Chhattisgarh: Shrinking Democracy
Journalists, lawyers and adivasis have been violently hounded in Chhattisgarh in what is being termed as a reign of terror in the heart of India
Chandrani Banerjee Delhi
In the past six months, Chhattisgarh has witnessed a spiral of attacks on journalists, human rights activists and lawyers. The reason: they were all raising their voices against largescale human rights violations and incidents of mass rape of tribal women in the interior. In an effort to silence them, arbitrary arrests have been made, deadly threats have been issued and organised hindrance been created to block their working in the region, especially among the poor. It is alleged that the government is trying to block information and media reports about repeated violence by its agencies by terrorising journalists and lawyers.
Vigilante groups like the Samajik Ekta Manch and Mahila Ekta Manch, backed by the BJP regime and the police top brass, have added to the state of terror, with mobs often calling the shots. Under severe criticism, Chief Minister Raman Singh has dissolved the vigilante groups and ordered a probe. However, locals allege, no substantial change has occurred on the ground.
Meanwhile, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) sent a fact-finding team to investigate the alleged charges. The Commission has reportedly acknowledged that mass rape and atrocities have been committed by the security forces; it has recommended strict action. The exclusive report on atrocities on tribals in Bastar and Sukma districts, accessed by Hardnews, confirms the activists’ version.
Speaking to Hardnews, Dr Rameshwar Oraon, Chairperson of the Commission, who headed the investigation, said, “I am a former police officer and I fully understand if the statements are true or concocted. I have met the tribal women who have suffered all these painful acts; they were all speaking nothing but the truth.” The Commission will submit its report to the Union home ministry in early May. The report will also go to Raman Singh, the state’s home secretary and its chief secretary.
In July 2015, an adivasi journalist, Somaru Nag, was arrested on the charge of being a ‘Maoist sympathiser’. On September 25, 2015, Santosh Yadav, another journalist, who writes for Navbharat Times and Dainik Chhattisgarh, was arrested for allegedly associating with a ‘terrorist’ organisation. On November 1, 2015, adivasi women from Pedagelur village in Bijapur filed an FIR alleging rape and sexual assault by security forces between October 19 and 14
Human rights lawyer Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which has been providing free legal assistance to prisoners in five districts of Chhattisgarh, was forced to leave Bastar on February 20. She and her colleagues have been receiving threats from the Samajik Ekta Manch. Gera said, “We feel vindicated that the NCST has verified these heinous crimes by the security forces – that they did happen in Bijapur. However, verification is not enough. The impunity the security forces currently enjoy also needs to be challenged. Moreover, in heavily militarised zones throughout the world, such crimes have an ugly tendency to occur again and again. Eventually, we, as a society, have to work towards the demilitarisation of Bastar. For that to happen, we have to seek political solutions to the current conflict."
There has been a pattern in the repression unleashed in this conflict zone with counter-violence by Maoists also routinely reported from the area, including attacks on security forces. However, it is apparent that the government has decided to clamp down on opinion-makers and locals in a bid to unleash a ‘state of emergency and fear’ in the region. In the process, locals are facing its wrath, often despite no evidence to prove the charges hurled at them. Besides, violence against tribals is mostly unreported.
In July 2015, an adivasi journalist, Somaru Nag, who has been writing on rural issues, was arrested on the charge of being a ‘Maoist sympathiser’. On September 25, 2015, Santosh Yadav, another journalist, who writes for Navbharat Times and Dainik Chhattisgarh, was arrested for allegedly associating with a ‘terrorist’ organisation. On November 1, 2015, adivasi women from Pedagelur village in Bijapur filed an FIR alleging rape and sexual assault by security forces between October 19 and 14. The women’s bid for justice was assisted by local activists, including eminent researcher and human rights activist Bela Bhatia. Consequently, Bela Bhatia was viciously targetted.
On January 15, 2016, adivasi women from Kumna village, Sukma, filed an FIR alleging violence and sexual assault by security forces on January 12. The women were assisted by local activists, including Soni Sori. On January 18, adivasi women from Nendra, Bijapur, tried to file an FIR alleging rape and sexual assault by security forces between January 11 and 14. The police initially refused to register the FIR but, later, under public pressure, agreed to do so.
A certain eerie form of witch-hunting continues. Activists claim that the administration has pressured those who have rented their houses to journalists and lawyers to evict them. Malini Subramaniam, journalist with Scroll, was attacked by Samajik Ekta Manch cadre, tacitly backed by the police. She was falsely branded a ‘Maoist agent’ as is the norm here with regard to anyone the BJP government and police decide to target. Violently attacked and hounded, she was forced to leave her rented house in Jagdalpur. Human rights lawyers Gera and Isha Khandelwal were similarly attacked. They were asked to vacate their rented accommodation in Jagdalpur.
In Feburary, Alok Putul, a journalist with BBC Hindi, was forced to abandon an assignment in Bastar after receiving threats. Activist Soni Sori was attacked with a dangerous chemical substance thrown at her face. Journalist Prabhat Singh has been arrested for a Whatsapp message making fun of a police official. Journalist Deepak Jaiswal was arrested on the basis of a seven-month-old complaint. “A reign of terror has been unleashed by Raman Singh and his loyalist cops,” says a local journalist.
The Editors Guild of India investigated the attacks on the media. Its fact-finding committee visited Bastar and other areas and concluded that there is a deep sense of fear among journalists and the democratic space is shrinking.
The NCST, however, after reading an article by Bhatia in a national magazine, took a suo motu decision to investigate the matter. The Commission, in its concluding remarks, has reportedly said that there are serious issues involving police conduct. There are delays in lodging FIRs. The appropriate sections of the Indian Penal Code have not been used in the FIRs. It was discovered that there were no policewomen present when the security forces conducted search operations in tribal villages.
In February, BBC journalist Alok Putul was forced to abandon an assignment in Bastar after threats. Soni Sori was attacked with a chemical substance. Journalist Prabhat Singh has been arrested for a Whatsapp message making fun of a police official. Journalist Deepak Jaiswal was arrested on the basis of a seven-month-old complaint. ‘A reign of terror has been unleashed by Raman Singh,’ says a journalist
The Commission has recommended that the local police should not handle these cases. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) should investigate the charges levelled by the tribal women and the probe should be fast-paced and time-bound. The victims claimed that they have also been robbed by the security forces of their chickens, eggs and other food items; this seems to be an unchanging and brutish pattern for many years. Besides, in these backward and poverty-stricken interior areas in dense forests, the victims should be financially compensated, the Commission has stated.
Bhatia, who has chosen to fight it out doggedly and who has been supported by eminent academics, writers and social activists from across India, said, “In a real democracy there is no oppressor and no oppressed. Everybody has the freedom of speech and dissent. This is our dream for Bastar and for the country."