Human rights lawyers in India are increasingly being hounded by state agencies, because their work confronts alleged atrocities perpetuated by the government and the police. This was the message that members of the non-profit Indian Association of People’s Lawyers sent out at a small gathering of lawyers and activists in Mumbai on Tuesday evening, in the hope of drawing international attention to the cause of “endangered lawyers” in India.
The gathering was organised to commemorate a little-known occasion: the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, an annual, international initiative observed on January 24 by lawyers’ collectives and bar associations around the world. Founded by Dutch advocates Hans Gaasbeek and Symone Gaasbeek-Wielinga in 2010, the Day of the Endangered Lawyer aims to bring justice to persecuted human rights lawyers by raising international awareness and petitioning state authorities of various countries to uphold their rights.
Organisers of this Day commemorate lawyers in different focus countries each year. This year’s focus country is China, where over 300 lawyers and civil society activists have been illegally detained, harassed and even tortured by the state since 2015.
At the Mumbai gathering on Tuesday, however, the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers did more than express solidarity with protests against the Chinese government by lawyers’ groups around the world. The focus of the Mumbai protest was the Indian state’s harassment of several Indian lawyers working for human rights causes in the past year.
“India has not been a focus country for the Day of the Endangered Lawyer so far, so this protest is our way of trying to get international attention to the hounding of lawyers and activists in India,” said Arun Ferreira, an advocate and member of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers.
In the past year alone, said Ferreira, nearly a dozen advocates across the country have faced threats, harassment, dismissal and arrest at the hands of state agencies.
On January 23, a mob of unidentified men in Chhattisgarh’s Parpa village barged into the home of human rights activist Bela Bhatia, threatening her with dire consequences if she did not leave the place in 24 hours. Despite national media outrage, the Chhattisgarh police has not yet assured Bhatia protection.
For activists, journalists and lawyers in Chhattisgarh, this is only the most recent instance of state complicity in the hounding of those working for the rights of Adivasis. Since February 2016, for instance, lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group – or JagLAG – have been facing repeated harassment by the Chhattisgarh police and threats by other vigilante groups.
A non-profit organisation that provides free legal services to Adivasis in Bastar, JagLAG has played a prominent role in exposing the rising instances of mass sexual abuse, encounters and other violence perpetrated by state security forces on Adivasi villagers in the past two years. In February, JagLAG lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal were evicted from their homes in Jagdalpur after their landlord was picked up for interrogation by the police.
More recently, in December 2016, the Bastar police filed a case against Gera for allegedly helping Maoists in the region exchange old demonetised currency notes. This complaint was made days after Gera travelled to the state’s Bijapur district to investigate the alleged encounter death of an Adivasi teenager.
Meanwhile, in April 2016, the Chhattisgarh government dismissed Prabhakar Gwal, the chief judicial magistrate of Sukma district. Gwal, a Dalit, had been critical of the state police’s indiscriminate arrests of Adivasis. Gwal had also been granting bail to locals accused of being Maoists, which led the Sukma police to complain to the district judiciary that Gwal’s decisions were “adversely affecting the morale of security forces”.
On December 25, 2016, a fact-finding team of seven lawyers and activists set out from Telangana to Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district to investigate the alleged encounter of a hearing-impaired teenager and other human rights abuses in the region. The entire team was arrested, placed in police custody and charged under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act for allegedly possessing banned literature and Rs 1 lakh in cash.
The arrested men included Hyderabad-based lawyers Chikkudu Prabhakar and Balla Ravindranath, both members of the Telangana Democratic Front. While the Chhattisgarh police claim that the men belonged to Maoist groups and were found in the state’s Sukma district, the lawyers claim they were arrested by the Telangana police at the border of the two states, and then handed over to the Chhattisgarh police. Both lawyers and their colleagues from the fact-finding team have been denied bail.
On January 8, Tamil Nadu’s “Q” branch police arrested lawyer A Murugan on charges of “instigating” two women from Karur towards Naxal ideology. As a defence lawyer, Murugan was known for taking up cases of suspected Maoists. He was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
In August 2016, human rights lawyer Babar-ul-Islam Nehru was arrested by the Kashmir police in Doda district for alleged “anti-national” activities. Nehru was charged under the state’s Public Safety Act, which has been widely criticised for being draconian and for targeting activists opposing state violence. Other human rights activists in Kashmir have alleged that Nehru was targeted for leading protests against the state government on issues like power cuts in the Chenab Valley.
In December 2016, the union Ministry of Home Affairs cancelled the foreign funding licence of Lawyers Collective, a legal services organisation co-founded by prominent lawyer Indira Jaising. Since Jaising was representing Teesta Setalvad – an activist questioning the Gujarat government’s role in the 2002 communal riots in the state – in Setalvad’s own case of alleged foreign funding irregularities, the home ministry’s move against Lawyers Collective has been criticised as deliberate targeting.
A list of demands
In an official statement released at their Mumbai protest, the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers said, “These instances are not only an assault on an advocate’s right to fearlessly practice their profession but also a violation of the fundamental right of all arrestees to get legal representation and their right to fair trial.”
In their statement, the Association also demanded that the Indian government “desist from branding, threatening, harassing and arresting any Advocates defending their clients, particularly political prisoners”. Other demands included the unconditional release of advocates Prabhakar and Ravindranath from Telangana and Murugan from Tamil Nadu, as well as an end to the continuous harassment of lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.