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Chhattisgarh: A ‘War without witnesses’ in the making?

Attackers threw a toxic substance on Adivasi leader Soni Sori

Sreekumar Kodiyath writes: The final phase of the Sri Lankan Government’s war with the LTTE in 2009 saw a systematic program to make the affair a private one, by expelling reporters and human rights activists from the war zone. Those who stubbornly remained either disappeared or were detained. The army called it a “War without witnesses”.

Sreekumar Kodiyath,

The fourth and final phase of war between Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE of 2009 was marked by a systematic program from Sri Lankan Government’s side to make the affair a private one. One after the other, humanitarian agencies, international organisations, reporters and human rights activists were asked to leave or were expelled from the war zone. Activists and reporters who stubbornly remained either disappeared or were detained by the security forces. They called it, a “War without witnesses”. The idea was to give a free hand to the armed forces to wipe the slate clean. It was efficiently done but for the many videos and images that surfaced later evidencing torture, rape, execution and even desecration of dead bodies. The final battle between LTTE and the army ended with more than 20,000 civilians dead and 200,000 injured in Mullativu District of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. The scars still remain in the minds of the international community as the island nation is making efforts to convince the world of its commitment to healing and reconstruction.

It was a case study for security forces worldwide in dealing with the human rights activists or independent journalists during their operations whom they often find to be their greatest obstacles. “War without witnesses” remains a model that could be emulated for efficient military operations, be it against hungry citizens, protesting students or armed militants.

It is in this context that one has to analyse the developments in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. With a forest cover of about 40 percent, it is home to two entities vulnerable to exploitation, minerals and indigenous tribals. The indigenous tribal population inhabiting this region is one of the poorest in India and are the easiest targets of bonded labourer hunters and moneylenders. As far as the land goes, it is a miner’s paradise, having everything from coal to diamond and a very mining friendly government ready to confront laws or Supreme Court orders to let the mining work proceed smoothly. Despite this attitude the mining operations do not proceed unhampered as both the state and the central government prefers to. It is due to a creature that the state manufactured in its classical unbalanced development policies coupled with a frenzy to bag the unaccounted profits associated with mining leases, the left wing extremists called Naxalites. The Naxalites, nurturing under the repressive handling of the issue by the Government, grew to become the “biggest threat internal security” and even facilitated parts of central India be christened “red corridor”.

The mining companies were waiting, contracts pending and millions of rupees stuck which otherwise may have reached different hands from local leaders to election funds of major political parties. Successive governments continuously toyed with stranger and stranger strategies against Naxals including the creation of a state sponsored militia. Most of it resulted in humanitarian catastrophes including the state sponsored militia called “Salwa Judum” committing mass rapes, executions and arson to be finally declared illegal by the Supreme Court of India in 2011.

The conflict canvas was becoming livelier as things progressed with the affairs in the area catching the attention of human rights organisations and journalists. What they were interested in were reports of many tribals disappearing and later appearing as lifeless bodies with instant naxal identities, press conferences with claims of victories battles against armed groups by the police but refuted later by tribal villagers to be summary execution of unarmed civilians, mass rapes and burning of villages and so on. Adding to the woes of the State, an apparently harmless law that it had passed due to pressure from various tribal rights groups called Forest Rights Act in 2006 vested the tribal population with rights over forest land and its management. It never foresaw that this would be a big obstacle for it to hand over the mineral rich forests of Central India to the mining companies.

With the political climate in India shifting further right and lack of adequate patriotism determining every Indian citizen’s liberty or bodily integrity, the old strategies were reviewed. Need for subtlety in operations was not bearing fruits. It was time for a “War without witnesses”. Policemen with shocking human right records were handpicked and deployed throughout the state. A senior police official, S.R.P.Kalluri who remains accused of raping tribal women and orchestrating encounters was appointed in charge of the Bastar region. The outlawed process of manufacturing and arming vigilante organisations to target human rights activists and organisations in the area was reinvented. Slogans are now raised high, “Bharath Mata ki Jay” (Hail mother India) and “anti-nationals leave India”.

A group of young lawyers, who left their high paying jobs to provide legal aid to the tribal prisoners were intimidated, harassed and finally driven away by coercing their landlord to evict them. The latest developments began with a ban by the local bar association after prolonged interference in their work, continued with vigilantes targeting them and now successfully concluded with their enforced exile. Shalini Gera, Isha Khandelwal and others who support them now helplessly remain in Bilaspur, about 400 kms from Jagdalpur as you read this.

The residence of Malini Subramaniam, a journalist working with the website who focused her work on tribals, conflict and displacement in the area was attacked. Her domestic help was summoned by the police, coerced for hours compelling her to implicate Malini of being a Naxalite. Her landlord was threatened by the police and directed to evict her from her house. She finally had to leave the place on 19th February. Bela Bhatia, an independent researcher documenting human rights violations was threatened by the pro-state vigilantes and her landlord was similarly summoned to the police station. These individuals are just the ones in the end of the list. Expulsion and detention of journalists and activists had started some time back.

In the latest incident Adivasi leader Soni Sori was attacked near kodenar in bastar. About three men threw some some substance on her face causing intense burning and pain. She is now being treated in Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already made a statement few hours back during his tour in Central India including Chhattisgarh that NGOs are trying to discredit his government. District Collector of Bastar has warned people that stories coming from Bastar are mere propaganda; just some one sided anti-establishment narratives. This means that leaked images or videos that may surface tomorrow are to be considered untrue propaganda. They shouldn’t have worried. Even otherwise, affairs in the forests of central Indian states rarely make it to the front pages of mainstream Indian newspapers or attract the attention of news channels.

Bastar is now more or less free of any limitations as far as the security forces are concerned. It is high time to remove the shackles of distinguishing civilians and combatants. The stage is set and the time is ripe. It can begin the carnage without witnesses.

Sreekumar Kodiyath, Independent Researcher (Human Rights)

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