President Urged to Put a Stop to ‘Atmosphere of Terror’ in Bastar

Lingaram Kodopi. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Lingaram Kodopi. Credit: Akhil Kumar

New Delhi: “This is not simply a breakdown of law and order, but a calculated and strategic suspension of the rule of law,” said Kalyani Menon-Sen from Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression at a press meet on the situation in Chhattisgarh here on Monday. Menon-Sen was commenting on the continuing human rights violations of adivasis in Bastar. AAP leader Soni Sori’s 29-year-old nephew Lingaram Kodopi, feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, and lawyer Vrinda Grover also addressed the event.

Kodopi, who recently declared that he would commit suicide on the 23rd of this month alleging harassment from the Bastar police, spoke at length about the routine threats and intimidation he and his family members have been subjected to. On February 20, Soni Sori was attacked and some chemical substance rubbed on her face by unknown assailants. Sori’s family members have been repeatedly called in for questioning by the SIT constituted to investigate this case, and they allege that they have been tortured and are being forced to confess that they were the ones behind the attack and that they did it to gain public sympathy. Kodopi has testified before the SIT twice already after his initial interrogation by the police, but is still being threatened with dire consequences if he refuses to come in for questioning again. He says he is suspicious of the police’s motives and fears for his life.

Kodopi explained how an atmosphere of terror prevails in Bastar. People are afraid to speak out against human rights violations as they fear they would be branded as Maoists and killed in fake encounters or falsely implicated by the police. “SRP Kalluri, inspector general of police, wields immense power and is notorious in the region for openly threatening the adivasis and unleashing unspeakable brutality on them in the garb of fighting naxalism,” he said. He also feels that he is under constant surveillance and lives in constant fear.

He has now written a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee asking for his intervention, as the president has such authority under the fifth schedule of the Indian constitution.

The letter, which was submitted to the president’s office today, details the physical and mental harassment faced by Kodopi and his aunt Soni Sori. It also details how after the attack on Sori, when her family members went to meet Kalluri, he called Sori a prostitute, a ‘naked’ virtueless woman. The letter also says that Kalluri claimed that he along with many other police officials had raped Soni in custody and paraded her naked, and that Kodopi would also be killed in a fake encounter or framed as guilty in the attack on Sori. The letter further clarifies that the alleged harassment is not unique to Sori and Kodopi, and that adivasis are tortured and killed everyday in Chhattisgarh in the garb of a war against Naxalism.

Activists and civil society members have expressed concern over the worsening situation in Bastar after journalists and lawyers were forced out of the region last month. Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), which has been providing free legal aid to adivasis, were recently compelled to leave Jagdalpur following anonymous complaints, hostility from the district bar association and threats to their landlord. The attack on Sori took place while she was on her way back from visiting JagLAG before they left. On March 11, JagLAG sent a letter to the Chhattisgarh DGP AN Upadhyay urging him to take action against the “repeated harassment, intimidation, and persecution of Soni Sori and her family members”.

Kodopi says that innocent adivasis are being killed and falsely framed in the state, and that anyone who tries to speak against this injustice is being threatened. He recalled how Prime Minister Modi in his address in Dantewada had promised to eliminate the Naxals from Bastar by 2020 and asked, “Are there only Naxals in Bastar? In the name of Naxals, poor adivasis are being killed everyday”.  “At this rate, all the Adivasis will be eliminated from Bastar by 2020,” he adds. He also expressed his discomfort with how violence in Chhattisgarh has been normalised in the urban middle class consciousness. “There is much outrage when a woman is raped in Delhi, but what about mass rape of adivasi women in Chhattisgarh? Why doesn’t it spark similar outrage?” he asked.

Kodopi said he decided to hold the press meet as he has to go back to Bastar on Tuesday to sign a bond that he will not “disturb the peace” in the region for the next 6 months. This is in relation to his Facebook post where he threatened to commit suicide alleging severe harassment and intimidation from the police. He feels that the repeated attacks on him and his family are due to the fact that they tried to raise their voices against various injustices being done to the adivasi people in the region – fake encounters, rapes, fake surrenders, everyday harassment, and even loss of livelihood. A former journalism student, Kodopi tried to document this through videos and photographs. “We are being punished for daring to raise our voices,” says Kodopi.