Increasing accounts of fake encounters, arrest and unlawful detention of adivasi villagers and increasing militarization in the districts of Bastar have created a climate of state led terror.
22nd February 2016, Chhattisgarh Bhawan, New Delhi: Diverse groups, individuals and organisations have assembled to protest the attack on Soni Sori, tribal activist and AAP leader that have taken place as part of the State oppression that has become commonplace in Chhattisgarh.
With the BJP coming into power at the Centre, Bastar has witnessed a sustained escalation in state violence against the local adivasis through increasing militarization and violence ostensibly to counter Maoism. Along with this, developmental works such as iron ore mining, steel production, railway expansion to ferry goods and raw material is being planned. Multiple security camps have come up to facilitate this work there have also been reports of cancellation of forest rights given to tribals, which is unconstitutional.
The attack on Soni Sori comes on the heels of intimidation and hounding of women activists and human rights defenders in the region. The heavy militarization in the region has not only led to an increase in the restrictions on the basic freedoms of the people but also placed para-military forces with absolutely no knowledge about the local culture or landscape in the region, who 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 and even being killed in encounters, while the socio-economic well being of the people has drastically deteriorated. The security forces through everyday intimidation of villagers are a major barrier to them accessing both basic rights of health and education as well as their constitutional rights and civil liberties. Recent fact-finding reports from Sukma and Bijapur have also reported mass rapes (more than 40 women allege rape, including minors), destruction of home and property during three combing operations between October 2015 to January 2016.
As has been reported widely, reputed researcher Bela Bhatia, lawyers of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and journalist Malini Subhramanium have been hounded out of Bastar by the police and private vigilante groups such as the Samajik Ekta Manch and the Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti. Rather than providing protection to human rights defenders and women activists and researchers in Bastar, the police, under the direction of IG (Bastar) SRP Kalluri have actively facilitated the actions against them. This is evident by recent articles by journalists such as Krishn Kaushik in the Caravan magazine and journalist Chitrangada Chaudhary. The series of events have been as follows:
Attack on Soni Sori
Soni Sori, local adivasi leader and the Aam Aadmi Party coordinator for Bastar Division, was attacked by three goons on her way home on the 20th of February in Geedam at 11 pm. Soni Sori has communicated that the attackers threw a chemical substance on her face and threatened her saying “stop complaining against the IG, stop raising the issue of Mardum. If you don’t behave yourself, we will do this to your daughter as well.” She was also warned against attempting to file an FIR against the IG of police again.
Most recently, Soni attempted to file an FIR against the IG (Bastar) SRP Kalluri for instigating people to boycott and physically harm her. She had also raised the incident of the fake encounter of Hidme in the Mardum thana in Bastar District who the police allege was a naxal killed in a fake encounter, but all evidence points to his being a villager, who was picked up from his house and shot.
In a recent incident, the Nagar Panchayat of Geedam reached Soni’s house and questioned her with regard to the title of her house and indirectly threatened to break it down as an encroachment. About ten days earlier, parchas were thrown into her house calling her a randi and a Maoist. She has been warned against entering Bijapur, where a spate of sexual violence by security forces has taken place.
Other accounts of police initimidation
Malini Subramanium, an independent journalist, reporting on issues in Chhattisgarh including the closing down of schools, women and children, brutal violence by security forces against the adivasis, fake encounters and surrenders in the Bastar. The domestic worker in Malini’s house was called and kept in the police station till late at night to terrorize her into implicating the journalist of being Naxalite. Her landlord was similarly threatened by the police into asking her to vacate the house. Malini, fearing for the safety of those who have always stood by her, left Jagdalpur on 19th February.
The Jagdalpur Legal Aid group (Jaglag), currently consisting of lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal were also hounded out of Jagdalpur on the 20th night, an hour before Soni Sori was attacked. Their landlord was picked up and detained in the police station and under threat asked them to vacate their house and office. Jaglag has been providing legal aid to adivasi prisoners under trial in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh since 2013. For the past year and a half, both lawyers were being hounded by the local police. They have been faced with thinly veiled threats at press conferences insinuating that the police are closely monitoring NGOs providing “legal aid to Naxalites”. Their clients have been informed that the police are about to arrest them for Naxalite activities. Visiting journalists and researchers have been told that they are a “Naxalite front. The local Bar Association, clearly prompted by the police, took out a resolution on October 3rd 2015 prohibiting them from practicing in the local courts. On their complaint, the State Bar Council of Chhattisgarh passed an interim order allowing them to practice again.
Bela Bhatia, an independent researcher, living in Bastar has similarly been working with Soni Sori and Jaglag on documenting and filing cases of human rights violations and people’s livelihoods. She has also been collecting information on the systematic use of violence by armed personnel and security forces. Bela Bhatia has also been threatened and her landlord is being found for questioning. Ex-Salwa Judum members, under the banner of Samajik Ekta Manch and groups such as the Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti have threatened her along with Jaglag and Soni Sori.
Private Vigilante groups in Bastar
When mass gangrapes in Bijapur were being uncovered, a group calling itself the “Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti” under the leadership of the ex-Salwa Judum leader Madhukar Rao, took out aggressive and belligerent rallies against Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia and “outside NGOs”, threatening activists with physical violence if they entered Bijapur again. When Malini Subramaniam wrote about the fake surrenders of Maoists, or the fake encounters, a motley group led by the nephew of the local MLA, calling itself the “Samajik Ekta Manch” launched a vilification campaign against her. When the lawyer activists – Isha and Shalini — tried to get Malini Subramaniam’s complaint registered when stones were thrown into her house, the Manch publicly declared the lawyers as their next target, for defending “khoonkhar Naxalites” (dreaded naxalites) and going to villages inciting people against the state. Social mobilizations such as these are being orchestrated by the police to provide a cover to their illegal harassment of journalists, lawyers, activists.