We are safe for now but what about all those who are being harassed on a daily basis? :

Two days after academician and researcher Bela Bhatia’s house in Bastar was attacked by vigilantes, her partner Jean Dreze told Newslaundry about the situation on the ground.

Posted By Amit Bhardwaj |

On January 23, a group of around 30 men barged into academician and researcher Bela Bhatia’s house inParpa village of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district. Bhatia and her landlord were made to sign an agreement and she was given an ultimatum of 24 hours to vacate the house. The group threatened that if she fails to comply – they would burn the house down.

The attack came days after she had returned from Bijapur after assisting a team of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to record the statements of rape and sexual assault victims. NHRC in a recent reporthas said that 16 women were “prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by state police personnel in Chhattisgarh” in October 2015.

Though police protection provided by Bastar District Collector, Amit Kataria has enabled Bhatia to stay in the house but she is exploring her options and a place to live. It appears that her presence in the house might be too dangerous for the landlord’s family.

This is not the first time when a rights’ activist has been attacked by the vigilantes in the state. There was a similar attack on Bhatia’s house in Jagdalpur in March 2016, lawyers of Jagdalpur Legal Aid were forcefully evicted from Bastar, and attack on journalists in the region has become a common affair.

The civil society members have been raising serious questions on conduct of police and specifically Bastar inspector general of police SRP Kalluri.

Newslaundry spoke to Bhatia’s partner Jean Dreze about the situation on ground and what is there plan ahead.

(Excerpts from the telephonic interview)

What is the situation right now?

Well, we are at home under police protection. There are around 15 well-equipped personnel. For now, there is no danger, but we are trying to find another place for Bela [Bhatia]. If she continues to stay in the same house, landlord and landlady are bound to face further harassment. They have been very supportive so far, but we can’t expect them to stand up to this sort of pressure.

Who provided the police protection?

I think it was done on the orders of Bastar DC [District Collector] Amit Kataria. The DC has been very supportive.

Does this attack have anything to do with the National Human Rights’ Commission’s recent visit to Bijapur?

Yes, it is very likely to be related. Because even before the event of January 23 occurred, a similar incident had happened during the night of January 21. Some people came and banged on the door in the middle of the night, asking for the landlord to come out. Importantly, this was the very day when Bela had returned from Bijapur. The more recent incident is in the same style, but more serious.

Has the state’s response been satisfying so far? Were they prompted and helpful?

The administration has been helpful. In fact, the Home Secretary came today and heard the whole story. But when it comes to the police, everyone knows that the response is not encouraging. When various people expressed their concern to IG [Inspector General of Police, SRP] Kalluri, his response was very rude.

What is disturbing is that if a ‘person who matters’ is harassed, suddenly they [state] bend over backwards to do something, but what about all those who are being harassed on a daily basis? And then there are the larger issues — the rule of law in this area, the clearing of all dissenters from the area, whether they are human rights activists or lawyers or researchers. Also, what about the support to these vigilantes — earlier it was Salwa Judum and then Samajik Ekta Manch, and now you have Agni, these are all police supported outfits.

Have you approached IGP Kalluri?

No, if there is a point we would, but there is no point in approaching him right now.

Do you people see any link between this attack and IGP Kalluri?

There is no evidence of direct relation in this specific attack, but there is evidence of his support to vigilantes in the past. For instance there are photographs of him sitting with the leaders of these outfits.

In October, SPOs in uniform burnt the effigies of six human rights activists, including Bela. These people are on the payroll of the police and obviously, they were acting under orders. If no action has been taken against them, Kalluri has to take responsibility.

Was Bela Bhatia able to identify the attackers?

Two or three of them gave their names and Bela has put it in the complaint to the police. One of the members of Agni, the new vigilante outfit, posted a video of the attack on social media. So obviously there is some connection with Agni.

You said that the attacks started the day she returned from Bijapur, after assisting rape victims in lodging a First Information Report. What makes the NHRC’s observation a big deal?

As I understand, this is the first case, where it was possible for people to lodge an FIR against the security forces based on the new rape laws. It is a kind precedent which threatens the impunity of the forces in the state.

Do you think the state’s and police’s action was prompted by coverage in the national media? 

That certainly had an effect. That’s why I was saying there is such a contrast between the attack which gets national media’s attention and those which don’t. The kind of routine attacks, particularly in the more interior areas, fail to get media attention and therefore without being acted upon.

Obviously, when the nation media reports there is a concern in Raipur and that goes down the line.

So, what happens when the nation media stops covering such issues? 

That’s the part of the whole problem – when people who are able to defend themselves are attacked, then it gets covered. Also, media happens to be interested. There are a very few people in the area who report on what’s happening and the people themselves are completely powerless.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)