Close on the heels of the arrest of two Dantewada-based journalists comes news of the mob intimidation of social scientist Bela Bhatia in Bastar. Social scientist Bela Bhatia, who holds a doctorate from Cambridge University, has formerly served on a Planning Commission-appointed panel to look at governance challenges in areas of the Maoist rebellion, and has also been a faculty member at the Tata Insititute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
In the past weeks, Hindi language journalists Prabhat Singh and Dipak Jaiswal were arrested, the former for a comment against a senior police official on a Whatsapp group. This has drawn the attention of the National Human Rights Commission, which issued a notice this week to the Chhattisgarh state government, asking it to respond within two weeks. There have been other instances of harassment too–in February, a contributor to the website scroll.in, Malini Subramaniam and an all-women legal aid group, Jag-lag were forced to the leave the region, after their landlords and domestic help were intimidated. Last month adivasi rights activist and Aam Aadmi party member Soni Sodi was also accosted at night by two men, who smeared her face with a grease-like substance, and threatened her to not raise the issue of fake encounter killings.
According to Bhatia, who lives in a village called Parpa on the outskirts of Jagdalpur town, a group of close to 100 people with men, women and armed policemen in civilian clothes came to the hamlet on Saturday evening, where her rented home is located. The crowd questioned her landlady and neighbours, and demanded why a “Naxalite terrorist”(aatankwaadi) had been given a room on rent. They told Bhatia’s landlady to “drive her out” (unko bhagaao).
The crowd marched through the hamlet, raising slogans of Bela Bhatia murdabaad (“Death to Bela Bhatia”), and distributed a pamphlet slandering her as a “Naxal stooge” and a “foreign stooge.” The pamphlet also criticised the renowned development economist Jean Dreze, accusing Bhatia and “her foreign husband of working with the Naxals to break the country.” Dreze, who was born in Belgium, is an Indian citizen.
Bhatia said she had spoken to Collector of Jagdalpur late on Saturday night, and intended to meet him to apprise him of the violence she was facing.
Bhatia has faced intimidation on multiple occasions in recent weeks. In February, the police visited her village home and questioned her neighbours, and photographed her landlord. In November 2015 and January 2016, with visiting women activists and Sodi, she helped bring to light two instances of gang rapes and sexual assaults by security forces conducting anti-Maoist operations in remote villages. In January, when she helped some of these women villagers file police complaints in Bijapur, she and Sodi faced mob intimidation and sloganeering by a crowd of men from the Samajik Ekta Manch who accused them of being Naxals, and of not raising issues of human rights abuses by Naxals.
Bhatia has written her doctoral thesis at Cambridge University on the Naxalite movement in Bihar, studied the state-conflict Maoist in Bastar since a decade, and co-authored a thoughtful report for the Planning Commission on the roots of adivasi and dalit alienation in such areas, and how to address them. Her co-authors included the current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
More recently, Bhatia wrote detailed accounts of the sexual violence and human rights abuses underway in Bastar. Days ago, in an open letter published in Hindi in the Patrika newspaper in Chhattisgarh, and in English on the Catch News website, she outlined how her decade-long engagement with Bastar had begun, and why she intended to continue with it:
“I had come to Bastar to stay. I will try to remain in the district despite everything that has happened. Democracy is not merely a system of governance. It is also a value system. The consideration for the misery of fellow citizens lies at the root of democracy. It requires an open atmosphere where everybody can live without fear. Democracy aims for a society where there is no oppressor and the oppressed. It means a society where everybody has freedom of speech. I hope we will be able to establish such a democracy in Bastar.”