Unidentified persons attacked tribal leader Soni Sori on February 21, hours after she bid farewell to Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal, lawyers at the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and journalist Malini Subramaniam, when they hurriedly packed their belongings and left Jagdalpur. Over the last few months, they had withstood all forms of harassment and hostility from police officials and pro-police ‘civil society’ organisations in war-torn Bastar. They had been heckled, threatened with dire consequences and targeted via a sustained vilification campaign calling for their ouster from the region on grounds that they were stalling Bastar’s ‘development’.
Beginning 8 February, the pressure intensified. Police first landed at Malini’s house and then JagLag’s residence; they intimidated their landlord and domestic help, kept them in jail for hours together over several days and threatened to implicate them in false cases. Within ten days, Malini and JagLag lawyers had to leave Jagdalpur due to relentless pressure and harassment from the police.
If the security establishment has its way, as it hopes to, all those who make efforts to puncture the state’s narrative on the anti-Maoist operations and draw attention to its impact on adivasi life in Bastar will be systematically hounded out soon.
To say the times are dark would be going against the grain of truth. For they always have been dark in some parts of the country, for some kinds and groups of people.
It’s only when the stratagems of the dark times become visible in our cities, affecting the lives of people-we-know and people-like-us, that our thoughts waver into a resingned melancholy. At street corners and dinner tables, we talk of how dark the times are: how students are being targeted, or how anti-national they have become.
We see images of disorder, if not anarchy, in courts (Patiala House), universities (JNU), and streets. We encounter rallies that press for upholding democratic rights and the freedom of expression, or demand anti-national elements to be brought to book.
We consider: We talk of the need to maintain law and order. Let the law take its own course, as it should in a democracy, we reason.
Except that in certain parts of the country, like Bastar—the centre of the anti-Maoist operations—even the most rudimentary processes of democracy are under consistent, systematic attack. In fact, in such places, the law cannot take its own course because those occupying positions of power in the system have already determined the course.
It has always been so in these parts: Dark times hang heavy in Bastar’s air, its soil and its trees. Quite literally, as there is no electricity. And metaphorically: for Bastar’s people have seen an escalation in levels violence over the past three decades, as the state has tried to browbeat and wipe out the Maoist resistance in the jungles.
Even as screens all around us overwhelm us with information about the JNU crisis, reminding us of how dark the times are, darkness of a different kind descends on Bastar.
We don’t hear of it because Bastar is far away from Delhi. And also because the countours of its conflict are far edgier and discomforting than the liberal issue of freedom of expression and the right to dissent at universities.
But primarily, we don’t hear of Bastar, because it is part of a sinister, orchestrated campaign involving various allies. Allies that are playing the game of pursuing their own profit, and helping push up the GDP, thus contributing to India’s national interest.
These allies in the marketplace—the media is certainly among them—are the creators of the ‘truth of development’. Facts and figures that are parroted out in glitzy commercials and serious looking government propaganda, that speak of immense difference development is making in the lives of India’s lesser citizens, are nothing but bits of information. Bits of information that are packaged with precision by public relations agencies, whose business revolves around delivering select, targeted news that grabs eyeballs.
The media, the corporations that own the brands we get news from, is as deeply entrenched in this marketplace as the other allies of ‘development’.
\Dark times hurt the development story: investment sentiments take a hit and bears lurk in street corners. Naturally, allies in the marketplace pursuing ‘development’ would want as less mention of them as possible.
And so, though we hear of the JNU crisis and are enraged beyond measure, we don’t hear of the darkness descending on Bastar.
Where, in the last three months, has there been three and more instances of tribal women thronging district headquarters to register FIRs of rape and gangrape by security forces. Where, in the last three months, have security personnel suckled at a young woman’s breast to ascertain if she was lactating: after all, she’d asked the men to let her go as she had to feed her son. This, even as they were fondling her breasts, flinging aside her clothes, like they do to almost all adivasi women in the villages.
At least that’s what people in all the affected villages I visited say. An entire people can be wrong, in the state’s eyes, about the way they think; about their ideology. They can’t be wrong about their experiences, and the torture meted out to them, ever increasing, by the security forces.
There are some, from among people-like-us, who have been working on the ground in Bastar, trying to ensure processes of democracy are followed. Trying to ensure accused tribals get a fair defence in court. Trying to portray the impact of the war on Bastar’s people.
Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera, the advocates at Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag); tribal activist and AAP leader Soni Sori; academic and activist Bela Bhatia and journalist Malini Subramaniam as some such people from Bastar.
Together and separately, through their work on the ground, in the courts, and in the media, they have been creating ripples in the vast pools of information that lull us into resignation.
Resignation because the times are so dark: what difference will the opinion or position of a lesser mortal like me make, we think.
It is precisely at these times that we need to hear the stories of Isha, Shalini, Soni, Bela and Malini. Incidentally, all women. Their experiences provide us with examples of how a few individuals who stick it out, and make it their business to interrogate and investigate the institutions of democracy, create a storm on the ground.
A storm that gets all actors and allies in the development marketplace into concerted action. Action that is aimed at eliminating them from the area, making sure no infromation of the dark times makes it to the public sphere—the amalgamation of mainstream media, social media and random conversations.
Isha, Shalini, Soni, Bela, Malini and several other like Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav have been consistently exposing the darkness inside our democracy, at its very heart. Their activities have helped human rights abuse allegations in Bastar find a toehold in the mediascape. Their work has disturbed the peace essential for the market to go about its business.
This alone contextualizes the action against them, and the events that are unfolding even as you read this.
The market wants to throw us into an information black hole.
And prompt feelings of resignation about our powerlessness in these dark times.
It is now we must read other stories, of dark times elsewhere.
All we have to do to make a difference is to seek out information that they don’t want us to access.
That should be easy!
The routine recurrence of rape, sexual violence, abuse, beatings, torture and illegal detention by the ‘forces’ is as common in Bastar as concrete buildings in a city. Yet they remain hidden because of media indifference.
The author is Principal Correspondent with The Statesman and a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He can be reached at [email protected] via e-mail and @b_aritra on Twitter)