India: Abduction, detention and externment of Human Rights Defenders (joint communication)

BACKGROUND

On 25 August 2021, I wrote a joint communication to the Government of India concerning:

  • The abduction of human rights defender Mr. Nitin Verghese in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh;
  • Police violence against and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders Mr. Ravinder Singh and Ms. Rajveer Kaur in Faridabad, Haryana;
  • The process of externment against human rights defenders Mr. Ramjanam Kushwaha and Mr. Santosh Mane.

Allegations of attacks and criminalisation of human rights defenders in response to their peaceful protests against the forced evictions and demolitions in the Khori Gaon informal settlements in Faridabad, Haryana State, were raised in urgent appeal IND 13/2021 sent on 14 July 2021, as well as in a press statement issued on 16 July 2021 in which UN experts called on India to halt the evictions in the midst of the pandemic and monsoon rains. At the time of writing, no response to this urgent appeal has been received.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the original communication

ALLEGATIONS

The case of Mr. Nitin Verghese

Mr. Nitin Verghese is a human rights defender and member of the tribal and Dalit Rights Collective called Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) that works to protect the rights of the Adivasi indigenous and Dalit minority communities in the state of Madhya Pradesh. In particular, he works with local leaders in their fight for justice around issues such as land rights and forest rights.

On 10 July 2021, Mr. Verghese and other Adivasi activists visited a site where forest officials and police were demolishing the homes of Adivasi minority in Jamniya village in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. During this incident, the human rights defender witnessed forest officials forcibly removing four members of the affected minority community from the site and taking them to another location. Mr. Verghese complained to the Deputy Forest Officer. In response, the police and forest officials proceeded to forcibly removing Mr. Verghese, two other activists from the JADs, as well as three Adivasi minority community members and took their phones.

The whereabouts of Mr. Verghese and the other five individuals remained unknown until midnight on 10 July 2021, when they were all released. During this incommunicado detention, Mr. Verghese was not permitted to see his lawyer. The mobile phones of Mr. Verghese and the two other JADs members remain in the possession of forest officials.

The case of Ms. Rajveer Kaur and Mr. Ravinder Singh

Ms. Rajveer Kaur is a woman human rights defender and student at the Delhi University. She is a member of the Bhagat Singh Chatra Ekta Manch (BSCEM), a student association that advocates for students’ rights and social justice by educating, promoting and connecting students. Mr. Ravinder Singh is a human rights defender and president of BSCEM. He studies law at the Delhi University.

As outlined in depth in the urgent appeal IND 13/2021, a wave of peaceful protests have taken place throughout Faridabad, Haryana State, in response to the Supreme Court order on 7 June 2021 to demolish the informal settlements and remove the inhabitants of the Khori villages. The people of the village organised gatherings to peacefully ask the authorities for adequate rehabilitation
and resettlement and to delay the evictions in light of growing health concerns due to the pandemic.

On 30 June 2021, the residents of Khori village planned a meeting at Ambedkar Park to discuss their concerns about the threat of displacement during the pandemic. Before the meeting could take place, the Faridabad Police surrounded the park so that residents could not enter. As a crowd of those who intended to meet gathered in front of the park, the police allegedly physically attacked the unarmed crowd, which included human rights defenders, women and journalists, with lathis.

Mr. Singh and Ms. Kaur had planned to attend the village meeting that morning. Both human rights defenders demanded that the villagers have the right to peaceful assembly and that the police allow them to enter the park. During the lathi attack, police beat Mr. Singh and Ms. Kaur alongside the other civilians and then forcefully detained them and placed them in police jeeps. During the
attack, Mr. Singh’s turban was forcibly removed. They were taken to Surajkund police station where they were allegedly not allowed to see their lawyers or family, and were denied food and drink.

At 4pm that afternoon, they were taken to CBK Faridabad government hospital where they were examined by doctors. Mr. Singh had injuries to his shoulders, back and thighs and Ms. Kaur was injured on her waist and thighs as a result of the lathi attack. It is reported that their wounds were not adequately examined or tended during these examinations. Both defenders were released from
hospital later that day and no charges have been pressed against them.

The case of Mr. Ramjanam Kushwaha

Mr. Ramjanam Kushwaha is a farmer, social worker and human rights defender. For over 30 years, Mr. Kushwaha has defended and protected the rights of Adivasi minority, in particular the rights of Adivasi women from exploitation by the upper caste men, as well as protecting Adivasi land rights in Uttar Pradesh.

On 31 December 2000, Mr. Kushwaha was allegedly arbitrarily taken by the police to Pannuganj, Manchi and Roberts Ganj police stations and allegedly beaten and tortured on several occasions for approximately 4 days. On 3 January 2001, a First Information Report (FIR) was registered by police against him under article 153A and 124A of the Indian Penal code, and Mr. Kushwaha was
imprisoned on charges of “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race…” and “sedition”. On 8 April 2001, Mr. Kushwaha was released on bail. Mr. Kushwaha’s case was ongoing for 9 years, after which the district court of Sonbhadra deemed the human rights defender innocent and the charges against him were dropped.

In June and July 2016, three non-cognizible reports (NCRs) were filed against Mr. Kushwaha, all of which were closed after investigation by the police. In November 2019, Mr. Kushwaha supported tribal villagers in filing complaints to the authorities about illegal land grabs by the Gram Pradhan.

On 7 November 2020, police officers arrived at Mr. Kushwaha’s residence in Uttar Pradesh and ordered him to sign a document. The police officer then told the human rights defender that a formal process of externment against him had begun. On 12 November 2020, Mr. Kushwaha submitted a written complaint to the Commissionerate Office in Mirzapur regarding the illegal externment against him, citing that the charges against him were false and the externment was illegal because the three NCRs against him were proven incorrect and were subsequently closed and the FIR against him was currently pending before the district court. At the time of writing, no information has been received on whether the complaint has been received.

The case of Mr. Santosh Mane

 Mr. Santosh Mane is a Dalit rights defender and member of the Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra, as well as several other minority Dalit rights organisations including the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ), a civil society organisation that provides legal assistance to cases of caste atrocities, and the Muktivadi Yuva Sanghatna (MYS), a collective of Ambedkarite rights defenders in Maharashtra that work to promote social justice and assist victims facing caste discrimination and atrocity. His human rights work focused mainly on supporting victims of human rights violations as a result of the caste system, filing complaints and assisting them in court processes. Over the years, he has assisted in more than 150 cases of caste-based atrocities.

On 10 December 2019, the Talathi of Ramapur (government representative) made a panchnama (a police record of witness testimony) against Mr. Mane and filed it with the revenue department. The panchnama was supported by several other high ranking members of the Ramapur authorities. The panchnama claimed that Mr. Mane was involved in illegal sand mining and that he should
pay a heavy penalty to the revenue department as a result.

On 28 December 2019, Mr. Mane filed a complaint against the Talathi of Rampur and the other four individuals who had accused him previously, stating that it was a direct attack against the human rights defender. On 16 September 2020, the human rights defender received an official letter saying that the claims against him were erroneous and the panchnama had been withdrawn.

On 28 April 2020, an FIR was submitted by the head constable at the Chinchani Police Station against Mr. Mane claiming that he had been involved in illegal sand mining activities. The human rights defender was charged with theft (section 379), disobedience (section 188), public nuisance (section 290), acts done by several persons with a common intention (section 30) under the Indian
penal code.

On 11 January 2021, the police officer who registered the FIR, made a formal written proposal to the sub divisional magistrate in Kodegaon, suggesting that externment proceedings against Mr. Mane should begin, in line with section 56 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951. On 29 January 2021, Mr. Mane received a notice that an inquiry into his externment had begun. Mr. Mane replied to the notice on 4 February 2021. On 16 February 2021, the sub-divisional magistrate issued another notice to the human rights defender stating the externment proceedings against him had officially begun and that they had six cases against him with regard to his alleged involvement in illegal sand mining in the area. The six cases mentioned included non-cognizable offences, written applications against him, one case in which he was acquitted and the above-mentioned FIR dated 28 April 2020.

On 18 March 2021, the Deputy Collector and Sub-Divisional Magistrate passed the externment order against Mr. Mane and banished him from his home district of Sangli for two years. On 21 March, the human rights defender was compelled by the authorities to leave his home. On 26 March 2021, the human rights defender submitted an appeal with the State Government. At the time of writing,
no inquiry has been launched in response to this appeal.

CONCERNS

In the communication we expressed our concern that the human rights defenders appear to have been targeted as a result of their legitimate work protecting human rights in the India.

We are very concerned about the alleged arbitrary arrest and physical attacks against human rights defenders Ms. Rajveer Kaur and Mr. Ravinder Singh for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the restrictions placed on their right to access their legal counsel, contact their families and to food and drink while in detention.

Since 2000, there has been a clear pattern of judicial harassment, criminalisation and subsequent externment against Mr. Ramjanam Kushwaha. Similarly, local government officials have targeted Mr. Santosh Mane since 2019. We are concerned that, in these two incidents, the human rights defenders were subjected to continuous judicial harassment by the authorities in an attempt to hinder their work defending the rights of Adivasi people in Uttar Pradesh and Dalit in the Sangli district.

Finally, we are very worried that the externment, arbitrary detention, physical attack and criminalisation carried out by the authorities against the above-mentioned human rights defenders will have a negative effect not only these individuals’ ability to carry out their human right work, but will in turn deter other human rights defenders in India from protecting human rights for fear of retaliation.

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