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Rights Group Accuse Indian Government, Maoists of Targeting Activists

A party flag of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) flutters above the crowd during a mass gathering in Kathmandu, June 15, 2012.
NEW DELHI — A new Human Rights Watch report says that in India, civil society activists working in remote, Maoist-dominated areas face threats and attacks from both rebels and authorities. The U.S.-based group says this is impeding the delivery of aid in underdeveloped regions.

The report, called Between Two Sets of Guns, says that activists struggling to deliver development aid to remote areas in eastern and central India are often suspected of being Maoist sympathizers by police and of being informers by the rebels.

In underdeveloped regions of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Maoist rebels hold sway in vast swathes of territory, mostly inhabited by tribal communities.

The South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, accuses police of filing criminal charges against those trying to assist poor people in these areas. She says police target those who refuse to act as informers and justify their action on the basis that the activists are Maoist supporters.

“Almost all the cases that we documented, there have been cases filed against them, and very serious charges in a number of cases, waging war, conspiracy against state, sedition. Some of them have been tortured in custody… there are activists that do sympathize, but sympathy for the Maoist cause does not mean that they are engaged in criminal activities,” said Ganguly.

A high-profile case documented by the report involves that of a leading public health specialist who was working to deliver health care in Chattisgarh. Binayak Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 by a state court for sedition, prompting an outcry by international human rights groups. Last year, the Supreme Court granted him bail, saying that being a Maoist sympathizer did not amount to sedition.

The report says the activists are also under threat from the Maoists, especially if they publicize abuses by the rebels. Ganguly says the rebels resist workers implementing government aid programs.

“The Maoists are concerned about undue influence of the state through these activities by the activists. The activists have to tread a careful path to not antagonize the Maoists, themselves, because the Maoists will sometimes say to them, 'we know where your families are, don’t try to be too much of a leader in these areas,'" explained Ganguly. "So there are threats that they have to deal with.”

The report cites cases of activists who have quit their work because of the intimidation they face from both sides. It calls for an end to their harassment, saying the activists serve as a crucial bridge to poor, isolated communities in some of India’s poorest regions.

India calls the Maoist rebellion in its central and eastern region the greatest threat to internal security and authorities have often stressed the need to improve development in areas where the rebels are entrenched.

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