Thursday, March 03,2016

CHENNAI: An emergency-like situation has presently arisen with the government brutally and overtly attacking and suppressing the voices of dissent, the essence of democracy. But what is probably the only assurance in these Orwellian days is the manner in which people are coming out in large numbers to show their solidarity and are raise their voices against an oppressive regime which is trying to silence anyone who has a different viewpoint than theirs. The media is extensively covering what’s happening (albeit in a highly biased manner), people are debating it and the discussion has rightly reached campuses, public spaces and even homes.

However, there is something deeply disturbing.

There are far more barbarous instances of violation of the constitutional and democratic principles during the same period at another location- Bastar in particular, Chhattisgarh in general. The voices are being suppressed, journalists and activists attacked with the state machinery ensuring that any defiance or objection are severely dealt with. While any critic of the government is termed as “anti-national” in many parts of the country, in Bastar, taking a stand as opposed to the official one makes one a “Maoist” or a “Maoist-supporter”. And while such instances come to light and garner support of the general public when it occurs in Delhi or Hyderabad or Pune, why is it that when it comes to Bastar, none of us are perturbed?

Bastar has witnessed one of the worst forms of human abuse in a systemic manner in the history of independent India. Millions of adivasis are being robbed of their community land and forests, livelihoods are being snatched away from them and anybody who dare raise any voice against it is mercilessly beaten and punished with murder, rape, assault, sedition while labeling them as Maoists or Naxalites. But barring a few reports in some newspaper or websites, not much is known about one of India’s most militarized zones which has over 75,000 policemen. When would ‘the nation want to know’ about the inhuman brutality in the region? Why are no rallies and protests organized in the country? Probably the most apt answer to these questions was given by a police officer last December who was quoted in an article in The Wire, “We care little about Adivasis…who thinks about them?”

On January 8, an order by the Chhattisgarh government made a historic decision. Forest rights allotted to the tribals of Ghatbarra village in Surguja district were cancelled for the first time in the 10 years of the Forest Reserve Act. The order said that the villagers had been using their legal rights over the forest to stop the work of mining in their villages, which falls in the Parsa East and Kete Besan coal block. These blocks have since been allocated to Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) and Adani Minerals Private Limited.

While who would benefit from it is a fairly simple question to answer, what needs to be understood is how taking away lands and livelihoods from the people and destroying natural resources and environment are all being categorized under the larger label of ‘development’. And who would want to obstruct the development of the region?

Another fact which has resurfaced time and again without the significance it deserves relate to the allegations on policemen and paramilitary forces for raping, sexually assaulting, stripping and looting the women in the region. According to an article in The Wire titled ‘Darkness at noon in the liberated zone of Bastar’ “between October 19-24, 2015, 40 women of Peddagelur, Budgicheru and Gundam villages were sexually assaulted, beaten, and stripped by the security forces; two women were gang raped. On 12 January, six women from Kunna village in Sukma district were sexually assaulted and between 11 and 14 January, 13 women were gang raped in Belam Nendra village in Bijapur district. In all these cases, the rapes were accompanied by extreme physical and verbal abuse, and the looting of their homes.” It was only in the last month, these allegations were finally converted into charges when the police was compelled to file FIR against them owing to persistent pressure from lawyers and women activists. The Wire article also notes, “The FIR on the Nendra rapes was filed only on January 21, with the police refusing to record the names of those accused whom the women recognized. A gang of people led by Salwa Judum leader Madhukar Rao surrounded and threatened the rape survivors along with women activists both in Bijapur and in Jagdalpur, and warned them they could not enter Bijapur again.

However, no investigations have been carried out; no arrests have yet been made. Where is the media scrutiny here? Why were there no marches taken out? Where are the candlelight vigils?

Further, the series of events after the filing of FIR is all the more dangerous. Activists, scholars, lawyers and journalists who are speaking up against the barbarity are being systematically hounded out of the region.

It started with former head of the International Red Cross in Chhattisgarh, Malini Subramaniam, who writes extensively for Scroll on the abuses faced by the people, the protests, the fake encounters and police atrocities in the region. On February 7, the Samajik Ekta Manch warned her not to tarnish the image of the police by demonstrating outside her house and raising slogans. The same night, stones were thrown at her house by unidentified persons. Since then the harassment began. The police took two days to register an FIR and her neighbours who supported her were threatened. Neighbours who supported Subramaniam’s claims were threatened. When a Scroll editor met the State Chief Minister Raman Singh and requested him to intervene, the inspector general of police (IGP) in Bastar, SRP Kalluri, and district superintendent of police RN Dash, visited her house assuring her of her safety and that proper investigation would be carried out. The demonstrations, however, never stopped. Her landlord was summoned from Raipur to Jagdalpur by the police and her domestic help was also subjected to hours of interrogation. A day later, her landlord sent her an eviction notice and demonstrations continued even outside her lawyer’s house. She was compelled to leave.

The next target was the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, popularly called JagLAG which was formed in 2013 to do legal research and provide legal help to the people of the Bastar, Dantewada, Kanker, Sukma, and Bijapur districts of Chhattisgarh. Their job was to file cases on behalf of the people who regularly face imprisonment and false cases, and have managed to intervene in numerous cases of human rights abuse. This obviously led to them being labeled as ‘Maoist supporters’. Amnesty report clearly lays out how they were threatened.

“On the night of February 16, police officials visited the home of the lawyers’ landlord, and took him to a local police station. The landlord returned the next morning and told the lawyers that he had ‘no choice’ but to ask them to vacate their home and office. Later that day, members of an anti-Maoist group with links to the state police held a demonstration against JagLAG, accusing them of being defenders of Maoists. The group has also held a public meeting and issued a press statement in which it accuses the lawyers of supporting ‘bloodthirsty Maoists’,” the report read.

Their landlord too was summoned by the police and the same night they were asked to vacate within a week. With no other place, the group left on February 20.

In another instance, the well-known scholar, Bela Bhatia, is also facing immense pressure to evict the place. A PhD. from the University of Cambridge, Bhatia has been living in Bastar and working for women’s rights. She was instrumental in getting the first FIR for sexual violence lodged against security personnel in Bastar, and as part of a team from Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression has also co-authored a recent report on looting and sexual violence by the security forces in Bijapur. She too is being threatened and subjected to demonstrations and sloganeering by the same notorious group Samajik Ekta Manch. Despite approaching the authorities who even admit that such harassment is taking place, no protection or assurance has been given to her.

The latest in the series of such disturbing instances is the attack on adivasi activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori on February 20 and the continuous threat to her thereafter. Some black substance was thrown on her face near Kodenar in Bastar by three men. She was immediately taken the Geedam hospital and later moved to Jagdalpur hospital. Several attempts have been made in the past already to threaten her and hound her out of the region. Her house was earlier raided; she was issued death threats. The same day when she was attacked, she was asked to vacate her house by the police claiming that she had no right over it even though no house in the area has been issued a patta by the state.

Additionally, many journalists responsibly reporting from the area are regularly threatened to leave the place, the latest being a BBC journalist who left the assignment mid way owing to the life threats he received.

The state, along with the police, is clearly targeting any and every opposing voice. And when the powerful (journalists, activists, lawyers) are rendered helpless, one can imagine the plight of the poor adivasis. But where is the outburst of anger — the infuriated anchors, the vexed protesters.