NEW DELHI (AP) — For more than 15 years, activist Himanshu Kumar worked to bring food and health programs to the largely tribal areas of the Indian state of Chattisgarh, the epicenter of a Maoist rebellion against the government. But in 2009, when he loudly complained about abuses by the government supported Salwa Judum militia, he was forced to leave, he said.
In the decades-old war between India and the Maoists, civilian activists like Kumar have become collateral damage. In a 60-page report released Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch confirmed that grassroots activists who deliver development assistance and publicize abuses in Maoist conflict areas are at particular risk of being targeted by both government security forces and the insurgents.
The international watchdog found that government authorities in the states of Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and otherwise mistreated many civil society activists. It said police demanded activists serve as informers and those that refused were accused of supporting the Maoists. Sedition laws are used to curtail free speech and concoct criminal cases to lock up critics of the government.
The Indian Home Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
In Kumar's case, police demolished his non-profit organization's office, because it was allegedly on protected forest land. Several of his workers were also arrested. "They made up false charges against my colleagues, even murder," he told The Associated Press.
Unable to secure any other space in the area and because of the threats and arrests, Kumar fled from Chhattisgarh to Delhi. "Staying on would only have brought more harassment."
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, wrote the report based on interviews with Kumar and more than 60 other local residents, activists, journalists, and lawyers who were witnesses to or familiar with abuses by Indian security forces and the Maoists.
"Aid workers and rights defenders need to be allowed to do their work safely and not be accused of having a political agenda simply because they bring attention to abuses," she said.
The rights group found that Maoists suspected activists of being government informers, and in several cases, punished them by shooting or beheading them after a summary "trial" in a self-declared "people's court."
In March 2011, the Maoists killed Niyamat Ansari, who helped villagers access a government employment program in Jharkhand, for "being under the influence of the police administration, and carrying out counter-revolutionary activities."
But while the report cited only one other case of Maoist abuse, it listed about a dozen cases of government abuses, describing in detail arrests, torture, the use of sedition laws and general harassment.
The most harrowing tale in the report is a July 2008 case in which three activists at a rural development institute in Orissa were arrested and severely beaten until they falsely confessed to being Maoists. One of them, Rabindra Kumar Majhi, was hung by his legs from the ceiling and so badly beaten that he broke his thigh bone.
All three were acquitted after 2 1/2 years in pretrial detention, the report said.
"Local authorities should act on specific evidence of criminal activity, not a blanket assumption that critics of the state are supporting Maoist violence," said Ganguly. "The national government needs to step in and bring an end to politically motivated prosecutions."
Maoists are operating in a majority of Indian states, and the government calls them the country's greatest internal security threat.
The Human Rights Watch report comes just a month after 19 villagers, including a 15-year-old girl, were shot dead by security forces in Chattisgarh. Responding to wide public outrage, a senior police official later publicly stated that while those killed were indeed Maoists, the security personnel couldn't really tell at night.