The Continued Neglect & Repression Against Indigenous Rights Defenders In Jharkhand

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
Shrutika Pandey
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.