The real hope lies with those men and women of Bastar who are speaking out courageously against injustices, and other denizens of this country who stand by them

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The Adivasi-populated districts of Bastar in the heart of India have been stained with blood over the last decade. Reeling under the violence of an undeclared civil war, Adivasis have been killed in record numbers on the pretext of being police informers or Naxalite stooges, and have been subjected to physical and sexual assaults, rapes and arson on an unprecedented scale. Unless the rest of the country shakes itself out of its utter indifference to Adivasi lives, this trend of terror and violence will continue unabated for the next 10 years too.

The complete absence of state welfare programmes in Bastar and the utter disregard for constitutional rights has meant that Adivasi populations remain mired in high illiteracy levels, with appallingly poor conditions of nutrition and healthcare, and high levels of abject poverty. It is in these contexts that the debate about the real meaning of development will be the most intense in the coming years. Do the forces of development have to be necessarily accompanied by guns, artillery trucks and military camps? Will the new roads carry military and mining trucks, or bring in doctors and educators and ambulances? Will Adivasi children always be forced to choose between living in their traditional village, and getting an education in a faraway residential school? Will our society have the humility to accept the decision of those Adivasis who just want to till and plough their land, knowing that precious stocks of minerals lie underneath it? Can democracy flourish under the barrel of the gun?

Bastar stands out today as one of the most militarized regions in India, at times even surpassing Kashmir in the number of police and paramilitary troops per capita. The countryside in Bastar is dotted with camps placed every few kilometres, looming ominously behind coiled loops of barbed wires. Armed troops of men, in numbers ranging upwards of a few hundred, emerge at routine intervals from these camps and visit the neighbouring villages in what are called “area domination exercises”. For many villagers—with no schools, anganwadis, public health centres or ration shops close to their village, no visits by the collector, the sub-divisional magistrate, MLAs or MPs—this is the only face of the Indian state they ever see. It is during such search and patrol missions that domination sometimes seamlessly turns to pillage and plunder, even rape and murder. It is our acceptance of these levels of militarization, of this mode of governance by domination, of the shield of impunity that protects the people in uniform, which is most disquieting. Will we as a society gather the courage to resolve an essentially socio-political conflict through non-militaristic means? Will the Indian state ever learn from experiences around the world and seriously consider the possibility of peace talks with armed dissident groups?

The current outlook is far from encouraging. In a trend that is sweeping the globe, nations are electing authoritarian, populist figures, espousing the supremacy of dominant ethnicities. The shrill pitch of nationalism and single-minded devotion to economic growth are drowning out the softer voices for diversity and inclusion. These times do not bode well for the Adivasis, who comprise a mere 8% of the total population and are hidden away in villages and forests for the most part—and have no electoral significance or financial prowess to speak of.

In times like these, the real hope lies with those men and women of Bastar who are speaking out courageously against these injustices, and other denizens of this country who stand by them. It is they who will push our democratic institutions to take a stand and break through the wall of silence that surrounds Bastar. The recent order by the National Human Rights Commission gives us hope—it has held the government of Chhattisgarh vicariously liable for the widespread sexual and physical violence committed by security forces in the villages of Bijapur and Sukma last year. A Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the 2011 arson in a village and the attack on a relief convoy, leading to the indictment of special police officers and members of the now disbanded Salwa Judum, is also a remarkable breakthrough.

It is too soon to tell whether these tiny rays of hope will actually halt the reign of terror in Bastar, and herald a new spring. However, it is in such spaces that change incubates and the unexpected suddenly happens. Here’s wishing that the next 10 years bring more justice and peace to Bastar.

Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera are lawyers with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), which has been providing legal aid to the economically and socially marginalized populations in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, since 2013