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The Continued Neglect & Repression Against Indigenous Rights Defenders In Jharkhand

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Indigenous people of Jharkhand have long been at the forefront of their struggle for rights. Their decades-old demand for ‘jal, jangal, jameen’ against nature’s growing privatization is resilient. A rise in activism in the state has given birth to several grass-root activists fighting for fundamental rights of physical survival, integrity, and cultural identity, referred to as Indigenous Human Rights Defenders [IHRD]. Nevertheless, their voices remain unheard at the national level due to the specific nature of their demands. While one can see a strong network, legal understanding, and organizational and financial support to the urban working-class movements, it fails to reach the defenders working in the remote districts. The lack thereof makes it difficult for them to amplify their voices.

The stories of Kamal Munda being branded as a Maoist and subjected to custodial torture (February 2021) for his involvement in protests against the abrogation of rights of the gram sabha and construction of police camps has failed to make enough noise in the national media. He was illegally detained, physically assaulted, forced to sign false confessions of being involved in Maoism. Gulab Chonde from Tuti Jharna village in Bokaro, Jharkhand, was allegedly tortured by police authorities for four days while held in illegal detention in August 2020. Conde is an active member of the Adivasi Mulwasi Adhikar Manch, involved in struggles of upholding land, water and forest rights of the people.

Due to being located in remote parts of the state, leading to unequal access to justice and lack of national attention, their struggle goes unnoticed. Professor Virginus Xaxa, former Deputy Director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, remarks, “the resistance in Jharkhand remains invisible to the outside world as they do not appeal to the majority.”

There is a glaring distinctiveness in the activism in Jharkhand compared to the other more popular movements. An IHRD in the state is more likely to belong to marginalized communities or low-income families, sometimes living in the remotest part. Their geographically and politically marginalized status keeps their struggle away from national attention. While the more prominent persecution cases grab attention, many more face risks at the grass-root without the deserved attention.

International Status of ‘Indigenous Human Rights Defender’

The 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) recognizes individuals working to eliminate all human rights violations and fundamental freedoms. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner commented on the criminalization of IHRD, indicating their persistent vulnerability and exclusion on account of being most disadvantaged and marginalized.

IHRDs are identified variedly worldwide, essentially referring to people fighting for indigenous people’s rights, often related to land, natural resources, and the environment. Front Line Defenders has accorded IHRDs as the second most targeted sector for HRDs. The HRD Memorial Project in 2020 mapped 331 HRDs killings across the world, 69% of whom worked on the land, environmental, or indigenous people’s right.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Indigenous People called for the Human Rights Council’s relevant special procedures for recommendations to protect  IHRDs. As the protection framework of IHRDs is still at the nascent stage at the international level, concrete protection remains utterly absent at the grass-root level.

The risk of defending rights in Jharkhand

Within the context of historical and structural violence against the indigenous people, the work of IHRDs is met with pervasive repression by the state actors. Given their demands for preserving land and resources, they are branded as ‘anti-development.’ The region’s social and economic context heightens their vulnerabilities as they are under closer scrutiny and distrust. It is common to either mistake them for or threaten the IHRDs with false charges of link with anti-government movements of Maoism and Naxalism. The state uses the crisis of these IHRDs as an opportunity, cracking down through means of threatening and police high handedness. 

The foremost reason for the continuing harassment is state repression, including illegal arrest and detention, threatening with legal action and false criminalization, smear campaign, raids, and physical attacks. 

In 2020, Ramji Munda was murdered in Khunti’s Ghagra region amidst a heavy police presence. Ramji was vocal in the Pathalgadi movement and highlighted cases of police atrocities. It is not an isolated case; instead, there is a persistent pattern of such killings. Sukhram Munda (2019), Suresh Oraon (2018), and Amit Topno (2018) were active voices, succumbed to death for their struggle for rights. The widespread killing of IHRDs in the state results from reigning impunity and the government’s failure to provide a congenial atmosphere for the defenders’ work. 

Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations [CDRO] and Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression [WSS] conducted a fact-finding on five women activists gang-raped at gunpoint Jharkhand’s Khunti district. The report mentions that in the name of pursuing ‘unidentified’ suspects, the police have unleashed targeted persecution against John Jonas Tidu and Balram Samad, two prominent faces leading the Pathalgadi movement. However, in an interview, one of the gang-rape victims revealed that she never mentioned any of the Pathalgadi leaders in her statement. As a result, they continue to languish in jail as accused in the case.

In 2018, Damodar Turi of the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan and three other activists were arrested on charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA). Damodar, a leading voice against land acquisition, was alleged to be a member of the banned trade union Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti and kept under solitary confinement for over 15 days, in a blatant violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In 2019 a Dalit rights activist, Naresh Bhuiyan, was charged with UAPA and illegally kept in custody by the police. Bhuiyan was not produced in court for several days, against the Supreme Court’s strict directions in DK Basu v. State of West Bengal.

The incidents narrate an increasing intent to crush the dissenting voices in Jharkhand through persecution and criminalization. These instances of state repression handicaps the defenders positioned to agitate against exploitative development models. “The severe repression by BJP Government in their tenure has broken the spirit and unity of people defending rights. There still is immense vulnerability and fear among the people”, says Aloka Kujur, a leading woman IHRD in Jharkhand.

Locating a protection mechanism for IHRDs at-risk in Jharkhand:

A holistic understanding shows that the attacks on IHRDs do not occur in a vacuum but form part of the systematic attacks against HRDs throughout the country. However, the severity of repression increases as we move to the indigenous areas for anti-establishment movement and the absence of solid counter-forces. Being historically marginalized from the justice system, the cost of false criminalization is too much for an IHRD to bear. With limited knowledge and resources, it becomes difficult to understand legal complexities and find financial support to continue their social justice struggle. 

In a Joint Statement in the 45th Human Rights Council Session, it has been said that states carry the primary responsibility to protect IHRDs to ensure accountability for any violations. The ideal situation is for the state to ensure placing policies and mechanisms relating to the protection of IHRDs. The National Human Rights Commission has a separate focal point for human rights defenders. A 2015 one-day workshop recommended all State Human Rights Commission [SHRC] to set up a Focal Point for Human Rights Defenders in the NHRC. However, the Jharkhand SHRC has taken no initiative in furtherance, as disclosed in a Right to Information application reply (2019). With a rise in state inaction and repression against the state’s human rights movement, the lack of political will becomes amply clear.

The starting point to build a safeguarding framework for IHRDs is to train them to defend themselves in a crisis. The solution lies in capacity-building measures by imparting legal consciousness of the means to demand procedural compliance and build evidence of violations. The mechanism for protecting IHRDs should be locally arising from within themselves, acknowledging the practical constraints. There remains a need to make the IHRDs more visible to the public eye through building counter-narratives to mobilize public support. Building a solid local support system will lead to a strengthened counter-force, making it difficult for repression to persevere.

National and local organizations’ collective efforts should be concentrated on documenting the risks and vulnerabilities and consolidating data for broad public understanding. There is a dire need for civil society organizations and networks to adopt a penetrative approach, reach the remote areas of Jharkhand, and more explicitly embrace their risks. “The repression and risk to an IHRD worsen as we move to the further interior in the state,” says Prof. John Dreaze, an activist working in Jharkhand for the Right to Food campaign. The existing networks need to multiply and reach the state’s remotest corner to be accessible to the IHRDs in the time of need. In addition, a holistic protection framework must be worked upon considering the mental, physical, legal, and financial help that an IHRD in crisis might need.

Shrutika Pandey is a Litigation Assistant with MANASA Centre for Social Development. She has been working for the protection of human rights defenders in India for last two years. She has previously written on women human rights defenders, attack of journalists and other rights based issues.

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South Asia

India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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