The Increasing Cruelty of India's Justice System Is a Clear Sign It's Turning into an Authoritarian State

Most governments, even those that are democratic, have a fractious relationship with human rights movements, advocates and activists. The state, with its long arms and deep throats, cannot really bear the searching questions they pose, especially when it comes to the exercise of power. In India, since at least the 1970s, severe cases of custodial rape and torture have put into question the role and character of the state, its agencies and its police. The enactment on India’s statute books of laws like the Armed Forces Special Forces Act (AFSPA) that grant the armed forces and paramilitary complete impunity from the outer gaze, let alone prosecution for abuses, has made the relationship between the rights defenders and the state much worse. AFSPA has been in force in Manipur since 1958, inexplicable for India, with its claim to tolerance and respect for diversity, and was extended to Jammu and Kashmir in the 1990s as the conflict in that state escalated and imploded.

In the 1980s and '90s, India saw the enactment of "anti-terror" legislation like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, TADA (enacted in 1985, repealed in 1995), and the reintroduction of the Prevention of Obstructive Activities Act (POTA) first brought in through an ordinance and then enacted by Parliament. With the change of guard and the swearing in of the United progressive alliance headed by the Indian National Congress in 2004, the electoral promise of repealing POTA brought in by NDA-I was met. Succumbing to the pressure of the deep throats, however, the same UPA-I, in 2008, sneaked in amendments to the Unlawful Prevention of Activities Act that were enacted in 2009—amendments that were only opposed by the communist parties in Parliament.

Both the hardline supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the centrist Congress were on the same side of the fence when getting these amendments, which did not allow statements gathered by the police as evidence, but doubled the number of days the police can detain terror suspects before filing charges varying from 90 days to 180 days. Worse, the mere possession of literature that was interpreted as problematic made individuals liable for draconian prosecution and punishment.

India has advanced further toward becoming a hardline authoritarian state in which the unaccountability by law enforcement has ensured unfair incarcerations of youth from disadvantaged sections, be it Adivasis (indigenous peoples, tribals), Dalits (untouchables), Muslims and political dissenters. While the higher judiciary has eventually vindicated the rule of law, the fact that the process has taken years has raised serious questions. The conviction of Dr. Binayak Sen by the Chhatisgarh High Court (on charges of sedition) in 2011 and the more recent conviction of Professor Saibaba, a paraplegic, to life imprisonment raise serious questions on the influence of the rhetoric of national security even on India's judiciary.

Faced with the complete breakdown of the state's writ in border states and now even in the heart of central India (the infamous "Red Corridor" used to describe the 133 districts where the writ of armed Maoists holds sway), governments have responded with ham-fisted and cruel typicality, targeting the ordinary Adivasis who resist the gun, that of the Maoist and the Indian state. Documented accounts of rapes, killings and atrocities by men in uniform abound and do no credit to a government that wishes to portray India to the world as a glowing global example of "development." Here it is the "company raj" (rule of the corporates) that is being strongly contested by local human rights movements and defenders.

Soni Sori, now an icon for the rights movement, had her face burned in an acid attack, strongly suspected to be the handiwork of outfits created by a rogue state. She has famously said:

"Adivasis, not Naxalites, are targets of this government: Whenever there is violence in Bastar, it is reported as Maoist violence. This generalisation is why more than half of our country stays quiet and remains non-plussed in the face of violence committed on the local community of Bastar. If there is violence committed outside, to others, there is protest from the local community, but here the oppression is by the police; hence both other locals and journalists remain mute on the subject."

In recent months, this face-off between rights defenders and the state has reached unprecedented proportions. In Bastar, the Adivasi heartland of Chhattisgarh, roads have become the most contested spaces in the decades-old conflict between Maoist rebels and the Indian state. On April 24, the rebels ambushed a contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force deployed to secure a 5.5-km road under construction between Chintagupha and Burkapal in Sukma district, killing 25 personnel.

Weeks before, on March 11, a similar attack killed 12 CRPF men, deployed to provide security for work on Bhejji-Kottacheru road about 28 km away in the same district. Another CRPF man was killed on this same stretch in January, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, presumably planted by the Maoists. The security forces know this road is heavily mined, intended to disrupt construction work as well as the movement of troops. About 70 improvised explosive devices buried on the sides of the newly metalled roads and access routes in the surrounding forests have been recovered by the security forces since construction work began on the 20-km Injeram-Bhejji axis in May 2015, according to CRPF Deputy Inspector General, Operations, AK Singh. 

These road construction sites are attractive targets for Maoists; they are characterized by a heavy presence of security forces, but almost no local Advasis work on them. Despite the heavy cost in life and limb, the central and state governments have determinedly pushed the road construction program to bring development to what remains an impoverished region. However, some villagers are suspicious of the development narrative, believing that roads are merely an attempt to give exploitative commercial enterprises easier access to the region. Indeed, the latest ambush in Sukma reportedly had the support of the villagers.

As the government pushes to revive the road network that fell into disrepair with the advent of the Salwa Judum militia in 2005-06 as its main developmental project in Bastar amid fierce opposition by the Maoist rebels, it has not shown the same urgency in addressing the human rights abuses committed by the security forces. This has only served to fuel Maoists' propaganda that the Indian state is apathetic to Adivasi concerns.

On April 10, 14 days before the latest assault, activist Nandini Sundar wrote to the National Human Rights Commission asking it to take note of the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl in the sensitive Sukma region. The village of Chintagufa is in a Maoist-infested zone in Chhattisgarh. The girl reported that she was raped by security personnel on April 2. Sundar’s letter said: “The CRPF/police had been patrolling all night around Chintagufa. Around 4am, they entered the house of the victim, looking for her elder brother who was a sangham member and has left. Three men dragged her to a distance and two of them took turns raping her. The other police/CRPF held back the family members who were trying to rescue her and beat them too.”

Reports of gendered violence and custodial torture in this region have met with judicial reprimand and correction. In 2011, the Supreme Court actually came down heavily on the state's role in creating a counterinsurgency force like the Salwa Judum that not only heightened conflict in the zone but did so by dividing indigenous communities and tribes. Suvojit Bagchi, a senior Indian journalist who has reported widely in the region for the Hindu newspaper, has described how the treacherous terrain of the Dandakarnya forest has been effectively closed to journalists for more than a decade. This, he explains, means there is no way of knowing who is committing the atrocities and on whom ("Shooting the Messenger: Life and Death of Journalism in the Bastar Forest").

In May 2016, a fact-finding report of academics and activists held both the state actors and its security personnel equally guilty of violence in the region; the government responded by lodging a criminal complaint against the Delhi-based academics and Chhattisgarh activists for being Maoist sympathizers. Throughout late 2015 and 2016, the state government under the same party that rules the center, the BJP, was an agent provocateur as journalists and lawyers assisting local populations in filing cases had to move out of southern Chhattisgarh.

The response of senior ministers in Modi's cabinet—after the attack on India's paramilitary forces—bears examination. No sooner had outrage and crocodile tears been shed at the attacks on the men in uniform in April 2017, than one of Modi's hatchet men, the minister of information and broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu, launched a targeted attack on Indian human rights activists. On May Day he published an article in one of India's most widely read newspapers, the Indian Express, titled "Romancing the Maoists." In an attempt to build up hysteria among the mob and saffron shirts that have been the handmaidens of this far-right government, he alleged that human rights activists, having no concern for the "patriotic Indian" who dies in uniform, had not condemned the attacks on the forces.

This is simply untrue. The Sukma attack was widely condemned by groups and individuals including the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia. As the Indian director of Amnesty International pointed out, Amnesty lists in its annual human rights report the various abuses carried out by Maoist groups and other groups operating in states in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.

This government is not concerned with facts, however. By drawing an artificial construct of human rights defenders as supporters of "terrorists and extremists," the government representative is echoing how sections of Indian law enforcement have actually been behaving: Muslims as terrorists and Adivasis and/or Dalits as Maoists is the common refrain.

India would do well to examine its record and treatment of its own—the voiceless and disadvantaged. As Malini Subramanian writes, even after the recent March 11 attack:

“The police arrested four people from Chintagupha, a village about 16 km from Bhejji, and allegedly beat up several others from nearby villages. While the police accused them of being directly involved in the attack, their family members and other villagers refuted the claim. On March 28, nearly 100 people from 15 villages assembled at a place near Bhejji to tell stories of atrocities committed on them by the security forces. Madkam Muda, Madvi Deva, Madvi Bhima, Veko Ure, Madkam Lange, Madvi Apu, Madvi Deve, Madkam Jogi, Madkam Hadma, Madkam Gangi and Madkam Tulsi from Onderpadar were among the first to speak. At around 7 in the morning on March 16, as the villagers were leaving their homes to gather mahuva leaves from the forest, security personnel appeared. They grabbed whoever they could—men, women, children—and started beating them, said Deva.

"Seeing this, other people started running, but 12 of them, including six women, were caught and dragged to Bhejji police thana [station] two kilometers away. There, they were beaten with iron rods, bamboo sticks, and gun butts and were kicked. All this while the security personnel kept saying they knew the villagers were involved in the Bhejji blast. Many fell unconscious from the beating. An elderly man named Bhima said his palm was put on a stone while two men pressed it. They said they were punishing him for serving food to the Maoists. 'If they see us, they beat us and take us to the thana. If we run out of fear, they say you are running out of guilt and then beat us more and book us in some case,' Deva said, helplessly.

"That same day, Nande Muchaki of Kindarelpad, a village about 10 km from Bhejji, was returning from Gorkha village. She had gone to see off her son, who was going to Raipur. She was caught by a patrol, beaten and left tied her to a tree. Muchaki Joga was going to collect Mahuva when he was accosted, beaten and taken to Bhejji thana. Bandi Muchaki was picked up from his field, his wife Muia followed him but was beaten up and forced to turn back. Hearing that three men had been picked up, Muchaki Deva went to the thana, along with 25 other people from his village, only to be dragged inside and beaten. There were people from other villagers there as well, he said. 'We were beaten for a good three to four hours. They would turn on the generator so that our screams were not heard outside.' ''

Such accounts are documented only by that rare journalist or rapporteur who ventures into this difficult zone. Many observers have been pushed out of here as the state refuses to respond to the fourth eye of the independent media. Threats and intimidation are the order of the day as a bullying state effectively manages to drive out any glimmer of scrutiny.

Real democracy surely means listening to the sounds and voices of the least visible and most oppressed—lessons we in India have still to learn.

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