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WSS statement regarding attacks on study team in Bastar and the solidarity event in Kolkata

Statement of WSS in response to the attacks on an independent study team in Bastar and local villagers helping them, and a solidarity event in Kolkata

WSS (Women against Sexual Repression and State Violence) strongly condemns two recent incidents of harassment, malicious intimidation and vilification employed by the BJP government and its youth wing, the Bharatiya Janta Yuva Morcha, to silence critics of the ruling regime’s policies in Bastar.

The first incident concerns the harassment and detention of villagers, Mangla of Nama and Manju Kawasi of Gadiras, Sukma district, who had helped a team of academics and activists conduct a study tour from May 12th to May 16th in the districts of Kanker, Bastar, Sukma and Bijapur. The team, comprising of Prof Nandini Sundar of Delhi University, Prof. Archana Prasad, a member of the JNU faculty and an office bearer of AIDWA, Vineet Tiwari of the Joshi-Adhikar Institute and of the CPI, and Sanjay Parate of the CPI(M) found that several areas of the Bastar division were facing a situation reminiscent of the Salwa Judum period, when several tens of thousands of villagers were forced to flee their villages due to the violence between state-sponsored militias and the Naxalites. The team, which was critical of the government’s abuses of its own laws leading to large scale human rights violations, was also critical of the violence being perpetrated by the Maoists, and strongly urged different stake holders to prepare the ground for a political dialogue between the government and opposition parties including the CPI Maoist.

Instead of responding constructively to the team’s thoughtful suggestions, the state government has fabricated a criminal complaint against the team members and local villagers assisting the team, accusing them of instigating villagers of Kummakoleng and Nama villages in Bastar district to join the Naxalite movement. This patently absurd complaint has allegedly been submitted by aggrieved villagers of two villages to the Collector of Bastar, Mr. Amit Kataria, who promptly put this up on his Facebook page – undoubtedly a strange way for a Collector to deal with a complaint! This fictitious complaint was further propagated on social media by members of the police-promoted and now-discredited Samajik Ekta Manch, and then given legitimacy by the Home Minister, Ram Sevak Painkra and the Chief Minister, Raman Singh, both of whom confirmed to the media that this complaint was being taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.

Local residents of Bastar who helped the team are already facing the brunt of police highhandedness. Manju Kawasi, a member of the CPI women’s wing who accompanied the team got a midnight visit from the Sukma police, who told her that she would have to go to Jagdalpur for questioning. Earlier in the day also, Ms Kawasi had received a call from the SHO of her village police station in Gadiras, threatening her that an FIR would be registered against her. A villager from village Nama, Mangla, a carpenter by profession, who had accompanied the team to show the way to his village, has also been repeatedly called to the police station for questioning, and his phone is now inaccessible. We also note that there is a long history of harassing Professor Nandini Sundar who is a petitioner in the case before the Supreme Court challenging the government-sponsored Salwa Judum.

Through such pressure tactics, the state government, police and local administration are aiming to create an atmosphere of fear where independent teams are discouraged from visiting Bastar and monitoring the state of civil war in the region. WSS, which has itself participated in three fact-finding teams to Bastar in the past year, strongly denounces such moves by the state and local authorities. In the current situation where journalists and lawyers have been hounded out of Bastar, local activists attacked and media persons jailed and intimidated, such visits by external human rights monitors take on a crucial significance and must be encouraged.

It must be remembered that the findings of such independent teams to the area have been corroborated by representatives of autonomous state institutions such as the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, and members of the national press, who have recently visited the area and found widespread evidence of police and security forces excesses.  Hence, repeated visits of fact finding teams to the area remain the only means of uncovering the excesses and bringing relief to the local populations.

In Kolkata, an event “Blackout in Bastar” organized by the Bastar Solidarity Network to highlight the violation of human rights in Bastar, was attacked by the youth wing of BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. This group was ostensibly protesting the presence of Umar Khalid, the student leader from JNU who was participating in the event, as an anti-national though in reality deploying diversionary tactics to disrupt the programme. Other speakers at the event included the Bastar journalist Kamal Shukla, who has organized journalists across the state of Chhattisgarh demanding freedom of the press, and WSS member, Sharmishtha Chowdhury of the AIRWO, who had participated in a recent fact-finding trip of the WSS to the Bijapur district in Bastar.

We are deeply concerned by the use of force and intimidation to quell discussions on contentious issues. We demand that the local authorities in Bastar immediately ensure the safety of Mangla, stop harassing Manju Kawasi, and quash the fictitious complaint against the fact-finding team of independent investigators. At the same time, we denounce in no uncertain terms the protestors in Kolkata, for vitiating the atmosphere where a simple criticism of a government’s action, however reasonable, is taken to be a treasonous act.

(Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, WSS, , is a nationwide network of women from diverse social and political movements who are committed to challenging, exposing and resisting sexual violence and its use as a tool of state repression.)

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