Bela Bhatia told to leave Bastar: How long will Raman Singh govt condone lawlessness?

There is no let-up in the continued intimidation of political and social activists in Chhattisgarh. Notwithstanding the severe criticism faced by the passive — if not complicit — state government, the Raman Singh dispensation consistently refuses to act against the perpetrators of violence. Under the shelter of an indulgent government, the Chhattisgarh Police has continuously used extrajudicial, violent means against supposed Maoists and their sympathisers. Moreover, mobs with full police protection have a field day intimidating, harassing and threatening opponents.

The latest incident in a long list of similar acts of intimidation occurred this Monday, when as many as 30 men barged into the home of activist and researcher Bela Bhatia in Bastar. Threatening to set fire to the house rented by Bhatia, the men asked her to leave Bastar within 24 hours. Media reports suggest that the Bhatia and her landlady have been made to sign an undertaking that the researcher will leave her house within a day. A report in The Indian Express, on Tuesday, quoted Bhatia as saying: “A group of around 30 men arrived on motorcycles and a white SUV in the morning. They said I would have to leave the house immediately or they would burn the place. They were threatening the landlady, too, that she must see to it that I move out immediately.”

File image of Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh. AFP

File image of Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh. AFP

The attack comes on the heels of Bhatia’s visit to the villages of Pedagellur and Bellam Nendra in Bijapur. The activist had accompanied a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) delegation which was there to record statements of women who were allegedly subjected to sexual violence, including rape, by security personnel between October 2015 and January 2016. Last November, Bhatia was involved with activists who were helping women victims of sexual violence in their efforts to lodge FIRs in Bijapur. Taking suo motu cognisance of the incident based on media reports, two weeks ago, the NHRC issued an interim order stating that 16 women had been sexually attacked by men in the security forces.

This latest threat to Bhatia’s house and life has to be seen within this larger context that has dominated the political atmosphere in Chhattisgarh for years — an atmosphere in which mobs, police and the Chhattisgarh government seem to be working in tandem to teach activists a lesson. It is true that hurling verbal abuse at activists and threatening them with physical violence is becoming increasingly common all over the country. One could also argue, therefore, that incidents of police and administrative vendetta are not unique to Chhattisgarh. This view might well be correct.

But it must equally be evident that blatant acts of intimidation — from threatening the lives of activists to levelling absurd charges against them, forcing them to leave the state overnight — have escalated to a truly exceptional status in Chhattisgarh. So much so that recently the state police recently booked Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar — along with Maoists and others — on the charge of murdering a tribal person in Chhattisgarh.

The police, who are ostensibly the state’s law-enforcers, are among the primary and most dangerous violators of the law. And this makes the situation particularly fragile; one that warrants immediate remedial measures. For many years now, Chhattisgarh has been teetering on the edge of a precipice. The police and security personnel have been given immunity to use any means — fair or foul (mostly foul, as some believe) — against so-called Maoists, and even those who speak in favour of tribals, the main victims of this narrative of bloody conflict.

Two things are of utmost significance to keep in mind in this context.

One: The act of speaking out against human rights violations does not in itself constitute an act of armed insurrection against the state.
Two: Even Maoists, who are waging a war against the state, cannot be ‘eliminated’ in encounters. The rule of law demands they be made to stand trial.

It must be remembered that researchers like Bhatia have spent an entire lifetime with tribal populations in insurgency-ridden areas, taking huge personal risks to speak out against the rampant and severe human rights violations in the region.

Instead of restoring the rule of law, the Chhattisgarh administration and police have made it their business to make this kind of work more and more difficult.

Recall that last February, under conditions similar to Bhatia’s, lawyers of the Jagdalpur Aid Group, who provide legal aid to victims of sexual assault and physical assault in Bijapur, were also forced to leave Bastar. Journalist Malini Subramaniam, too had to leave after her residence was stoned and slogans were shouted outside her house. How long will the Raman Singh government allow such lawlessness and violence to continue on his watch?

Published Date: Jan 25, 2017 11:41 AM | Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 11:41 AM

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