India: anti-corruption activists under attack

Association

The Killing Of Anti-Corruption Activists

Recently, the issue of transparency and accountability in India has been a flashpoint for the persecution of anti-corruption activists. The Right to Information Act (RTI) was enacted in 2005 to empower Indian citizens with the right to request information regarding government policies and programmes. As such, the legislation has been instrumental in unearthing numerous corruption scandals in India.  

Given the vital nature of freedom of information, activists using the RTI act to investigate corruption have been brutally silenced. As of March 2018, 67 people have been murdered for allegedly seeking information under the legislation. This number has increased in the last three months as two more activists have been killed for their work demanding transparency.

On 7th June 2018, unknown assailants shot dead Suresh Oraon from Jharkhand. The 27 year-old had been reported to have used the RTI Act extensively to expose the corruption in the forceful displacement made in mining projects and the irregular implementation of other social schemes. Oraon fought fiercely with Central Coalfields Limited (CCL) and the mining mafia while opposing the pollution and displacement caused by coal mining. The fight turned legal when the activist filed a case through the Jharkhand High Court against CCL in 2012, alleging that the corporation was polluting the Domodar river. The activist won the case and the court ordered CCL to ensure that their mining activity did not cause any further pollution. Local sources allege that Suresh was killed by mercenaries or organised criminals.

Reports allege that Oraon was lured away by four unknown persons riding motorcycles. Two of them asked a local man to call Oraon to a quiet spot in Chatra where they shot him six times from close range. While Oraon was rushed to a nearby hospital, he later died of injuries sustained in the attack.

On 19th June 2017, another RTI activist was shot in Bihar. Rajendra Singh, was shot and killed by unknown assailants near Mathbanwari Chawk, after meeting his lawyer in Motihari. Singh had gained prominence through his work exposing discrepancies in the functioning of the state-owned Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) as well as irregularities in teachers and police recruitments. Using the RTI, Singh had successfully lodged a case against 200 fake beneficiaries of an old-age pension scheme, leading to the fraudulent beneficiaries being forced to return the money to the government. Mr. Singh also had exposed the misuse of government funds meant for building toilets and houses. Singh’s family have demanded that a probe be initiated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Over the last five years, several attempts were made on Singh’s life. On several occasions, the activist had sought security from senior police officers, but his pleas for protection remained under process. 

Arbitrary Detentions and Arrests 

Human rights defenders, environmental activists, protesters and journalists continue to face arbitrary detentions and arrests. Government authorities continue to use “anti-terror” laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and other state-specific laws to threaten and intimidate activists across the country.

In the early hours of 6th June 2018, the Pune and Maharashtra police raided the houses of Advocate Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sena, Rona Wilson and Mr. Mahesh Raut and arrested all of them under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) which allows detention without charge for 180 days. The state authorities allege that these human rights defenders were spreading controversial pamphlets and delivering hate-inducing speeches in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence that broke out on 1st January 2018. One person died in the violence and several others were injured when Dalit groups and Marathas clashed at a commemorative gathering. The violence took place during an event which marked the 200th anniversary of the Koregaon battle near Pune, where in 1818, a few hundred Mahar soldiers fighting as part of the British Indian army defeated over 20,000 Peshwa soldiers in the battle of Bhima Koregaon near Pune in Maharashtra. One of the organisers of the commemoration said he viewed the anniversary of the battle as: 

“...a call to all Indians to rise against forces that are promoting hatred and violence on caste lines. We have seen the lynching of Muslims and Dalits over allegedly carrying beef… The battle is not against anybody, but against a particular ideology.”

Expression

The murder of Bengaluru-based editor and government critic, Gauri Lankesh on 5th September 2017 sent shockwaves through Indian society and catalysed a discussion on the freedom of the press in India. Many fear that the safety of journalists and activists has become increasingly imperilled in a country that is worringly hostile to dissenting voices. Lankesh was the editor of a Kannada tabloid and an avid critic of far-right ideologies and organisations. She was shot dead at her doorstep by unknown assailants on motorbikes in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bangalore. While global civil society mourned her loss, some supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent Hindutuva driven party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, celebrated Gauri Lankesh’s murder on social media.

Journalists have also been targeted recently. On 14th June 2018, Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of the Rising Kashmir newspaper, was leaving his office in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, when he was shot at close range by three gunmen on motorbikes. Inspector General of Kashmir, S.P. Pani told reporters that one of the gunmen, suspected to be Zubair Qadri, stole the pistol of one of the guards assigned to Bukhari and shot him dead. Bukhari was an advocate of peace in the militarised Kashmir valley. Qadri was later arrested by Indian security forces.  Some claim that Bukhari’s killing was designed to disrupt the establishment of peace in the state.

Peaceful Assembly

Environmental Defenders Under Attack

On 18th June 2018, environmental rights activist and human rights defender Piyush Manush, was arrested on the Highway near Salem district in Tamil Nadu. Manush along with his colleagues and human rights defenders have been opposing the entry of mining companies in Kanjamalai hills, rich in iron ore located around 14 km from Salem and educating locals on the negative impacts of mining operations. The activist had also been protesting the expansion of the Salem airport as well as the proposed eight-lane Chennai-Salem expressway. He has 12 cases pending against him as a result of his work. According to sources, the activists has been charged with promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.

Over the past couple of months attacks and government repression against environmental rights activists has been on the rise. The environmentalists involved in the anti-Sterlite movement in Thoothukudi witnessed 15 protesters killed by the police at a peaceful rally against a copper smelting plant in the region. A coalition of civil society organisations and activists created the People’s Inquest team to conduct a fact-finding operation into the police's actions. Their report reveals shocking details about the Indian security forces use of excessive and lethal force in response to the protest. In addition, the report also documents the use of arbitrary detention and torture in the days following the clashes. In the aftermath of the violent protest the police have continued to use excessive force to silence dissenting voices across the state.