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Last Updated: May 20, 2007 - 10:48:48 AM
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Targeting rights activists the Chhattisgarh way
May 15, 2007 - 2:21:02 PM
Perhaps all of us, including members of the fourth estate, would be served well by recalling Pastor Martin Niemoller's chilling poem 'First they came for the Jews...', and act, before there is no one left to speak out for us!

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[RxPG] In April 2006 the Delhi-based People's Union for Democratic Rights - had released a report on the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 that came into force after receiving presidential assent a month earlier expressing apprehensions that the act could be used to gag civil liberties bodies.

PUDR pointed out that although this Act was ostensibly meant to combat growing Maoist violence, all the Maoist groups operating in Chhattisgarh were already banned and declared unlawful organisations after the 2004 amendment to the Unlawful Activities - Act, 1967 -.

An obvious question then follows - why was this law passed at all? The title of the PUDR report 'Casting the net wider' suggested the answer.

The report warned that in the name of combating violent movements, the Chhattisgarh government was bringing in a legislation targeting peoples movements, civil liberties and democratic rights organisations, media-persons and other groups who challenged the state's human rights record and questioned the state's anti-people development policies.

PUDR concluded, 'The use of the Act against - groups is inevitable given the growing discord between state policy and peoples' interest.'

Prophetic words indeed. For barely a year later, in a press conference in Raipur on 11 May 2007 the police announced that it has issued a warrant under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and UAPA against five persons including Dr. Binayak Sen, general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties -, Chhattisgarh and also the national vice president of the organisation. Two other activists Rashmi Dwivedi - PUCL's vice president and Gautam Bandopadyay, executive member of PUCL's state unit are also included amongst the five persons named.

An alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore and former faculty member of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, as a trained physician, Binayak Sen had also been actively involved in reaching health care to the otherwise cut-off adivasis as well as monitoring the health and nutrition status of the people of Chhattisgarh.

The police version against Dr Sen ranges from his hosting Maoists in his office to being a conduit for information between the cadres and jailed officials and even being a Maoist ideologue. Even though the local police were informed that he was in fact under medical treatment in Kolkata, they allege that he was absconding and avoiding arrest. Dr. Sen was arrested upon his return to Bilaspur on Monday.

Most locals however are aware that the entire attempt to frame Dr. Sen is a tactic to divert attention from the illegal detention of a businessman Piyush Guha as also the murder of 12 Adivasis in Bijapur district on 31st March, whom the police had tried to pass off as Maoist outlaws. Dr. Sen and the PUCL state unit had been instrumental in bringing both these incidents to light.

PUCL has in fact been a thorn in the side of the Chhattisgarh administration for the past many years as it has regularly exposed fake encounters, disappearances and rapes that formed an integral part of the 'anti-Maoist' operations of state forces and the 'Salwa Judum' - in Chhattisgarh.

Given the area's relative insularity, few civil rights organisations or mediapersons operate there and PUCL was amongst the few dissenting and questioning voices. Dr. Sen's untiring work documenting atrocities and violations earned him the ire of the police who had also threatened him previously. This time around, they have carried out part of their threat by framing him on trumped-up charges under a law that is far more draconian than even POTA, UAPA or AFSPA.

Unfortunately the national press continues to ignore such cases. This is particularly shortsighted given that the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 also threatens journalists and media-persons. Section 2- refers to 'unlawful activities' committed by communication - verbal, written or even by representation, and can be used against any individuals who publish or telecast news or images relating to Maoist activities or report state repression. A number of local journalists have in fact already been threatened with such action in the past.

Today it is civil rights activists who are being targeted. If allowed to go unreported and unchallenged, it is only a matter of time before the Chhattisgarh administration will target the media. Once all watchdogs are 'neutralised', they will continue on their merry way displacing all the Adivasi communities from their land for 'development' - at all or any cost.

Perhaps all of us, including members of the fourth estate, would be served well by recalling Pastor Martin Niemoller's chilling poem 'First they came for the Jews...', and act, before there is no one left to speak out for us!


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