The forum was created at the end of a two-day training workshop conducted in Pune over the weekend.


Spurred by recent attacks, Maharashtra human rights defenders create forum to address vulnerability Dhamini Ratnam

Following the killings of CPI leader Govind Pansare, who succumbed to his injuries after two unidentified assailants fired at him near his Kolhapur home in February, and anti-superstition activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar, who was shot dead in Pune in August 2013, Maharashtra-based human rights defenders (HRDs) have created a forum to address the threats they face in their line of work. The forum was created at the end of a two-day training workshop conducted in Pune over the weekend.

The training sought to provide clarity on who are HRDs and Women HRDs (WHRDs) and the mechanisms and strategies, both at the international and national level, needed to address the challenges they face. The workshop also offered information on how HRDs and WHRDs can access immediate help for the threats they face. On 28 and 29 March, lawyers, activists and non-governmental organization workers from different regions of Maharashtra participated in the human rights defenders Maharashtra state workshop—the first-ever training of the kind to have been conducted in the state, according to Rama Sarode of Pune-based human rights organization Sahyog Trust.

Other organizers included Madurai, Tamil Nadu, based Human Rights Defenders Alert—India and charitable trust Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns, besides national consortium Working Group on Human Rights. “Even as we fight for the rights of the vulnerable, we are coming across cases where human rights defenders are being attacked. It’s therefore important to come together to fight for our own protection,” says Sarode. There were 32 participants from various regions of the state, including Satara, Sangli, Solapur and Mumbai, working on women’s issues, children’s education, and Dalit rights, among other concerns.

“We conducted a session on how to draft an urgent appeal and provided information on the platforms through which human rights defenders could receive protection, funds, or support,” says Sarode, a lawyer. Her partner Asim Sarode, an environmental lawyer, has received threats on his stand on the matter of ex-communication by Jath or caste panchayats, after he supported Santosh Jadhav’s case in the Bombay high court.

In 2004, Jadhav contested and won the gram panchayat elections of Harihareshwar in Raigad. Immediately afterwards a gavaki (caste panchayat in Konkan Maharashtra) boycotted him and his family. Jadhav filed a police complaint and approached the courts. The case prompted the high court to issue guidelines, as there is no law till date that deals with victims of ex-communication.

“This workshop came about after a national training of trainers of HRDs in Madurai, which was attended by the organizers of this workshop. The Maharashtra trainer group strongly felt the need to conduct a workshop for human rights defenders in the state, as Maharashtra has seen more than 50 attacks on RTI activists, including 11 cases of murder over the last 10 years,” says woman human rights defender Kamayani Bali Mahabal, who conducted a session on gender and caste violence at the workshop.

The forum of HRDs intends to create a state-level network and reach out to more defenders, particularly in the western region of Maharashtra—in Marathwada and Vidarbha. The forum will work closely on the threats received by activist-writer Dr Bharat Patankar last week. Dr Patankar is president of the Shramik Mukti Dal, an organization working for the rights of workers. He received a letter earlier this month, which told him that after Pansare and Dr Dabholkar, it would be his turn next. The forum wrote an urgent appeal to the National Human Rights Commission regarding Dr Patankar and plans to address another appeal to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva.

The workshop also brought together activists to recognize the importance of various human rights concerns. “Gender justice, violence against women and women’s rights still tend to get pushed downwards in the hierarchies of various human rights movements, hence it is important that gender, sexuality, disability and caste need to be mainstreamed in the work of human rights defenders,” said Mahabal.
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