Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group member, Shalini Gera, speaks to The Wire about the human rights situation in Bastar and how activists are being targeted.
Shalini Gera is a member of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which is a collective of four women who provide legal assistance to adivasis in Bastar. Recently, she has been in the news because of allegations of exchanging old currency for the Maoists. This complaint strangely surfaced on a WhatsApp group and then Gera got a call from an unofficial phone number. The caller claimed to be the superintendent of police (SP), R.N. Das – he was enquiring about the complaint.
Can you tell us about the recent status of the case – have the police formally moved on it? Because it is a strange situation where we don’t have any clear information about what actually happened.
As the case stands right now, there appears to be a written complaint against me and members of my team, which has been given to the SP of Bastar district. After that, there have been numerous press conferences by the Inspector-General of Bastar range, Mr[S.R.P.] Kalluri and the SP, R.N. Das, where they have informed the police that they are investigating this case diligently and there has been no FIR filed as of now – that’s the formal status. Now, it is interesting to note that this complaint surfaced right after we had gone to Bastar, in order to carry out a court ordered exhumation and post-mortem of a person who had been killed by the police in what was alleged to be a fake encounter. So, everybody is seeing this as a reprisal by the Bastar police against the human rights workers who’ve been highlighting instances of fake encounters and other violations by the police in the area.
This cannot be seen as an isolated incident. Earlier this year as well, Isha Khandelwal, another member of your group and you were forced to move out of Bastar. Also, there have been numerous attempts to clamp down on human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and civil society activists. Recently some activists from Telangana were charged with the Chattisgarh Public Safety Act. So, this fits into a certain administrative design, so to speak, where it appears the police don’t want some information to be brought out from that region – what are your thoughts on that?
Absolutely correct. There is a long history of the police taking vindictive action against others who have been raising issues of human rights violations by the police and security forces in the area. It has happened before, starting earlier from when Himanshu Kumar, who was raising many of these issues during the time of Salwa Judum – his ashram was broken down and he was forced out of the area. Even then, there were lots of reprisals against tribal leaders such as Manish Kunjam. One of the petitioners of the Salwa Judum case, Kartam Joga – he was actually imprisoned and kept in jail for many years. Much more recently, as you mentioned, we were evicted from Jagdalpur, along with us, there was Malini Subramaniam, a well known journalist writing for Scroll, who was also evicted at the same time and Bela Bhatia – who is a researcher living out of Jagdalpur – she has also been attacked, she has received many threats against her. There has been Soni Sori, a tribal activist again, who has been raising many questions about what the police have been doing to adivasis. She had a chemical attack against her. More recently, there were police burning effigies of tribal rights activists, social activists in the area. This is completely unprecedented that you would actually have police burning effigies of who they see as their enemies. It didn’t happen in one or two districts, it happened in all seven districts of Bastar. There has been an FIR filed against Professor Nandini Sundar, Professor Archana Prasad and others who went with the fact-finding team. As you said, more recently there have been seven people from Telangana including lawyers, journalists, students who were coming to Bastar for a fact-finding on the recent spate of encounters – they have been arrested. They still languish in prison, the bail has been denied and we don’t know how long they’re going to be in prison for. So, there certainly seems to be an emergency-like situation in Bastar, where anybody speaks aloud, or anybody who questions the motives or the designs of the police or the way they are conducting the operation, is declared an enemy of the state and is proceeded against vehemently, in an aggressive manner. So, this is just the tip of the iceberg, this is just what is happening to human rights activists and I must say what is happening to the tribals in the area – that’s much worse. Just this year – the year that passed, 2016 – there have been 134 recorded encounters by the police; 134 people have been killed in anti-Maoist operations in Bastar. Many of them have been alleged to be fake encounters and we’re not even allowed to investigate them, we’re not even allowed to take up their cases and bring them to the court, because if we do then we’re targeted ourselves as being anti-state and anti-national and put on these false cases. There have been at least three documented cases of mass sexual violence against women in Bastar. Numerous cases of forced surrenders, false arrests and the spate of violence that an ordinary villager is facing in Bastar is really intense at this point.
Coming back to the nature of your own work, can you tell us what exactly is the kind of legal assistance you provide to the adivasis and why do you think it is important? Why is there a need for you to go from Delhi, settle there and help the adivasis in their legal cases?
In 2013 we started Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and there were at that time three women lawyers who were there and we went with a very general idea that we are going to an area where there is a marginalised population, vulnerable people and we shall be providing some kind of legal assistance to them. Given that, there is a large need because it’s a needy population. Of course it was in the background that there is a conflict and conflict has its own legal necessities and we should be looking into that as well. When we went over there we had a general idea that there would be women-related issues, it would be conflict-related issues, land-related issues which are the kind of stuff you find in a regular area. But I must say, when we went over there, the needs arising out of the conflict were far greater than the needs that were coming from other areas. So as time went on, we found that we were being pulled into cases which were largely around issues of people who are languishing for years in prison under trials, there trials were not proceeding and they are all charged with heinous crimes of participating in Naxalite actions. But for many reasons they are not getting any relief from the courts and the cases are going on forever. We were pulled into cases where villagers would ask us to come because the police had visited that area and they had indulged in looting – it’s very common that when large numbers of police go, they loot chicken, they loot regular grains, clothes etc., they indulge in beating – fairly common and villagers wanted to lodge cases against them. We got increasingly pulled into these issues and we realised that actually the courts were flooded with these kinds of issues; there were no issues regarding land or domestic violence or women-related issues, we were not just seeing enough of them. Most of the issues the courts were dealing with were arising out of this conflict and that is where we got pulled into as well.
As time went by we got more and more familiar with the villagers. Then in the recent past, we’ve been called to help them with grave issues as I mentioned – cases of mass sexual violence against women and increasing encounters. We’ve just filed a case in the Bilaspur high court, a PIL, about encounters in the district of Bijapur and we’ve been working on other related cases as well.
We have also heard a lot about some vigilante groups acting in the area, they forced Malini Subrmaniam out, they created a ruckus outside her home, they have also threatened a lot of activists, lawyers and other human rights workers working there. They seem to be continually emboldened somehow. There have also been allegations that these groups are supported by the state, these are state-sponsored groups somehow and so have they also interfered with the working of your organisation? If yes, how?
You are absolutely correct, there are these vigilante groups and again there is a long history of the police actually fronting these groups. From Salwa Judum onwards, Salwa Judum was itself a state-sponsored vigilante group that was declared unconstitutional and had to die out; but in 2015 we saw the emergence of something called the Samajik Ekta Manch. Along the lines of Samajik Ekta Manch in Bastar district, there were other groups in other districts, the Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti in Bijapur which were these vigilante groups and they would take out rallies against the so-called “safed posh naxali” which means “naxali samarthak” or white-collar Naxalites. Basically, against human rights workers or people who were again raising issues that were inconvenient for the police. Against Malini Subramaniam, they surrounded her house and threw stones and eventually she had to leave Jagdalpur. They also held rallies against us when were in Jagdalpur. When tribal women, who were seeking redressal for sexual violence against them, went to the Bijapur collectorate, they surrounded the collectorate and again, raised slogans against these women and Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia who were there to help them.
So, they have been extremely active. But following an NHRC inquiry into them and the bad press they received when there were some sting operations done by the media in March and April last year which showed that they were being directly sponsored by the police. The media actually caught the superintendent of police and some other police officials on tape, admitting to the fact that they were actually sponsoring Samajik Ekta Manch, etc. Following this bad publicity, the Samajik Ekta Manch was disbanded. But that was only reprieve for a few months, because the very same people formed another group called AGNI-Action Group of National Integration, or something like that and the same people are active again and are being fronted by the police.
Now, in our case also, the current case of the complaint, these groups have again played an important role of stoking and inflaming passions. The close nexus between these groups and the police has come to the fore. For instance, when the superintendent of police of Bastar called me on December 27, he used a private number to call me. Since I could not recognise that number, I spoke to him but I wasn’t really sure that it was the SP of Bastar calling me. I checked that number on these mobile apps and I found that that number belonged to one Mr Farooq Ali, who is a member of AGNI and is one of the most vocal supporters of AGNI. He is very defamatory of other human rights workers. I had to be sure that I had indeed talked to the SP of Bastar on Ali’s phone, I had to call him back. So, I called the SP of Bastar and confirmed that he had indeed called me from that number. That raises a big question –
why is the SP of Bastar using Mr Farooq Ali’s phone to call me and threaten me and intimidate me and charge me in a false case? Very soon after he talked to me, the complaint against me is made viral again by the same Mr Farooq Ali on various Whatsapp messages. It’s not only that the SP of police is using Mr Farooq Ali’s phone, but he is also giving him all the information about my complaint to him and he is then spreading it and defaming me.
In a very similar manner, a few days prior to that, we had a PUCL meeting in Dantewada where we were facilitating the meeting of PUCL delegates with the local villagers. The meeting went on one day, the next day the police started harassing the organisers of this meeting and they stopped six of our volunteers and detained them for an hour or so of questioning, took their mug shots and harassed them about this meeting. The volunteers complied, gave all the information that the police were looking for and left. A few hours later, this information about the volunteers, their names and their mug shots – which had been taken by the police – again surfaced in this WhatsApp message by the same Mr Farooq Ali. So he seems to have information that the police has taken for official purposes. They are being made available and again these messages are being floated around with “JNU students” – incidentally none of them was from JNU, but in the WhatsApp messages their photographs are shown and they are being defamed as being “JNU students” who are there as Naxalite supporters and are poisoning the minds of villagers with Naxalite propaganda.
This kind of connection, this nexus between these vigilante forces and these private individuals who are being really fronted by the police, they are being supplied information and being used by the police to their own dirty work – that is extremely distressing.
So, you think these are just pressure tactics used by the police to create a certain image of human rights defenders working in Bastar and they aren’t going to seriously follow through because they really won’t be able to come up with evidence to act on the complaints, do you think that?
I would like to think that’s the way it’s going to happen. But, we have to be cautious – we don’t really know how the police operates in certain circumstances. While it’s very true that they are definitely utilising the media to defame and to inflame passions and to paint the human rights defenders or human rights activists as the “safed posh naxali” – all these tactics do end up creating an atmosphere of terror and intimidation for people in Bastar. So, while I might not be in jail today, anybody in Bastar would be scared to working with me because they don’t know what exactly is going to happen. Then we also have to take the case of seven Telangana activists who are actually in jail today, on very similar charges. Again, for trumped up charges of exchanging money for Naxalities – they’re definitely going to be acquitted in the end, but it’s going to take months, years, we don’t know how long they have to be in jail before they get acquitted. Taking the case of Kartam Joga, who again got acquitted, Soni Sori, she again gets acquitted in cases, but it does mean that you end up spending a lot of time in jail, spending a lot of resources and just energy fighting these baseless charges rather than doing the work you would like to be doing.
So one of the names we keep hearing when we talk about Bastar, is the inspector-general SRP Kalluri. It is often alleged that he acts with total impunity and doesn’t really care about the rule of the law. Why do you think that is? Do you think he has backing of the state government, or perhaps the national government and what could be the reason behind him getting such impunity?
It’s definitely there that he works with impunity and time and again the actions that have been done have been overturned by the courts and the NHRC. Given the status of human rights and the absurd charges that were levelled against human rights defenders and the growing fear and intimidation of human rights workers in the area, the NHRC had taken suo moto cognisance and it summoned Mr Kalluri. That’s a completely unprecedented event, that they would summon the IG of police. So obviously, the displeasure of what is happening at the state was very evident. He did not show up for the summons because he was in the hospital at that time, but this act of being summoned by the highest national human rights body in the country, doesn’t seem to have quietened him down, or given a signal that he should stop his terror tactics, because he is continuing with the same spate. So, he is definitely acting in impunity. One can only speculate where he gets his impunity from. We are not privy to any of the information that goes back-and-forth. But it is true that just mere political pressure is not working against him. The main opposition party in Chattisgarh, Congress has been shouting from the rooftops that Mr Kalluri has been indulging in many grave acts of terror and violation of rights. As I said, the courts have time and again overturned his actions, but that is not giving a signal to any of his political masters or any of his administrative masters to reel him in – so one can only speculate whether it’s the national government that is sponsoring him or the state government. But, yes when Mr Narendra Modi came to Bastar he did meet with him, when the CM Raman Singh goes to Bastar he definitely speaks well of him. We don’t know what the source of his impunity is.
Would you say that the local adivasis in Bastar can’t really pin their hope on the police and the administration to get justice?
I would definitely say that that has not been the case so far. We’ve seen, even in instances where they wanted to file an FIR against a police action, they had to struggle a lot and FIRs are not forthcoming. We’ve had to go to courts to get FIRs filed. We’ve had the case where even something like the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes, the chairperson, he has visited and he has upheld the fact that there is prima facie evidence that there’s been mass sexual violence against women, conducted by security forces. It’s been over a year, an FIR has been registered, in fact it was the first FIR in the country with the newly amended rape laws which have made rape by security forces a special category of aggravated rape, it was the first FIR in the country using that section – and yet, over a year has passed and no action has been taken by the police in those FIRs. So, one does feel that there is very little hope by going to the police and the administration and the judiciary has to step in or the National Human Rights Commission has to step in to take action at this point.
We’ve already seen that the media is not being able to do its job of getting information from there and spreading it across the country, because the journalists from outside the region have been driven out from there by vigilante forces or state pressure and the local journalists are often charged in cases where they acquitted later. This has created a sort of ‘information blackout’ in the region. So, is the judiciary their only hope for some justice now?
I think definitely, a lot of us are pinning our hopes on the judiciary and as I mentioned the National Human Rights Commission has taken that step of summoning both Mr Kalluri as well as the chief secretary of the state, taking note of the worsening human rights situation in the district of Bastar and they are being summoned again on January 16 and we are really hoping that they will take strong action. These two are the two bodies that we are definitely hoping will do something. But, I do pin my hopes on ordinary people as well. While you’re quite correct that there is a huge ‘information blackout’, still we are seeing time and again, the media has been active in highlighting many case instances, in spite of all the repression, there are still reporters in the area who are brave enough to still put up the news and one hopes in spite of all the repression and oppression they will have the courage to keep speaking out. In spite of all that has happened, there are still voices of tribal leaders again, who, despite living in fear and oppression of constant state harassment, are still speaking out. All salutes to them for still having the courage to stay over there and face the harassment and one can only support them and wish them all luck.
Personally, what do you plan to do next? With this atmosphere of intimidation and also these allegations floating around, do you also feel a kind of fear and insecurity in going back and continuing the work that you were doing and how do you plan to proceed from here?
So it’s a little too soon for me to make any long-term plans. The way it is in Bastar, every time you make a long term plan something or the other always unseats it. So, I can’t say there are any long-term plans. It’s true that there’s fear and intimidation, but then we’ve been living with that fear and intimidation for over a year now. We still plan to continue our work and while I’m here in Delhi, there are still colleagues in Chattisgarh who are continuing the work. It is going to be more difficult to go back to Bastar while this complaint still hangs over our head. So, we’re looking into legal options and as I said, we are discussing all those over here. Can’t really say what the next plans are because they aren’t there yet.