Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - India

Political context

In 2007, most of the 28 Indian States continued to be affected by internal armed conflicts.1 The parties to the conflicts in these highly militarised States frequently committed atrocities. These include extrajudicial killings by security forces, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatments, particularly during counter-revolutionary operations in Jammu and Kashmir, in Assam and Manipur, and in States where the security forces fought against Maoist insurrection.

Furthermore, the police and security forces continue to be protected by section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which states that no court shall handle any offence alleged to have been committed by an official (including members of the armed forces) while acting in the course of duty without the prior authorisation of the Central Government, which is rarely granted. The army also benefits from further immunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives it full power in zones of armed rebellion, notably Kashmir and the North-Eastern States (including Manipur), regions that are affected by separatist uprisings.2

Whilst India's rapid economic transformation has had considerable impact on the country and its growth, there is still considerable discrimination against the poorest and most marginalised groups, primarily the Dalits and Adivasis. Indeed, although the cast system is now illegal, it continues to have a strong influence on Indian society. The most vulnerable communities are regularly subjected to torture, ill-treatments, arrest and arbitrary detention, and often have no possibility of filing complaint and obtaining justice.

A restrictive environment for human rights activities

Foreign Contribution Regulation Bill (FCR)

In December 2006, the Government introduced the Foreign Contribution Regulation Bill (FCR) to replace the 1976 Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). The FCR is even more restrictive than the current legislation, which already put serious constraints on NGOs registration and the reception of foreign funds.3 Although the bill was due to be discussed by Parliament during its budget session in March 2007, it was still under consideration by the Standing Committee on Home Affairs at the end of 2007.

In particular, the FCR prohibits the acceptance and use of foreign contributions for "any activity prejudicial to national interests". In addition, through the FCR, the Government would be able to control which organisations received foreign contributions, from whom, and for what purpose. The FCR also introduces a costly registration renewal requirement applicable every five years for NGOs receiving foreign contributions, whereas registration is free of charge and permanent under the FCRA. Lastly, the FCR sets a limit of 50% for the amount of foreign funds that NGOs can allocate for their administrative operations.4

Reaction of the National Human Rights Commission to the 2006 Observatory Annual Report

In a letter dated July 6, 2007, in response to the 2006 Observatory Annual Report, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) stated that it "disdainfully disagrees with the diatribes" of the report, which condemned the situation of human rights defenders in India and questioned their protection by the Indian State.5 In the letter the NHRC denounced the allegations in the Observatory Report as being "completely unfounded" and tried especially to justify the need for the FCRA and the amendments made to reinforce it.

Reprisals against defenders who denounce exactions committed by the police and the armed forces

In 2007, defenders who investigate human rights violations so that their authors might be punished continued to be particularly vulnerable, especially in cases when the police and armed forces commit such exactions.

Thus, Dr. Binayak Sen, Secretary General of the Chhattisgarh Statebranch of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and PUCL National Vice-President, has been held in detention since May 14, 2007, accused of having links with the Naxalite Maoist guerrilla group. Shortly before his arrest, he had condemned the killing, supposedly by policemen, of 12 Adivasis on March 31, 2007. Furthermore, defenders who had provided assistance to victims of inter-community violence that took place in Gujarat in March 2002, during which over 2,000 people were killed, mostly members of the minority Muslim community, were threatened with arrest on several occasions by the Gujarat Government. Examples of this are Mr. Rais Khan Pathan and Ms. Teesta Setalvad, respectively Gujarat Coordinator and Secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace. In addition, Ms. Irom Chanu Sharmila continues to be detained and to be on hunger strike since 2000 in protest against the AFSPA, which has been at the root of many cases of police violence in the State of Manipur.6

Furthermore, several members of the National Project on Prevention of Torture in India (NPPT) have been subjected to acts of harassment by the security forces after denouncing abuses committed by them. Thus, on February 8, 2007, police arrested Mr. Gopen Sharma, District Human Rights Officer of the NPPT in Murshidabad District, West Bengal, and a member of the human rights organisation "Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha" (MASUM), whilst he was investigating three cases of human rights violations committed by security forces. Mr. Gopen Sharma was released on bail on March 20, 2007.

Reprisals against defenders of economic, social and cultural rights

In a country characterised by unbridled economic growth and its uncontrolled consequences, and by the marginalisation of whole sections of the population regarding the redistribution of wealth obtained from the exploitation of natural resources, a phenomena that engender both violence and impoverishment, those who fought for economic, social and cultural rights were the first targets of repression.

Defenders of marginalised groups

In 2007, defenders who sought to defend marginalised groups, in particular the Dalits, continued to be victims of intimidation and harassment acts. For instance, on July 17, 2007, Mr. Subash Mohapatra, Director of the Forum for Fact-finding Documentation and Advocacy (FFDA), was arrested at the premises of the Chhattisgarh State Human Rights Commission while, at the Commission's request, filing his comments on an investigation report concerning the case of a Dalit student whose grant had been seized because of his father's debts.7 Similarly, on December 4, 2007, Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi, convener of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR)8 in Daulatpur, Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), which works on behalf of the Dalit community, received telephone death threats after he had drawn attention to three cases of babies and young children starving in Uttar Pradesh, an issue closely related to the problem of caste discrimination, thus attracting general media attention to the Government of this State.

Defenders fighting for the rights of persons displaced by the construction of dams on the Narmada River were also subjected to numerous reprisals. The dams would affect the ecosystem and force the displacement of millions of poor peasants belonging mainly to tribal fishing communities and the Dalit caste. On March 22, 2007, 62 demonstrators who were taking part in a peaceful protest in New Delhi were arrested, including Ms. Medha Patkar, the founding Director of the Save the Narmada River Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan – NBA), a coalition of local organisations fighting for the rights of persons who have been displaced because of the plan to build dams on the Narmada River.

Defenders fighting for improvements in working conditions

Defenders of workers' rights were also victims of repression. On September 26, 2007, for instance, a Bangalore Court judge issued an arrest warrant against members of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an association that fights for improved working conditions in the textile industries, and members of the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), an organisation whose aim is to provide information on the negative effects of globalisation policies on human rights in India. The arrest warrant was issued after a complaint filed by the company Fibres and Fabrics International (FFI) and its subsidiary Jeans Knit Pvt Ltd (JKPL), which had been accused of ill-treating their employees. In addition, on March 10, 2007, judicial proceedings, based on sections 427, 447 and 34 of the Criminal Code, were opened against Mr. Phani Gopal Bhattacharjya, Vice-President of MASUM, and 25 other members of the Indo Japan Steels Limited Employees Union, for having defended the rights of employees of this manufacturing company, which had closed in 1996 with no back-pay or compensation paid to workers.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 Especially in the following States: Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Manipur, Chhattisgarh, Malegaon, Mumbai, Varanasi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Orissa, Western Bengal.

2 The AFSPA notably empowers soldiers with complete impunity to arrest, keep in detention and shoot at any person (Section 4.a) so as to "maintain public order" if the soldier has reasons to believe that he or she is an "insurgent". The act specifies that central Government authorisation is required to prosecute a member of the armed forces. Up to now, no soldier has been tried on the basis of this law.

3 The FCRA restricts foreign contributions for NGOs by requiring them to register with the Interior Ministry and receive ministry authorisation prior to obtaining foreign funding. Human rights projects that the Government considers non-controversial, such as supplying aid to orphaned victims of AIDS, are approved relatively easily, while requests from NGOs attempting to document and denounce human rights violations and criticise the security forces (executions carried out by the security forces in Kashmir; torture of prisoners, etc.), are generally rejected, or given limited approval.

4 For further details, see Observatory Annual Report 2006.

5 See http://www.nhrc.nic.in/Word-image.doc for the complete version of the letter.

6 Ms. Sharmila's activities had begun following the Malom massacre on November 2, 2000, when members of the Assam Rifles killed ten people at a bus stop near Imphal, on suspicion of being insurgents. Ms. Sharmila was first arrested in November 2000 by the Manipur police for "attempted suicide" (Section 309 of the Criminal Code), and has refused to eat or drink since then. Since the maximum sentence under Section 309 of the Criminal Code is one year's detention, Ms. Sharmila is released every year and rearrested the next day, for the same reasons.

7 As FFDA Director, Mr. Mohapatra has filed over 300 complaints with the Chattisgarh State Human Rights Commission, relating to human rights violations committed between 2001 and 2007. Mr. Mohapatra has also, on several occasions, brought into question the role of the Commission, criticising it for inefficiency and corruption.

8 The PVCHR is a network of human rights bodies that campaign on various issues relating to the Dalit community, including the education of children, fair salaries, property title and the fundamental rights of members of this community.


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