Open contempt for constitutionally guaranteed rights, freedoms in Chhattisgarh needs to end

amnesy
Left to right: First row – Prabhat Singh, Bela Bhatia, Soni Sori. Second row: Isha Khandelwal, Santosh Yadav, Shalini Gera

Amnesty International has in a new compilation has pointed towards how freedom of expression is being throttled in Chhattisgarh as the state cracks down on media and civil society. Text of an Amnesty statement on

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 organized hindrance to the work of journalists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders have led to a near total information blackout. Local journalists investigating excesses by security forces have been arrested on trumped-up charges and tortured, while their lawyers have been threatened.

Abusive security laws have been deployed. And increasingly, Chhattisgarh is playing to a script of the bizarre. Violations by the state have been accompanied by intimidation by those acting on its behalf. Local self-styled vigilante groups called the Samajik Ekta Manch (Social Unity Forum) and Mahila Ekta Manch (Women’s Unity Form), which appear to have the backing of the state police, have intimidated and harassed journalists and activists who express dissenting views.

Among the members of these groups are people who were part of the banned Salwa Judum civil militia. Most of these incidents have taken place in and around the Bastar region of the state, the epicenter of the long-drawn conflict between state forces and armed Maoist groups. Bastar has witnessed violence and counter-violence leading to massive human rights violations.Adivasi communities in particular have faced abuses from all sides. Against this backdrop, the silencing of civil society and the media may both enable and hide more abuses.

Over the last six months, human rights defenders in Bastar, Chhattisgarh have faced a relentless crackdown by the police and self-styled vigilante groups, leading to a near-total information blackout in the state. Blackout in Bastar: Human Rights Defenders Under Threat describes how journalists, lawyers and activists have been harassed, attacked and locked up for investigating excesses by security forces and seeking justice for human rights abuses.

“Over and over again, Chhattisgarh authorities have stood by and watched as their critics are intimidated and attacked by groups which seem to enjoy police support,” said Aakar Patel, Executive Director, Amnesty International India.

“Even worse, the police have themselves arrested journalists on trumped-up charges. The ominous message the state government is sending to defenders is clear: shut up or face the consequences.”

Four journalists – Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal – have been arrested on politically motivated charges since July 2015. Another journalist – Malini Subramaniam – was forced to leave her home in February 2016 following attacks on her home and police pressure on her landlord.

Kamal Shukla, the editor of Bhumkal Samachar, a Bastar newspaper, said, “We are always reminded by the state police that our lives will be in danger if we don’t follow the government narrative. And now we have these vigilante groups backed by the state that just makes it difficult for independent journalists to work in Bastar.”

In February, Adivasi activist Soni Sori had a chemical substance thrown at her face by unknown assailants who warned her not to file a complaint against a high-ranking Bastar police official for an alleged extrajudicial execution.

Bela Bhatia, an independent researcher, has faced intimidation and harassment from so-called vigilante groups called the Samajik Ekta Manch (Social Unity Forum) and Mahila Ekta Manch (Women’s Unity Forum), for helping Adivasi women file police complaints of large-scale sexual assault and other abuses allegedly committed by security force personnel.

Human rights lawyers of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which provides free legal aid to Adivasi pre-trial detainees, were also forced to leave their home in Jagdalpur in February following police pressure on their landlord.

Isha Khandelwal, a lawyer from the group, said, ‘Chhattisgarh has become like a police state now. What the police can’t do legally they make these vigilante groups and what’s really worrying is that these vigilante groups openly and blatantly threaten and harass people. Chhattisgarh has become a very dangerous place for those who question the government.”

“The state police continue to use abusive laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act to stifle the right to freedom of expression,” said Aakar Patel.

“The Chhattisgarh government’s open contempt for constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms needs to end now.”

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