Sunday, August 19, 2007

In The Line of Fire - State launches witch hunt against Human Rights Activists

Human rights activists fear a witch-hunt as Karnataka Police lists them as Naxal sympathisers. M. Radhika reports

Rights activists in Karnataka have a new reason to be wary of the state police after the police put out a list of Naxal sympathisers that included organisations working for communal harmony, human rights, for farmers’ welfare and even academicians.

The activists allege the police is on a witch-hunt in the garb of controlling Naxalism. In June, the Karnataka Police released a list (originally meant for intelligence agencies) of 19 suspected Naxals, nine organisations and 33 suspected Naxal supporters. The activists were particularly alarmed with the listing of Kadidal Shamanna, a farmers’ leader from the Malnad region, Rajendra Chenni, a lecturer from Kuvempu University, KL Ashok, secretary of Komu Souharda Vedike (a forum for communal harmony) and Kalkuli Vittal Hegde who leads the agitation against the creation of the Kudremukh National Park that will displace of thousands of tribals.

Shamanna found place in the list for a speech he made against the government at a farmers’ rally. Unwilling to accept the government’s decision to drop his name from the list later, he filed a case along with two others named in the list.

It turns out that the list had been compiled in 2003 but was released now. Widespread protests forced the ruling JD (S)-BJP government to withdraw the list on July 2. But rights activists in the Malnad region and elsewhere still live in fear of being branded Naxals. Their fears have gained strength after a staged encounter at Wadeyarahalli in Chikmagalur where five “Naxalites” were killed. These hamlets are very close to Sringeri, home to Bharati Theertha, the Sringeri Sankaracharya.

Contrary to police claims, only one of the five — Gautham — was a Naxalite, say activists. Another casualty, Paramesh, was the secretary of the Kudremukh Rashtriya Udhyana Virodhi Okkuta (KRUVO). For the last 10 years, kruvo has been fighting for the rights of tribals in the Kudremukh region, who will be evicted if the national park comes into existence.

Reacting to this, Additional DGP Shankar Bidari says, “I do not know about that (of Paramesh not being a Naxal). An encounter has happened, and that is how he was killed.” But the rights activists counter: why did the police not arrest Paramesh when he led a protest ten days before the encounter?

They say Paramesh, Rame Gowda, a tribal, his wife Kaveri and Sunderesh, who had visited the village to spray pesticides on his crop, were also killed in the July 10 encounter. Gautham’s body was found at Gowda’s house, but activists allege his body was dragged there.

An independent fact-finding team visited the spot and found holes in the police story. Even media reports took note of the fact that the victims were shot at close range. Meanwhile, the tribals continue to live in fear of both the police and the Naxals.

“The police are filing false cases to harass us. They filed a case against me stating I should not talk in public,” says Vittal Hegde, who has led kruvo for the last 12 years. While Hegde agreed that some people from kruvo joined the Naxals later, he says the government has been using the “Naxal” label to suppress the tribal agitation. “They find it convenient to brand us Naxals. And they’re doing it even as we have declaring that we have nothing to do with them. The police make survival difficult for all of us,” says Hegde.

He says the tribals have been warned not to venture out of their homes after 6 pm, not to wear plastic sheets over their heads as “only Naxals wear them”, and not to entertain Naxals.

Kannada tabloid Lankesh editor Gauri Lankesh, who is also part of the Komu Souharda Vedike, says, “There is an effort to suppress people’s voice and anti-communal activists by branding them Naxals. An effort is also being made to club human rights activists with Islamic fundamentalists.” She says the Vedike has been targeted because it was involved with the Bababudangiri shrine controversy that was used by the bjp to further its communal agenda. Another Vedike member, Shivasunder, says the list was a clear message to intellectuals while the encounter was to instill fear among the tribals against supporting the Naxals.

Activists say that though the government withdrew the June list, it is preparing another list that will not be published. Replying to allegations, Addl dgp Bidari dismisses the whole controversy. “It’s all over. We have removed their labels. No one has been evicted from the park area and no one will be either,” says Bidari.

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