Crackdown on Activists in Central India Continues

Thanks to your work, Indian indigenous (adivasi) human rights activist Kopa Kunjam was released in early October. Mr. Kunjam had been in jail since December of 2009 for his peaceful activism on behalf of adivasis affected by the conflict between Maoist insurgents and the state government of Chhattisgarh, India.

While we’re thankful for Mr. Kunjam’s release, other non-violent activists continue to be jailed in Chhattisgarh for criticizing the state government, Dr. Binayak Sen being the best known.  The latest arrests include human rights activist Soni Sodi and her nephew, journalist Lingaram Kodopi, outspoken critics of human rights abuses in the region who were arrested on false charges by the Chhattisgarh government.


They Are the Lorax, They Speak For the Trees

The LoraxI often read to my almost four-year old daughter our favorite book– Dr. Suess’ environmental treatise, The Lorax.  Unfortunately, this fictional account of environmental destruction is being played out for real in the Indian state of Orissa where Vedanta Corporation is wrecking the environment of the Dongria Kondh people.  To take action, click HERE, but you can also read more below.


Holi Human Rights, Batman

Hindus all over the world are preparing to celebrate Holi, the festival which celebrates the victory of good over evil.  Prahalad, the human rights defender prevailed over the Hiranyakashipu (his father), the human rights violator.

Hiranyakashipu uses his more or less omnipotent powers to violate the human rights of Prahalad by attempting to poison Prahalad, trample Prahalad with elephants, placed Prahalad in a room full of hungry, poisonous snakes and made to sit in a funeral pyre with his evil sister.  All these efforts to squash the freedom to practice Prahalad’s religious beliefs failed and Hiranyakashipu was eventually brought to book by Narasimha, the reincarnation of Vishnu (although Amnesty International would rightly condemn the lack of a fair trial for Hiranyakashipu).

That’s akin to the situation in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, where Hiranyakashipu… oops, I mean the Vedanta Corporation, is violating the human rights of the people of eastern Orissa.  Like Hiranyakashipu, they have poisoned the water in the region and harmed the health of citizens in the area.

Like Prahalad, the tribal leaders have appealed to a higher power (James Cameron, director of the mega blockbuster movie Avatar) in addition to their government for help in stopping the mining project but so far their pleas have not been successful.

The decision rests with Government of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests and you can help by taking action to stop this mining project until proper environmental studies have been done.

Let’s all celebrate Holi and ensure that the Prahalads of the world are protected from the Hiranyakashipus of the world.

Stop Harassing Gandhian Activists!

The peace activists, belonging to the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), a group that professes a Gandhian ideology of non-violence, have been campaigning for adivasi rights in the state for the past four years.  It’s been necessary because they are caught in the middle of an increasingly vicious conflict between the Maoist guerillas (aka the Naxalites) and basically pro-government vigilantes called the Salwa Judum.

On December 10, 2009 (Human Rights Day, no less), the Chhattisgarh state police arbitrarily arrested Kopa Kunjam (a member of the VCA) and Alban Toppo, a lawyer working with the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network (NRLN) at Dantewada in the southern part of the state. They were taken first to the Dantewada police station and then to the Bhairamgarh police station in the neighboring Bijapur district.

Alban Toppo reported that the police tortured him and Kopa Kunjam that night at the Bhairamgarh police station. They were beaten with thick bamboo sticks and rubber canes for 30 minutes. Toppo was forced to sign a letter stating that they had come to Bhairamgarh police station of their own accord. As a result of the torture, Toppo sustained injuries on his right elbow, biceps and back, causing severe pain and swelling. He could not move his hands and back because of the pain. Kopa Kunjam sustained serious injuries on his chest, back and leg, which left him unable to walk.

Although Toppo was released that night, he remained at the police station, as he had no means of returning home. Accompanied by police personnel, he was able to return the next morning. On December 12, 2009, Kopa Kunjam appeared before a local court where he was charged, under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, with the murder of Punem Honga, a local leader and member of the Salwa Judum, who had been abducted by the Maoists on June 2, 2009.

The arbitrary detention of the VCA activists clearly violates India’s Supreme Court guidelines issued in the D. K. Basu vs State of West Bengal case and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a state party. Article 9 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to liberty, which includes freedom from arbitrary detention.

The Government of Chhattisgarh needs to do the following:

  1. drop the politically motivated charges against Kopa Kunjam;
  2. investigate the allegations of ill-treatment again Mr. Kunjam and Mr. Toppo;
  3. ensure that human rights defenders are able to their work without fear of harassment, arbitrary arrest and torture.

Given that the state was formed in 2000 to address the aspirations of adivasis, it is disappointing that the state government continues to use the heavy hand of the police to harm those practicing their constitutionally guaranteed rights of free expression.

Indian Adivasis Can't Crash White House Parties

After nearly two weeks, I continue to be surprised at how much news coverage there is about the party crashers who interrupted the White House state dinner with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised).

But as someone who closely follows human rights in South Asia, I was wondering how the plight of the underprivileged in India might garner even the fraction of attention that the Salahi couple have.

Unfortunately for the case of two activists for indigenous peoples in India trying to earn even a smidgen of that interest for their people, it has ended very tragically. Unlike the White House party crashers’ controversial but peaceful visit, this protest ended in disaster.

Eyewitnesses said that the police opened fire when one of the leaders, Singanna, entered the police station to talk with officials. Another leader, Andrew Nachika, was also shot dead and at least eight other protestors sustained bullet injuries as police and paramilitary forces continued their unprovoked firing at the unarmed and fleeing protestors.

On November 20, Singanna and Andrew Nachika, two leaders of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS) were among 80-100 other members of the organization who were peacefully protesting outside a police station in Koraput district in Orissa state.

The protesters were demanding that the police stop harassing the Adivasi communities who have been campaigning for an end to illegal mining in the area. Adivasis are (very roughly) akin to America’s Native American communities. They have lived for centuries in the eastern and central parts of India, including the states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.

This unnecessary use of force on Adivasi protestors resulted in at least two deaths. The Orissa state government must investigate and prosecute the police and paramilitaries that were involved in these killings. All state governments must end what is clearly becoming a pattern of harassment of Adivasis throughout India.