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As You #StandWithJNU, Spare a Thought for Bastar

An attack on constitutional freedoms in India’s capital, but a gaping constitutional void in her heartland

Budhri, the wife of an undertrial villager, charged with being a Maoist, waits outside the Dantewada court. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

Budhri, the wife of an undertrial villager, charged with being a Maoist, waits outside the Dantewada court. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

In January 2015, I met with Jagdalpur-based lawyer Shalini Gera and her colleagues. Their all-women, 4-member team, called Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group or JagLAG, had moved to Bastar in south Chhattisgarh in July 2013 to research legal aid to adivasi villagers living in a conflict-torn landscape.

For a couple of days, I accompanied Gera to the district court in Dantewada, a vast building with few people, eerily silent corridors and courtrooms, and a heavy air. At the far back of the court complex, in a structure housing two cells, adivasi villagers were crammed, and being treated like goats in a pen.

That day, Budhri had travelled from her village for several hours on foot, then by bus, to see her husband, brought from prison to the court that day for a hearing. As she spotted him beyond two sets of bars, she got animated. With other family members, she began calling out to him, before a police guard patrolling the corridor, shouted at the villagers ‘Chal phut’ (Get out)! I saw the frail, bare-footed Budhri walk back inside the court, then weep quietly in a corner, wiping away tears with an edge of the thin cotton cloth wrapped around her upper body.

The scenes reminded me of my visit to this court complex for the Hindustan Times in July 2009. There was one crucial difference. Then, the incarcerated villagers had no meaningful legal representation; they were locked away as “collateral damage” for the world to forget; their loved ones grieved silently in villages across the region; their stories went unheard. Now, Gera and her colleagues were providing undertrials with a modicum of legal aid, and their families some solace.

Through the morning, I saw adivasi villagers seek Gera out to help make sense of charges and court procedures, most of which were conducted in a language they did not understand, processed through documents they could not read. All had family members in prison on ‘Naxal offences’; since prosecution witnesses (policemen, paramilitary troops) often did not appear on the date of hearings, the trial process dragged on interminably. Research done by JagLAG had revealed that between 2005-12, over 95% of such cases ended in acquittal. But only after villagers had spent 3 to 6 years of their lives behind bars.

Since 2013, JagLAG’s tireless members have tried to give meaning to the word ‘justice’ in one of India’s most difficult work environments for public-minded lawyers. That could well end now, thanks to vile tactics adopted by some members of Chhattisgarh police, and condoned by the state’s ruling politicians and the civil administration. Through last week, JagLAG’s landlord in Jagdalpur was questioned and intimidated by the police, and pushed to ask the women to vacate their home-cum-office. No one else will rent a premise to them in the current atmosphere of police intimidation, which is why Gera and her colleague Isha Khandelwal had to pack up and leave Jagdalpur on Saturday night. The team was working on over 40 cases, all Adivasi villagers, all being represented pro bono. They were also representing Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav, two Bastar-based Hindi language journalists imprisoned in recent months. Who will speak for these rural citizens now?

A villager whose son is an undertrial prisoner waits outside the Dantewada court. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

A villager whose son is an undertrial prisoner waits outside the Dantewada court. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

The JAG-LAG lawyers aren’t the only women Chhattisgarh’s powerful men want to cleanse the state of.

A pattern of violence and intimidation

On Saturday night, within an hour of JagLAG’s departure, former schoolteacher and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori was attacked by men on a bike, who smeared a black substance on her face that left her in excruciating pain. Sori was rushed to Delhi on Sunday – she is now in the ICU of Apollo Hospital, receiving treatment for the burns and swelling on her face. Herself a sexual assault survivor, Sori has been constantly threatened with violence in the past months, and death by being burnt alive. The police took no action on her appeal to investigate these threats. An outspoken critic of state and Maoist excesses, Sori most recently helped Mardum village resident Hadma Kashyap’s family speak out against the police narrative that Kashyap was a Maoist, whom they killed on February 4, 2016 in “a fierce encounter.”

Last week, the police also visited social scientist Bela Bhatia’s spartan home in a village on the outskirts of Jagdalpur and questioned her neighbours, and photographed her landlord. Bhatia, who moved to Bastar last year from Mumbai, where she taught at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, is a thoughtful commentator on the conflict in Bastar. In 2006, she was part of a Planning Commission group (her colleagues on the team included current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval), which produced a landmark report on healing the deep roots of alienation among dalit and adivasi communities in parts of India, witnessing the Maoist rebellion.

Over the past few months, Bhatia, with visiting women activists, has helped bring to light instances of gangrapes and sexual assaults by security forces conducting anti-Maoist operations. With Sori, she has provided emotional support to some of the assaulted women, all hardscrabble villagers with little knowledge of the law or their rights as rape survivors. She recently published a detailed and chilling account outlining the violence these women said they had undergone.

By not taking credible steps for her safety in the face of a violent mob that threw stones at her home and abused her as being a Maoist, authorities in Chhattisgarh have also succeeded in forcing Jagdalpur-based Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam to leave the state last week. This, despite a Scroll editor meeting with Chief Minister Raman Singh last week, and asking him to urgently intervene to guarantee Subramaniam’s safety.

Last week, as Delhi’s journalists marched in the capital to protest against the assault on reporters in the Patiala House Court complex , TV anchor Barkha Dutt had said, “We have the right to report without intimidation, without fear, without being bullied. This is the time for the media to raise its voice as one.” But if the test of a meaningful media is one where journalists are free of fear, intimidation and bullying, surely, ‘the time to stand as one’ came upon us long ago. In the conditions in which Chhattisgarh’s journalists work, there is not just intimidation and bullying but also the real possibility of incarceration and death.

A petition by villagers asking the police to release a member of their village, held in custody since several days. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

A petition by villagers asking the police to release a member of their village, held in custody since several days. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

In the absence of little support from colleagues in the national media for their recent protests demanding that the Chhattisgarh government release Somaru and Santosh, and provide a safe working environment for them, Chhattisgarh’s journalists continue to cope through self-censorship. In mid-December in Bijapur, a district-based Hindi journalist said he would have liked to accompany me as I travelled to a cluster of remote villages, past multiple paramilitary check posts, to meet with women who had reported being gangraped and sexually assaulted by security forces. But he feared police retribution, he said: “My recent stories have put me in police focus. I am lying low. I am here this evening talking to you. It will take the police 5 minutes to enter my room, plant some pamphlets, declare me a Maoist, and lock me away for years.”

“A scared media, a scared reporter is the death of democracy. The citizen gets strength from our work. If journalists will be fearful, the citizenry will find itself half-dead,” said TV anchor Ravish Kumar powerfully, as he marched with journalists in Delhi last week. His remarks were meant as a future scenario India must guard against. But this worrying picture has been the reality in Bastar for several years now.

Similarly, in Delhi through the past week, men in uniform, whom citizens expect to uphold the law, have been accused of being mute bystanders, or intervening belatedly while students, professors and journalists were threatened and beaten. In Bastar, through the past months police and paramilitary have been charged with multiple gangrapes (including of a minor teen), stripping, assaulting, and looting Adivasi women villagers. The police registered FIRs, but only after great persistence from women activists and lawyers, including some of the individuals named above. But since then, they have conducted no credible investigations, made no arrests. This motivated inaction has not elicited signature campaigns, hashtag trends, vigils, or marches. In fact, the police and paramilitary excesses have barely attracted sustained media scrutiny. That citizens beyond Chhattisgarh even know about these cases is in no small measure due to the efforts of the courageous women the government is now evicting from the region.

As a senior official at NHRC told me last month, “In any war, you know there is a suspension of human rights…but should be time-bound – 2 months, 4 months. But here…” ‘Here’, in one of India’s most militarised zones,with over 75,000 securitymen, a war has been on since 2005; close to 7000 lives have been lost already, an unknown number raped, assaulted, injured and countless lives shattered. But the bulk of these victims are Adivasis, so we remain unmoved. In the matter-of-fact words of a police officer in Bastar last December, “We care little about Adivasis…who thinks about them?” And by “we” he correctly meant not just policemen like him, but much of the rest of India.

An anti-Maoist billboard by the police in Bastar. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

An anti-Maoist billboard by the police in Bastar. Photo credit: Chitrangada Choudhury

In the case of Kanhaiya Kumar, the slur of “anti-national” has been justly critiqued. Absent articulate professors, star anchors, and Supreme Court legal eagles, Bastar spirals into ever-more vicious violence in the name of fighting the Maoist enemy. In late night conversations last December in Bijapur, rifle-toting constables barely concealed their cynicism, dishing out as much bitterness for Bastar’s never-ending war, as for their own seniors and the Maoist rebels. One said acidly, “Constables like me die like chickens. Villagers die like chickens. [Perhaps things may change when] Maoists will blow up one IAS or IPS officer or minister. But they won’t.”

Another narrated his life as a member of the now outlawed vigilante Salwa Judum group, then as a Special Police Officer, and now an assistant constable. He proceeded to count off the number of villagers he had killed, and said he needed to take two more lives to qualify for a promotion. Their accounts echoed what the 2006 Planning Commission report by Bhatia and her co-authors had observed: that the armed conflict in Bastar “delegitimises politics, dehumanises people, degenerates those engaged in their ‘security’, and above all represents an abdication of the State itself.”

In Delhi, our rulers are telling us there can be only one kind of nationalism. In Bastar, through the intensifying violence against women and the intimidation of journalists, activists, teachers and lawyers, our rulers are ensuring there must be only one narrative: of a manly police state that is “work(ing) perfectly here.”

Chitrangada Choudhury is an Orissa-based multimedia journalist and researcher, and a Fellow with the Open Society Institute: suarukh@gmail.com