Human rights groups in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh have begun a ten-day hunger strike in the capital Raipur. They are demanding the release of human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen. Sen was arrested by the Chhattisgarh authorities in May last year on charges of links with Maoist group leaders. The protests are also directed at the extreme measures adopted by the state to clamp down on left-wing extremism.
A tribal member at a meeting with Naxalites
Over a year since human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen was arrested in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, protests demanding his release are building up across the country and the world.
Along with several national and international organisations, 22 Nobel laureates have taken up Sen’s cause. He was arrested in 2007 on charges of alleged links with left-wing extremists, also known as Naxalites.
There is also growing opposition to the state government’s repressive measures to curb Naxalism generally. These include repressive laws such as the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. These laws prohibit any acts that “pose obstacles to the maintenance of public order” or “encourage disobedience of law”.
Violation of freedom of expression
Civic rights activists say they violate freedom of expression. They are an effort to curb political dissent in the state, says Gautam Bandhopadhyay, an executive member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, or PUCL, in Chhattisgarh.
“These acts are written in such a way that anyone who has any tendency against state behaviour or against state actions -- not only today, also if they have had any experiences in the past -- that they should be behind bars.”
There have also been protests against the government-sponsored anti-Naxal campaign known as the ‘Salwa Judum’, or peace hunt. This controversial campaign involves providing arms to local tribal communities and training them to fight against Naxalite groups.
But the campaign is far from peaceful, says PUCL National President Rajendra Sail: “Salwa Judum volunteers are going around threatening all people who are supposedly supporting the Naxalites in the villages. Their houses are being burnt, their cattle are being taken away, they have been uprooted from their fields and they are being beaten up.”
“The majority of these people -- 70,000 people according to our estimates -- have been lodged in relief camps in the forests or on the roadsides away from their homes, and they are living as refugees in their own land.”
Claims of success
Some, however, claim that the Salwa Judum has been effective in weakening Naxal control over the local population.
Retired Brigadier BK Ponwar trains police officers in guerrilla warfare to combat the Naxals and is closely associated with the Salwa Judum movement: “The best thing to happen in any such violent movement by an underground organisation is that the people should say: ‘Detach the movement’. Once that happens the beginning of the end has commenced. With the population going against an insurgency movement, the insurgents are without water. The pond has been emptied and the fish is without water.”
Several government committee reports recommend that the Salwa Judum campaign be ended and the Supreme Court of India opposes the arming of civilians. The People’s Union of Civil Liberties has filed a petition demanding the withdrawal of Salwa Judum but this is still being heard in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the local tribal people continue to get caught in the crossfire.