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:
- drop the politically motivated charges against Kopa Kunjam;
- investigate the allegations of ill-treatment again Mr. Kunjam and Mr. Toppo;
- 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.