Indigenous peoples under threat in India: torture for ‘development’

We hear from IRCT Asia Regional Coordinator Marion Staunton as she visits CORE-H2H in Manipur, India, to learn about the centre’s activities to tackle torture in the region.

On a clear day under cobalt blue skies, along the shores of a murky canal choking with vegetation, we climbed in to small dugout canoe that would take us on a twenty minute journey to the centre of Loktak Lake in the mountainous Manipur State of the north-eastern region of India.

THE small dugout canoe that would take us to the centre of Loktak Lake in the mountainous Manipur State

The small dugout canoe that took us to the centre of Loktak Lake in Manipur State

 

The lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the region and has an important role in its ecological and economic security. The purpose of our journey was to meet some members of fisher community living on floating huts who are being supported by the Human to Humane Transcultural Centre for Torture and Trauma (H2H) project of the IRCT member the Centre for Organization Research & Education (CORE).

H2H, established in 2009, is the independent health and humanitarian service of the nongovernmental organization CORE which provides direct assistance to survivors of torture within a holistic rehabilitation framework. Support is provided through in-house clinical psychologists, art and expressive therapists, physiotherapists, spiritual and traditional healers. H2H activities are supported by the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

CORE was founded in 1987 in the capital Imphal of Manipur State in response to the extensive human rights abuses taking place. Its main focus is on the documentation of such human rights abuses, including torture, and advocacy for indigenous peoples’ rights. Since 2005, CORE has Special Consultative Relationship with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations

In the canoe accompanying me on my journey was one of the founding members of CORE and its current president Dr Laifungbam Roy. Dr Roy, who heads the H2H project, explained how in Manipur people in appearance and culture have more in common with South East Asia than distant New Delhi. Many insurgencies have been fought in this region for autonomy and separation from India, and the Indian government has responded with tough military crackdowns that have resulted in heavy loss to life, property and the development of the state.

In particular, he explained about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA), a racially discriminatory “state of emergency” martial law that is in place in Manipur that gives soldiers extraordinary powers and legal immunity from prosecution under India’s criminal justice system. Soldiers are shielded from prosecution by this law as they cannot be prosecuted without explicit permission from the central government, which has never been granted. Unsurprisingly, the law has led to decades of impunity, human rights violations and abuses, such as arbitrary killings, rape, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and enforced disappearances. One particular client group that CORE works with and supports is that of indigenous peoples, the majority population of the province.

Phumsangs, THE traditional floating huts made of bamboo and thatch situated in the middle of lake

Phumsangs: traditional floating huts made of bamboo and thatch situated in the middle of lake

 

When we reached our destination we met with the Loktak Fishing Community and the All Loktak Lake Areas Fishermen’s Union Manipur Secretary on their indigenous phumsangs which are traditional floating huts made of bamboo and thatch situated in the middle of lake. Currently the traditional life style and livelihood of the Loktak Fishing Community is severely threatened due to ‘development’ plans to construct a ring-road and embankment around the lake with the authorities using the old and authoritarian Loktak Lake (Protection) Act of 2006 that criminalises traditional fishing and seeks remove the fishing community from the lake.

Their lives, livelihoods and way of life are in danger and in recent times they have endured arson attack, torture and evictions from their homes by the government with nowhere else for them to go. The community are extremely traumatised and distraught following recent arson attacks on them and their homes. According to H2H and CORE they are under continuous stress not knowing when the authorities will return and attempt to evict them and destroy their homes again.

In recent months H2H has provided counselling support to a number of torture victims from this community. But the community say that their uncertainty of what will happen to them, their children and community causes them continued mental anguish and torture.

 

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