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Indian Human Rights Scholar Flees to the United States

Binalakshmi Nepram found temporary respite in the United States after heavily armed commandos forced their way into her home earlier this year. The raid began after a High Court case was filed in Nepram’s hometown of Manipur, India. She believes they intended to murder her because of her involvement in a case which concerned the Chief Minister of Manipur’s son who was convicted in the death of a 19-year-old man.

Nepram, who is a pioneer of a women-led peace and disarmament movement in the region, was approached by the victim’s parents last March. She connected them with Utsav Bains, a Supreme Court lawyer who works in New Delhi. No other human rights groups or lawyers would accept the case for fear of retaliation from the local authorities.

On May 10th, Bains flew to Manipur to file the case in the High Court and returned to New Delhi two days later. Only a few hours after Bains’ departure, the raid began at Nepram’s family home. Fortunately, Nepram was at a friend’s wedding when her mother called to warn her not to come back. Terrified, she fled to New Delhi and then to the United States with no more than a suitcase. “Everything I’ve known for the last 30 to 40 years of my life, I left,” she said. “It was not easy for me.”

As a disarmament and human rights scholar and activist, Nepram has helped raise awareness of the ongoing armed conflict in Manipur and its disproportionate toll on women. Through writing and research, she has been documenting cases of violence against women committed by state actors and insurgency groups. For the last 10 years, her organization, Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, has helped female survivors of gun violence rebuild their lives. Because of her peace and ethnic reconciliation work, in 2014, she started receiving threats from armed groups in Northeast India.

Home to the world’s largest democracy, India’s upsurge in censorship and human rights violations is unsettling. Last month, the murder of civil rights activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh made international headlines, becoming the fourth in a sequence of journalist assassinations. Since Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, those who do not support the dominant ideology have been increasingly living in a climate of fear. Within the past year, India has lost three points in the World Press Freedom Index, indicating the progressively more hostile conditions under which Indian journalists operate. Activists, artists, writers, intellectuals, and lawyers have been threatened and, in some cases, killed.

“All that we are doing is to deepen democracy, ensure [the] rule of law and that women are safe in the country. For doing that, we are considered as a threat,” said Nepram. “I had to leave India just for doing this work. This makes me very worried for the future of India.”

The intimidation continues even now. While already struggling to rebuild her life in the US, Nepram has been harassed on social media. Her perpetrators led a smear campaign to tarnish the image of her work and even called for her to be publically lynched. “They attacked me on social media, they attacked me on Facebook repeatedly [and] on Twitter. Everywhere they could send messages of hate and demoralize me, they did,” Nepram said. “I’m tough, but these words can be very hurtful.”

Non-profit organizations like the Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI) have come to Nepram’s aid. AFI is an organization in the United States made up of immigration attorneys who provide pro bono legal services to international artists and writers fleeing persecution because of their work. AFI assists artists and writers to obtain temporary housing and employment authorization; connect them with residency programs, employment opportunities, and universities; and promote their work.

Although Nepram wants to return to India to continue her advocacy, she does not believe it is safe for her to do so. She is a firm believer of collective action and trusts that her organization’s work will continue without her. “For some time, let the matter cool down. And, you know, we can never be separated from our work,” Nepram said. “But it is important that others also take leadership roles and carry on.”