NHRC intervenes as BJP govt. hounds defenders of adivasis’ rights in Bastar

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Shortly after we published the story below by Parijata Bharadwaj, we received the following email message:

Dear Colleagues,
We are happy to inform you that two complaints in the cases of Ms. Shalini Gera, Ms. Isha Khandelwal and Ms. Malini Subramaniam have reached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The Focal Point for Human Rights Defenders in NHRC informed me that yesterday itself there were some complaints received in this regard, and notice has already gone to Director General of Police, Chattisgarh.
However, because of intervention by Justice Murugesan, Member, NHRC this morning, Ms. Chhaya Sharma Deputy Inspector General of Police (Investigation Division) is personally looking into this matter and directly speaking with the police officials. The complaint is also copied to her.
These two files are being placed before the acting chairperson of NHRC right now to order investigation by NHRC, immediate police protection and urgent action at their end.
Yours sincerely,
Henri Tiphagne
Honorary National Working Secretary

Lawyers, journalists, activists highlighting the grievances of adivasis are being terrorised into leaving the district

The developments in the national capital following the crackdown at JNU have once again brought the authoritarian, fascist nature of the current regime into sharp focus. While the intensity of the attack unleashed by state actors and Hindutva’s vigilantes has come as a surprise for some, it is important to note that this is not an aberration. It is but an extension of what is being faced by the adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised communities of this country on a daily basis.

One such target of the unrelenting repression is, and has been, the mineral rich land of Bastar. While this in itself as an old, ongoing story, taking advantage of the fact that public attention for the moment is riveted on developments in New Delhi, the police and district administration have moved swiftly and deviously to force lawyers and journalists highlighting adivasi grievances out of the district.

The aim is simple: to wipe out any resistance to the neo-liberal ‘development’ agenda.  While the earlier UPA governments were also wedded to the same agenda, it is now being pursued more aggressively under the new dispensation at the Centre.

With the prolonged conflict between the Indian State and the Maoists in adivasi regions, the former has perfected a simple you-are-either-with-us –or-them script. Anyone who blindly conforms to the diktats of the state actors is a nationalist. Anyone who fails to toe the line, dares deviate even by a millimetre from the official line is dubbed an “anti-national” and worse, a “Maoist”.

It is this very definition which is currently being applied by the local administration against the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) – run by Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal to safeguard the constitutional rights of the socially and economically deprived sections of Bastar – journalist Malini Subramaniam and an independent researcher of considerable repute, Bela Bhatia.

On the night of February 17, 2016 the local police at Jagdalpur summoned the landlord who had rented his house to Shalini and Isha to the police station and detained him at the thana for two hours to pressurise him into asking his tenants to quit within a week. To add weight to their threats, the police seized the landlord’s sole means of livelihood – his taxi – on some pretext.

Taking advantage of the fact that public attention for the moment is riveted on developments in New Delhi, the police and district administration have moved swiftly and deviously to force lawyers and journalists highlighting adivasi grievances out of the district

At the same time, the police detained the female domestic worker of Malini and kept her in the police station till late in the evening, in gross violation of the law. The situation deteriorated further on February 18, 2016 when the police once again summoned the domestic worker of Malini and refused to let her leave the station. Malini’s husband who had gone to enquire the reason for the detention of their domestic help was also detained.

Finally, the police released both of them but by then Malini too had been given a written eviction notice by her landlord, forcing her to vacate the house with her family the same day.

Things did not improve for the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group which became the target of sloganeering of the police-friendly Samajik Ekta Manch during the day. In the evening (February 18) JagLAG’s landlord was once again called to the police station and detained for hours. On his return, it was apparent that the police had forced him into asking JagLAG to vacate the rented premise within 24 hours.

JagLAG and Bela approached the local authorities seeking an end to this persecution but none of the visits have resulted in any effective change in their eviction status.

Why is the local administration hell bent on getting rid of them? What is it that the Chattisgarh’s BJP government so afraid of that it is resorting to such tactics?

The answer is simple: they cannot tolerate the presence in the district of anyone who draws attention to, or works for, the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the adivasis and holds the administration accountable.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power at the Centre, Bastar has witnessed a sustained escalation in the violence unleashed by the State against the local adivasis under the garb of its military campaign against the Maoists.

The heavy militarisation in the region has led to increased restrictions on the basic freedoms of the people. Para-military forces with absolutely no knowledge about the local culture or landscape in the region, which have been pressed into service in the region, function on the assumption that every villager is a Maoist unless proved to the contrary. This has resulted in an increase in the number of villagers being arrested, illegally detained, even being killed in fake encounters.

JagLAG, Malini and Bela’s ‘fault’ lies in their refusal to remain mute spectators to the growing deprivation and increasing oppression of the adivasis. They have been working with local adivasi activists like Soni Sori, Linga Ram Kodopi, Sukal Prasad Nag and the people fighting for the recognition of the dignity and rights of adivasis. Thanks to their combined efforts, since end-2014 Bastar has seen several peaceful movements by the local people demanding the enforcement of their rights.

In one instance, thousands of villagers peacefully assembled outside the Kukanar thana, to demand that the police release Sukdi. She had been kidnapped by the police to coerce her husband Ayata, a local leader, to comply with the demands of the police. Then there was the large rally of people from the village of Revali who peacefully demanded that the district collector order an inquiry into the fake ‘encounter’ death of Nuppo Bhima.

In both instances, the adivasis had adopted peaceful means while placing their demands before the state officials. The presence of JagLAG, Bela and Malini during the rallies ensured legal support, detailed documentation, and media coverage of the demands.

The above were the first of many such peaceful gatherings of villagers seeking justice before the State officials. Here was opportunity for the state personnel to show they were concerned about the well-being of the people, open to listen to their grievances. Instead, the rallies were labeled as being motivated by Naxalites and villagers who had played a leading role in the rallies were threatened, or arrested by the police and implicated in false cases.

Why is the local administration hell bent on getting rid of them? What is it that the Chattisgarh’s BJP government so afraid of that it is resorting to such tactics? The answer is simple: they cannot tolerate the presence in the district of anyone who draws attention to, or works for, the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the adivasis and holds the administration accountable

The presence of JagLAG and Bela in the region had created a space for students, journalists, filmmakers, academicians and others to visit the district and witness for themselves the ground reality. Since its presence in the Bastar, JagLAG has been instrumental in facilitating several fact finding trips of activists, academicians and researchers into different areas of the region. The last few months saw visits by two fact-finding teams into Bijapur and Sukma to probe complaints of sexual violence by the security personnel. The fact-finding teams uncovered the extensive violence unleashed on the villagers, especially the large scale sexual violence against adivasi women.

In one of the fact findings, the team went to five villages in Basaguda block of Bijapur – Pegdapalli, Chinna Gellur, Pedda Gellur, Gundam and Burgicheru. In all these villages women narrated harrowing tales of sexual violence by the security forces. They complained of being stripped and assaulted. Even their nipples were pinched ostensibly to establish whether the claim of being a breast-feeding mother was true or not. Several women had bruises and injuries on their person.

The women agreed to accompany the fact-finding team to the collectorate and police station seeking action against the security forces. Despite the initial reluctance, because of the serious nature of the alleged offences and the pressure on the administration, an FIR was reluctantly registered against the security forces.

Meanwhile, separate fact-finding teams of the adivasi mahasabha and the Congress party also demanded action against the errant troops. Despite this, there were two further instances of large-scale violence against women by security forces in Bijapur which was recently highlighted by the Congress party.

In all these incidents, Bela played an instrumental role in not only working to find out the experiences of the adivasis but also continuously and tirelessly working with the various teams to ensure that the pressure on the police to take cognisance of these offences is maintained. JagLAG is representing several people implicated on charges of being Maoists, including Soni Sori, local journalists Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav and other villagers, seeking justice in the matter of the extra-judicial killings in Sarkeguda.

The Chattisgarh government is thus faced with activists who do not shy away from taking up the issues of the people, lawyers who fearlessly fight for the rights of their clients and journalists who courageously report the disturbing facts. Here are human rights defenders (HRDs) whose presence ensures support to the local people to continue to strive for justice. Instead, of using this opportunity to establish itself as a pro-people regime, the government has taken recourse to its age-old tactics: labelling, threats and warnings.

It started with ‘friendly warnings’ about three years ago. But in the last 18 months the friendly warnings have turned to threats. From veiled threats to restrictions on the right to practice law, the objective is to remove from the scene anyone attempting to hold the State accountable.

The threats varied in nature depending on the person being targeted. Malini, Bela and Soni were subjected to sloganeering by local vigilante groups. The house and property of Soni and Malini were vandalised. On one of their visits to a village, Bela and Soni were hounded by a mob labelling them as naxalites. For JagLAG, the threat has been in the form of a local mob aggressively attempting to prevent them from appearing in Court.

Contrary to the State’s expectation the threats did not deter the HRDs from continuing their work in the area. It is because of this that the police have chosen to go after those who are more vulnerable: domestic help, landlords. The aim of the BJP government is clear: to isolate and attack.

With a flurry of MOUs being signed in the region the State has started aggressively implementing its ‘clearing’ operations to milk the mineral rich resources for profit. The last few months have seen an intense military campaign against the locals with the aim of clearing out the area, making it safe for ‘development’.

It is immaterial to the State that this process has led to a drastic escalation in the number of arbitrary arrests, staged ‘surrenders’ and fake ‘encounter’ deaths in the region. What does make it angry is the documentation and transmission of information. It is for this reason that it has become imperative to force Malini, Bela and JagLAG out of the region.

Malini has already been forced to leave and pressure on JagLAG and Bela is being built-up by the hour. Now is not the time to be silent but to unite and challenge a repressive regime which under the garb of nationalism has unleashed a reign of oppression and tyranny.

(The writer is a lawyer, who was with the Jagdalpur legal aid group from 2013 to 2015. She is presently practising at Bombay High Court)

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