NHRC petitioned over alleged intimidation of Adivasi villagers, activists, lawyers in Chhattisgarh 

Alleged Illegal detention, assault and intimidation of HRDs by Chhattisgarh police and paramilitary personnel in the Rowghatt hills, Chhattisgarh 

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The HRD Alert-India a forum for human rights defenders has petitioned the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) over the reported “illegal detention, assault and intimidation of HRDs Mr. Nohrit Mandavi, Mr. Keshav Shori, Ms. Shalini Gera, Mr. Somnath Usendi, Mr. Lakhan Nureti and Mr. Narsingh Mandavi and others by police and paramilitary personnel in the Rowghat Hills in the state of Chhattisgarh.”

Nohrit Mandavi, Keshav Shori and Ms. Shalini Gera are members of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an alliance of people’s movements and individuals in Chhattisgarh. Mr. Mandavi is a young activist based in Kondagaon district. Mr. Keshav Shori and Advocate Gera are well-known human rights defenders based in Kanker district. All three have been working with villagers in the Rowghat hills on issues like forest rights and human rights for several years.

Somnath Usendi, Mr. Lakhan Nureti and Mr. Narsingh Mandavi are members of the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti, a committee of local villagers opposed to the Rowghat iron-ore mines situated at the border of Kanker and Narayanpur districts in the Bastar Division of Chhattisgarh. Mr. Usendi is the president of the Samiti and all three activists are from affected villages. They have been educating fellow villagers about the Forest Rights Act and the PESA Act, and how these have been violated in awarding the various clearances to the mines.

The alert alleges that the reported intimidation was perpetrated at the instigation of Bishel Nag, Sarpanch, Khodgaon Panchayat (Narayanpur block), Suku Nureti, District Reserve Guard, Lokesh Bansal, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Narayanpur District, P. Sadanand, Superintendent of Police, Narayanpur District and  personnel attached to Khodgaon, Bharanda and Narayanpur Camps, Narayanpur District apart from Members of Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti.

Details of the incident:
On September 16, 2022 in the Narayanpur district, Chhattisgarh
Background of the Incident: 
The Rowghat Iron Ore mines, which cover over 2000 hectares of pristine forest land in the Rowghat hills held sacred by Adivasi communities, are situated at the border of Kanker and Narayanpur districts in the Bastar Division of Chhattisgarh. Though the mines were granted environment and forest clearances in 2009,mining operations did not take off until recently owing to stiff resistance from most villages in the project area.
The Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti, a committee of local villagers that is spearheading the resistance, alleges that laws like the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act were violated while awarding clearances for the mines. In two meetings held in August and September 2022, sarpanches, traditional heads, priests, and residents of 28 affected villages in the area met and decided by consensus that since no approval for the mines had been granted by gram sabhas, mining should be stopped forthwith.

The Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti is a recently formed pro-mining group comprised of select local sarpanches, ward members, Congress and BJP  youth from affected villages. The group claims that since the entire area has been denotified, there are no forests, and hence there is no question of forest rights.

Background of the incident: 
On August 28, 2022, and September 09, 2022, two meetings of the Duggal Pargana (traditional unit comprising around 28 villages) were organised wherein resolutions demanding immediate halt to mining activities were adopted, as no gram sabha consent had been taken for the mines. Mr. Mainuram Kumeti and Mr. Ramlal Usendi were present at these meetings.

Details of the Incident:
On September 16, 2022, a small team comprising journalists Ms. Gargi Verma and Mr. Mukesh Chandrakar, other local reporters and three Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan members – Mr. Keshav Shori, Mr. Nohrit Mandavi and Advocate Ms. Shalini Gera – visited the Rowghat area in order to understand the views of local villagers regarding mining and was briefed about these meetings by Mr. Mainuram Kumeti and Mr. Ramlal Usendi. The team then proceeded to Khodgaon village in Narayanpur block, which is located at the border of the mine, with two Border Security Force camps located on either side of the road leading to the mine.

At around 4 PM, on September 16, when the team was interviewing a group of around 30 villagers including Rowghatt Sangharsh Samiti members Mr. Somnath Usendi, Mr. Lakhan Nureti and Mr. Narsingh Mandavi in front of the community hall, a few police and paramilitary personnel also reached the spot, accompanied by the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Mr. Lokesh Bansal and Sukku Nureti, a surrendered Maoist and member of the District Reserve Guard. These personnel observed local activists and villagers talking to the team about their apprehensions and opposition to the mines with great interest, and left the spot in their patrolling vehicle after a few minutes.

Around 6 PM, as the interviews were winding down, around 25-30 motorcycles with 50-60 riders arrived suddenly at the spot. The mob was led by Mr. Bishel Nag, sarpanch of Khodgaon panchayat and president of the pro-mining Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti, and most of the young men accompanying him were drunk. They shouted slogans in support of the Budha Dev Anjarel Mines Vikas Samiti, accosted and heckled the assembled villagers, and asked the team of activists and journalists to leave the spot immediately.

Mr. Nag and others allegedly attacked the assembled villagers and members of the visiting team including several women, injuring many. The driver of the car hired by Ms. Verma and Mr. Chandrakar, and a local reporter from Narayanpur – he did not wish to be named – were badly beaten up. Mr. Chandrakar was grabbed by the collar in order to drag him out of the car. The car itself was kicked and damaged. Mr. Somnath Usendi and Mr. Narsingh Mandavi from the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti were shoved and punched several times, and many women villagers were also pushed around and loudly abused.

In the melee, members of the visiting team got separated. The driver of the car, the reporters and advocate, Ms. Shalini Gera were shoved into the car by the violent crowd and forced to drive away. They made their way to the office of the Superintendent of Police at Narayanpur but were followed by a vehicle without a number plate all the way.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nohrit Mandavi, who got separated from the others and was walking to back to Narayanpur, and motorcycle-borne attackers including Mr. Bishel Nag and Mr. Suku Nureti for over one hour. He was then released by them.

At around 7 PM, policemen in plainclothes and riding a motorcycle stopped him barely a kilometre from Khodgaon, confiscated his phone and Aadhaar card and forced him to write his address and contact number on a blank piece of paper. Along with Mr. Bishel Nag, Mr.Suku Nureti and other attackers on motorcycles, they yanked his hand and felled him to the ground, then they kicked him with their boots. They threatened to kill Mr. Mandavi if he was seen in the area again and said he would be given special “treatment” in Bharanda police station all through the night. He was rescued from his captors by DSP Mr. Bansal and other police officers at around 8 PM, after other members of the visiting team contacted the SP and requested his intervention.

Before the arrival of the police, Mr. Bishel Nag, Mr. Suku Nureti and others told Mr. Mandavi that several young members of their team were willing to testify (falsely)that he was a Maoist who visited the Rowghat hills often to further the “movement”. They threated to lodge multiple FIRs against him based on such testimonies if he spoke about his torture. Under intense pressure, Mr. Mandavi did not speak about the torture to the SP and other police officials. He also informed his fellow team members about the torture a few days later, when they had time to talk in detail.

The incident raises several questions regarding the involvement of police, paramilitary and elected sarpanches in muzzling local villagers’ peaceful protest against mining in the Rowghat hills. The sequence of events indicates that police and paramilitary are colluding with vested interests to carry out reprisals against protesting villagers and HRDs who visit the area to understand the conflict.

When Ms. Gera and other members of the visiting team sought to meet Superintendent of Police, Narayanpur,  P. Sadanand urgently at his residence and his office regarding Mr. Nohrit Mandavi’s illegal detention and torture, they were reportedly kept waiting for over 40 minutes. Instead of asking team members about the attackers and the problems they faced in talking to villagers, he interrogated them, particularly the two tribal members, Mr. Keshav Shori and Mr. Nohrit Mandavi, about who they were, which village they were from, which organisations they belonged to, where such organisations were headquartered, who led them and so on.

When team members told the SP that the Rowghat Sangharsh Samiti members were afraid for their own security, he said that all the youth in the affected villages wanted mining jobs, and that the Sangharsh Samiti people had “put their hands into a bee’s hive” (madhumakkhiyon ke chhatte me haath daala hai), so the reaction of the youth was only natural.

Reprisals against villagers opposed to the mines and activists supporting their peaceful movement have continued after the violent incident. On September 17, a police officer from the Central Intelligence Bureau visitedthe office of Mr. Keshav Shori and discouraged civil society members from undertaking such visits to Rowghat. The same day, Mr. Narsingh Mandavi was publicly chastised for opposing the mines by a large crowd of villagers led by Gulab Baghel, one of the richest men in the area and an office bearer of the pro-mining samiti.

Five women of Khodgaon also submitted a complaint to the Police Station at Bharanda regarding the violent attacks on their village by Mr. Bishel Nag and other prominent members of the prom-mining group.

The press release issued by HRDA states that,
“Our Constitution gives all citizens the right to exercise freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(a) of the Indian Constitution and raise their voice in peaceful protest against issues touching their communities. The right to freedom of expression encompasses three different aspects: 1) the right to hold opinions without interference; 2) the right of access to information; and 3)the right to impart information and ideas of all kind.

“The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders 1998seeks to protect the monitoring and advocacy functions of defenders by recognizing their right to obtain and disseminate information relevant to the enjoyment of human rights. States are under an obligation to prevent, protect against, and prosecute attacks against journalists and human rights defenders. A free press and active civil society are essential to ensure the public’s right to know, so that governments and institutions can be held accountable.

“We are shocked at the assault, detention, and torture of a team of reputed HRDs and journalists who were trying to interact with local villagers. We are further concerned about the threats to Mr. Mandavi on being falsely accused as a Naxalite and the dismissal of the assault on the HRDs and journalists by the police personnel of Chhattisgarh.

“The protection of villagers and HRDs protesting peacefully against the establishment of mines in violation of laws, and ending impunity for attacks against them, is a priority for safeguarding freedom of expression.

“When HRDs and journalists like Mr. Nohrit Mandavi andothers are illegally detained, assaulted, intimidated and subject to repeated reprisals by police, paramilitary and elected sarpanches, these rights are grossly violated.

The HRDA has appealed to the NHRC to treat this as a serious case of reprisal against human rights defenders for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, and urge the NHRC to urgently –

● Direct the investigation wing of the NHRC to initiate an immediate, independent, thorough, transparent, effective, and impartial investigation into the threats, attacks, and torture of HRDs who visited the Rowghat hills on September 16, 2022, as well as villagers opposed to mines who spoke to them and submit a report to the NHRC within 4 weeks.

● Depending on the result of the investigation, recommend legal actions against the negligent actions of police and paramilitary officials, who dismissed the torture and detention of an HRD as well as elected representatives like the Sarpanch Ed who misused their powers to muzzle dissent against the mines and attack those who supported the resistance movement.

● Direct the DGP of Chhattisgarh to initiate an urgent and  transparent inquiry into the actions of the Superintendent of Police, Narayanpur Mr. P. Sadanand who dismissed the torture and detention of an HRD, instead of acting on the complaints of the HRDs and submit the report to the NHRC within 4 weeks.
● Direct the Director General of Police of Jharkhand to ensure that the HRDs are not arrested or tortured by the police in violation of DK Basu guidelines.


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