What is happening now in South Asia must compel us to act. More and more, we are being divided by gender, caste, religion and region. Caste hierarchy is repressive, oppressive, suppressive.’
Growing religious fundamentalism and the neoliberal model of economic development pose grave challenges to people living in South Asia. Right Livelihood Award Laureates Sima Samar (2012, Afghanistan), Medha Patkar (1991, India) and Swami Agnivesh (2004, India), are standing up for social justice, human rights and interfaith harmony against the forces of sectarianism and corporate greed.
Their determination to expose human rights violations and speak truth to power has led to them facing numerous grave threats including, arrest, assault and attempted assassination.
Responding to the threats to the life and liberty of three of these recipients, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation organised a series of meetings in India from 14-19 October 2013. The delegation was composed by Right Livelihood Award Foundation members Dr Monika Griefahn, Chair of the Board of Trustees and Sharan Srinivas, Director of Research and Advocacy.
Public events included a special felicitation in New Delhi to honour Sima Samar on October 15; an Inter-Religion Dialogue for Solidarity and Cooperation on October 16; and a public discussion with local human rights activists on October 17.
Felicitation of Dr. Sima Samar
On October 15, a special felicitation was held held in New Dehli to honour Sima Samar. The event highlighted the difficult situation she and her fellow defenders of women’s rights face in Afghanistan, given recent efforts to erode the independence and effectiveness of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Inter-religious Dialogue for Solidarity and Cooperation
On October 16, Medha Patkar, Swami Agnivesh and Sima Samar participated in an ‘Inter-religious Dialogue for Solidarity and Cooperation’ in New Delhi. This event bore special relevance given the alarming increase of communal violence in South Asia in 2013.
Public discussion with local human rights activists
On October 17, the Laureates travelled to Ranchi in Jharkhand state, where they engaged in a public discussion with beleaguered local human rights activists who Swami Agnivesh works with. These activists are defending the rights of indigenous people being dispossessed of their land, forests and livelihoods by powerful corporate interests.
Sima Samar, Swami Agnivesh and RLAF Co-Chair Monika Griefahn met with Indian Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari. Focus of the discussion was the human rights situation in Afghanistan and the challenges of delivering quality education to all Afghan children. Also, the cases of India and Afghanistan were compared in terms of their human rights records and the expansion of access to education.
On day 2 of the India Solidarity Visit, Sima Samar, Medha Patkar, Swami Agnivesh and Vijay Pratap, representative of Lokayan, met to discuss major human rights challenges in South Asia, and especially in Afghanistan. Sima Samar mentioned that what was lacking in South Asia was a regional human rights mechanism, like the Inter American Court for Human Rights, to protect human rights defenders in the region.
Other topics of discussion were the opportunities for organising a regional conference for Asian Laureates and the possibilities for opening a Right Livelihood College in South Asia.
Another major event on day 2 was the Felicitation of Sima Samar. Among the people who attended were civil society activists, journalists and bonded labourers freed by Swami Agnivesh’s organization. Justice AP Shah, who presided over the felicitation, said: ‘’Sima Samar’s work is synonymous with the promotion of human rights in Afghanistan.’’
Highlight of the felicitation was Medha Patkar’s rousing speech ending with the declaration ‘’go forth with your struggle Sima Samar, we are with you!’’
On day 3 of the solidarity visit, the delegation visited both the Swedish and German embassy.
Next, the Laureates participated in a panel discussion on inter religious dialogue in South Asia. Around 35 students and professors attended the event and engaged with Laureates during the interactive part of the discussion, asking to Laureates how they could to transcend the limitations of caste and religion in Indian society.
Sima Samar pointed out that before the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, religion was not a main source of conflict. ‘’I have less freedom now than I did when I grew up,’’ she said.
Medha Patkar said: ‘’What is happening now in South Asia must compel us to act. More and more, we are being divided by gender, caste, religion and region. Caste hierarchy is repressive, oppressive, suppressive.’’
Swami Agnivesh noted: ‘’Most of us have got an identity of caste and religion by birth. So where is the freedom of religion? True freedom comes from informed choice of religion”
The third event was a diner on invitation by Justice Rajinder Sachar, retired Chief Justice at the Dehli High Court and former member of United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, during which the Laureates discussed protection efforts.
On day 4 of the solidarity visit, the delegation visited Ranchi in Jharkhand state, where they engaged with tribal activists.
The event was organized by the RLAF, Swami Agnivesh and the Tribal Intellectual Forum, a large non political and secular Adivasi organization Swami Agnivesh closely cooperates with. Around 250 persons participated in the public seminar, including human rights defenders from the states of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa and Bihar, and social activists working on women’s rights and land issues.
Sima Samar said: “Jharkhand has a lot of resources in terms of mining, so does Afghanistan. You as citizens have the rights to be part of policy making for natural resource management. Revenue for natural resources should go to those who live here.”
She continued saying that “violations of human rights happen everywhere, but worst in poor areas. We are with you and I am proud that you are not only standing up for your rights but the rights of others”.
Swami Agnivesh said: “I ask the Indian government, you spend so much money to fight Maoist extremism, but never to address the root causes of what drives people to join the resistance. Why, after freedom, is the rights of tribals not realized? I ask the Manmohan Singh government to urgently form a National Tribal Advisory Council to address outstanding issues of tribals”.
He also warned: “It has become so easy to accuse Tribals of being Maoist extremists and put them in jail, where they languish for years without trials.”