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15 May 2024

Arrest and crackdown against human rights defenders in Bastar District, Chhattisgarh State, campaigning against corporatization and militarization

Front Line Defenders strongly condemns the state reprisals, including the arrest and detention of human rights defenders engaged in a peaceful campaign against corporatization and militarization in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Violence and reprisals against community leaders, activists, and local populations have been ongoing for months. At least five human rights defenders have been jailed, including under anti-terror legislation. Police brutality and violence against community members, including human rights defenders, is escalating rapidly, including restrictions on freedoms of assembly and movement, demolition of protest sites, forced evictions, and extrajudicial executions under the guise of countering left-wing extremism.

Despite the high risks and brutal suppression, the protests, spread across several movements in the district, have continued their peaceful resistance to the destruction of indigenous lands and forests while demanding constitutionally guaranteed rights. The region is rich in mineral resources such as iron and coal, leading to corporate mining projects that have been detrimental to the state’s indigenous communities, resulting in human rights violations, mass displacement, environmental degradation, and loss of livelihood. Moreover, the hills and forests in the region hold enormous traditional, cultural, and spiritual significance for indigenous communities. There is a heavy paramilitary presence in many districts of Chhattisgarh, sanctioned by the central government’s Operation Samadhan Prahar, aimed at eradicating left-wing extremism. In the Bastar district alone, there are over 100 paramilitary camps. Security forces have unleashed unprecedented violence on Adivasis in the region, resulting in grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arrests of human rights defenders, and attacks on freedoms of movement and peaceful assembly.

Front Line Defenders has documented human rights violations and reprisals against human rights defenders who have been involved at least two peaceful protest movements across the district, including the Morohnar Jan Andolan and Orcha Jan Andolan. There have also been reports of demolitions of at least three other peaceful protest sites within the past month, but detailed information was difficult to obtain on the ground due to the dense militarization in the region. The repression against indigenous human rights defenders and movements has significantly increased leading up to national elections in India.

On 2 April 2024, Surju Tekam, an indigenous human rights defender and mentor of the Bastar Coordination Committee of Mass Movements, was arrested from his residence following a pre-dawn raid. He is held under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and the Arms Act and is accused of having links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) - CPI(M), a common allegation raised against local communities and human rights defenders. Surju Tekam has worked for over two decades to promote the rights of Adivasis and has been vocal against violations in the region. He is also the Vice-President of Sarv Adivasi Samaj—an umbrella organization that brings together Adivasi collectives in Chhattisgarh to support their socio-cultural and civil and political rights.

On 9 December 2023, four human rights defenders linked to the Morohnar Jan Andolan and Orcha Jan Andolan were arrested and accused of having links to the CPI(M). They have been denied bail and remain in jail to date. Shankar Kashyap and Oram Samlu Koram - who have been leading the Morohnar Jan Andolan against iron ore mining in the Amdai Ghati Hills by the Jayaswal Neco Limited Company - were arrested on 9 December 2023. The Morohnar Jan Andolan resists iron ore mining, the construction of paramilitary camps in the region, and demands the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act 1996, which mandate public consultation with the local community before sanctioning mining projects in Adivasi lands. Shankar Kashyap is also the President of the Adivasi Adhikar Bachao Manch, which has been pivotal in mobilizing support against corporate mining in Bastar.

Human rights defenders Lakhma Koram and Ranu Podyam, of the Orcha Jan Andolan protest movement, were arrested on the same day, on 9 December 2023, by police from the Rawghat camp while traveling to the protest site. Orcha Jan Andolan is led by more than a hundred villages in the region and is situated close to Tular Hills - a site marked for corporate mining projects, road expansion, and military camps. The Orcha Jan Andolan has also been demanding a halt to proposed mining projects and the implementation of the PESA Act. On 24 November 2023, a few weeks prior to their arrest, the protest site was destroyed by officers of the District Reserve Guard (DSG), who brutally assaulted protestors and destroyed property at the site.

Front Line Defenders is extremely concerned about the increased violence and reprisals against local communities and human rights defenders in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. There are disturbing reports of live bullets being fired at peaceful protesters, killings, raids, and violence. Targeting peaceful indigenous movements on the basis of fabricated conspiracies aims to criminalize entire communities and human rights defenders, effectively silencing their peaceful protests and human rights work. In April 2023, members of the European Parliament and over 85 international organizations released a statement condemning the central government’s Operation Samadhan Prahar, alleging that it had launched drone bomb attacks in Chhattisgarh. The statement called for the immediate release of all human rights defenders persecuted for their struggle for Adivasi rights and for an end to mining operations in Chhattisgarh, urging dialogue with Adivasi communities regarding concerns related to their right to life, lands, and livelihood.

The reprisals witnessed in Chhattisgarh follow a pattern of violence, criminalization, and persecution across India, especially targeting local communities and human rights defenders who advocate for their right to land, environment, and protection of their way of life. Dalit and indigenous communities and human rights defenders have suffered the brunt of this violence. Front Line Defenders has previously raised concerns against the criminalization of indigenous protest movements and the suppression of their rights in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Protest movements in Bastar embody the struggles of India’s Adivasi communities, who have been consistently marginalized, persecuted, and denied access to their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Front Line Defenders urges the authorities in India to cease targeting human rights defenders and peaceful protest movements in Chhattisgarh and to uphold India’s commitments to recognize the rights of indigenous populations as per international law.