Urgent Appeals File: Gopen Sharma-Threats to life in the fight for food

Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha, West Bengal, India & Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

Gopen Sharma is a human rights defender who has been working in the hunger-hit areas of Jalangi, Murshidabad District in West Bengal for the last few years. He has actively voiced his concerns over police and Border Security Force atrocities and the corruption rampant in relief operations. He was one of the key persons behind a protest in which some 500 people marched to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) office in Kolkata on 23 March 2005 to vent their anger over the international agency’s neglect of thousands of children starving in West Bengal. He has also spoken against political parties that collect subscriptions from hunger-hit families. His efforts have led to many media reports on the callousness and insensitive attitude of the police and other agencies in the area, which have resulted in the authorities and local politicians turning against him. Here Gopen describes the obstacles that government officials have put before villagers fleeing the rapid expansion of the Padma River into their lands, among whom he is one:

“The government is preventing those who lost their land to cultivate across the river¡K You know the river takes land from this side and leave land on the other side¡K The government also is silent regarding the role played by the government officers, including the block development officer and the health inspector, in not helping the people, but on the contrary, helping the local politicians to engage in cross-border smuggling [with Bangladesh]. It seems unless the people here remain poor these officers will not have enough manpower to run the smuggling. Last night three trucks came through here with cows, medicines and food being smuggled across the border. The purpose of starving us is to make us available for smuggling. This is the only means of livelihood for a few people here.

“The government officers, police and politicians, elected or otherwise, are all players in the same game. For their game to continue the people should be starving. This serves two purposes. One, no one will have enough energy to stand up and resist; and two they will always have people willing to work for them. The Padma is a rapid flowing river and to cross it with heavy loads of goods at night is even more dangerous than the job itself. How many have died in crossing the river, no one knows.

“The local ration shop dealer here is Mr Chandana Sarkar. He is responsible for the distribution of rationed articles for Dayarampur village. He never exhibits the stock list or the list of people who are eligible to receive rationed articles. The reason why is because he does not want people to claim rations as their right, but to sell the articles across the border. He only opens the shop for two days in a week. At least 3000 people are to be served through his shop, or may be more. But I am sure that he does not give away rationed articles to even 20 or 30 families. The rest is sold on the open market or smuggled across the border. He maintains illegal ration cards so that if anyone questions then he can show some records. He maintains the names of dead people in his register so that he can claim more goods from the government and sell them to smugglers. The block level food supply officer is also involved in this. He is also corrupt like the police officers and the block development officer. The kerosene which is to be sold in the ration shop for 10 rupees is sold for 20 rupees. They sell rice and sugar in the same way. Other ration shop dealers work in the same way. And the local parliamentarian, Mr Unus Ali Sarkar, is the godfather. The police and even the border security force are in his pocket. All we can do is to complain: the fence itself is eating the harvest.”

Due to his outspokenness, the police were waiting for a good opportunity to detain Gopen Sharma. After his wife Bulu Sharma lodged a domestic violence complaint, which was withdrawn on 21 February 2005, the Jalangi police charged Gopen with attempted murder. Bulu reported that after taking her statement, the police asked her to sign a document without showing it to her. Later she found out that the police falsely charged her husband with attempted murder. She was mentioned as the prime complainant. Though she submitted a written application to the district magistrate and superintendent of police retracting her earlier allegation, the complaint was not withdrawn and Sub Inspector of Police Sanjay Singh denied having received the notice to withdraw the complaint. According to Bulu Sharma,

“It’s true that I went to the Jalangi Police Station to complain verbally against my husband. The police were very eager to accept my allegation. A man posted by the officer-in-charge at the police station wrote down something and got it signed by me. Initially, I could not understand that the police bore a grudge against my husband. When I came to know that the police were keen to arrest him, I became suspicious because I had repeatedly requested them to not arrest him. Realising the intention of the police, I accompanied my husband to Behrampore where I submitted a written prayer to the district magistrate and superintendent of police withdrawing my earlier allegation. The officer-in-charge is nursing a personal grudge and he is sticking to the earlier complaint.”

As the police were unable to find Gopen, they arrested and imprisoned his mother and younger brother instead. They have since been released on bail but are still also facing charges.

Meanwhile, at around 12:30am on 11 April 2005 a large group of heavily armed unidentified people entered and looted Gopen’s house and attacked his family. About 10 family members, including women, were injured during the attack. Gopen’s brother, Santosh Sharma, was attacked from behind by an axe and had to be hospitalized in Behrampore. That afternoon, a group of human rights defenders visited the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC) and urged it to intervene urgently. It confirmed that it would hear the matter the next day.

On April 12, Gopen Sharma and his wife went to the WBHRC office and met the chairman and a member of the commission. The chairman gave an order that the commission direct the District Magistrate of Murshidabad to investigate the attack of April 11 and send a report to the commission within four weeks. This was an unusually speedy response from the commission, and together with other actions and communications at the time it afforded some short-term protection to the victims. As a result of these interventions, the Sub Divisional Police Officer of Domkol, along with two Sub Inspectors of the Jalangi Police Station, Amal Krishna Jana and Haris Ali Khan, started an enquiry and they met Gopen Sharma on June 28. Gopen was also called to meet with the Additional Superintendent of Police in Murshidabad on July 22.

However, on September 12, in the lead up to the people’s tribunal hearings in Jalangi, Gopen Sharma was illegally detained, threatened and assaulted by officers at the Block Development Office-the key state level agency for social welfare schemes-in Jalangi while helping victims of starvation to lodge complaints. Gopen was at the time accompanying Jahanara Bewa, wife of the late Hazarat Mollah, who had recently died of starvation, and Lokman Mondal, who wished to inform the office of another starvation death in the locality. According to the victims, the clerk on duty, Bikash Adhikary, refused to receive the complaint. Thereafter, the Block Development Officer Mukul Chandra Mahato, the Joint Block Development Officer, and the Block Relief Officer, Mr Soumen Nath called Jahanara inside and interviewed her for long time. Afterwards, they asked Gopen Sharma, who was waiting outside, to come inside also, whereupon they abused Gopen and accused him of creating a disturbance in the locality. Soumen Nath rushed at Gopen and hit him with his fists, threatening him with dire consequences. While Gopen protested, other employees surrounded him and threatened to hand him over to the police. Gopen was confined for about half an hour. Immediately after, he approached the local police station in Jalangi to register a complaint. The police officer, however, refused to accept his complaint.

Gopen Sharma has since persisted with his work on the right to food in the face of continued threats from various local and state authorities.

“Vocal Jalangi social worker’s family attacked”
The Statesman, 11 April 2005

He was eloquent against police and BSF [Border Security Force] atrocities, their nexus with smugglers and criminals and even protested before the chief minister, when he visited Murshidabad recently, against the practice of his comrades to collect subscriptions from starvation-hit residents of Jalangi.

Thereafter, police framed charges against him on the basis of an unfounded allegation.

Social activist Mr Gopen Sharma, who extended help to the hunger-hit families and invited wrath of the comrades, apprehended that his life was under threat. His fears proved correct today. A gang of armed criminals raided his home at famine-hit Dayarampur village of Jalangi where several people died of starvation in the past few weeks.

The goons looted his house, beat up and injured his family members and left the spot which is just 300 metres away from the BSF camp by the Padma embankment.

As Mr Sharma was absent, the attackers pounced upon his brother, Santosh Sharma who was attacked with sharp weapons. He was admitted to Behrampore New General Hospital in a critical condition. With 31 stitches on the back, he regained consciousness this afternoon.

Mr Sharma’s wife and daughter were robbed of gold earrings and necklace. They were beaten up with iron rods. Mr Sharma’s cousin Mr Monindranath Sharma was also not spared. The marauders left with Rs 100, jewellery and utensils. The loot comes at a particularly trying time for the Sharmas who have been living in penury ever since their homestead was devoured by the Padma.

His daughter said: “The criminals first dared my father to come out. Then they went on a rampage.”

Police have already arrested the youngest brother and aged mother of Mr Gopen Sharma on the basis of allegations made by his wife, Mrs Bulu Sharma, who had later withdrawn her complaint in writing. But police acted on the complaint and arrested the duo as Mr Sharma was not present at home at that time. He had been to Kolkata to ask for help from human rights activists. Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) has pledged support to him, it was learnt.

Residents said: “A rumour was spread in the villagers that a cyclonic storm would strike Jalangi and villagers were asked to keep indoors. Normally locals are out in the open till midnight during summer. But the rumour was floated to ensure the folks headed home early in the day and the attack could be carried out unhindered.”

This article is derived from a number of appeals by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and additional material. Visit the AHRC website to see further: INDIA: Police attack on human rights defender and his family in Murshidabad, West Bengal (UA-59-2005); INDIA: District Magistrate was directed by the West Bengal Human Rights Commission to inquire into the police attack on a human rights defender (UP-44-2005); INDIA: Human rights defender physically assaulted, threatened and detained by government officials (UA-161-2005).

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