Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Ghera, “We Want to Return to Bastar and Continue Our Work There”
 By Indulekha Aravind,E
In 2013, three lawyers and a social sciences’ graduate moved to Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh to set up the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, or JagLAG, a nonprofit providing free legal services to the marginalised in the area, particularly tribals.As their work evolved from documentation to taking up cases of sexual violence and extrajudicial killings, they found themselves up against the police force who, they allege, are the perpetrators. Warnings and harassment began, culminating in their landlord being forced to evict them from their office on February 20. It coincided with the eviction of Scroll.in journalist Malini Subramaniam, who had been reporting on police atrocities, and the attack on tribal activist and AAP member Soni Sori. JagLAG lawyers Isha Khandelwal, 27, and Shalini Ghera, 45, speak to Indulekha Aravind on the phone from Bilaspur about why they are being targeted, the cases they handle and the way forward. Excerpts:

What took you to Bastar?

Both of us were classmates at Delhi University’s faculty of law. I (Shalini) already had some human rights work experience and had been working on Soni Sori’s case when she came to Delhi. At that time, there was a lot of conversation among lawyers in Delhi and elsewhere that they were learning about the situation in Bastar due to working on her case and there were discussions about setting up a centre and having people there to get to know more about what was happening there. Since we were juniors and already working on the matter, we decided to be those people.

What are the cases you have taken up? 

When we arrived, a big part of what we came to do was documentation. The glimpse of the court proceedings that we had got from Soni’s case made it seem bizarre and people really wanted to know what was going on there.The focus was the criminal justice system and what was happening in the courts and the jails. It became apparent that there were loads of ordinary villagers who had been picked up as Naxalites in absurd cases that would not have seen the light of day in Delhi.They would languish in jail for years while the case was being decided. Eventually, all of them would be acquitted. The trial process itself was the punishment they were giving to people. We started with cases where we knew people had been in jail for a very long time and focused on helping them to get out.

In the last year, as the conflict intensified and people’s expectations changed, we started being in confrontation with the police head-on. There have been cases of alleged extrajudicial killings and since we are the only lawyers who can give that kind of legal counsel, we are approached. In cases of alleged police atrocities, most local lawyers find it difficult to raise those issues because they themselves are vulnerable. We have an option to be evicted but for the local lawyers, they have no option to go anywhere, their families are here. In the past year, we’ve taken up three cases of alleged extrajudicial killings, three cases of alleged mass sexual violence and many others of alleged illegal detention and custodial torture.

Why do you think has there been a shift in the intensity of the conflict? 

We think it’s related to the change at the Centre, with the government believing entirely in a military solution to the conflict. Though the previous government didn’t do anything concrete either, they paid lip service to the idea of a political solution. Within a month of the new government taking over, there was a statement by the state government that there would be no covert dialogue and they will go on the offensive, in pursuance of the policy at the Centre. The IG of police was changed and SRP Kalluri, himself an accused in some cases, took charge. So human rights violations have increased and the intolerance towards people who are bringing to light these violations has increased.

Did you receive threats earlier? 

We were harassed but not threatened.There were public statements by police officials about us being Maoist lawyers. The situation got slightly tense for us last year when a resolution was passed by the bar association here prohibiting any local lawyers from joining with us. That was a problem because both of us are registered at the Delhi Bar Council and according to Chhattisgarh’s rules, it is mandatory that we have a local lawyer to sign a memo with us. We asked for a copy of the resolution, which was not given to us. We challenged the resolution and got a favourable ruling, saying we should not be stopped. But there was also an anonymous police complaint that we were fake lawyers and the police started enquiring about it very diligently. We were asked to give a statement and we did. But it was a ridiculous complaint, considering we had been practising here for two-and-a-half years. The Bar turned against us after the police complaint.

What happened now? 

On February 17, the police took our landlord to the station at around 10.30 at night and his car was impounded. He’s a taxi driver. He came back around 2.30 am and told us that he was given an ultimatum to tell us to vacate in a week. He was taken to the station again and he came back and told us that he had been asked to tell us to vacate in a day. So we left on February 20.

What has been the response of the authorities? 

We represented journalist Malini Subramaniam when she was harassed and was told that her landlord was also picked up. We met district collector Amit Kataria. The IG even came to Malini’s house and told us nothing would happen. But even after that, our landlords kept getting pressured to evict us. The official response of the police is that this is a private matter between a landlord and a tenant and it’s just a coincidence that both our landlords were called to the thana the same day.

And the attack on Soni Sori happened at the same time? 

She had come on the evening of February 20 to visit us. We had information that some policemen were trying to orchestrate an attack on Soni, and officials were informed. The attack happened despite all this.

Considering the attack and the evictions happened around the same time, do you suspect a conspiracy?

A lot of the work we’ve been doing has been against the police. It is not just our work, but that of Malini and of Soni, who has been leading a political movement against them. So the sense we got was that outsiders needed to be expelled and once that was done, Soni was attacked. We were informed by different officials that in the last three-four months a decision has been taken to clear the area (of Naxalites) in a year and that they won’t let anything come in between. So there was some kind of an urgency. We think they see journalists and us as hindrance to their work because we raise a lot of questions that they can’t afford to answer.

Where do you go from here? 

Eventually we want to go back to Bastar and continue the work we were doing there.We’ve received a lot of support but we are still trying to process all of it.