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Mainstream, VOL L, No 9, February 18, 2012

Open Letter to the President, PM, Ministers

Sunday 19 February 2012, by S G Vombatkere


Respected President, Prime Minister and Ministers,

Every year on January 26, we celebrate the Constitution of India.1 Every January 30, we remember the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to freedom. However, for the vast majority of the people of India, even the most basic of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution —the right to life and personal liberty and due legal process if these rights are to be abridged—remain unrealised promises. And the ideals of the independence struggle, as articulated by Gandhi, stand indelibly tarnished.

One of the most shocking recent instances of this trampling upon the Indian Constitution is the torture and sexual abuse of prisoner Soni Sori.2,3 An adivasi school teacher from the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, Sori had exposed evidence of police misconduct in the framing of several cases against her.4 Police intimidation forced her to flee, and she reached Delhi seeking legal assistance, but was arrested before she could file a petition in the Supreme Court. Fearing for her life in Chhattisgarh, she asked to be held in custody in Delhi, despite which she was handed over to the Chhattisgarh Police.5 In custody, Soni Sori was brutally tortured by the Chhattisgarh Police, because of her refusal to corroborate their false statements. A subsequent independent medical examination found sizable stones lodged in her vagina and her rectum and severe damage to her spinal cord.6

Another instance is the case of Lingaram Kodopi. In 2009, Kodopi was locked up by the police in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh for 40 days, tortured and pressured to join a vigilante force.7 After the High Court ordered his release, Lingaram went on to complete a course in journalism, and later documented the villagers’ accounts of arson, murder and rape during a three-day police operation in March 2011. In September 2011, Lingaram was arrested on charges of collecting ‘protection’ money for the Maoists from Essar, a large business conglomerate. Sori, his aunt, came under pressure from the police to persuade Lingaram to accept the charges. She refused, saying the charges were false and ended up being an accused herself. Both Sori and Kodopi are Prisoners of Conscience.8

SORI’S and Kodopi’s are not isolated cases. Authorities in various parts of India have a record of imprisoning innocent people, including human rights workers, on false charges, the most notable case being that of Dr Binayak Sen. Dr Sen was convicted of ‘sedition’, and sentenced to life imprisonment, but released by the Supreme Court on bail, pending appeal.9 Many other innocent people, mostly from marginalised sections of the society, continue to languish in India’s jails. Adivasi activist Kartam Joga10 and labour leaders, Bhagwati Sahu11 and Abhay Sahoo,12 are just some of them. Others like Kopa Kunjam13 and documentarian Ajay TG14 were released on bail and are awaiting trial. Arun Ferreira, a social and human rights activist, was acquitted in 11 different cases for lack of evidence, but re-arrested each time on a fresh set of charges, until he was finally released on bail on January 4.15

In custody, Soni Sori was pressured by the police to implicate many prominent human rights activists as Maoists.16 Though Sori resisted the pressure, other news reports indicate a concerted attempt on the part of the state to stigmatise human rights defenders.17 This was a serious concern placed on record by Margaret Sekaggya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, after the completion of a mission to India a year ago.18

The gross misconduct of the police is enabled by several draconian laws of questionable constitutional validity, such as the law against sedition in the Indian Penal Code,19 the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act20 and state-specific laws such as the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA).21 These laws are intended to help the police to bring charges against anyone on the flimsiest of evidence or to arrest and detain people for extended periods without charges or evidence. This process of filing false charges and detention based on them, is being used as a punitive tool in itself.

Where there are credible reports of torture or of other grave misconduct by the police, rarely have the police authorities been investigated, or the democratically elected representatives sanctioning systemic abuses held accountable.22

Therefore, I earnestly call upon you to take immediate action regarding the following points as part of execution of your Constitutional duties:

• Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi be released immediately and unconditionally.

• Stop torture and other custodial prisoner abuses and take exemplary action against officials complicit in such cases.

• End intimidation of human rights defenders.

• End the practice of filing false charges, extended detentions without trial, and “arrest, detention and trial” as punishment.

• Remove Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code concerning sedition.

• Abolish laws which give unconditional and unchecked power to administrative or police authorities, such as UAPA and CSPSA.

• Immediately order prosecution of police and administrative government officials responsible for torturing and pressuring Soni Sori, regardless of their rank or status.

By acting on the above requests, you will be upholding our precious Constitution of India and conveying to We, the People of India, that you are with them.

Major General S.G.Vombatkere (Retd)

1. The Constitution of India.
2. Supreme Court order regarding Soni Sori’s medical examination, October 20, 2011. content&view=article&id=401:supreme-court-order-regarding-soni-soris-medical-examination&catid=100:case-in-supreme-court-&Itemid=183
3. Soni Sori in hospital, writhing in pain (video).
4. Chhattisgarh Police official admits scripting case against tribals
5. Judicial remand for Adivasi woman in ‘protection money’ case, Aman Sethi, The Hindu, October 11, 2011.
6. SC seeks Chhattisgarh’s reply on torture of Soni Sori.
7. They dared to speak up. But that’s not done in Dantewada.
8. Chhattisgarh should drop charges against prisoners of conscience Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi and unconditionally release them: Public Statement by Amnesty International.
9. Encounter menace, Frontline, August 14-27, 2010.
10. Supreme Court petitioner arrested in Chhattisgarh.
11. Raipur peasant leader arrested.
12. PPSS activists to step up agitation.
13. International coalition calls for the release of Kopa Kunjam. content&view=article&id=391:international-coalition-calls-for-the-release-of-kopa-kunjam&catid=75:kopa-kunjam& Itemid=162
14. PUDR statement on Ajay TG arrest.
15. After four years, “Naxalite” Arun Ferreira walks free, Hindustan Times, January 4, 2012.
16. A letter to Supreme Court advocate - Soni Sori.
17. Rights groups fronting for Maoists, says IB.
18. Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, as she concludes her visit to India.
19. An appeal to the Parliament to repeal the Sedition Law.
20. Undoing Democracy: The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
21. The Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Bill, 2005, A Memorandum to the President of India.
22. India Country Summary, Human Rights Watch, January, 2012.

S.G.Vombatkere retired as a Major General after 35 years in the Indian military. He is engaged in voluntary social work, and is member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). As Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, he coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for under-graduate students from the USA and Canada. He holds a Master of Engineering degree in structural engineering from the University of Poona and a PhD in civil structural dynamics from the IIT, Madras.

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