Guest Post by CONCERNED STUDENTS OF TATA INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, MUMBAI
We, the concerned students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai condemn the continuing state repression of adivasis and recent attack on human rights activist Bela Bhatia in Bastar, Chhattisgarh.
On the 23rd of January, 2017, a group of 30-odd men attacked Bela where they barged into her house in Parpa, near Jagdalpur violently and threatened to burn the building down if she did not leave immediately. The mob also attacked her landlords and their children, threatening them with dire consequences if Bela was not evicted immediately. Despite Bela’s assurances that she would leave, the mob continued to be belligerent, in the presence of the police, and the Sarpanch. The mob has been identified with the right-wing vigilante group Action Group for National Integrity (AGNI).
In last one year alone a number of vigilante groups like the now disbanded Samajik Ekta Manch, Naxal Peedith Sangharash Samiti and the newly formed group AGNI have been used by Kalluri and the Bastar police, to harass and intimidate everyone living and working in the area, be it lawyers, journalists, local leaders, researchers who are exposing these cases of atrocities and calling the state to account. Many of these vigilante groups are formed by ex Salwa Judum leaders. An all-out war has been launched against the people of Bastar by the security forces. These state forces are hell bent on ensuring that this becomes ‘A war without any witnesses’.
In the present scenario, the adivasis in Bastar are putting up a tough fight against State’s attempt to dispossess them. It is an attempt to finish off adivasi community, their culture and their existence all together so that the mineral rich land and jungles of central region of the country could be easily handed off to the Corporates. In this war between the state and people of Bastar, all those who have tried to stand with the adivasis in their fight, exposing this State-Corporate nexus have been equally targeted and threatened. The background to the recent attack on Bela comes from her involvement in exposing state crimes especially incidents of mass sexual assaults in Bastar. Towards the end of February 2016, Bela along with teams of Women against State Violence and Sexual Assault (WSS), Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) and Activist Soni Sori exposed three incidents of mass sexual violence by police and security forces in the villages of Pedagellur, Belam Nendra and Chinnagelur, Bijapur District of Bastar region, Chhattisgarh. Together with the victims, they managed to file FIRs, one on November 1, 2015, and another on January 21, 2016 against Security forces. These were the first instances of the use of Section 376(2)(c) IPC providing for indictment of state and central security forces for sexual violence. Within eight days of the filing of the FIRs, the revengeful action towards Bela and others started, leading to a rally being organised against her in Bijapur district by the vigilante group Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti. Bela, due to the mounting pressure vacated her house in Jagdalpur and moved to Parpa, a village near Jagdalpur. However, the hounding and harassment has continued, and unfortunately intensified enough to make her vacate her Parpa House as well after she accompanied the team of NHRC along with Soni Sori to Pedagellur to record testimonies of women who have been victims of sexual violence.
The attack on Bela is not the first one. In past year, women advocates of JagLAG have been threatened by an alleged criminal complaint, journalist Malini Subramaniam was hounded out of Bastar, Nandini Sundar and Manju Kawasi have been charged in false murder cases, Laxmi Hidme, mother of encountered Madkam Hidme and Kawasi Hidme, who after years of torture in prison, now fights alongside Soni Sori, a tribal activist who was attacked with chemicals on her face. By calling the lawyers and activists as ‘Safed posh naxalis’ the state has tried its best to criminalize them and made sure that an obstacle is created in them lending any support to the people.
Appeals of accountability from the police have led to a venomous vitriol being unleashed by Inspector General SRP Kalluri where he has responded by saying most objectionable, vulgar and threatening things to these women along with giving a free hand to officials under him to rape and kill the adivasis. Mission 2016 is conveniently being carried out on the principle of clear-hold-build. IG Kalluri’s role in perpetuating violence against the adivasis with complete impunity and lawlessness has been especially notorious. In a recent NDTV interview, he said, “Activists are enemies because they incite people against democracy, and question the sovereignty and universality of India. We oppose their anti-national brigade.” It is important to especially pay attention to the last statement that he makes, that ‘activists are anti-nationals’. That activists are anti-nationals is the propaganda used by the right-wing BJP government, its student wing ABVP and their media stooges like Zee TV & Times Now. IG Kalluri is the iron heel used by the right wing fascist government in Chhattisgarh and Centre. He has scant regard for constitutional principles or Rule of Law and is the perpetrator of fake encounters, torture, mass sexual assault against adivasis. A number of these incidents have been investigated and documented by human rights & lawyers groups like PUCL, WSS, JagLAG, as well as by ST Commission and the Editors’ Guild of India. There has been a sudden spurt in crimes against adivasis of Bastar and activists working in that area ever since Mr. SRP Kalluri took charge as Inspector General (Bastar Range) in 2014. As the incidents of mass sexual assaults were filed in February, recently NHRC testified to the truth of these statements saying that security forces have raped 16 women.
People like Bela are a hindrance to such a war. Bela who is a researcher, activist, ex-alumni and ex-faculty member of TISS, has been working in the area since past two years. As students of TISS, we clearly remember the difference that Bela made to the lives of many students on the campus. She was teaching courses in the Dalit and Tribal Studies Department of Social Work at TISS. She was regularly taking courses in Foundation Courses on Social Movements. She was quite vocal about issues on campus and was always a supportive voice when it came to student’s issues. In the light of the organic relationship that Bela shared with her students and her teaching of the principles of justice and equality, we as TISS students demand an immediate stop to the harassment that she has been subjected to.
We stand by the people of Bastar in this war that the state has waged against them and condemn in strongest terms the erosion of democracy and heinous way in which adivasis are being pushed out of Bastar to dispossess and alienate them from their rights over jal, jangal and jameen.