The reported threat to Bela Bhatia, a well-known academic researching tribal rights, must be seen as a challenge to the writ of the Indian state. On Monday, a gang of 30 men on motorcycles arrived at her doorstep and asked her to leave her rented house in a Bastar village within 24 hours.
The immediate provocation for the threat seems to be that Bhatia had accompanied a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team to Pedagellur and Bellam Nendra, villages in Bastar, to record the testimonies of tribal women who had complained of being sexually assaulted by security personnel. In an interim report earlier this month, the NHRC had confirmed that 16 women were “prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by state police personnel in Chhattisgarh” in Bijapur district in October 2015 and asked the state government for a detailed report from Pedagellur and Bellam Nendra.
The ultimatum issued to Bhatia is a blatant attempt by vested interests to silence voices that could help the NHRC’s probe. What is alarming is that these interests appear to have the backing of the administration in a state where all those who speak for the rights of tribes and argue for due process run the risk of being instantly labelled aides of Maoists. Bhatia is not the first person to face intimidation in Bastar.
Ever since the Maoist insurgency broke out in Chhattisgarh in the early 2000s, state administrations, starting with the then Congress government, have sought to silence opposition by intimidation. Salwa Judum, the state-sponsored vigilante movement, primarily targeted civil society actors who highlighted the plight of tribals caught in the crossfire between Maoists and the state.
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The state government discontinued the Salwa Judum after the Supreme Court intervened, but similar vigilante inititiatives have flourished in Chhattisgarh with the tacit support of the state government. In recent times, journalists, lawyers, activists, and even, mainstream politicians have been targeted by these vigilante groups while the administration turns a blind eye.
Last November, the NHRC summoned S.R.P. Kalluri, IG of Bastar range, along with the chief secretary of Chhattisgarh to explain why the police lodged FIRs against academics who were in the state to investigate rights violations. The meeting is yet to take place as Kalluri pleaded for its postponement on health grounds.
The reluctance to appear before the NHRC is just another reflection of the administration’s callous approach towards addressing people’s concerns. The core question is the Raman Singh administration’s commitment to civil liberties and democratic processes. Evidence suggests that it has failed in protecting the fundamental right of its citizens to disagree and dissent.
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