Honouring the Defenders on International Human Rights Day

By Balpreet Singh

On this International Human Rights Day, I would like to reflect on the courageous role of human rights defenders. 

I recently had the opportunity to attend the inauguration of the Khalra Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi on November 19th and 20th. S. Jaswant Singh Khalra was of course the human rights activist who exposed the illegal cremation of thousands of young Sikhs in Punjab and sacrificed his life in the process. 

During the inauguration, I met with human rights defenders from across India who face daily risks to their lives and liberty and have sacrificed so much. I was inspired by their courage and moved by their stories.   On this International Human Rights Day, I would like to offer my tribute to them.

As a Sikh and as someone with roots in Punjab, I am very aware of the human rights abuses that took place there in the 80s and 90s and the continuing excesses that are still committed by the Punjab Police.  What I didn’t know was that similar abuses have and continue to take place in so-called disturbed areas across India from Kashmir to Gujarat to Chhatisgarh to the North-East.  Beyond just those disturbed areas, activists who advocate for the rights of oppressed communities like the Dalits and Adivasis are also targeted in shocking ways. 

Below are short descriptions of a  few of the amazing people who spoke at the inauguration of the Khalra Centre for Human Rights and whose stories need to be heard by all of us. 

Advocate Shreeji Bhavsar

Part way through one of the sessions at the inauguration, a young man with a bandaged arm and leg hobbled into the room, using a field hockey stick as a cane.  He slowly made his way to the stage and took a seat.  When it was his turn to speak, other speakers encouraged him to remain sitting but he insisted that he would go to the podium and speak while standing.  He said it would be part of his ‘protest’. 

The young man’s name was Shreeji Bhavsar and he is a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN).  On October 16, 2011, he along with some other activists went to the Sarita Vihar police station in Delhi to file a complaint against the illegal demolition of Dalit homes without notice.  Police Officer OP Yadav who was present in the police station on duty, out of uniform, told Shreeji that since it was a Sunday no complaints would be taken.  Shreeji, being a lawyer said that there was no legal basis for such a claim.   When Shreeji insisted that his complaint be lodged, the police officer began to use filthy language and beat him with a metal ruler.  Shreeji managed to record the incident on his phone. 

The beating resulted in Shreeji’s thumb being broken.  The police found out about the recording and sent officers to raid the HRLN offices to look for Shreeji and also began to search for him by tracing his mobile. 

Upon approaching the court, the Chief Justice of Delhi high court ordered an investigation in the assault and also ordered the suspension of officer Yadav. 

Shortly after this, Shreeji was attacked while walking on the street by two assailants who beat him badly and broke his leg.  It doesn’t  take a detective to figure out who was behind the attack. 

Shreeji had returned to his home in Rajasthan to recover but made the trip to Delhi by ambulance to attend the inauguration of the Khalra Centre. 

While addressing the gathering and telling his story, Shreeji declared “my hero is shaheed Bhagat Singh.  If the canes and lathis couldn’t stop him, they won’t stop me either.”

Parveena Ahangar

Parveena is a Kashmiri human rights activist.  But first and foremost, she is a mother.  Parveena is the founder of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).  The APDP seeks justice and information on individuals who have been ‘disappeared’ in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Parveena founded the organization after her teenage son Javaid was abducted by Indian security forces in 1990 and was never heard of again. She has since then searched for him in police stations, interrogation centers and military camps.  Parveena says her fear disappeared along with her son.

Parveena spoke passionately about her struggle for justice.  She told the gathering, “we don’t need money.  We don’t need jobs.  But we need our children.  I will die but I will not give up my fight.”

I learned for the first time how young Kashmiri children are arrested and held in indefinite custody for the crime of throwing stones at Indian security forces.   Children as young as eight and ten are held in custody as dangerous offenders and taken to their school exams in handcuffs. 

Kashmir has the highest concentration of security forces anywhere in the world. 

Shamim Modi

Shamim Modi, is an activist who advocates on behalf of tribals and industrial workers in Madhya Pradesh and has worked to expose the nexus between politicians and the mining mafia in the state.  She began her career as a pscyhologist, then became a lawyer and now is a part-time professor as well.  She told the story of how she has been the victim of a dozens of false cases and even attempts on her life. 

Shamim was attacked in July 2009 and had her throat slashed in her own home.  She required 180 stitches and also suffered a fractured skull. 

Speaking about her struggles, Shamim said that she has been charged with every type of crime possible, with the exception of rape.  As a result she has spent quite some time in jail.  In one case, the police alleged that Shamim had kidnapped a tribal woman by the name of Phoolwati.  The charges were not dropped despite the fact that Phoolwati gave a statement to the magistrate in the court that she had never been kidnapped.  Ironically in another case, Phoolwati and Shamim have been accused of being partners in a robbery (dacoity).   The practice of implicating human rights activists in false cases is something that is seen across India.  In Punjab, the false case of choice is the planting of RDX explosives on individuals and claiming they are terrorists. 

These are just a few of the amazing people that attended the inauguration of the Khalra Centre for Human Rights.  The brother of Irom Sharmilla, the Manipur activist who has been on a fast for over ten years,  also attended in addition to activists for Free Tibet and Nagaland.  Upon hearing of the atrocities committed in Kashmir and Punjab, a Naga activist with tears in her eyes said that she never knew that such things happened in other places in India and she had thought her people were alone.

Another interesting revelation came from activists from Gujarat who briefly described the heinous role KP Gill played in their state after the Godhra riots.  They described how Gill suggested the use of tactics he had mastered in Punjab.  Sanjiv Bhatt who has exposed Narendra Modi’s role in the massacres said that he wanted to reveal all he knew about Gill’s role but because he was still a serving officer, would need to be compelled by a proper authority. 

Overall, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring human rights activists.  The inauguration of the Khalra Centre provided an opportunity for people from across India to come together and to share their stories.   In unity there is strength.

On this International Human Rights Day, my thoughts are with these activists who despite the risks, continue to raise their voices for the voiceless and challenge oppression. 

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