Wednesday, June 16, 2010

India: Don’t Muzzle Critics

The battle with India's Maoists has begun, and it has become bloody. Maoists have ambushed and killed over a hundred security personnel in recent months. Media reports say Maoists have also engaged in reprisal killings of alleged informers and "class enemies". There is suspicion that the Maoists sabotaged tracks, leading to the train wreck that killed nearly 150 passengers in West Bengal last month. Government forces have also allegedly committed abuses - arbitrary arrests, rape, and torture - as they advance against the Maoists.

The debates too have become heated. The government has called upon civil society to condemn the Maoists and end any "intellectual support" for their cause. Groups providing material support to criminal acts should be identified and prosecuted. But a blanket suggestion that anyone who speaks openly about government failures or warns against human rights violations is a Maoist backer and anti-state will have very serious repercussions for free expression.

The Maoists, also called Naxalites, have a presence in almost 200 districts across several states. State governments, in India's quasi-federal structure, are responsible for law and order, and thus have primary responsibility for handling the Maoist violence.

The Indian government has said the Maoists pose the biggest threat to the country's internal security. To address this, it has provided Central federal paramilitary to state governments to assist local police forces. The Union Cabinet, while recently turning down a proposal to deploy the Army, agreed that it must assist with training. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government insists that winning public support is also crucial in this battle. In what it calls a "two-pronged" approach of security and development, the government has initiated several projects to address a serious lack of resources in these areas, which include some of the country's most marginalised communities.

A strong civil society can help the government deliver on its development goals and monitor progress. But just as important, the media and non-governmental organisations can serve as watchdogs to report abuses by both sides. Mistakes are likely to occur in any operation of this scale, and only with access to information can a democracy provide prompt and effective redress to those unfairly harmed, instead of allowing rage over injustices to compound the problem.

This is particularly important because the states, often driven by their own political imperatives, have not always subscribed to the Centre's approach. The Centre, for instance, has condemned the vigilante Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, which forced villagers out of their homes into government camps, killing, raping and committing arson to enforce their plan.
But this group continues to receive state protection as a strategic tool against civilian support for the Maoists, with special police officers (SPOs) and Salwa Judum members often blocking access to the area by journalists and human rights workers.

The Centre might want effective and well-trained police forces that use modern investigation and law enforcement methods, winning the trust of the people they serve instead of being despised and distrusted by them. But some state governments have yet to embark upon police reform, or in fact, even to recruit to fill vacancies. That leaves the police overworked and disgruntled, without the training to tackle the Maoist challenge, and prone to commit human rights abuses.

State government failures to end abuses by security forces only strengthen the Maoists' support base. In Chhattisgarh, there are repeated allegations of brutal attacks by these SPOs, including sexual attacks on women. In West Bengal's Lalgarh, support for Maoists increased because the police tortured and arbitrarily arrested local tribal residents after a failed Maoist attack targeting the chief minister. There was no effort to address complaints or to investigate the allegations of human rights violations.

The Centre's development efforts have met with mixed success in various states. Jharkhand, for example, is still at the bottom on development indicators, even as some of its politicians are accused of gathering enormous wealth through corrupt practices. The rush to pull in foreign investment has ignored the need for careful assessment of the impact on those displaced. Nor has there been any real effort to engage the affected communities and determine effective rehabilitation. This became apparent in Nandigram, West Bengal, where villagers cut off access to the area to prevent the acquisition of their farmlands for industry. When supporters of the state's ruling CPI(M), with the complicity of the police, committed rape and killings to enforce the government plan, local support for Maoists increased.

The Centre's agenda for security operations has also had failures. The Maoists repeatedly attacked security personnel, killing troops and escaping with arms and ammunition. A government-appointed committee investigating the death of 75 paramilitary personnel in Chhattisgarh in April found that the troops had ignored prescribed procedures. If the security forces themselves are not being adequately prepared for these operations, standard precautions to protect civilians and prevent human rights violations are even more likely to be disregarded.

The government has a responsibility to contain an armed rebellion that puts citizens at risk, but it also has an obligation to ensure that people's rights are protected and to deliver prompt and transparent action against abusers. A failure of justice can push people towards those who propagate extralegal methods. And so it is crucial to have a vigilant civil society that can inform policymakers and governments of suspected human rights abuses, by both the Maoists and government forces.

Silencing government critics might seem like an attractive option in the short term. But if the government wants a lasting resolution to this conflict, it should embrace its critics instead, and work promptly to address the concerns they raise.

Article by:
Meenaxi Ganguly
Meenakshi Ganguly works on South Asia for Human Rights Watch

Credits to the sources:
Human Rights Watch
The Asian Age

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