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Statement of Solidarity With Human Rights Lawyers Being Persecuted in Bastar

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JAGLAG) was established by three freshly graduate lawyers and one young activist in 2013 with the purpose of representing tribal under trial prisoners who have been charged with sedition, often under the UAPA, the NIA, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and such other draconian ‘counter-terror’ laws. Over the next few years they had represented several such undertrial adivasis, the news about one of them, Soni Sori, had also made national news.

Hostility against this Group has been on the rise from several quarters – the police, the Bar Associations of the trial courts at Bastar et al. Ever since SRP Kalluri was posted as IG of Bastar Range, he has been hounding them out.  From giving thinly veiled threats at press conferences that he is closely monitoring NGOs providing “legal aid to Naxalites”, to informing their clients that they are about to arrest us for their alleged ‘Naxalite’ activities, to claiming before visiting journalists and researchers that they are merely a “Naxalite front”, he has been out to get them.

They have had police diligently investigating “anonymous” complaints that we are “fraudulent” lawyers.  For which, they had to make multiple trips to the police station with all our impeccable certificates and sound credentials. Then the local Bar Association, clearly prompted by the police, took out a resolution prohibiting their practice in the local courts. They have countered this by challenging this resolution in the State Bar Council last October and obtaining an interim order allowing our practice. Unable to get at them any other way, now, the police are resorting to pressuring their landlord and his family.

Then, late night at 17th February 2016, the police visited their landlord- who is a driver by profession, and took him away to the police station. He was kept there till wee hours of the next morning, and dropped back in a police vehicle; his car having been impounded.  Their badly shaken landlord informed them at 2:00 am this morning that he has no option but to ask them to vacate our house and office within a week.

On the same night, the police had also resorted to threatening others associated with us, with clear focus on those they perceive as ‘soft targets’. Prachi, the young household help working at the house of journalist and academic Malini Subhramanium and Ashim Chowla’s house was summoned to the police station twice on the same date for interrogation, and kept there for hours.  Despite the clear letter of the law that women witnesses can only be examined at their place of residence, she was taken away to the police station late at night for questioning, much to the alarm of her family. She has been taken to the police station again this morning.  Their landlord,who lives in Raipur, has also been summoned to come and visit the thana this morning. Owing to the pressure being put on her domestic help, Prachi, and her landlord, Malini left Chhattisgarh on the evening of 18/02/2015 with her family.

On the same night, officials from the Nagar Panchayat of Geedam also reached Soni’s house last night, and they were asking her about how long she has been living in her house and that she doesn’t have a title to the house, and is built on encroached land.  Soni informed them that the house has been there for 35 years, and the govt hasn’t distributed pattas yet, and none of the other houses in the area have titles either.  They told her that there is a complaint against this house being illegal and they are looking into it.

Yet again, on the same night, (18.02.2016), the landlord of the house where Isha and Shalini – the two-member lawyer-team that constitutes JAGLAG stay – was taken to the thana again, after which he pleaded with them to leave the house at the earliest – within a day or two. Seeing the immense pressure to which he was being subjected, they left Jagdalpur on 19.02.2016.

Again, on 19/02/2016, the police visited noted intellectual Bela Bhatia’s house. They came into the house, took photos of the house and her Luna cycle and herself.  They claimed to be from Parpa thana (the thana in whose jurisdiction her house lies), but then their vehicle had the sticker for Kotwali thana (the thana that the addresses of JAGLAG, Malini and Bela fall under, and the one that is hounding them all), and when confronted, they agreed they were from Kotwali thana. They said they need to take a “statement” from her landlord, and met with his family. The family informed them that he is in an office (works as a government servant) in Jagdalpur. The police team left saying they will go to the office and get his statement there. On the same date, a few hours after this happenstance, the same team arrived at her landlord’s workplace and started questioning him regarding some random case and then asked him about Bela, her visitors, lifestyle etc. The lady constable took her landlord’s photograph as well. Later in the evening, the police again went to Bela’s landlord’s house and this time questioned the owner’s wife about her.

Throughout the day on 19/02/2016, various policemen have been patrolling around the house where JAGLAG-team used to stay and work from, and asking people around us as to when they will leave, who has been visiting us and, whether Soni Sori or Sudha Bhardwaj are at our house.

Meanwhile, on the same date, in a press conference in Raipur, the SRP Kalluri, the IG of Bastar denied that any pressure was being applied by the police on JAGLAG or our landlord, and said that their eviction was simply a matter of personal dispute between tenants and landlords.

The timing of these events does not escape notice.  This is coming at a time when the whole countryside of Bastar is on fire. Under the guise of anti-Naxal operations, the security forces are indulging in rape, pillage and plunder. With teams of women activists, JAGLAG, Malini, Bela et al have documented at least three cases of mass sexual violence in the past three months itself, where security forces have run amok in the villages, stripping women, playing with their naked bodies and indulging in gangrape, looting their precious food supplies, and destroying their homes and granaries.  The number of so-called “encounters” is at an all-time high, people are simply “disappearing” from villages in large numbers, only to show up in the list of “surrendered” or “arrested” Naxalites several days or weeks later.  The local police and administration are talking in one voice of “clearing” the area within one year.

In this scenario, all who are challenging the official narrative, are being silenced. Social mobilizations are being orchestrated by the police to provide a cover to their illegal harassment of journalists, lawyers, activists.  When mass gangrapes in Bijapur were being uncovered, a group calling itself the “Naxal Peedit Sangharsh samiti” under the leadership of the ex-Salwa Judum leader Madhukar Rao, took out noisy belligerent rallies against Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia and “outside NGOs”, threatening all of them with physical violence if they entered Bijapur again.  When Malini Subramaniam wrote about the fake surrenders of Maoists, or the fake encounters, a motley group led by the nephew of the local MLA, calling themselves the “Samajik Ekta Manch” launched a vilification campaign against her and began pelting stones at her house. When JAG tried to get her complaint of stones being thrown into her house registered, the Manch publicly declared JAGLAG as their next target, for defending “khoonkhar Naxalites” ( खूंखार नक्सली – dreaded Naxalites) and going to villages inciting people against the state.(राज्य सत्ता के खिलाफ भड़काते हैं).The local Bar Association also renewed their fatwa against local lawyers working with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group despite the stay on their earlier fatwa (Resolution) by the Bar Council of Chattisgarh.

Throughout 18th and 19th February, several media portals including Hindustan Times, the Hindu, Economic Times, theWire, Scroll, Yahoo™ News, the News Minute, Sabrang, Eye Art Collective et al and blogs across the country have covered these events, along with the magazine Caravan.

The Amnesty International has also carried these unfortunate happenstances in their website and has urged the Chhattisgarh government to ensure that the lawyers are able to carry out their professional duties without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference, in accordance with the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

A complaint on these events has been forwarded to the National Human Rights Commission by Human Rights Defenders Alert. The complaint has been made against the following:-

1) Members of Samajik Ekta Manch, Jagdalpur. Chhattisgarh

2) Mr. Madhukar Rao, from the “Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti” under the leadership of the ex-Salwa Judum leader

3) Superintendent of Police, Bastar.

4) SRP Kalluri, Inspector General Of Police Bastar Range,Chhattisgarh

In the complaint HRDA – India has very strongly urged the Hon’ble National Human Rights Commission to:

1) Immediately intervene in the matter and communicate with the Inspector General of Police – Bastar Range, Superintendent of Police, – Bastar, District Magistrate – Bastar asking them to prevent the local police officers engaging in harassment of women human rights defender and lawyers Ms.Shalini Gera and Ms. Isha Khandelwal.

2) Immediately and urgently send the NHRC Investigation Team to conduct an impartial and transparent investigation on the matter.

3) Look into the case and thereafter undertake urgent efforts to prevent them being evicted forcefully and illegally from Jagdalpur town and if required use the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 to protect law and order.

4) Ensure that lawyers Ms.Shalini Gera and Ms. Isha Khandelwal are provided with immediate and adequate police protection round the clock with inclusion of women police personnel in the team.

5) Ensure protection for them as they already have been threatened to be killed that if they go to the local court to practice which is to carry out their fundamental right.

6) Take immediate action on the perpetrators for issuing threats to human rights defender by arresting them and using all provisions of law to ensure that the defenders are not harassed, threatened or attacked in future;

7) Take immediate action on the perpetrators for issuing threats to human rights defender by arresting them and using all provisions of law to ensure that the defenders are not harassed, threatened or attacked in future;

8) Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of the lawyers and women human rights defenders Ms. Shalini Gera and Ms. Isha Khandelwal who are still under risk of further severe reprisals from the perpetrators and provide a re-assurance of not engaging in such acts against HRDs; and

9) Put an end to all acts of attack and harassment of human rights defenders in the State of Chhattisgarh to ensure that in all circumstances they carry out their activities as defenders of human rights without any hindrances;

The entire civil society of West Bengal stands in firm solidarity with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, with Malini Subhramanium, Ashim Chowla, Bela Bhatia, Soni Sori, Sudha Bharadwaj and every other group and individual who have been the few but ever-awake vigilantes of rule of law and Constitution throughout Bastar in light of the increasing ‘counter-agency’ measures that are being undertaken by the state with the purpose of securing the lands waters and forests of Bastar for the miners and industrialists through mass eviction of and torture that has affected each and every community-members of the forty two Gondi tribal groups who are the original inhabitants of the area.

In the face of re-launch of fascist force like Salwa Judum (held unconstitutional by Supreme Court), there has been a slew of cases where conscious keepers and vigilant individuals have been subjected to torture, threats and eviction. Lawyers such as Isha and Shalini of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Journalists and academicians such as Asim Chawla, Malini Subramanium, Bela Bhatia and Soni Sori have been threatened. We fear such crackdowns by state are to ensure that the region is free of any witness, as more violent agendas are in the pipeline. Such acts of coercion, threats and eviction are instruments through which the state is trying to dismantle a system of checks propped up by democratic society and poses a serious threat to democracy in India. Chhattisgarh records one of the highest population of poor adivasi under trial prisoners. Jagdalpur Legal Aid lawyers were mostly representing such persons before the court, thereby they were engaged in an effort to secure Right to lawyer, Right to fair trial that every person in India enjoys as their fundamental rights. State also has a duty to protect such rights. It is in this context, that the failure of the collector and SP to protect the lawyers who were giving free legal aid where adivasis hardly receive any legal aid, betrays the very spirit of the constitution and the criminal justice system.

In this context, the civil society of West Bengal, having expressed their support and solidarity with all lawyers, activists, journalists, writers and intellectuals as well as with the tribal populace of Jagdalpur who have imperiled their very existences to safeguard rule of law and uphold the Constitution in Bastar. We welcome the fast action taken by several journalists and human rights groups spread across the country so as to ensure that these events do not go unrecorded by the media. We also support the NHRC complaint filed by Human Rights Defenders-Alert and the statement issued by Amnesty International in this regard.

We also express our gratitude to the National Human Rights Commission for having taken immediate action on the report by sending notice to the Director General of Police, Bastar.

We protest the absolute breakdown of rule of law and the Constitution in Chhattisgarh and are shocked at the inability of Collector, SP (and other officers of the executive wing of the government) to protect officers of court such as Shalini and Isha from threats from fringe elements and express our anger at the continuous harassment faced by officers of court, while state machinery remains silent. We express particular dismay at the brutalities unleashed by the IG of Bastar in the entire of the region and the reign of terror that prevails in the name of counter-insurgency.

We place this appeal before the Nation of India and before all the people of India who have adapted, enacted and given to ourselves the Constitution of the country to uphold rule of law in Bastar and to support the activists, journalists and lawyers who has been working for and out of Bastar and its people.

In Solidarity,

the civil society of West Bengal


 

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