Karnataka state authorities must conduct a prompt, impartial and independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary and abusive use of police force during protests by garment workers in Bengaluru, Amnesty International India said today. Women garment workers who took part in peaceful protests must be protected against reprisal attacks.
On 18 and 19 April, thousands of garment workers in Bengaluru took to the streets to protest recent revisions in the central government’s employee savings policies. Garment workers blockaded highways leading to Electronic City and the Peenya Industrial Area. Some of the protests turned violent. Protesters threw stones at private vehicles and offices, attacked a police station in Hebbagodi, and set public buses on fire. Police officials used baton-charges and teargas to disperse protesters on both days. Scores of protesters and police officials have been injured.
“The police have a right to defend themselves and a duty to protect lives and safety. But this role must be carried out with respect for the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” said Gopika Bashi, Women’s Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International India. “The police must only use force which is strictly necessary and to the extent required. They must always distinguish between individuals using violence and peaceful protesters.”
“A peaceful protest is a legitimate use of public space.”
Amnesty International India spoke to 18 women garment workers who all said they saw the police beating and abusing peaceful protesters. One woman garment worker who took part in a protest in Peenya on Tuesday said, “The police used their batons to poke us in our private parts. One of them said, ‘You whore, what problem do you have with working in a garment factory?’”
Another garment worker who took part in the same protest said, “I was beaten with a baton on my thighs. There is a blood clot there. They beat us however they wanted to, trying to make way for the traffic.”
Journalists covering the demonstrations said that the police did not differentiate between peaceful and violent protesters. A journalist with a prominent English newspaper who covered a protest in Jalahalli told Amnesty International India, “It was an undeclared baton-charge. There was no considerate treatment for women.”
Journalists themselves were also beaten. A photo-journalist with an English newspaper who was reporting on a protest in Bommanahalli on Monday said, “I was taking pictures when the police was baton-charging the women protesters. One of them asked me not to take pictures, after which I got five hits on my left thigh. They took my camera, broke my lens, and tried to take the memory card.”
Police officials have claimed that the violence was justified. The Additional Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru East, said, “My force has behaved with concern for the workers. Our major concern was to protect the women. We never resorted to baton charge against any peaceful protesters.” Media reports quoted the Chief Minister of Karnataka as saying that there had been no failure on the part of the Bangalore police.
The police have arrested over 100 people, most of them men who are not garment workers.
“Women garment workers may be hesitant to speak out about the violence that they faced, as they are afraid of being targeted in the future. They have to go back to work in the same factories where they are currently employed. The government therefore needs to investigate these allegations in a sensitive manner,” said Gopika Bashi.
“All incidents of violence and vandalism should also be effectively investigated, and those suspected of human rights abuses prosecuted.”