 — when protestors, including women and elderly, who were carrying out peaceful rallies, were dispersed by the police. Despite all efforts by POSCO and the state, the foundation stone of the project could not be laid on 1 April 2008. Another PPSS activist Bapuji Mohapatra was also arrested and jailed on 20 November 2008. Altogether 7 activists of PPSS are in jail now. A B Bardhan, Rajendra Sachchar, B D Sharma, K B Saxena, Prashant Bhusan, D Bandopadhyaya, Manoranjan Mohanty and others have demanded the release of Abhay Sahu and other activists, and expressed solidarity with the anti-POSCO movement.
There are several cases coming from all over the country where social activists are being arrested and detained, some without warrants, even for asking for authorisation to hold a demonstration, for distributing posters and leaflets, for participating in demonstrations, meetings and seminars, for investigating or reporting on cases of human rights abuses, and for making critical statements against the authorities. Many are detained without charges, only to be released a few days (in certain instances weeks) later, without having had any access to a lawyer. The information coming also indicates that State authorities are increasingly using courts as a means to deter activists from obtaining bails. Legal proceedings against activists have not only become more frequent; they are being repeated and multiplying. Some activists and their organisations are facing as many as hundred cases against them in courts. Often they have to face very long trials for several years. In some cases, despite having been acquitted, activists are facing further legal prosecutions on the basis of the same ‘facts’, but with a different set of charges based on them. There is thus a growing use and abuse of the legal system by the states, to hound social activists and hinder their work. Such harassment naturally results in activists’ work being undermined, and their time and financial resources being squeezed. The police and the state authorities are mainly working to criminalise the activities of these social activists.
The arguments of social activists are often being called invalid and biased. It is not essential for a social activist to be objective in his or her contentions in order to be a genuine activist. The critical test is whether or not the person is defending a human right. For example, a group of activists may advocate for the rights of a rural community to own the land they have lived on, and farmed, for several generations. They may conduct protests against private economic interests that claim to own all of the land in the area. They may or may not be correct about who owns the land. However, whether or not they are legally correct is not relevant in determining if they are genuine activists. The key stipulation is if their concerns fall within the scope of human rights. Similarly, activists who act in defence of the rights of political prisoners or persons from armed opposition groups are often described by State authorities as being supporters of such parties or groups, simply because they defend the rights of the people concerned. This is incorrect. Social activists and human rights defenders must be defined and accepted according to the rights they are supporting and according to their own right to do so.
The future of fundamental rights in our country is inherently connected to the ability of social activists to operate freely and without fear. The arrests of Shamim Modi, Abhay Sahu, Binayak Sen, and many more like them, send out a clear and chilling message about the dangers faced by all those who speak out on issues which can be as varied as, for example, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, female genital mutilation, discrimination, employment issues, forced evictions, access to health care, and toxic waste and its impact on the environment. They are active in support of human rights as diverse as the right to life, to food and water, to the highest attainable standard of health, to adequate housing, to education, to freedom of movement and to non-discrimination. It also sends a message that one of the best ways to attack rights is to attack those who defend them. Fortunately, there are those who are brave enough to confront these attacks, among them many for whom threats and intimidation remain an everyday reality.