NEW DELHI: I was interviewing Bela Bhatia, academic and activist, who has recently come under police and mob pressure to leave the work she is doing in Chhattisgarh just a little while ago. She was on the way back to her residence after meeting the District Collector. As we spoke she told me that she had just seen youth with their faces covered with Holi colour, on at least five motorcycles. “I am just telling you, I do not know whether there is anything here, or it is meaningless,”she said. Don’t you think we should alert the administration? I started to ask when the phone suddenly went off. From an engaged tone it went into a no response mode. I called journalists in Chhattisgarh to immediately find out, and it was a panicky few minutes, before I got a message from her saying it was all fine, those young people were innocent. The journalists hot wire had also worked in that short span of time, and almost simultaneously the scribes got back with a “she is safe” message.
This is the tension that intellectuals, activists, journalists, doctors and others seeking to speak for the poorest of the poor tribals in the districts of Chhattisgarh face today. In Bastar district, the situation has deteriorated sharply since late last year with the targeting more specific, and more threatening. Bela Bhatia has been put on notice by the police controlled organisations in the district, with a mob in jeeps and motorcycles visiting her home in a village 8 kilometres from the district headquarters, and warning her of dire consequences until and unless she left. Bela told The Citizen, “I do not want to leave. I want to stay here somehow. I have just met the Collector, and told him to arrange a dialogue between me and the Samajik Ekta Manch, the Mahila Ekta Manch, the Adivasi Ekta Manch so that I can tell them what we are trying to do here,” she said bravely and with a certain idealism that might be misplaced in a state that has given itself a year to purge the Naxal affected districts starting with what it perceives as ‘intellectual support.’
Bela, who has been working in the area for rights and justice of the poor since 2006, and on a more permanent basis since last January has a clear cut perspective that unfortunately is not heard, or listened to, in the ‘either you are with the police or else you are a Maoist’ polarisation being pushed through by the state authorities, now with accelerated pace. Along with the ‘military strategy’ against the Maoists, the state is focusing clearly on an urban cleansing of all perceived supporters with Bastar thus being the area to be “sanitised” to use police parlance in the area, even though the Maoists influence in the villages here is far less as compared to Dantewada, Sukma, Kondagaon and others.
Bela Bhatia spoke of the two sides to the current crisis, impassionately and succintly. “Many of us working with the tribals do tend to focus on state excesses, particularly police excesses. We investigate these, and raise these at different levels. We question the impunity of the state agencies when they act against the tribals here, and are at one level constitute the main hurdle for the state seeking to rid itself of the Maoists and all perceived supporters. We question the roughshod measures taken, we raise a voice, and do not allow the police to violate laws to take action. We are not Naxals, we do not support that violence, but given our few resources and numbers we tend to focus on the police excesses, insisting that the law of the land should be followed. Clearly for a state looking to wipe out the Maoists—-and this has been going on now for over a decade—we clearly are an obstacle that it now seems to have decided to remove as well over the last few months.
The other side of the story, and that too is real, is the pressure that the Maoists put on the poor tribals, attacking and killing those who they see as police informers. So these villagers who basically live in villages controlled by the Maoists feel the same pressure but we do not speak as much as we should about this. We should look into this, and work out a strategy where we are not seen to be taking just one side even when there is visible violence from the other. These villagers then are mobilised by the police,to target all those who are perceived to be supporting the Maoists. And we also, without actually meaning to, often fall in this category as well and are now being questioned and attacked.Are you not going to speak out (against Naxal violence) they ask us. I feel as an academic, an activist we have to listen to them as well. And not just listen to them, as that is not good enough, but do something about it.
In these ten years scores of lives have been lost, we just cannot keep quiet. The state has to be accountable and so have the Maoists, to the people. Right now they (Maoists) too do not care about the people, they have a little accountability to so called intellectuals, responding and even at times apologising under this pressure. But they have to respond to the people at large as well.”
The police that, under IG Kallipuri, is running Bastar district has formed the Ekta Samitis to target the activists, journalists, doctors, health workers working for the tribals in the area. The attack on Bela Bhatia, and journalists recently have been spearheaded by these newly floated organisations that all in the area claim function under the police. The police of course denies it, but those on the ground point out that the members of these organisations enjoy full impunity, that “is more potent than weapons” and are free to mob, harass, abuse, threaten and intimidate specific targets. The police is taking no action with the two pronged strategy being one of direct arrests and intimidation, and the second prong being left to the protected vigilante groups to target individuals specified by the authorities.
Bela Bhatia has perhaps, hit the nail on the wall. Those working in the region need to counter the polarised propaganda, and retrieve the space where they are seen to stand with the people who they are actually there to help and work for, and not for the Maoists or the increasingly repressive state.