India’s recent human rights record has been less than exemplary, with recent studies revealing a gloomy big picture. Attacks on human rights activists have become commonplace, and in many cases, the perpetrators have acted with impunity.
In the aftermath of the 24 April Maoist ambush in Chhatisgarh’s Sukma district, which killed 25 CRPF men, Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu, in an article in The Indian Express, compared the apparent “silence” of the activists on this issue to the “violence of the Maoists”.
Moreover, when journalist Rajdeep Sardesai invited activist-sociologist Nandini Sundar to his talk show on India Today after the Sukma incident, he was threatened with legal action by a right-wing group.
Towards the beginning of this year, activist Bela Bhatia was threatened by an unidentified group of men at her home in Chattisgarh’s Bastar region, and was asked to leave the state within 24 hours.
Nandini Sundar has faced persecution too in the past. In fact, in November 2016, a first information report (FIR) was lodged against her, for allegedly participating in a conspiracy to kill a member of a local anti-Maoist group.
Here is what activists fighting for the cause of Bastar have to say in response to the government’s allegations in the wake of the 24 April Sukma attack:
Bela Bhatia told The Quint that while she certainly denounced the Maoist ambush which killed 25 CRPF personnel, at the same time, she said it was important to remember that in past 12 years, several lives had been lost in the so-called war in Bastar.
Whether they be of adivasis, the police and paramilitary or Maoists, each life is valuable. Risk of further violence and loss of life can be minimised only if the government tries to resolve the conflict politically. I am not in favour of organised violence as a means to achieve justice. However, I feel that just condemning the violence isn’t enough. We need to get to the root of it and eliminate the reasons that gave birth to it. That is the logical thing to do and that is what political resolution is all about.
Bhatia added that whenever she has said the above, she has been misunderstood and accused of being a Maoist sympathiser. She also contends that in the case of Bastar, the “greatest injustice” is the fact that despite Bastar’s status under the Constitution’s 5th Schedule, the region has not been administered according to the constitutional provisions.
Even the historic PESA Act (1996) has hardly been implemented, and where it has, it has not been done in its letter and spirit. That is why the adivasis are not able to fully trust the government. They see it as a protector of corporate interests rather than their interests. The trust of the people cannot be achieved by militarisation but by protecting the constitutional rights of the adivasis on a war footing. Is the government prepared to do that?
Isha Khandelwal, Co-founder, Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group also spoke to The Quint:
It’s [accusations by the government about activists remaining silent about the Sukma attack] not true. Human rights activists have condemned past attacks and even the present ones. I am a part of the PUCL as well and they also have come out with a strong statement. But I personally find such allegations and comparisons ridiculous.
When a police or a CRPF man dies, the entire country mourns, the state files an FIR. But when an adivasi is killed or raped by the CRPF or police, what is the state’s response? It’s a struggle to get even FIR registered, so of course our voices are louder here.
Khandelwal also added that instead of making scapegoats out of the human rights activists, the state needs to revisit its policies and address the issues of the adivasis.
Bastar-based Adivasi activist and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) member Soni Sori too condemned the CRPF attacks but expressed grief at the reaction of the CRPF to her sympathies towards them in the aftermath of the Sukma incident.
What the government is saying about us is wrong. I personally went with my party members to offer my respects to the deceased jawans at the memorial erected by the CRPF in Burkapal. I wanted to initiate talks with the CRPF to discuss how we can protect our jawans from now on and stop Naxal violence in the region. But instead of cooperating with us,they didn’t even let us enter the memorial.
In fact, we had to get past 7-8 CRPF camps, where each time we were stopped and questioned for about 15 mins. By the time we reached we were told to not enter the memorial. They accused us of going there to forward our own political agenda when we had none. They refused to have a discussion. So instead, we went to the site of the attack and offered our respects.