Resolute in the face of violence
Activist and writer Bela Bhatia who has helped women file FIRs against police personnel for rape and investigated into many instances of fake encounters and other human rights violations speaks to Hardnews about her life in Bastar and how the police in collusion with the vigilante groups are out to drive writers, journalists and lawyers out of the Maoists heartland
Bela Bhatia cuts a tall, solitary figure with a warmingly generous smile on her face. Her hair is parted neatly in the middle and looks brighter and whiter than the sun. She’s carrying two backpacks—one of which is mounted on her back and the other is hung on one of her shoulders. As we make our way to a coffee shop, she tells me that she just met her school friends from Begusarai, where she was born, after a gap of 40 years. And then she goes on to joke about how Kanhaiya Kumar, a former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union and a leader of All India Students Federation put Begusarai on the world map. Kumar rose to prominence after he was charged with sedition for allegedly raising anti-India slogans in a student rally.
Bhatia has been a regular visitor to Bastar over the last decade and lives and works there on an independent basis since January 2015.
She has for long been labelled public enemy number one in Chhattisgarh because her activism has caused the state security forces and the government to lose face multiple times and they want her out of there. It started in October 2015. At the time, Bhatia was living in Jagdalpur. “My landlord all of a sudden asked me to vacate the house in one week. It was unexpected because I had a contract until December and we had been living together amicably,” the activist says. The reason given was that they had problems with her pet dog, Somari. This came as a surprise since the landlady was fond of Somari and used to often feed her and take care of her. Until then no other activist had been asked by their landlords to leave suddenly, therefore, Bhatia did not think of this incident as part of a pattern and moved out as soon as she could. Four months later, journalist Malini Subramaniam and lawyers Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera were forced to leave after pressure was built on their landlords. It was then that pressure on Bhatia and her landlord mounted once again in her new location in Parpa village. Connecting the dots, she began to wonder whether her Jagdalpur landlord had also acted under police pressure. He was a tailor who owned a shop that sewed police and CRPF uniforms. Also, she had spent most of her time in 2015 investigating cases of fake encounters with Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher who was tortured and sexually assaulted by the Chhattisgarh police. It must be noted that Sori used to visit Bhatia at her home sometimes.
The writer and activist started to figure more prominently on the radar of the vigilante groups after she filed a FIR (on behalf of the investigating team and victims) against security forces into a case of gang rape of three tribal women in Peddagelur village and sexual assault of around fifteen other women in adjoining villages in November 2015, assisted in filing the FIR in another case of gang rape by security forces of around thirteen tribal women in Bellamlendra village in January 2016, and accompanied an NHRC team more recently in January this year to record pending statements in the above cases.
Soon after the lodging of the first FIR, a mob including members of the Naxali Peedit Sangharsh Samiti, persons who were victims of Maoist violence, shouted slogans against her, calling her a Maoist sympathizer in Bijapur. In January 2016, the same group organised a public rally in which effigies of Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia and Arundhati Roy were burnt. The group also called for barring Sori’s and Bhatia’s entry into Bijapur.
The police first came to the village where the academic had rented a room in the third week of February and many times after that. They started harassing her landlord who is a Gond tribal. Apart from calling him to the thana, the police also visited him at his workplace. “He remained steady despite the harassment, cooperated with their questions and supplied the necessary documents,” remarks Bhatia. "In the third week of March, the Samajik Ekta Manch and Mahila Ekta Manch organised a rally in the village, tried to incite the villagers against me, and asked my landlady to evict me. They distributed a pamphlet which had my photo and where I had been called a Maoist Dalal (agent) in the village and nearby areas, putting my life at risk," she said.
Other small instances of threat and intimidation continued, for instance, letters complaining against her written allegedly by Parpa villagers were sent to the SP of Bastar. The villagers later denied writing the letter. In the Lalkaar rally organised by AGNI in September, Bhatia’s mobile was snatched and in October, her effigy was burnt along with that of five other activists by police personnel in all the major towns of Bastar. Slogans had grown more aggressive—from “joote maro saalon ko (beat them up with shoes)” to “goli maro saalon ko (shoot them down).”
On January 22, when Bhatia returned after accompanying an NHRC team, two masked men knocked at the main entrance of the house in the middle of the night at 1.30 am. They identified themselves and asked the landlord to come with them to the nearby road. Sensing trouble, Bhatia, her landlord and his family shut the door and remained huddled inside the house. They could hear a lot of men who had gathered outside. “I think the idea was to attack us,” Bhatia says. "They had come in a vehicle and motor cycles but for whatever reason, they did not act that night and left after an hour or so."
In the afternoon of January 23, a second attack took place within a span of 35 hours. Around 30 people arrived in a vehicle and on motorbikes and threatened to burn down Bhatia’s house and kill her dog if she did not vacate the house and leave Bastar immediately. The police arrived half-an-hour later but could not control the belligerent mob. The mob made the activist and her landlady sign a statement that the former would leave within 24 hours. The next day the news had made its way to the national media and had created quite a furore. After the official intervention that followed, Bhatia thinks she could have stayed on but chose to leave the village. She has now moved to an alternative accommodation provided to her, upon her request, by the district authorities in Jagdalpur.
“There are fake encounters, sexual violence against women, arbitrary arrests and use of draconian laws like UAPA and CSPSA. Of course, the government says that they are also providing development to the tribals, however, is it the kind of development that people want, especially when there is no hold on the mining related industrial projects which are being pushed through without the knowledge of the people?”
In a low voice, the academic says that with what is happening all over the country to people who dare to say anything that makes the government look bad, there is little space for opinions that are not acceptable to the majority. In Bastar, you are either a Maoist sympathiser or an anti-Maoist, there is no middle ground. She explains that among the vigilante groups active in the region, there are different types of people. There are some who indulge in it for the money and contracts that come their way, and there are others who are Adivasis and victims of Maoist violence and belong to poor families. Since most of them have had to leave their villages and have relocated to towns, they are under police protection and the police use them as and when it deems fit. Since the notorious Inspector-General of Police S.R.P Kalluri, who cuts a controversial figure in the region and has been accused of human rights violations, attacking civil liberties and sponsoring vigilante groups in the past, has been transferred, does she see anything changing? Bhatia says that days after Kalluri was moved, AGNI, a vigilante group he was supporting first dissolved itself. However, following a closed-door meeting in Jagdalpur that Kalluri attended in early April and addressed around 40-50 people there, AGNI's revival was made public. The press was not allowed at the meeting.
“Countering Maoism by intensive militarism with scant respect for the rule of law is wrong and counter-productive. Violence in the areas has increased manifold and Maoist areas have expanded," notes Bhatia. She points out that the mistrust between villagers and the government arises because the government doesn’t operate within the legal framework. “There are fake encounters, sexual violence against women, arbitrary arrests and use of draconian laws like UAPA and CSPSA. Of course, the government says that they are also providing development to the tribals, however, is it the kind of development that people want, especially when there is no hold on the mining related industrial projects which are being pushed through without the knowledge of the people?” asks Bhatia. She also adds that the Naxalites, who started out with an idea to make things right, need to also make an assessment of their movement: what have been the gains and what have been the ill-effects of their practice on the ground? "On the ground, a lot of problems is created due to the scant respect that Maoists have for those who disagree with them. There is no room for dissent in their politics. If you claim dissent as a right for yourself, you should also grant it to others. There is an increase in the killing of individuals on suspicion of being police informers as well as those who become victims of IED blasts. All such killings become a cause for reaction in society,” Bhatia says.
The activist believes that the war is only impacting the poor Adivasis living in villages. “Jagdalpur is not impacted by the war, even though the war is less than 100 km away. You will see malls, multiplexes and a thriving real estate business in towns. Rarely are such local capitalists and their associates in other places at the receiving end of Maoist violence,” Bhatia notes. She adds that it is unfair for anyone, the Maoists or the government, to expect Adivasis to bear the burden of the “revolutionary war” or the counter-insurgency operations. “As long as there are great inequalities in our polity and economy, violence will break out. It may be under the banner of Maoism or any other name. However justified a war may seem to some, we should not lose sight of the collateral damage that inevitably results in the death of innocent people, large-scale displacement, years of incarceration, and the unspeakable scars on the psyche of individuals, community and society. We need to ask ourselves if we can accept that. The only other way is to fight the unjust ways of the government and the police through nonviolent struggle waged through open and democratic means."