As the year draws to a close, let’s take a moment to reflect on some positive changes and human rights victories from across the country in 2016.
1. Supreme Court rules against impunity for security forces
In July, the Supreme Court upheld the importance of holding security forces accountable for human rights violations. Hearing a public interest litigation on the cases of 1528 alleged extrajudicial executions in Manipur from 1979 to 2012, the Court ruled that all the allegations needed to be looked into, and offences committed by security forces could be prosecuted in civilian courts.
2. Journalist Somaru Nag acquitted
In May, a court in Jagdalpur acquitted Somaru Nag, an Adivasi journalist from Bastar who had been in detention in July 2015 on fabricated charges of banditry and arson. Bastar continues to be a difficult place for journalists. In March, the Editors Guild of India said, following a visit, that they did not find “a single journalist who could claim with confidence that he/she was working without fear or pressure”.
3. Recognition for human rights defenders
Amnesty International Germany awarded its 8th Human Rights Award to Indian lawyer and human rights defender Henri Tiphagne in January. Henri Tiphagne is the founder of People’s Watch, one of the country’s most prominent human rights organizations, which has researched and documented human rights violations, and provided legal representation to those affected, for over 20 years.
In August, Dalit activist Bezada Wilson, the national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which fights against the practice of manual scavenging, received the Ramon Magsaysay award for “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity”. Bezwada Wilson has been at the forefront of the campaign against manual scavenging for many years.
In November, journalist Malini Subramaniam won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award. Malini Subramaniam has reported extensively on human rights abuses by police and security forces, sexual violence against women and extrajudicial executions in Bastar. In February, she was forced to leave her home in Bastar following harassment and intimidation by self-styled vigilante groups and the state police.
4. Activist Irom Sharmila released
Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience Irom Chanu Sharmila was released from prison in August after she ended her 16-year-long hunger strike against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which grants sweeping powers to security force personnel. In October, a Manipur court acquitted her of charges of attempting to commit suicide.
5. New disability law enacted
In December, the parliament passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, The Bill crucially recognized a larger range of disabilities than the existing law, detailed the rights and benefits of persons with disabilities, and also spelled out penalties for violations. Disability rights activists did however criticize the Bill for failing to take into account the needs of different genders, and falling short on the rights of women with disabilities
6. Activist Khurram Parvez released
Khurram Parvez, a prominent Kashmiri human rights defender, was released in November after a court ruled his detention to be arbitrary and illegal. The activist had been placed in administrative detention for over two months under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act. However hundreds of people, including children, remain in detention under the Act.
7. Supreme Court rejects challenge to Adivasi referendum on Vedanta mine
In May, the Supreme Court rejected the Odisha government’s petition to virtually reverse its landmark 2013 ruling giving Adivasi communities the final decision on plans for a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri hills. Twelve Adivasi gram sabhas had unanimously rejected mining plans by UK-based Vedanta Resources in a historic referendum in 2013.
8. Massive protests for Dalit rights
While discrimination and violence against Dalits remained pervasive, 2016 saw massive public mobilization on the issue. In January, the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula led to nationwide protests and debates on the discrimination and violence faced by Dalits in universities. Following the public flogging of four Dalit men by a vigilante cow protection group in May in Una, Gujarat, thousands took to the streets in protest.