Indian human rights defender fights to end Roma discrimination

Sri Kumar Vishwanathan, an Indian high school physics teacher living in the Czech Republic, was appalled after reading what was happening to the Roma in Ostrava after the huge floods of 1997. “Thousands of people lost their homes,” remembers Kumar. “For most, help arrived quickly, but not for the Roma, who had already been living in marginalized circumstances. The authorities placed twenty-eight Roma families indefinitely into asbestos covered cubicles, perhaps hoping that they would be discouraged by their deplorable living conditions, and eventually move away. The media deliberately incited tensions between the Roma and their new neighbors, presenting them not as victims, but rather as disruptive people, as criminals.”

Sri Kumar Vishwanathan advocates for the Roma © OHCHR Kumar decided to move into the cubicles himself in hope of easing tensions between both sides. Shortly afterwards, he initiated a plan to build a neighborhood of small houses for the Roma as well as for ethnic Czechs. He managed to overcome numerous obstacles and secured financing for the project from both Czech and foreign sources. In 2002, the Coexistence Village was completed, and the Roma as well as ethnic Czechs moved in. It has remained a unique success story.

In 2003, the daily Mladá fronta Dnes, a leading Czech newspaper, devoted an entire page to Kumar’s work in a series on Heroes of Our Times. Yet in the same period, Kumar was repeatedly detained by the Czech police during random controls simply because he was regarded as a Roma and because he refused to show his identity documents unless the police gave him a reason, other than ethnic profiling.

Since then, the organization which Kumar founded - Life Together – has expanded into many other areas of activity. They organize social street work and legal aid to the Roma in Ostrava, aiming to prevent evictions and defend families from having their children taken into institutional care. They have encouraged victims, who were predominately women, to speak out against violent thugs from inside the Roma community itself, who were extorting money from them. A successful project was launched to train some of these women as police assistants. They helped challenge the segregation of Roma children in special schools, contributing to a landmark judgment of the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Kumar was also involved in helping Roma women who had been sterilized in the past without their full consent to file complaints.

Kumar has documented instances of hate speech by local politicians who spoke of using “dynamite” or “machine guns” against the Roma. He has long feared that such inflammatory talk might lead to actual incidents of violence. Then, in 2009, came a vicious arson attack on a Roma family in Vitkov, and a toddler in the home suffered burns all over her body. The police seemed unable or unwilling to find the perpetrators. Kumar devoted himself to the cause with relentless determination, mobilizing support for the victims and putting pressure on the police to continue the investigation. Finally, the neo-Nazi attackers were found and convicted. 

Today, Kumar and his family are still living in the poorest Roma neighborhood in Ostrava, and his NGO continues to empower the Roma through his advocacy. “The local police no longer harass me because they know me well,” says Kumar. “But getting the positive message to broader society is difficult. Even today, the Czech media seem to be more interested in populist mayors who are pushing for ruthless evictions and crackdowns against the Roma, perpetuating the vicious circle of exclusion and marginalization.”

The focus of Human Rights Day 2010 was human rights defenders acting against discrimination. 

21 December 2010