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Let’s talk about Bela Bhatia and Bastar

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To isolate the enemy, to cut off all sources of information and resources and to discredit and defame the dissenters, is a tried and tested strategy of an authoritarian state. A very apparent example and implementation of this can be seen in Chattisgarh where routine intimidation of lawyers, activist and journalists is a norm. To bring forth the ground reality of state-sponsored harassment of civil society and tribals and persecution that she herself was subjected to, renowned researcher Bela Bhatia addressed the students of the University of Delhi in a public talk at Delhi School of Economics organized by People’s Union for Democratic Rights and Bastar Solidarity Network, Delhi chapter on 31st January.

While 2016 wasn’t a pleasant year for liberal-democratic ethos, with hounding of renowned researcher Bela Bhatia out of Bastar in January this year 2017 doesn’t seem any promising.

On 23rd of January, a bunch of 30 odd people belonging to vigilante group AGNI (Action Group of National Integration) barged in Bela Bhatia’s residence in Parpa village and threatened arson if she did not leave Bastar immediately. The mob also forced the landlady and Bhatia to sign a declaration saying that she would leave the house within 24 hours. Though she managed to call the police, it did little to control the mob. In the face of such intimidation and for the concern of her landlady’s safety, Bhatia agreed to leave the house in 24 hours. However, due to an uproar from the civil society members, Chief Minister Raman Singh has given assurance of Bela Bhatia’s safety. Bela Bhatia, with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, is an ex-faculty member at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). She has served on the panel of the Planning Commission with government officials to look at challenges in Maoist-infected areas and since 2007 she has been researching in Bastar on counter-insurgency.

Activism followed by attacks.

This isn’t the first time that she has become the target of such threats. In November 2015, her then landlord, had asked her to vacate the house in Jagdalpur after he was coerced by police and vigilante groups to do so.  This was promptly after Bela Bhatia helped the women of Peddagelur and Bellamnendra village to file first information reports on charges of sexual assaulted by security personnel. in January 2016, Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti engaged in sloganeering against her: “Bastar chhodo, Bastar chhodo, Bela Bhatia Bastar chhodo.”

Again on March 2016, close to 100 people belonging to another vigilante group, Samajik Ekta Manch arrived at Parpa village (where Bela Bhatia lives) in jeeps and pick-up trucks and started sloganeering “Naxal samarthak Bastar chhodo.” Mahila Ekta Manch, the women wing of Samajik Ekta Manch distributed leaflets that identified her as a Naxalite, and also termed her companion and noted economist Jean Dreze as a “foreigner dalal”.

The most recent attack on her in January this year also came just three days after she accompanied a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team to record the statements of rape and sexual assault survivors who had filed FIRs against police personnel following which The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government over the alleged rape, sexual and physical assault of 16 tribal women by the state police in 2015.

Repression is not unprecedented.

Last February, under conditions similar to Bhatia’s, lawyers of the Jagdalpur Aid Group, who provide legal aid to poor tribals implicated in capricious laws such as Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act,(CSPSA) were also forced to leave Bastar. Tribal activist and the Aam Admi Party (AAP) leader Soni Sori also sustained chemical burns at the hands of some unknown assailants in Dantewada last February. Award winning Journalist Malini Subramaniam, too had to leave after her residence was stoned and slogans were shouted outside her house in a similar fashion. BBC Hindi journalist, Alok Prakash Putul, also had to leave his assignment in Bastar, Chhattisgarh midway after he received threats. Dantewada-based journalist Prabhat Singh was arrested for allegedly posting an “obscene message” against a senior police officer on WhatsApp group in June and before that freelance journalist, Santosh Yadav was arrested in September 2015 by the state police under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. This was immediately after he helped secure bail of a juvenile prisoner who was mistaken as a Maoist. Nandini Sundar, a Delhi University professor who has been working with Adivasi population in Chattisgarh for years now was booked for the murder of a tribal man in November 2016, the case was later struck off after the wife of the deceased, said that she had given no names to the police.

Suo-motto of silencing the questions.

With so many instances, of harassment of activists, journalists and lawyers who come in the way of impunity of police and security forces it is easy to tell that intimidation is being used as a tool to discourage and discredit the dissenters. Many similarities in the pattern of oppression can be observed in these cases such as protests by so-called “people’s group’s” and eviction by landlords and branding of activists as Naxal sympathizers.

Even though Chattisgarh police freely uses arbitrary laws like Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act UAPA to incarcerate people, they have devised many state-sponsored vigilante groups which act against opposition on their behalf. It’s a part of a devious strategy where vigilante groups are used when the police can’t take direct against the well-connected activists.

Case in point is Action Group for National Integrity (AGNI)-a vigilante group, which has been at the forefront of such attacks. This group organised Lalkar’ rally (an anti- Maoist rally) in September last year which was attended by  Bastar police Inspector General SRP Kalluri, as well as Superintendent of Police RN Das.  It may be noted that AGNI was formed after a similar vigilante group called Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM) was disbanded by the state government in April, 2016 after the Chhattisgarh police officials were caught in a sting operation where they admitted facilitating the group.

What can we do?

There is hardly any news from conflict-ridden Chattisgargh that makes it to the national news- not the resistance, not the repression, not the atrocities of the state. Attempts to highlight some issues are made by dedicated members of civil society and we can tell it is increasingly becoming a hard task. In this situation, it is up to us to either live in complicity or listen carefully to what the state machinery does not want us to hear.

While talking to DU Beat, Bela Bhatia said that “Youngsters living in privileged urban settings should be aware of the happenings in conflict zones and they must tell other people about these stories against the backdrop of massive government censorship. To not ignore, but to acknowledge is the least and often the most what one can do.”
Image Credits- newslaundry.com

Niharika Dabral
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Niharika Dabral is an average anti-national feminist who is currently pursuing Journalism at Cluster Innovation Center. This quixotically honest and technologically challenged Garhwali strongly advocates that Harry Potter must be included in elementary education. If you want to rant about how unfair life is or want to share something awful or awesome that needs to be reported then feel free to drop her a line at [email protected] 

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