by Shobha R, Theatre artist and Curator of Music Stories of Resilience
There are many of us educated urbanites who haven’t even heard about places like the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh. The reasons are obvious. The mainstream media hardly reports about the region and makes sure that reports from local journalists and stringers are censored if not silenced. Recent reports of false cases being used to arrest journalists in Chhattisgarh is a case in point.
Authorities arrested Santosh Yadav, a freelance journalist whose reporting included allegations of human rights abuses by the police against adivasi or tribal communities in the region on September 29, 2015. Police subsequently accused Yadav, who has faced repeated police harassment in the past, of rioting, criminal conspiracy, and attempted murder, according to his lawyer, Isha Khandelwal. He was also accused of “associating with a terrorist organization” and “supporting and aiding terrorist groups” under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act as well as under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, according to Khandelwal.
This is a story of some of the conflict affected districts in Chhattisgarh, that has been put together after much reading, talking to people experiencing it first hand and travelling in the region while trying to desperately hold on to the belief that my state cannot really be against my people.
The districts of Sukma, Kondagaon, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Kanker, Dantewada and Bastar are affected by internal conflict. The internal conflict is not so much as a law and order situation as the State portrays it to be, but more so, a scramble for resources by the State and corporates who want to subvert legal provisions and safeguards that declare the land, forests and the resources within, to belong to the resident forest dwelling and adivasi communities.
If one was to trace the growing presence of the Maoist movement in this region, it started when adivasi forest dwelling communities were being tortured, evicted and exploited by the State. The other narrative is that the Maoists came in to broker the resources that belong to adivasi communities with the state and the corporates who want to loot the region for vested interests.
While the state effectively keeps human rights activists engaged in legalities of what’s nationalist and not, the adivasis continue to face the brunt. The only position in my opinion is that of a rights based one. The law allows people to safeguard their resources and their property from being looted and rampaged. An act of protection of one’s life, ones resources and property is legally called self defense. Why is this any different when the attacker is the State or a corporate backed by a State? What gives the State any right to plunder resources, loot, rape and kill innocent villagers in the name of protection? Whose protection are we talking about anyways? The State has enacted laws like Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act, 2005 to protect and shield itself from being prosecuted for acts of human rights violations. This is highlighted in a report by Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, “The Special Public Protection Act, which came into force in March, is a vague and overly broad law that allows detention of up to three years for “unlawful activities.” The term is so loosely defined in the law that it threatens fundamental freedoms set out by the Indian constitution and international human rights law, and could severely restrict the peaceful activities of individuals and civil society organizations. The respected Public Union for Civil Liberties in India has filed suit, alleging that the ordinance is “amenable to gross abuse and misuse, arbitrariness and partiality” and “can result in harsh and drastic punishment to innocent persons without hearing or remedy and … can be abused for the suppression of the fundamental rights of the citizens.” The law also criminalizes any support given to Naxalites, with no defense of duress. Thus, persons whom the Naxalites force to provide assistance are subject to detention under the ordinance. “People can now be put in jail for three years for peaceful protests, or for giving food to the Naxalites at the point of a gun,” said Adams. “This is a mistake. Scrupulous respect for rights is the best answer to the Naxalites.”
Human rights groups have condemned draconian laws like the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 as being against the principles of natural justice, as guaranteed under the Indian Constitution and a violation of fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression and legitimate dissent. Under this law, local communities who offer food or shelter to naxals, for instance, can be imprisoned, with no consideration of the fact that they may have no other choice but to do this. Journalists and activists reporting against state repression can be made an easy target under this Act. To add to these, there is now seemingly a growing tendency by self appointed vigilante groups as well as the State arbitrarily using the sedition law to stifle peaceful dissent of any form against the government.
The State ensures that the senior officials in the executive are inducted and trained to believe that the control of naxalism should be undertaken on a war footing. A senior District official categorically said, ‘we have deployed armed patrolling every 5 kms on this highway. We have sanitized the area. We need to either arrest them or eliminate them. (referring to the Maoists).This is the State’s strategy to control law and order and that is right.” I don’t blame this official as much as I would hold the system that makes him speak so, accountable. Infact, this official seemed to be a genuine person trying his best to make sense of the situation. He went on to say that “the situation is far too complicated to understand. But that’s the reality here.” When asked about his opinion about reports of fact finding human rights groups which had highlighted violations by the State like murder and rape of innocent adivasis, he said, “these groups are all proxies. But it’s true that local adivasis suffer.” He didn’t elaborate further, maybe because he didn’t know what he meant by that completely, which is probably wishful thinking, or because he had already made up his mind that anyone who questions the State is a Maoist. This says a lot about the orders being followed by senior officials who are in charge of these districts. The situation is indeed worrying.
Reports of a boom in construction of infrastructure in the conflict zones, as supposedly a measure by the State to curb naxalism, tells us how the larger understanding of the situation is far from being nuanced or rights based. In 2015, agreements to the tune of Rupees 24,000 crore were signed for a mega steel plant at village Dilmili in Dantewada which is a joint venture of the Steel Authority of India and the National Mineral Development Corporation and an extension of the 140-km Rowghat-Jagdalpur railway line. It is no secret anymore that roads and infrastructure are more to improve access for companies that want to forcefully make inroads into mining in this area. Or maybe there isn’t even a need to seem to have a rights perspective anymore, which is a far scarier analysis of the States position in the region.
Government and private companies like National Mineral Development Corporation, Essar, and Tata etc. continue to eye the rich natural resources that are being protected for generations by adivasi communities in the region. Once the area is ‘sanitized’ as government officials put it, it will be a free hold for corporates. However sustained protests by local communities have forced projects to withdraw, when they attempted to force their projects without free informed prior consent of the local people, as mandated by law. The most recent case being that of Tata Steel project finally withdrawing from Bastar after years of it trying to force villagers to consent to the project in Lohadiguda. A sample of the kind of intimidation faced by the locals who protested against the project was mentioned in a 2007 report which quotes, “Villagers claim that hundreds of policemen from across the district were posted in these six villages. In period of police presence, a twenty year woman was raped in Takraguda and six others, included one 12 year old girl, were repeatedly molested. A NHRC complaint filed by the villagers, and made available to Frontline, records testimonies of the victims – each one holding uniformed policemen responsible for these horrifying acts.”
It’s not easy to scratch below the surface and engage with these realities for most people. The lack of any news coming out from the region and the clampdown on voices which speak a rights based approach adds to the seclusion of communities who face these violations. This surely seems to be an emergency situation. Of course, not of the kind that requires more State clampdown, but of a kind that needs national and international rights based groups, our criminal justice system and ordinary citizens alike to protest against any kind of human rights violation.
In 2005, the State sponsored violence in the official name of ‘Salwa Judum’ unleashed unimaginable horrors on innocent villagers in the name of Naxal control strategies by the State. The naxal control strategy was in fact, to arm ordinary villagers to kill their own community members who were supposedly suspected of supporting the naxals. The honorable Supreme Court of India declared Salwa Judum illegal in 2011. The court in its ruling mentioned, “The State of Chhattisgarh shall take all appropriate measures to prevent the operation of any group, including but not limited to Salwa Judum and Koya Commandos, that in any manner or form seek to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person.” The Court in its ruling acknowledged that the State had been responsible for violation of fundamental rights of its citizens. However, as highlighted repeatedly by human rights activists in their fact finding reports, the violations did not end with that. The Salwa Judum continues to be operational even today under various proxy names like Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, Samajik Etka Manch etc. When these groups are declared illegal, they form another identity under the garb of another name and continue their illegal activities.
An example of the situation on ground, are highlighted in reports by human rights organizations and in some rare cases, in First Information Reports (FIRs) registered by survivors of violence, which offer a glimpse into the daily lives of people who are in the midst of the conflict:
In January 2016, adivasi women from Nendra village in Bijapur district register an FIR alleging rape and sexual assault by members of security forces. In another incident, adivasi women from Kunna village in Sukma district file an FIR alleging sexual assault by members of security forces. The FIRs were registered after much lobbying by activists. In November 2015, adivasi women from Peddagelur village, Bijapur district file an FIR alleging rape and sexual assault by members of security forces.
These cases have been investigated and highlighted by the Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, a national human rights network, who continue to constantly visit the area, document violations and help survivors access legal support, despite facing intimidation and threats themselves.
Another fact finding report highlighted the forced evictions of adivasis due to the fear of violence in the region. “The forests of Bastar are teeming with people while the villages are deserted. The Maoists walk the forests, keeping watch on the security forces, who have now taken to camping in the jungles, ostensibly to keep watch on the Maoists. The villagers themselves spend sleepless nights wondering which direction the forces will take and who they will attack next. Across Bijapur, Sukma and Narayanpur, people have taken to sleeping in the jungle at night or migrating en masse to Telangana to escape dawn raids and the mass round-ups. It is freezing in the open; no one can light fires for fear of being found, and the few blankets they possess are really no protection. Most cover themselves only with a thin cotton lungi. If they don’t die in an ‘encounter’, many will surely fall ill with the cold.”
Human rights activists have testified and spoken out about the situation in Bastar and other parts of Chhattisgarh that they continue to witness. Isha Khandelwal, lawyer, Jaglag has spoken aboutthe state repression and violations in Bastar region and the ordeals faced by adivasi communities seeking justice in courts. Bela Bhatia, a researcher and activist has talked about her first hand experience of staying in Bastar and ordeals faced while raising issues of human rights violations. Soni Sori has talked about the custodial torture that she faced when she was in prison and the recent attack in February 2016, for standing up against human rights violations on adivasis in Chhattisgarh. Lingaram Kodopi, an adivasi journalist has spoken about the State of democracy in Chhattisgarh, as he has experienced it. The stories all point to the excesses of the State and the intimidation faced by anyone who questions the naxal control strategy of the government and the resultant human rights violations. As pointed out in these interviews, the State officials say, they are seen as ‘distractions to the elimination of naxals in the region and furthering of development goals’.
A team of two of us, theatre artists and curators of music and stories, travelled to Sukma, Bastar, Dantewada, and Bijapur in August 2016 to try and document stories and music of resilience from the region. In a few days of travel, we heard dozens of accounts of violations. People were not scared to talk anymore, it seemed. As they say, beyond a point there remains nothing to be scared of anymore. If people hesitated to talk, it was probably because they didn’t trust us. I sensed and felt that fearlessness when we stayed at a remote village, considered to be one of the stronger holds of naxalites. The police warned us that we would not be given protection if we went further. We told them we didn’t ask them for any protection anyways. We were here to record music and stories. The most intimidating experiences that we had on the trip were infact with the police, who stopped, questioned, searched our bags and photographed us incessantly, despite us having followed the protocol of coming with due permissions.
The stories of intimidation, violations and torture seemed to be endless. However, the stories of resilience are obviously more powerful. People continue to speak out and protect their homes and their forests. They continue to live here, peacefully asking their violators to leave them alone. This resilience far surpasses shortsightedness and greed that we see in the corporate style of development that is fed to us on a daily basis. But it doesn’t mean, people can be endlessly subject to violations. We need to travel to places like Bastar, to get back in touch with reality. To understand what it means to stand tall and speak out against injustice. Like Madkam Lakshmi, mother of Madkam Hidme from Gompad village in Sukma district who speaks out against the brutal alleged rape and murder of her daugher by the security forces, in a false encounter, earlier this year. “The police didn’t return one of my daughter’s favourite things that we had buried in her grave, when they exhumed the body for the post mortem, as directed by the court. They probably sold it as a traditional adivasi artifact. They are thieves” says Lakshmi, distraught with grief standing near the grave of her child. In the same breath, she continues to say that she will accept the national flag and will fight for justice legally. A huge salute to people like her who inspire people to keep at their quest of justice that seems so far away.
Elsewhere, on this trip, when we spent a day with Shalini Gera, a lawyer and team member of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, who takes on cases for people affected by state repression. We heard a young girl talk about how the security forces use unnecessary force to intimidate villagers. “They do it so we would be more scared of them than the naxalites”, she simply says, fully understanding the strategy of the war over resources. “I asked the security forces why they loot and trouble us time and again”, she recounted. A young mother, holding her infant, talked about how she was raped by the police. She narrated the incident with a dead expression in her eyes. She has obviously told her story many times now. However, she looks determined to repeat this, till she gets justice. A father who has lost his young son in an attack by the security forces on his village, in a supposed encounter, continues to look for his child after a year of the shootout in his village. Will justice be done to these people? They are willing to fight it out in court. It’s been a year since the incidents happened in some cases. Why didn’t they file a complaint earlier, could be the possible refrain from the court. Well it’s not simple to get any help from the police, when the State itself is the oppressor. The rape survivor recounted how the police had intimidated her when she had gone to file the complaint. It did indeed sound like a war zone. However, here the war has no external enemy to fight.
We proceeded to Farsegad village in Bijapur district. There were numerous stops enroute where we were questioned about our identities by the police. We patiently answered their questions and moved on. The Sarpanch of the village was a young man, who had, as most youngsters in this region, seen a lot in life already, so to say. His father had been killed by the naxals for working with the police. His mother categorically told us that she had made it clear to both the parties (naxals and the security forces) that she didn’t care about either of them and wouldn’t support them and that she should be left alone. She also mentioned that there is no brotherhood left in the community anymore, quite literally. “What else would happen when one son is a naxal and the other is made to be a police supporter. What would a family do when they are out to kill each other? That’s the reality that we live in. We don’t earn too much. We don’t even know if we will be alive tomorrow. We are alive today and that’s all we think about. Even if we worked harder and saved up, the naxals and police would come and take the money from us, to keep their fight going. What’s the point?”, she asks as she peers into our eyes questioningly.
We get accommodated in the residential tribal girls’ school that night. The teacher opens the gate warily and admits us reluctantly since we are accompanied with the people from the village. When we ask her if she is scared she says, ‘yes, everybody is scared of everything here. You don’t know what can happen the next minute’. We explain our work and she seemed to relax after that. The students clear out two beds in their dorm and make way for us strangers. Later they tell us that they thought we were part of the security forces that get deployed here from time to time. We tell them we are travelers out to record some music. The girls giggle and open up slowly while I fumble with my mosquito net that they have offered us. When we get talking about music they say they know a few songs that they have heard their families sing. We plead them to sing for us, and they oblige. They are scared to sing aloud and whisper melodiously into the recorder. It’s a magical experience. They sing about the swaying palm trees, the grains that dance in their fields, the glittering earrings that they want to dress up in and more. I hang my head in shame. It’s shameful that we continue to be silent and not let these girls sing and dance freely in their fields and forests with gay abandon. It’s shameful for a country which justifies violations in the name of law and order. I also feel happy to have had this opportunity to take this music of resilience to people who haven’t even heard of a State called Chhattisgarh. The music says it all. The music of courage, beauty and resilience.
The next morning, the whole village is excited about the weekly haat/ market. It’s a time to see people from neighbouring hamlets and villages and spend a few hours of what seems like a normal village. Well, there are goons watching us here too but we dismiss them off and head to another village on a borrowed bike.
We reached another village and introduce ourselves and our work to the Sarpanch. We get accommodated in one of the houses. Things are fine till a point when the air feels tense. People who had been laughing with us, suddenly huddle together in groups and whisper. In no time, armed security persons surround us. We look at them calmly and ask them what they want. They question us and repeat the same things we have been asked many times on the trip. We tell them to go back to the police station and check the details we have already given them. They warn us that we will not be protected if we venture further. We assure them that we don’t need that kind of protection and that we would travel further if we felt like, since we have nothing to worry about and have come here with due permissions. Another group also came and questioned us, albeit very respectfully and politely. They could have been the Maoists, but we were not to know.
That night was one we would not forget. The person whose house we stayed in disappeared after the drama that evening with the security forces. The women in the house fed us well, gave us bedding to sleep outdoors and later locked up the house and disappeared. We were surely being watched that night. But there was little else we could do about it than go to sleep. The next morning, I saw groups of people watching us from a distance and talking. We say our goodbyes and head back, with an invitation to go back during the festival season when we hope there will be some music.
On our way back, we join a padyatra that is being organized to demand for justice and constitutional rights of adivasi communities in the region. The rally had been planned on a 180 km stretch from Dantewada to Sukma district and was led by human rights tribal activist Soni Sori, who is herself a survivor of state violence and a pillar of strength and courage for thousands of adivasis in the region. The padyatra ended in Gompad village, where Madkam Hidme was allegedly raped and killed by security forces in a false encounter. We joined the yatra for two days. We heard Hidme’s mother reasserting her belief in the constitution. We also heard how she felt cheated by the government that she has seen only loot and kill. She held the national flag in her hand and appealed for peace to prevail. That’s the final message we were left with as we head back homewards, hoping to hear more music of democratic protest, resilience and peace that Bastar is known for.