India’s Human Rights Challenge
by James Mutti, Contributing Editor
March 9, 2011
In many parts of its rural hinterland, India’s democracy faces a major challenge. Over the past few decades, in many of the poorest and most isolated districts in the country an armed Maoist movement known as the Naxalites has battled the Indian government in the name of some of India’s poorest and most exploited citizens.
In parts of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh there are multiple threats to Indian democracy – extreme poverty, political disempowerment, unfair and exploitative economic relationships, lack of health care and education, sexual exploitation, lack of recognition of local rights to land and resources, and others.
In addition to these causes for Naxalite sympathy, support, and success in these areas, the actual violence of the conflict between Naxalites and the Indian state affects locals in many negative ways – killings, rapes, kidnappings, torture, hostage-takings, property stolen or destroyed, livelihoods ruined, villages displaced, families split in a state of near civil war. More recently, growing interest in these resource-rich lands by the Indian government and the private sector have led to an escalation in the conflict and to the further disempowerment of poor locals.
The Indian government’s response to these injustices and the resulting violence has been inadequate and unsuccessful. One tactic used, especially vigorously in the state of Chhattisgarh, has been to attack and silence non-violent human rights activists who speak out about the violence perpetrated by state governments and private militias against innocent citizens – overwhelmingly poor adivasis (indigenous people).
The highest profile case has been with Dr. Binayak Sen – a noted human rights activist and a pediatrician working with many of the states’ poorest families. Chhattisgarh’s High Court recently upheld his shocking life sentence for sedition and treason despite a lack of evidence that he conspired with Naxalites to commit violent acts. The state’s draconian and undemocratic laws put in place to fight the Naxalites, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act of 2005 (CSPSA), and similar to laws in Kashmir and the Northeast used to fight separatists make this type of persecution possible.
Less well-known individuals also have been accused of aiding the Naxalites and thrown in jail, including activist Kartam Joga, cinematographer TG Ajay, and Kolkata businessman Piyush Guha. Other human rights defenders and organizations have been forced to flee Chhattisgarh due to threats and harassment by police and district authorities. The Indian Supreme Court has been the one official body that has dared to intervene, releasing Dr. Sen for lack of evidence once already, hearing a petition against the Chhattisgarh government submitted by Kartam Joga and two other activists, and reprimanding the Chhattisgarh government for its failure to rein in anti-Maoist militias who have been accused of extensive human rights abuses.
As these cases wind their way through the courts, attract international concern, and spark protest and outrage in India, one should be concerned for India’s future. Perhaps fueling the fire, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in 2007:
Left-wing extremism is probably (the) biggest security challenge to the Indian state. It continues to be so and we cannot rest in peace until we have eliminated this virus….We need to cripple the hold of Naxalite forces with all the means at our command.
In reality, the Naxalite threat to the Indian state, though widespread and growing as well as disruptive, remains far from toppling state governments, let alone the central government – its goal by 2050. At the risk of disagreeing with Dr. Singh, the bigger threat, as I see it, is how the Indian government responds to the Naxalites – not so different from the dilemma facing the United States in its war on terrorism.
Naxalites pose localized threats, and the murders, kidnappings, and other violent acts they commit must be condemned. However, they do not threaten Indian democracy as a whole. At least not yet. However, if the government – at the local, state and national level – responds clumsily, disproportionately, or unwisely to the threat, these blunders could do far more to harm the legitimacy of and faith in the government and the democratic system as a whole. Jailing non-violent activists attempting to improve the lives of people stuck in these conflict zones sends the wrong message and runs counter to the government’s own interests in these areas.
For now, the use of laws like the CSPSA is an exception to the rule (which is certainly not to say that India’s justice system is otherwise without problems). In much of India there is a healthy respect for human rights and the rule of law and an independent and respected judiciary. Or at least those ideas are given lip service.
And in other parts of the country, the political system – for all its faults – is far more responsive to and representative of its citizens than those in the feudal backwaters where the Naxalites thrive. The silencing of human right defenders is fortunately rare, but Chhattisgarh foreshadows a darker and more authoritarian India struggling to overcome serious threats to its national integrity while promoting reliable security and economic development for its people.