Posts Tagged ‘Human rights’

AFSPA extension in Assam: Why has the state turned against itself?

September 20, 2017

One can understand chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who has invoked such a provision of law with all its legal and political fall-outs in a situation of fast losing credibility at the political front. Is it intended to contain the snowballing democratic protests from the state’s intellectuals, peasants and educated unemployed youth, which are apparently queering the pitch for the BJP’s one and a half year stint in Assam?

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Photo from The Statesman

An avoidable move?

The chilling effect on freedom of expression and arbitrary acts of counter-insurgency in a zone of “low intensity conflict” can often become a permanent scar, if the Army is called into civil and political conflicts. Low intensity conflict not amounting to “war against the state”, in its broadest and maximal sense, might not be considered a national security threat, as any reading between the lines would beseech such a caution to the powers-that-be. Threats to the nation-state cannot be a consideration by the administration of a provincial state, as such threats would willy-nilly involve the entire security apparatus of the nation.

Precisely these are what afflict the government and bureaucracy in Assam to rule in favour of the extension of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, over the whole of Assam.

One can understand chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who has invoked such a provision of law with all its legal and political fall-outs in a situation of fast losing credibility at the political front. Is it intended to contain the snowballing democratic protests from the state’s intellectuals, peasants and educated unemployed youth, which are apparently queering the pitch for the BJP’s one and a half year stint in Assam?

The situation is further queered by the uncalled for controversy created by naming new colleges and schools after Deen Dayal Upadhaya, an ideological mentor of the ruling party. The total failure of the state administration in providing flood relief, arrest of peasant leader Akhil Gogoi on charges of sedition, rampant corruption involving ruling party allies and members are some of the perceived weakness of the state government.

Issues like the killing of innocent citizens by night vigilante groups in the Barak Valley on the apprehension that armed gangs would attack at night and take away documents that validate inclusion in the National Register of Citizenship is another failure. Rising insecurity among ordinary citizens, sharp religious polarisation and mob lynching compounded with flood, unemployment and growing resentment for policy failures of the regime, has created gross disorder and disturbed public life in Assam. Can the government fight these malaises of economic failure and trust deficit of the people by bringing in the AF (SP) Act?

Intelligence reports about possible protests against what is perceived as a biased NRC, to be published by December and increased chances of radicalisation along religious and ethnic lines constitute threats to national security. For the first time, a state government has imposed the Act, instead of the Centre, prompting many to question the move. By implication, the whole of Assam has been declared a “disturbed area”.

The timing of the Act further raised speculation whether it was intended to muzzle the voices of surrendered members of the United Liberation Front of Assam whose cadres were attacked in a shop in lower Assam’s Nowgong by accomplices of the shop owners. That resulted in massive condemnation of the increased spell of attacks on Assamese people by cliques supported by the ruling dispensation.

It looks like a diversionary tactic at one level — when the government fails, it creates conditions of insecurity and then uses coercive laws to suppress any dissent. At another level, it is more an anticipatory preventive measure. In both cases, a coercive law like the AF (SP) Act, as per the latest Supreme Court ruling by justices Madan B Lokur and Uday in the PIL filed by the Extra-judicial Victims’ Association of Manipur, cannot use excessive force with impunity.

Further, the constitutional principle of “reasonable restriction” applies to any the application of coercive laws like sedition and AF (SP) Act, as “life and liberty of people cannot be deprived without due process established by law”. In many such ways, AF(SP) Act violates fundamental rights of life and liberty, as the apex court pointed out in its latest landmark ruling that “living under the shadow of a gun that can be wielded with impunity is equally unsettling and demoralising” for citizens as well as for the Armed Forces.

One might recall the judicial inquiry report on torture and killing of Manorama Devi in Imphal by the Assam Rifles, which had pointed out that the security forces feel they can act with absolute impunity. The extension of the Act to the whole of Assam, already deeply polarised, would make vulnerable sections face a “demoralising effect” on their democratic engagement with the state. Indeed this also marks a lack of trust between the government and the citizen, which is avoidable and the newly elected government should have restrained itself from applying the controversial act.

From the legal angle, invoking the Act also implies a counter-insurgency measure against “enemy” of the state, as defined in 3(x) of the Army Act. When the peace processes are gaining momentum and dialogue need to be advanced with due diligence, a greater emphasis on an apparent counterinsurgency measure ends up creating an atmosphere of suspicion and animosity between the forces and nonstate actors. In a participatory democracy like ours, the AF (SP) Act runs the risk of creating larger rifts and increased intransigence among various sections of people. The recent incident of a pro-talks former insurgent threatening to rejoin insurgency paints a larger picture of an unresolved confrontation brewing within the apparent peaceful situation.

The pre-eminent logic that guides the re-imposition of the Act is the belief in the security paradigm that the Central and state government subscribe to. In case of Assam, the government has effectively been using one section of insurgents against another, thereby creating an ethnic divide over limited rights of autonomy. Could territorial control and construction of politically expedient social and cultural boundaries throttle organised dissent against a ruling dispensation? This also creates a condition for legitimising acts of violation of human rights by the security forces, which acts in tandem with political exigencies of wielding new social divisions as a necessary infrastructure of state power.

The recent nine-member unanimous Supreme Court judgment on the right to privacy made right to dissent a fundamental right under the right to life as enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court decision on 124A of the IPC, imposing sedition charges indiscriminately on dissenters laid down the criterion that unless the so-called “seditious act” leads to incitement of violence and public disorder, an FIR or arrest can’t be done. Failure on the part of the state agencies to take note of these finer principles of law, creates a condition of mass insecurity, as their democratic rights are curbed without much reason.

Noted American scholar Daniel H Deudney’s landmark work on the state security doctrine argued that security concerns should not reflect the ideological concerns of the state and that the government should not be “navigating through the rear-view mirror”. This would mean that the state does not take a view of the future based on some past instances as such a broad view of security engulfs the state into widening conflicts. The purpose of the Act is limited to fighting counterinsurgency and hence its use in the present context may not augur well for citizens.

The writer is an associate professor of philosophy at the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong Vice Chairperson of Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC)

The piece was first published in The Statesman on September 18, 2017 and it is re-published here for wider dissemination.

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Racism in India

March 2, 2017

The MP Bezbaruah committee that recommended several cultural, legal and administrative measures to end discrimination of North East people in Delhi and other cities, could not address and recognise the question of race, which seeming arises over and over again in this saga of difference. Prasenjit Biswas and Suraj Gogoi ask, will this be corrected by appropriate reforms? 

racismOccupying a mere eight per cent of  the total land area in India, the seven Northeastern states and its ethnically-diverse people is a “micro-community” within the country.  The anonymity of belonging to a geographical region is itself challenging, as there is no common Northeastern Indian identity. Culturally and ethnically distinctive larger identities such as Nagas, Meiteis, Axomiyas alongside Kuki, Mizo, Khasi, Garo and many other ethnic and non-ethnic communities, including Bengalee Hindus and Muslims comprise a significant diversity that is “largely mismanaged”. The issue is how to manage this diversity at the national level?

Continuous harassment, humiliation and repression in the form of racism, under-representation, misrepresentation, as many scholars have suggested, goes on unabated. Chilling videos of landlords beating up Northeast girls in January in Bengaluru, the rape of another in Delhi’s Green Park area, rescue of young adult girls from traffickers’ network are some of the common malaise faced by an ordinary Northeasterner, as they travel to other parts of the country.

In the late 1960s, Nari Rustomji termed  Northeast India as a “Mongoloid fringe” of the country. Colonial rulers drew lines, Inner and Outer, and reinforced them with unenviable pusillanimity and controlled movement outside the hills. Post-colonial regimes in India continued with either a “leave them alone” or  “mainstreaming”, leaving a lot of loopholes in ensuring genuine recognition of cultural and ethnic specificity across the country.

The politics of misrepresentation went to the extent that in the popular biopic blockbuster Mary Kom, Priyanka Chopra replaced a Meitei actress Bala Hizam or another tribal actress Masochon V Zimik, who did not have the needed prosthetic eyelid that Chopra had to put on to make her look like Mary Kom. It is a complex substitution of a wide eyed Punjabi to turn her into chinki-eyed Mary Kom. This incident highlights how Northeasterners cannot represent themselves without a sanction from dominant identities.

In various media discourses too, Northeasterners are presented in terms of conflict, violence, insurgency, meat-eating and other such stereotypes. Within regional media, hill districts and remote localities are never talked about except in a negative way of presenting violence, insurgency or any other disruptive issues. Hill tribes of Manipur face exclusion, discrimination and arbitrary difference that makes them realise their experience of being treated unfairly.

A recent work of a non-fiction by Nandita Haksar, entitled The Exodus is Not Over: Migrations from the Ruptured Homelands of North-east India brought out how Tangkhul women face everything — death to rape and sexist exploitation in Goa and Delhi. A large number of malls in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, which employ people from the Northeast portray a similar story of a culturally different migrant workforce that have to often bear the brunt of being different-looking with very different food habits. The upmarket restaurants, malls and markets make use of their language skills and other positive features, while they keep facing a discriminatory looking-down by owners, customers and buffs, although there are instances of fellow-feeling and kindness.

What is at issue is the very idea of an Indian face as distinguished from a Mongoloid face along with all its attendant cultural stereotypes, which create a sense of alienation and otherness. For the Northeasterners inventing new forms of socialisation is a constant need to link themselves with “strangers” as employers and neighbours in Indian cities, which is a major challenge. They remain as intruders in other social space of being Indian, as “pastoral keepers” of cultural norms in cities may not give them the connective tissue.
Lin Laishram, who acted alongwith Priyanka Chopra in  Mary Kom stated that in every audition she had to face discrimination. Atim, the chief protagonist in Nandita Haksar’s work sees “some of her Tangkhul workers go out with managers” to get some favour, while she experienced statements like “no job for chinkies” here. Do the ideas of India fail to accommodate the racially-different? As professor Bimol Akoijam, a clinical analyst stated, it is like  “when this ‘racial other’ is positioned as ‘backward’ or ‘tribal’ (anthropological subjects), it produces a judgment that converts the ‘difference’ to being ‘inferior’. This informs the racist attitude towards the people from India’s North-east”.
Akoijam went onto pointing out the need for sensitivity about racism as Article 15 of  the Constitution debars discrimination on the basis of sex, community, religion and race. He also pointed out, albeit for the first time, that race emerges as the major category of discrimination in the context of Northeasterners coming to live in mainland India.

 Indeed, he had the shock of his life when he found a reference in JD(U) Rajya Sabha member Pavan Varma’s book Becoming Indian as “my African friend”. Akoijam sought a correction as he hailed from Manipur, but the author never thought it fit to correct it. Thanks to the racist analogies of misrepresentation, Northeasterners could be anything but Indian, they could be Chinese, Nepalis, Africans and the like.

In matters of food too, for instance, a broccoli is never a part of Assamese cuisine nor is fermented bamboo to Jats. To bring it even closer, akhuni (soya bean)  is not central to most cuisines found in Assam but certainly to the Meiteis and Nagas. Our mental map of landscapes is also imagined through food. Any attempt at exclusion and intolerance towards practice of those elementary cultural practices is a gross violation of human rights and secular understanding of Indian society. A major problematique in this is eating of beef, pork, insect, or dog meat by North-easterners and hill people, which is culturally prohibited.

One remembers Naga supremo Angami Zapu  Phizo shouting at the Governor of Assam on  the occasion of the signing of the 1975 peace accord in Shillong. Phizo remarked, “How can there be peace when one side does not share the food of the other side?”

It is seen at large that the food culture of Indian people are divided on multitude of connotations—value systems, religious beliefs and caste associations. Different kinds of food cultures and habits exist parallely, however, it necessarily doesn’t mean an existence without any conflict. As such ecological and social niches that food from North-east carries is taken with a sense of being exotic. But certainly, it does not constitute as an essential part of Indian food culture of samosa or jeelabi or sabjee.

Students from the Northeast living in Delhi, Bengaluru,  Chennai, and also in other metros, often share a very conflicting relationship with their landlords and neighbours. They often face complains of their food being smelly and stinky. One sees very evidently that food has become an instrument of creating a distinctive other and can often cross that already ambiguous relationship to become violent.

Although public memory is short, one would recall the exodus of Northeasterners from major cities in India. This was in 2012 when violence broke out in Bodoland forcing thousands to leave their  homes and hearths. It almost turned communal where people were killing each other or burning houses—about 77 people lost their lives and 400,000 had to take shelter in relief camps. Even after five years, at least half of them continue to stay put. To this violence, some hate-rumours were spread through social media that people from the mainland were targeted in the Northeast. This led to attacks by some unknown people in various metros in India, triggering panic among students and others who belong to the  North-east. The attacks were in retaliation to the displacement in Bodoland. An estimated 200,000 from various cities returned home. This resulted in restaurants running out of staff, malls with no security guards, airlines and airports with fewer crew members and so on.

This targeting of the people in the cities was the result of bad understanding of geography and it carried strong racial undertones. It was a situation where anyone who looks like a Northeasterner was thought to be a Bodo. If that is not racism and bad geography, what is it? This is the result of absence of the Northeast subject from school textbooks in the mainland. Although, some efforts have been made recently, the Northeast largely remains neglected in school textbooks. Is this not internal orientalism?

The imagination of the Northeast in the minds of most Indians is one of an unknown territory, whose inhabitants are not much known. They are known only if they accept mainstream culture such as Hinduism (in case of Meitei or some Arunachalee tribes) and along with the package, a mainstream language like Hindi. Certainly one does not see an easy way out of the situation.

The MP Bezbaruah Committee that recommended several cultural, legal and administrative measures to end discrimination of Northeast people in Delhi and other cities, could not address and recognise the question of race, which seemingly arises over and over again in this saga of difference.

(Prasenjit Biswas is Vice Chair of BHRPC and Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, NEHU, Shillong and Suraj Gogoi is a researcher in Sociology, National University of Singapore)

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The article is first published in the Statesmen and is available here:http://epaper.thestatesman.com/c/17145416 . It is reposted here verbatim for wider dissemination.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2016, reactions in Assam and the way ahead

October 17, 2016

Burst of immigration hysteria

Prasenjit Biswas

citizenship

Courtesy The Statesman

A caucus of noted Assam intellectuals representing those concerned about the granting of citizenship to hundreds of thousands of immigrant Bangladeshi Hindus has expressed concern over the Centre’s bulldozing public opinion, through a parliamentary standing committee, to propose amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955. 

It has noted that, if an estimated three million Bengali Hindus who entered Assam after the 1971 civil war from erstwhile East Pakistan  are granted citizenship, it will jeopardise the very existence of Axomiya as a linguistic community and will  permanently alter Assam’s land holding, employment and demography.

The groups is also concerned that indigenous peoples’ lives and identity will be endangered by further legitimising Bengali Hindu immigrants. Also that this will merely complicate the matter caused by an already alarming presence of Muslims in Assam. From the point of view of the indigenous activists, dominance of  any plainsman over hill communities is looked upon as a marginalising factor.

Writing in the late 1960s, noted social scientist Roderick A. Church pointed out that “separatism” of the tribals in Assam and North-east is a potent factor to destabilise any dominant community’s hold over the state power.

The present Citizenship Amendment Bill controversy raises the fear of the Axomiya and the tribal communities together, albeit in very different ways and thereby adding up to the concerns of land alienation and demographic marginalisation.

What turns out to be a queer outcome of the BJP’s victory in Assam is its pre-poll commitment to grant citizenship to Hindus displaced from former East Pakistan and present Bangladesh due to religious persecution. Indeed, this pre-poll promise won them most of the nearly  6.5 million Bengali Hindu votes, making them and their allies win big in this year’s assembly election.

Prior to the election, the Centre, by a circular from the Union home ministry,  regularised the entry and stay of religious minorities from Pakistan and Bangladesh if they had entered India by 31 December 2014.

Indeed, such a circular, based on relevant provisions of rules and orders made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, has created jubilation among Bengali Hindus and other Hindu minorities such as Koch Rajbongshis, Hajongs, Moghs, Chakmas and such other late and persecuted refugee migrants, as they see in it a humanitarian response from the government of India in treating them with compassion and fairness.

In continuation to this circular, the Centre has proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955, especially section 6A, that presently limits the grant of citizenship to a cut-off date of 25 March 1971. In its proposal, the Centre suggested the cut-off date up to 31 December 2014, for persecuted religious minorities that include every religious group except Muslims, who migrated to India from neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the amendment and inclusion of Hindus and others have made the proposed amendment seem painted with a religious brush that alters the secular basis of citizenship within the Constitution to the basis of religious persecution. One can understand the BJP’s political compulsions to keep its Hindu vote bank consolidated for future election that made them parry important constitutional questions.

Concerns raised in Assam about a possible fallout on land and demography is also not backed up with hard evidence and correct statistical facts. Vani Kanta Boorooah, a social scientist with the University of Ulster, UK, in a richly-documented paper entitled “The Killing Fields of Assam: Myth and Reality of Its Muslim Immigration” published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 26 January 2013, demonstrated with much statistical elan that  “between 1971 and 2011, the net migration into Assam was virtually zero: 730,000 persons entered Assam in the 20 years between 1971 and 1991 (502,000 Muslims and 228,000 non-Muslims) but there was a net outflow of 452,000 between 1991 and 2001 (209,000 Muslims and 243,000 non-Muslims) and a further net outflow of 283,000 between 2001 and 2011 (168,000 Muslims and 115,000 non-Muslims), leaving a net outflow between 1971 and 2011 of just 5,000.”

Imaginary statistics and numbers are regularly floated to build up a picture of native and indigenous population losing land to immigrants, be it Bengali, Hindu or Muslim, and an entire Muslim community is particularly dubbed  “illegal” by a motley combination of ethno-nationalists and indigenous activist groups.

To complicate matters further, there is an existing legal mechanism of identifying “suspected illegal immigrants” by tagging them “doubtful” beside their names in the voters’ list and by subjecting them to a legally tortuous process of proving their bona fides and, in the process, many have died in detention camps.

Retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of India Altamas Kabir once pointed out that suspected “D” voters’  human rights were violated in Assam as they were kept with criminals and were deprived of access to legal assistance. The Hindu legal cell of Assam has filed a petition before the National Human Rights Commission against the Assam government’s policy of keeping suspected foreigners in ordinary jails with common criminals.

The BJP is at an interesting crossroad in dealing with the situation. Its chief spokesman, Himanta Biswa Sarma, now minister in the Assam BJP cabinet, mooted the idea of 1951 as the cut-off date for deciding citizenship in Assam during his election speeches, which apparently garnered a huge chunk of caste Hindu Assamese votes to the BJP combine’s accounts.

Right now he argues that granting citizenship to Bengali Hindus of the post-1971 period will ensure a Hindu majority in Assam, which will be a combine of Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu that would keep Assam safe from being turned into a Muslim majority state.

Intellectuals, social activists and civil society in the Brahmaputra valley have found this argument flawed as they feel it is divisive and throws  Assam’s plural society into a vertical division between Hindus and Muslims.

In the Barak Valley, Bengali Hindus expect big bonus from the BJP by granting citizenship to all Bengali Hindus, and by particularly checking their regular harassment by the state administration to prove their citizenship and being often pushed into a detention camp or prison.

Noted civil rights activists Hafiz Rasheed Choudhury, who hails from the Barak Valley and heads the Citizens Rights Protection Committee, sees a double danger in proposing religious identity as the basis for amendment to the  Citizenship Act, 1955, as it will not grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of refugee Hindus but endanger the status of Muslim citizens as “suspects”, or illegal trespassers into India. Citizens, in the Barak Valley, being concerned at this diabolic situation, remain clueless about the fate of the proposed amendment, but they remain divided along religious lines. Large segments of Bengali Hindus still pin their hopes on the BJP to establish the rights of Hindus in India, while they are silent about the plight of Bengali Muslims.

The situation is extremely fluid and uncertain as the parliamentary standing committee is yet to make its stand clear on whether it is ready to grant citizenship to displaced people from neighbouring countries on the basis of religion or whether the matter needs to be viewed in a larger humanitarian perspective that does not discriminate on religious lines. Concerns in the Brahmaputra valley about illegal immigration that is then politicised in the name of religious minorities prevent an easy solution to the controversy over citizenship to persecuted religious minorities.

Multiple political colours and positions attributed to this very important Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, make it extremely relevant to facilitate an end to dilemmas of a democratic and inclusive notion of citizenship that is above the dichotomies of native versus migrant, legal versus illegal, etc, that are the remnants of  the 1980s anti-immigrant agitation.

In this context, some of Assam’s intellectuals hailing the BJP’s coming to power as a victory of Assamese regionalism over Hindutva can be seen as the conceit of self-deception, as much of the Asomiya intellectuals are worried at the prospect of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda of granting only Hindus citizenship at the moment.

It is also ironical that the preservation of local and indigenous languages and culture clashes with a notion of democratic citizenship are seen as a source of crisis in land, employment and livelihood. Seemingly, there is a perception trap that has created a quagmire for all of Assam and its various segments of people, as it is not able to come to terms with the presence of others who are different. This also marks a regressive hardening of linguistic and cultural boundaries that imply greater ethnic and religious distrust and conflict over authenticity, which is not good for a democratic polity based on the principle of peaceful co-existence and communal harmony.

The writer is associate professor at the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong and vice chairperson of Barak Human Rights Protection Committe, Silchar.

Originally published in The Statesman at is availaable at http://www.thestatesman.com/news/north-east-page/burst-of-immigration-hysteria/171231.html#guTR9QqqC6d0O6hC.99

In the name of protecting one-horn rhinoceros, forest guards in Kaziranga national park in Assam are allegedly killing villagers

February 2, 2016

Report by Danish Raza as published in the Hindustan Times

Ajit Doley, a farmer in Bhokot Sapori village, one of more than 100 fringe hamlets around Assam’s Kaziranga National Park (KNP), was uncomfortable about his son Horen’s friendship with Saleem Ahmed, ranger of the park’s Eastern Agaratoli range.

On June 25, 2014, two days after Horen, an LIC agent and a student at a college in Bokakhat, went missing, his father went to Bokakhat police station to lodge a complaint. He knew that one of Horen’s friends had last seen him with Ahmed in Bokakhat town. At the station, the police showed Ajit pictures of Horen’s corpse. A tall, lean man with sharp features, Ajit gasps in anger and sorrow as he recounts the events. He believes Horen’s friendship with the ranger cost him his life.

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Assam, India – Jan 11, 2016: Raino at Bagori village Rang in Assam, India, and January 11, 2016. (Photo by Arun Sharma / Hindustan Times)

Assam’s Kazrianga National Park is famous for one- horn rhinoceros. In addition to being a tourist attraction, it is continuously on the radar of poachers who kill the rhinos for the horn which fetches $300,000 per kilogram in the international market. The horn is considered to be one of the most expensive contraband items in the world.

Records identify Horen (20) as a poacher killed by forest guards during an encounter in the Park. Ahmed was the complainant in the FIR lodged after the encounter. Horen’s body lay unidentified until his family claimed it. According to the family and their neighbours, the encounter was staged. “How come his dead body remained unidentified and we got no intimation regarding his death despite the fact that Ahmed knew him?” Ajit asks.

Horen’s killing follows the pattern of killings in the Park situated on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river at the foot of the Mikir-Karbi Anglong hills: no eyewitnesses; strange circumstances; no further investigation.

The KNP is home to the world’s largest population of the endangered one horned rhinoceros that is under intense attack from poachers. The poachers are capitalising on the surge in the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China, where it is a status symbol and is also used in medicine. Sadly, it seems that the pressure to show results in the fight against poachers is turning KNP into a human graveyard with forest guards and state police often killing villagers instead of the real poachers.

In 2014, the same year that Horen was killed, the Park witnessed more than 20 fatal shootings at the hands of forest department staff. Many of those who died were locals who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Forest staff often take the help of villagers in menial jobs. Others enter the park for forest wood. And still others are kidnapped by members of vigilante groups who are under constant pressure from the forest department to give them leads on poachers,” said Jayanto Kumar Goswami, a lawyer and an activist based in Assam’s Golaghat district.

BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS

In their zeal, is the forest department and state police conducting extra judicial killings of local villagers, who may or may not have a criminal background?

According to government records, 134 rhinos have been killed in KNP between 2005 and 2015 for the horn, worth US $ 300,000 per kilogram, touted as one of the most expensive contraband items on earth. Sixty- eight poachers were shown shot dead in encounters in the Park in the same time period. However, circumstances of many of these shootings analysed alongside related legal documents, interviews with forest officials, local reporters and testimonies of families indicate that not all of them were poachers.

Various reports have documented that the Park is under- staffed and has been facing a fund crunch. Almost 20 per cent of positions are vacant in the Park and seven per cent of the deployed staff strength is physically incapable of performing protection duties, according to a report prepared by Park director M K Yadava

Nowhere is the problem more conspicuous than in the admission of the Park authorities that in majority of extra judicial killings in Kaziranga, gang leaders are able to escape and locals become casualties. “They lead from the front. Poachers are based in Nagaland and Manipur need their help as they are well versed with routes. They work as fixers, guides and porters,” said Amrit Bhuyan, Second Commanding Officer with the Assam Forest Protection Force, part of the Anti- Rhino Poaching Task Force.

A P Rout, Additional Director General of Police, Assam, and in-charge of the Task Force said, “Poachers are not from here except local guys, helpers and may be in stray case, a local shooter. Mostly they are facilitators.”

It is just like a border situation. It is comparable to the army on the border. When my man is standing in the 4 degree Celsius right in the dark when you cannot see one metre..there is a rhino lurking, riger lurking..i don’t question. Conservation is pretty tough.

– MK Yadava, Director Kaziranga National Park

report submitted by KNP Director M K Yadava to Gauhati High Court in May 2014 noted that the lower rung teams only get assaulted within the park boundaries, leaving the main organisers of the crime free to regroup, have new recruits, provide training, get new arms and make another attempt at poaching.

Yet, locals many locals such as Doley, Rahul Kutum and Gaoburha Kealing regularly get killed.

Consider the facts confirmed to HT by the forest department and state police, which raise questions about the authenticity of encounters in KNP:

Park authorities and state police could not provide HT with a list of ‘veteran’ or ‘most wanted’ poachers killed in these encounters.

While one would assume that there would be casualties on both the sides, no forest department staff has died in these encounters, confirmed the office of KNP’s divisional forest officer.

Contrary to popular perception that poachers are armed with sophisticated weapons, only 38 rounds of AK series weapons were seized during encounters in last 10 years.

There are documented cases of families of deceased getting FIRs lodged against forest staffers, a July 2010 notification says that prior sanction of the state government is required to prosecute forest officers.

Records show that in majority of cases, post encounter procedure such as filing of charge sheets, reporting these incidents within 48 hours to the NHRC and holding magisterial inquiries within three months are not adhered to by the encountering parties, in contravention of law. Out of 74 rhino poaching cases registered between 2002 and 2012, charge-sheets were filed only in eight cases, noted a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

GREY AREAS

The situation in Kaziranga is rich in ironies. It is tempting to believe that if the forest department is serious about law enforcement, the prosecution of offenders facing charges under the Wildlife Act must result in conviction. But records show that encounter killings in Kaziranga outnumbered convictions seventy times in the last five years.

An Assam Forest Protection Force personnel, part of Anti Rhino Protection Task Force, camping in Jakhalabandha. Since the formation of the Task Force in mid- 2014, the forest department, Assam Forest Protection Force and state police have been jointly involved in anti- poaching operations.

Yadava’s report attribute abysmal conviction rate to lack of exchange of information amongst enforcement agencies with regards to wildlife criminals. “It has often been seen that a poacher or a linkman has been arrested but multiple cases pending against them are not known to the arresting agency. Therefore bail is obtained easily as “first timer” who then gets back to doing the same business,” noted the report. “They could not prosecute even a single person for entering the park in an unauthorized manner. At the same time, they killed so many people alleging they were people who entered at night time with the purpose of poaching. Two developments do not match,” said Jayanto Goswami.

Paucity of resources to run the Park and lack of funds to gather intelligence, when seen with incessant fatal shootings offer another contrast. Twenty seven poachers were shown shot dead in 2014, up from seven in 2005, despite the fact that the staff is ill equipped and lacks modern gadgets (officials narrated many instances to this reporter when their .303 rifles or that of their colleagues could not fire); 20 per cent of positions are vacant in the Park; and seven per cent of the deployed staff strength is physically incapable of performing protection duties.

THE JUSTIFICATION

So what exactly is happening in Kaziranga? The most likely scenario seems to be that the pressure on Park authorities has led them to be trigger-happy, killing trespassers and individuals found inside the park at night.

“If there is a failure on our part, we earn flak from international quarters. This is not Assam specific issue,” said ranger Saleem Ahmed, ranger, Ahmed admitted that there have been cases of informers misleading his staff because of personal rivalry. In such cases, at the most they would summon the person. “But it cannot lead to encounter because an innocent person never goes inside the Park,” he said.

Echoed A.P. Rout,“It is a reserved sanctuary. The fellow is not supposed to be there. Night time if somebody is coming, whether he is a wood cutter or poacher, how does someone know?” he said.

M K Yadava said given that almost 70 per cent of people in the fringe villages fall in Below Poverty Line category, there was a need to sensitise them not to help wildlife traders for easy money. “Conservation efforts cannot succeed unless these people are made stakeholders,” said Yadava.

At the same time, he appeared to be proud of the way his forest staff was working in hostile conditions. Yadava maintained that not a single innocent person has been killed during encounters. “They are constantly fighting two enemies viz poachers and wild animals. They are on duty when it is pitch dark and the temperature is freezing. I cannot question their actions. And mind you, poachers do not wear special dresses,” he said.

MURDER MOST FOUL?

“Oh, we know his son, why did they have to kill him,” cops at Jakhalabandha police station in Assam’s Nagaon district murmured as Kachu Kealing collected the dead body of his 25 year old son Gaonburha Kealing on the night of December 26, 2013. Villagers claimed that same evening, some farmers saw him on his way to the forest in search of his cattle. Earlier that day, Gaoubhura worked in the field with his father and cooked a meal. When he left home around 10 am and did not return, Kachochan reached the Sikuni Bagh forest camp- where suspected poachers are routinely detained- to be informed that he may check the dead body which arrived at the Jakhalabanda police station hours ago.

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Assam, India – Jan 06, 2016: Name: Father of Gaonbura Killing his residence at killing Village, Jakhlabandha in Assam, India, and January 6, 2016. (Photo by Arun Sharma / Hindustan Times)

Photos of Gaonbhura’s dead body, copies of which are with HT, show it riddled with three bullets and sickle wounds jabbed around the abdomen, waist and behind his back.

According to his family and neighbors, Gaonbhura was stunted and was least likely to be involved in any activity related to rhino horn trade.

Kachu Singh Kealing, father of Gaoburha Kealing, a native of Rangaloo Kealing village in Assam’s Nagaon district who got killed during an encounter inside Kaziranga National Park in December 2013. Although the killing created an uproar putting the forest department in a tight spot, it did not amount much.

Goubhura’s killing triggered a furious uproar in the area. Various tribal groups and students’ bodies including the All Assam Tribal Sangha, an umbrella body of different tribal organisations held a roadblock protesting the killing.

Ditumoni Gogoi, secretary, CPI (M-L) of Kaliabor sub division, one of the participants at the protest said, “Many such killings were happening in and around Nagaon at that point of time. In most of the cases, protests remain specific to the village of the deceased. But this one became a rallying point and people of nearby villages also took to streets in solidarity with the family.”

It is a reserved sanctuary. The fellow is not supposed to be there. Night time somebody coming…he is a wood cutter or poacher…how does someone know.

– AP Rout, Additional DGP (STF), Asssam

The Additional Deputy Commissioner of Kaliabor sub division in Nagaon ordered an inquiry and action against officials if found guilty. The Circle Officer provided the family with a sum of Rs 10,000 to perform Gaonbhura’s last rites. The Sub Divisional Officer wrote to the DFO requesting him to look into the possibility of giving job to one of the family members on compassionate grounds.

In response to a complaint filed to the Assam State Human Rights Commission (AHRC) by the family, a fact finding team led by the principle chief conservator of forests, Assam, declared that Gaonbhura was a poacher and was killed by forest guard on duty. But the family claims that the Commission’s fact finding team never consulted or involved them or anyone known to Gaonbhura in the entire enquiry depriving them of their right to a fair hearing.

Forest director told HT that as per his information, Gaonbhura was not innocent but his department was trying to help the family on compassionate grounds.

THE POACHER WHO WAS NOT

On June 1, 2010, almost all local dailies in Assam carried on front pages the the news of Rahul Kutum’s killing and the resulting protests. “Hundreds of local people of Silveta area under Bokakhat subdivision of Golaghat district have rocked the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) today in protest against the killing of an innocent youth- Rahul Kutum, by the Kaziranga forest guards, making him a poacher fraudulently,” published The Sentinel.

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Assam, India – Jan 11, 2016: Name: Family Members of Rahul Kutum at his residence at Silbheta Village, Golaghat, in Assam, India, and January 11, 2016. (Photo by Arun Sharma / Hindustan Times)

Kutum, a minor, along with three others were shot dead in the Bogpur area of the national park on May 21, 2010. Pictures circulated to media (copies with HT) and Kutum’s post mortem report show his dead body carrying unnatural injury marks. “There were marks indicating that both his hands were tied with rope like material,” said Dhrubajyoti Saha, local reporter with Asomiya Pratidin, who covered the encounter. “It is difficult for me to vouch for anyone’s innocence. Involvement of villagers in wildlife trade cannot be ruled out, but killing people like this cannot be a solution,” he added.

Bhakto Bahadur Thapa, uncle of Rahul Kutum, a minor who was shot dead inside the Kaziranga National Park in May 2010, showing documents related to Kutum’s case. The case was widely reported in local media and many officials from the forest department were named in the FIR lodged by Kutum’s family.

Villagers of Silveta gave a memorandum to Golaghat Deputy Commissioner demanding a fair inquiry into the incident.

Kutum’s uncle Bhakto Bahadur Thapa told HT that an individual named Hariprasad Doley of Agoratoli area had helped the KNP officials to plan the killing. After a complaint was lodged by Kutum’s family, the Bokakhat police arrested Doley under section 302. The FIR also named then DFO and one forester Nazrul Islam. Doley got bail after spending three months in prison.

No action was taken against the forest officials. The incident was reported to AHRC but the case file was closed in February 2012.

The report is reproduced from the Hindustan Times where it carries more pictures and 3 valuable charts showing a comparison between the number of Rhinos and Poachers killed from 2005 to 2015,  Rhino population and Rhino poaching over the years.

How the NRC updation in Assam threatens to render a large section of Bengali settlers in the state stateless

September 13, 2015

Joydeep Biswas

A riot victim woman whose house was burnt down by the militants takes shelter at a relief camp in Narayanguri village in Baksa district of Assam. Photo: The Hindu

A riot victim woman whose house was burnt down by the militants takes shelter at a relief camp in Narayanguri village in Baksa district of Assam. Photo: The Hindu

Very few in mainland India are aware at the moment that a process of citizens’ registration on the basis of racial profiling is under way on the eastern fringe of the country. The national media — both print and electronic — has not cared even to report the ongoing preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), leave alone analysing the legal nuances involved in the action and the possible plight of the ‘denizens’.

This exercise, initiated through a gazette notification dated December 5, 2013 by the Registrar General of India, was initially due to be completed within a time span of three years. But the judgment delivered by a Division Bench of the honourable Supreme Court (Coram JJ, R. Gogoi, R.F. Nariman), dated 17 December 2014, advanced the due date of publication of the final NRC to January 1, 2016. The whole exercise, set off in a selective manner only for the State of Assam, is meant for detection, detention and deportation of the illegal migrants who crossed over to Assam from Bangladesh on or after March 25, 1971.

The vexed issue of infiltration and expulsion of foreigners in Assam, which has dominated the political theatre of the State for over three decades, has got close links with the very history of the subcontinent. Colonial history of the State dates back to 1826 when, under the Treaty of Yandabo, the then geography of what is now called Assam came under the British rule. And the tract was made a part of the Bengal Presidency which, of course, included the erstwhile East Bengal as well.

The first partition of Bengal

In a different turn of events, Cachar, now one of the three districts forming the Barak Valley in southern Assam, was annexed by the Britishers after the fall of the Kachari Kingdom in 1832, and was also made a part of the huge Bengal Presidency. Such arrangements were made much before the first Government of India Act, 1858 through which control over the Indian territories held by the British East India Company was vested in the British queen.

They effectively meant that people of Bengal and of Assam — transcending ethnicity, language and culture — lived within the same administrative jurisdiction and under the same political dispensation.

In 1874, by a whimsical decision of the British government, two districts of East Bengal — Sylhet (along with Cachar) and Goalpara — were separated from the Bengal Presidency, and were joined with Assam to create a new administrative unit which was placed under a Chief Commissioner. This was technically the first Partition of Bengal, a development that unfortunately escaped the attention of the mainstream scholarship.

Much has been written and read about the partition of Bengal in 1905, and its eventual rollback in 1911. However, surprisingly enough, historians of modern India have shown cruel indifference to the cultural knifing of 1874, due to which the Bengalis of Sylhet and Goalpara of the then East Bengal, for no fault of theirs, had to shift their allegiance to a completely different cultural geography.

The colonial power had its own fiscal logic. Sylhet, a revenue-rich district in British India, was tagged with a revenue-deficit Assam to address the administrative purpose of fiscal rationalisation. These two districts thereafter continued to exist inside the administrative boundary of Assam for the remaining length of the colonial rule. In 1947, Sylhet was lost to Pakistan on the basis of the outcome of an allegedly rigged referendum.

The communal carnage that took over the subcontinent resulted in the biggest displacement of people in the recorded history. The humanitarian crisis had its ramifications both on the eastern and the western boundaries of the newly liberated India. But in terms of number, intensity and continuity, impact of the exodus felt on the eastern front far exceeded that on the west. The internal political turmoil, coupled with communal riots first in East Pakistan, and then in Bangladesh, made sure movements across the boundary remained a regular feature even after 1971.

This repeated redrawing of political map of Assam, along with that of the twin valleys of Surma and Barak by the colonial rulers, showing utter disregard to the sentiments of the Assamese and the Bengalis, is causally connected to the emergence of the parochial political patriarchs who assumed power in the Assam in the post-Independence India. Assamese middle-class saw in the British actions of administering Bengali settlement on their own land an evil design of linguistic hegemony. Hence, in the post-colonial Assam, they tried to correct history.

In a bid to retaliate, the Assamese elites, who by then had got a fair share of political power, began to treat Bengali settlers on Assam’s soil as ‘cultural foreigners’. The genesis of the anti-foreigner movement, spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) during 1979-85, thus, dates back to the series of above happenings where politics played mayhem with culture.

The bogey of ‘infiltration’

There was no evidence provided by either the government or the academia about the scale of cross-border movement of people. Despite that, the xenophobic movement launched by the AASU during the early 1980s was successful in convincing the Indian establishment that a ‘marauding infiltration’ by Bangladeshi nationals from across the border was putting the Assamese language and culture in great danger.

The six-year-long violent agitation, which left hundreds dead and thousands traumatised, culminated in the inking of the Assam Accord on August 14-15, 1985. This tripartite memorandum of settlement between the Centre, the Assam government and the AASU leadership was considered ‘historic’ in the Brahmaputra Valley. The Citizenship Act, 1955 was suitably amended by the Parliament to incorporate Section 6(a), bringing in a special provision of citizenship for Assam.

The legislative passage engineered by the Rajiv Gandhi government, which had a brute majority in both the Houses, did not care for the history, geography and anthropology of colonial Assam. The Nellie pogrom of February 18, 1983, in which more than 2,000 Bengali-speaking people, including women and children, were butchered, was conveniently forgotten by the Indian state. That gory incident has never been given enough attention in the media.

Legitimisation of racial violence

Successive governments have not been able to bring the killers to justice. To the contrary, the metamorphosis of AASU into Asom Gana Parishad and its eventual victory in Assembly elections has practically legitimised the racial killings.

The Bengali speaking citizens in Assam now face a new kind of terror, this time, from the Indian government. On the strength of an agreement, the State government is now active in the preparation of the National Register of Citizens. This is aimed at labelling lakhs of Bengali-speaking citizens as ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators’.

The relevant rules and provisions in the statute book, including the Citizenship Act, 1955; the Foreigners Expulsion Act, 1946; the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950; the Foreigners Tribunals Order, 1964; and the Citizenship Rules, 2003 (as amended in 2009 and 2010), have all been very carefully crafted over the years to evict from Assam the Partition victims of erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

The Indian government has decided to upgrade the NRC only for the State of Assam even though, ideally, the exercise should have covered the entire country. The purpose of this official action is not difficult to decipher. The stringent set of conditions attached to the process requires the Bengalis of Assam to prove their Indian citizenship solely on the basis of their or their ancestors’ names appearing on the electoral rolls published up to 25 March 1971 and the NRC of 1951, failing which they would be thrown out of the updated NRC.

To make things complicated for these people, such electoral rolls are found to be both incorrect and incomplete. On the other hand, their Assamese and tribal counterparts would find easy inclusion, by virtue of being the ‘original inhabitants of Assam beyond reasonable doubt’.

The key question that confronts us now is: what would happen to these hapless Bengali settlers? In the absence of any bilateral arrangement between India and Bangladesh, the latter is not ready to take them back. This implies that lakhs of such Indian citizens, who have had their names on the Indian electoral rolls for the past four decades, and who are in possession of Electoral Photo Identity Card, would be rendered stateless. Going by the existing deportation norms and practices, they will just be evicted to the no man’s land on the Indo-Bangla border, that too in the dead of night. It will be a shameful moment for India, a proud signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(Joydeep Biswas is an associate professor of economics in Cachar College, Assam (Central) University.E-mail: joydbiswas@gmail.com)

The piece was first published in the Hindu and can be accessed here http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-starkness-of-being-nowhere/article7633845.ece

56 years of AFSPA: Legalising Rule O’ Flaw

October 3, 2014

The 56 years of AFSPA has a deep impact upon the society of north east India that has now learnt to internalise militarisation and has negotiated life of arbitrariness under RULE O’ FLAW.

56 years of AFSPA: Legalising Rule O’ Flaw

By Anjuman Ara Begum

‘It was on the 11 September 1958 that the President of India signed the Act, and the same day 9/11 is observed as the anti-terrorism day world over, the struggle against state terrorism started on the same day for the inalienable civil, political and cultural rights of the peoples of Northeast India with the imposition of AFSPA 56 years ago…’. this was the reaction of civil society members gathered on September 11, 2014 at Guwahati to ‘celebrate’ the 56 years of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA, in short). AFSPA became law on September 11, 1958 after receiving assent of the president of India. It was promised to be a temporary measure. 56 years on, the Act is still in force despite several calls for its repeal and is still held strong by the armed forces an excuse for legalising repression and impunity calling it a ‘holly book’. Participating in the same gathering renowned human rights activist of the region Babloo Loitongbam, ‘if this is temporary measure then what it the meaning of permanent?’, a thought that provokes human conscience to rethink about AFSPA.

RULE OF LAW, a universally celebrated and adopted concept to counter arbitrariness and unreasonableness in law and practice. The concept dominates the law making process of today’s civilised and democratic countries. Soon after adopting a written constitution in 1950 with implicit guarantee of RULE OF LAW, the state of India continue to resort to repressive policies as well as practices. Following the colonial footsteps, the AFSP bill was passed in the parliament in August, 1958 after a brief seven hours debate. It was in the same year of 1958, India signed Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva Conventions of 1948, Convention against Racial Discrimination and several others. State of India continued to reaffirm its commitment towards the protection and promotion of international human rights standards despite resorting to repressive policies and practices like AFSPA domestically.

Soon after becoming a law, AFSPA started concretising it’s existence. It’s application continued to be extended as well as it’s abuses. Needless to say that the Act has ‘normalised’ routine declaration of disturbed area, encouraged the practice of extrajudicial execution and reinforced the culture of impunity. Let’s us consider these three aspects.

Firstly, the extension ‘disturbed area’ status for north eastern states since 1955 has now attained the status of a mere routine administrative exercise. What constitute ‘disturbances’ is still not codified in legal literature. Even the judiciary ignored this aspect. In Naga People Movement for Human Rights vs. Union of India, AIR 1998 SC 431, it was simply said that the country understands what constructs a ‘disturbed area’. It was further decreed that there is no requirement that the Central Government shall consult the State Government before making the declaration. In fact, there are instances where state’s resolution against such declaration has been ignored. It is reported that Nagaland state assembly passed resolutions against the extension on four occasions and each time these resolutions have been ignored by the centre government. Tripura, a state often claimed as an example of successful counter insurgency measures still remained ‘disturbed’. Tripura hardly had any major armed encounter in recent years. Such back door declarations of emergency situation continued simultaneously when Government of India claimed internationally that there is no situation of armed conflict in the country.

Declaration of ‘disturbed area’ also means additional budget allocations. In a corrupt country like India, this aspect is important in the context of recurring extension of ‘disturbed area’ status. Parliament of India’s record suggests that the Government has been providing financial assistance. During the period of the year 2011- 2012 financial assistance was provided unde

The price of tea from death valley

September 20, 2013
  • AMANDA HODGE IN BARAK VALLEY, ASSAM
  • From: The Australian
  • August 31, 2013

AS India’s well-fed politicians bickered over a proposed Right to Food bill this week in New Delhi, workers in some of northeast Assam’s most remote tea gardens were literally starving on their feet.

Family of a tea labourer in the Bhuvan valley tea garden live here. This is their home.

Family of a tea labourer in the Bhuvan valley tea garden live here. This is their home.

In seven months last year, 34 people died of starvation or malnutrition-linked diseases on a single tea estate, Bhuvan Valley in southern Barak Valley, when owners temporarily shut operations and stopped paying workers for demanding better conditions and eight months of owed wages.

“It was more like Death Valley than Bhuvan Valley. People were dying from one house to another,” says Prasenjit Biswas, who chairs the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee that brought the issue to the attention of authorities. Under pressure from the government and National Human Rights Commission, the owners restarted operations but the deaths have continued.

From the roadside, Bhuvan Valley looks just like the gardens of Eden on the tea packets from which so many Australians brew their tea; flashes of colourful saris amid land lakes of topiaried green that seem to levitate above hillocks and plains.

It is less picturesque up close.

As tired, bony women file from the gardens at dusk, Mannu Ravidas, a casual tea labourer, waits for his wife.

Like most of the workers here he was born on the estate, descended from the original tribal workers trafficked to Assam from central India during British rule.

His ribs protrude from his body and his legs bow outwards in the tell-tale sign of rickets, a common affliction among workers.

Ravidas, 50, says during last year’s closure his family “went hungry every day”, and his father eventually died.

“We are still hungry,” he says. “We eat rice and roti two times a day. One meal is full, the other half. We give my two children more than we eat ourselves but things are much worse than they used to be. When they were small they did not need so much.”

His wife is the only permanent tea labourer in the family. She receives 72 rupees ($1.20) a day, and weekly subsidised rations of 5kg of rice and 3kg of flour that looks like sawdust.

To supplement her meagre income, Ravidas buys sacks of rice and resells them by the roadside.

“So many people fell sick and died, including children,” says Champa, who heads the garden’s women’s panchayat (council).

“Things improved a little when the new manager came but now he has gone and we’re worried. He tried to get a doctor for the dispensary here, and for the owner to pay us the money he owes, but the owner refused so he left.”

The same thing happened before last year’s deaths and workers here are again frantic with worry.

With no manager to endorse their daily pickings, how will they be paid?

Assam produces half a million tonnes of strong black tea annually, filling the tea bags of some of the most recognised tea brands sold in Australia, including Liptons, Twinings and Tetley. It represents half of India’s total tea production.

Trying to understand the anachronistic slavery like labour system and working conditions of labourers in tea industry in Assam that drive them to starvation deaths. In Bhuvan valley tea estate on 19 August 2013 Waliullah Ahmed Laskar, Amanda Hodge and Dr Prasenjit Biswas. — at Bhuvan valley Tea Estate, Cachar, Assam.

Trying to understand the anachronistic slavery like labour system and working conditions of labourers in tea industry in Assam that drive them to starvation deaths. In Bhuvan valley tea estate on 19 August 2013 Waliullah Ahmed Laskar, Amanda Hodge and Dr Prasenjit Biswas. — at Bhuvan valley Tea Estate, Cachar, Assam.

But declining productivity — and hence profits — in many Assamese tea gardens has had an alarming impact on the health and living standards of tea workers. Barak Valley has the lowest-paid tea workers in India, with a minimum wage of R72 a day — less than half the federally mandated minimum daily wage of R158.54 and at least R12 less than workers in neighbouring valleys.

Estate owners say the rest of the wage is paid in kind, through the provision of housing, pensions, food rations and proper healthcare — services they are compelled to provide under the Tea Plantation Labourers’ Act.

In reality, many estates fail to deliver even basic services such as clean water, and owe their workers millions in unpaid wages.

Fair Trade Australia spokesman Nick Tabart says while consumers have successfully pressured the coffee and chocolate industries into improving wages and conditions, the tea industry lags way behind. Of 900-odd tea gardens in Assam, nine are Fair Trade certified.

“We’re well aware that (Assam) is a region that requires attention,” he told The Weekend Australian.

But the biggest barrier to securing living wages on tea estates is decades of low prices, underinvestment by tea estate owners and a “difficult legacy” of bonded labour.

Nirmal Bin’s wife Basanti was 33 when she died on July 30 after a four-month illness. She was a permanent Bhuvan Valley tea worker and so entitled to medicines from the garden’s “dispensary” (just an outbuilding tacked on to an overgrown ruin) to treat her diagnosed kidney disease. “But they would only give us paracetamol,” he says.

Many retirees on the estate have been forced back to work because owners refuse to pay out their pensions from the state’s Provident Fund — money deducted from wages that should have been accruing over decades.

Tea garden owners are required to match that sum each week but the union admits proprietors of Bhuvan Valley and at least nine other local gardens have not done so.

“Their wages are very low, there are no other facilities, housing, medicine, drinking water,” says BN Kurmi, a union official based in the regional capital of Silchar. “If we are more strict then (the owners) will close the gardens and then again the starvation will come.”

Kurmi admits many workers are exploited and that the union “failed” the starving labourers of Bhuvan Valley last year.

It is still failing them.

Behind the dispensary, Imti Rani Dushad is awaiting a pension payout following the death of her husband last year from tuberculosis, which he probably contracted from the canal water that workers relied on until a water treatment plant was finally built a few years ago.

He died inside the dirt-floor hut in which she must now raise their five children alone. The long-closed dispensary reopened a week later.

Now her greatest fear is that she too will fall ill.

“There’s no hope for me or my children,” she says. “How can I improve our condition? My neighbours can’t help me. Their condition is as bad as mine. Except for human sympathy they can’t offer anything.”

In another hut, Sri Charam Baruri nursed his dying mother last year. Her death was long and painful but he doesn’t know what killed her.

His wife, the mother of four children, died a few months earlier, from another mystery cause that may have been meningitis.

In the looming dark — there is no electricity — worker after worker comes forward to tell of their losses.

India’s federal Tea Board says many of the 109 tea gardens of Barak Valley have been neglected by the tea owners, who lease the land from the state.

“We’re focused on helping them improve methods and quality,” says R Kujur, the board’s assistant director in Silchar, though workers’ welfare is a “state government concern”.

To rejuvenate declining tea estates the Tea Board is offering up to R80,000 per hectare to gardens willing to pull unproductive bushes and plant better performing varieties. Aware that publicity of shocking labour conditions — combined with a slide in tea quality — can hurt the industry, it has introduced a certification scheme and is pushing for proprietors to sign on.

“It will take time to motivate the owners and labourer but I can assure you that within three years you will see a huge difference,” Kujur says.

Bhuvan Valley is replanting 20ha of bushes but the Tea Board is still working to get gardens like Craig Park on board. The once grand estate’s tea bushes are producing 50 per cent less leaves than a decade ago.

The district’s deputy commissioner described conditions at Craig Park as a “sorry state of affairs” and noted many workers had died while awaiting retirement payouts. Labourers fear the garden will eventually be closed.

If that happens, thousands of workers will be forced off the land — with nothing to show for generations of cheap toil.

Published at The Australian and available at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/the-price-of-tea-from-death-valley/story-fnb1brze-1226707856072#sthash.9pLYjpRk.dpuf

Government must heed Manipur panel’s findings and end impunity for fake encounters

July 25, 2013

Government must heed Manipur panel’s findings and end impunity for fake encounters

24 July 2013

Amnesty International India
Bangalore at (080) 49388000
email: contact@amnesty.org.in

An independent panel set up by India’s Supreme Court to investigate six alleged extrajudicial executions in the northeastern state of Manipur has found damning evidence of impunity and abuse of special powers by security forces, resulting in widespread human rights violations.

The panel found that all seven deaths in the six cases they investigated were extrajudicial executions, and not deaths resulting from “encounters” where security forces claimed they had fired in self-defence against members of armed groups.

The panel also said that the continued operation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) in Manipur has made “a mockery of the law,” and that security forces have been “transgressing the legal bounds for their counter-insurgency operations in the state of Manipur.”

The Supreme Court appointed the panel in January 2013 in response to a public interest litigation filed by a Manipur-based victims’ group and a local human rights organisation seeking investigation into 1,528 alleged extrajudicial executions committed in the state between 1979 and 2012.

The three-member panel,headed by retired Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde, was tasked to determine whether a sample of six cases raised by the petitioners were “fake encounters,” staged to cover up extrajudicial executions. The panel was also directed to analyze the functioning of the state police and security forces in Manipur.

The panel submitted its report to the Court on 4 April. The petitioners received a copy of the report on 15 July.

In its report, the panel said that none of the seven people killed in the cases it examined had any formal criminal charges against them. It stated that security forces appeared to have assumed that the seven individuals had to be eliminated and acted accordingly.

In one case, the panel noted that the victim suffered 16 bullet injuries shot at close range, indicating a clear disproportionate use of force. It said that the medical evidence in the case indicated that the security forces’ intentions were to kill the suspect, not disable and arrest. The panel said, “The incident in question is not an encounter, but an operation by the security forces wherein death of the victims was caused knowingly.”

In another case involving the killing of a 12 year-old boy, security personnel told the panel that they had fired in self-defence. The post-mortem report stated that the victim suffered four bullet injuries, all of which were potentially fat al, while none of the security forces were injured.

The panel concluded, “It is extremely difficult to believe that nearly 20 trained security personnel equipped with sophisticated weapons…could not have overpowered/disabled the victim.” It concluded that “the incident in which the deceased…was killed was not an encounter nor was he killed in exercise of the right of self-defence.”

The report also identified serious investigative lapses committed by investigators and persistent abuse of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). It called for all deaths resulting from encounters to be investigated by senior police officials, and for the Manipur Criminal Investigation Department to be “suitably strengthened” within six months to carry out such duties effectively. It also called for the cases to be monitored regularly by a committee chaired by the head of the state human rights commission, and tried by a special court.

Crucially, the panel pointed to the AFSPA as a key contributor to rights violations by security forces.

The report stated, “The continuous use of the AFSPA for decades in Manipur has evidently had little or no effect on the situation. On the other hand, the six cases, which have been shown to be not real encounters, are egregious examples of the AFSPA’s gross abuse.”

The panel echoed a statement made by the Jeevan Reddy Commission, another government committee formed to review the AFSPA in 2005, which said that the law had become “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.”

The panel’s report recorded how security forces in Manipur were disregarding procedural safeguards set out in Supreme Court rulings and Army directives to ensure that AFSPA powers were used with exceptional caution and with the minimum force necessary.

Moreover, the panel found no information to back the central government’s assertions to the Supreme Court that the use of AFSPA powers was being closely monitored. Rather, after repeated requests, they were told that there was no official record of basic information essential to such monitoring such as the number of civilians killed or injured by the police, army or other special forces in Manipur.

However, the panel stopped short of calling for the AFSPA’s repeal, and instead recommended that the law cease to operate in more parts of Manipur progressively.

Soldiers operating in areas where the AFSPA is in place cannot be prosecuted without the permission of the central government. Applications seeking permission to prosecute are almost always rejected, and sometimes remain pending for years. The panel recommended that the central government be given three months to respond to requests for prosecution, failing which it would be presumed to have granted permission to prosecute.

Amnesty International India welcomes the findings of the Supreme Court-appointed panel, but urges authorities to go beyond its recommendations and repeal the AFSPA in Manipur and elsewhere. The AFSPA has provided impunity for perpetrators of grave human rights violations for decades. Its continued operation in any form will allow human rights violations to continue.

In Manipur, impunity is endemic and authorities take little to no action to investigate and prosecute allegations of rights violations by security forces. A special investigation team comprising senior police officers from outside the state should be formed to conduct prompt and full investigations into all 1,528 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions brought before the Supreme Court by local groups.

Where sufficient admissible evidence is found, suspects – including those with command responsibility – should be prosecuted in fair and speedy trials meeting international standards in a civilian court, regardless of the time that has lapsed since the crime occurred. The families of the victims should receive adequate reparation, including compensation.

Amnesty International India urges both state and central authorities to heed the panel’s recommendations to bolster the Manipur police and Criminal Investigation Department in six months time in order to conduct thorough, impartial and effective investigations into all future cases of alleged extrajudicial executions in Manipur.

Authorities must apply procedures laid down by India’s National Human Rights Commission in cases of deaths caused in the course of police, army or other security personnel action, and follow the UN Principles and Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions.

The Government of India must also act on the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and set up a credible commission of inquiry intoextrajudicial executions throughout India.

Background

Impunity in cases of extrajudicial killings is a matter of grave concern in Manipur and some other parts of India. In his comments after visiting India in 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christ of Heyns observed that “Impunity for extrajudicial executions is the central problem. This gives perpetrators a free rein, and leaves victims in a situation where they either are left helpless, or have to retaliate.”

The National Human Rights Commission has itself on occasion said “extrajudicial executions have become virtually a part of state policy.”

The AFSPA, which has been in force in parts of Northeastern India since 1958, and a virtually identical law (The Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990) in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990, provide sweeping powers to soldiers, including the power to use lethal force against any person contravening laws or orders, and to prevent the assembly of five or more persons.

The law has provided impunity for perpetrators of grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, rape, torture and other ill-treatment, and excessive use of force.

The AFSPA falls far short of international standards, including provisions of treaties to which India is a state party, and is inconsistent with India’s international legal obligations to respect and protect the rights to life, liberty and security of person, to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, and to an effective remedy.

Several UN bodies and experts, including the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, have stated that the AFSPA must be repealed.

A number of Indian bodies, including the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, the Jeevan Reddy Committee to review the AFSPA and the Prime Minister’s Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures in Jammu and Kashmir, have also urged the repeal of the law. The Justice Verma Committee, set up to review laws against sexual assault, said in January 2013 that the AFSPA legitimized impunity for sexual violence.


* This Press Release was sent by Durga Nandini ( Amnesty International India) who can be contacted at Durga(dot)Nandini(at)amnesty(dot)org(dot)in
This PR was posted on July 24, 2013 .

Poor state of juvenile justice in Assam: ACHR

February 12, 2013

Guwahati: Assam has reported the highest number of cases of juvenile delinquency in the Northeast consistently for the last few years, according to a human rights watch group.

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Juvenile Justice

The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) in its latest study report claimed that the state had recorded 405 such cases in 2011.

Of the 405 cases, 402 fall under the Indian Penal Code and three under the Special & Local Laws, as per the latest report of the ACHR titled “Assam: The State of Juvenile Justice”.

“Assam’s negligence of juvenile justice is astounding. It failed to set up seven new Open Shelters during 2011 despite availability of funds under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme of the Ministry of Women and Child Development,” ACHR director Suhas Chakma said over phone from New Delhi.

He said that on account of this failure to open new centres, the Project Approval Board of the Ministry of Women and Child Development had declined to accept the request for grants for three existing Open Shelters.

The report noted that the administration of juvenile justice in Assam remained equally deplorable.

“There is an acute shortage of homes for juveniles in conflict with the law as well as children in need of care and protection,” the ACHR report said.

Assam has only three children’s homes and four observation homes run by the state to cater to 27 districts. The observation home, set up in Jorhat back in 1987, caters to 11 districts in Upper and Central Assam.

PTI

Rights group asks panel to recommend removal of sanction-requirement for prosecution for sexual offences

December 27, 2012

New Delhi: In its submission to the Justice Verma Committee set up in the wake of the gruesome rape on December 16th in New Delhi, Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) stated that at least 45 custodial rapes took place between 2002 and 2010 as per the complaints registered by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NHRC registered two cases during 2009-2010, four cases during 2008-2009, 18 cases during 2007-2008, 10 cases during 2006-2007, five cases during 2005-2006, four cases during 2004-05, nil in 2003-04 and two cases during 2002-2003.

“These cases are tip of the iceberg and the law enforcement personnel enjoy virtual immunity as prior sanctioned is required for their prosecution even in cases of rape as per Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code and Section 6 of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958.” -stated Mr Suhas Chakma, Director of Asian Centre for Human Rights.

“The Justice Verma Committee must recommend removal of the requirement of prior sanction for persecution, suit or other legal proceeding against any offences relating to sexual assault.”-further added Mr Chakma.

Asian Centre for Human Rights also criticised the restrictive Terms of Reference of the Justice Verma Committee which has been asked to suggest possible amendments in the criminal laws to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing “sexual assault of extreme nature against women”.

“The Committee should bear in mind that failure of the law to take its own course against sexual assault, which may not necessarily of extreme nature, ultimately creates the environment where criminals dare to commit sexual assault of extreme nature. Women in India have been facing unprecedented sexual violence and the Committee must broaden the definition to capture all forms of sexual assault.”– also stated Mr Chakma.

Asian Centre for Human Rights recommended to the Justice Verma Committee to amend the Criminal Procedure Code and Indian Penal Code to define sexual assault as a violation of bodily integrity; amend Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (rape) and Section 354 (outraging modesty of women) to include a broad offence of sexual assault graded based on harm and to provide for punishment commensurate with the sexual assault; remove any requirement that sexual assault be committed by force or violence for enhanced punishment; remove any requirement of proof of penetration to establish sexual assault or rape; and to provide for enhanced punishment including “imprisonment until death” in aggravated sexual assault in aggravating circumstances including, but not limited to, the age of the survivor, the relationship of the perpetrator/s and survivor, the use or threat of violence, the presence/participation of multiple perpetrators, and grave physical or mental consequences of the attack on the victim.

[Ends]

(PRESS RELEASE issued on 26 December 2012 in New Delhi)

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[Should you require any further information or clarifications, please contact Mr Suhas Chakma at 9810893440]