Sudhanva Shetty Shetty
Writer, coffee-addict, likes folk music & long walks in the rain. Firmly believes that there's nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate.
On 7 January 2017, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) “found 16 women, prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by the State police personnel in Chhattisgarh”. The human rights watchdog stated that it is still waiting for the recorded statement of about 20 other victims. The NHRC also found that almost all the victims in these incidents, covered under the three FIRs, are tribals.
A few days ago, social activist Bela Bhatia visited Bijapur, Chhatisgarh with an NHRC team to record statements of the victims.
Her house was later bombarded by a mob of 30 men who demanded that she leave within 24 hours or face the consequences.
Bela Bhatia is a social scientist who completed her graduation in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Thereafter, she pursued PhD at the University of Cambridge. Apart from her academic work, she has been publishing fact-finding reports, being a part of many human rights and civil rights initiatives all over India. She covered the Narmada Bachao Andolan and Bathani Tola massacre. She was also a part of the international Gulf Peace team after the first war on Iraq where she met Jean Dreze, an extraordinary economist and activist, whom she later married. Bela became a member of a team of experts constituted by the Planning Commission for 11th Five-Year Plan.
Why is she in controversy?
In November 2015 and January 2016, she had helped shed light on two instances of gang rapes and sexual assaults by security forces conducting anti-Maoist operations in remote villages, like Peddagalur village of Bijapur district. Three FIRs were lodged in two months and presented to the district collector. The accusations were followed by inquiry and investigations by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS). This was the first time that security personnel have been booked under Criminal Law Amendment Act (2013).
For taking this step, Bhatia was accused of being a Naxal. She had already been ousted from Parpa village when her landlord, a tailor for the CPRF, was boycotted.
On Monday, a group of 30 men barged into her house in Parpa village. Threatening to burn down her house, they demanded that she leave Bastar within 24 hours. Bhatia called the Bastar collector, who arrived 30 minutes later but did not do anything to control the mob. The village sarpanch was also watching the commotion, without doing anything to stop the aggression.
Helpless and facing a mob of 30 men, Bhatia agreed to leave her house in 24 hours. The mob forced Bhatia to sign a declaration saying that she would leave the house in front of the police.
I, Reymati- the house owner and I, Bela Bhatia - the tenant assure that I will vacate the house tomorrow ( 26 January, 2017) before 6 PM."
The goons came in an SUV and several motorcycles. No action was initiated against the attackers by the local police forced. According to ANI, 15 police personnel were deployed outside Bhatia’s house.
Concerned for Bhatia’s safety, many social activists contacted local authorities about the situation. One of the people contacted was the Inspector General (IG) of Bastar Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri. Kalluri’s alleged response to the situation was shared via screenshots on social media. He allegedly said that the “drama has just begun”, said that Naxals “and their dogs will be thrown out of Bastar”. He also threatened and used abusive language, saying “F U” to Supreme Court advocate Pyoli Swatija.
When The Logical Indian contacted Swatija, she affirmed that the IG had four different numbers and was contacted on all of them. She said “Those are the numbers we had given in our call asking people to send messages to the Chhattisgarh police to ensure Bela’s security. Following the complaints filed yesterday by WSS and HRDA, NHRC Chairperson Justice HL Dattu gave directions to immediately contact DGP Awasthi and ask him to ensure that Bela is protected from any further attack or harassment. He has been told to report back on the situation. We will also be submitting the screenshots to NHRC tomorrow.”
She further wrote on Facebook, “He does not stop there, he informs one who calls that Bela was attacked, injured and subsequently she has succumbed to the injuries, while Bela lives on physically (thankfully) unhurt, he relentlessly asks me to join Bela if I am so concerned for her, to mind my own business and stop lecturing him.”
The Logical Indian contacted the IG; he hung up on us four times. The first three times he declined to comment on Bhatia’s situation and cut the call. When The Logical Indian brought up the screenshots and his comments on the activists, he paused and said that the cyber cell was taking the case forward before hanging up once again.
Bhatia’s stand, even before this week’s developments, was that irrespective of the parties involved, it is unjust and criminal to assault women in the groups. “Democracy is not merely a system of governance. It is also a value system. It means a society where everybody has freedom of speech,” she opined.
The Logical Indian voices deep concern about Bela Bhatia’s security situation. The response by the local authorities – particularly the IG’s laxity – is troubling. The law enforcement officials of the area need to be sensitised and held accountable.
Social activists who fight for human rights should be protected from mobs and goons. This is especially true for activists doing ground work with the NHRC. Women being raped by the people charged with the maintenance of law and order is one thing; the inaction of the authorities in securing justice for these women is another outrage altogether. This is one step further – an individual fighting for these victims is threatened herself.
This is an outright insult to democracy, to the constitution, to all of us.
State authorities should take swift and strict action against the perpetrators and dispense justice as soon as possible. We tend to be oblivious to the rights of the poor, of tribals, of villagers. It is time we took a strong, unflinching stand against bullies, vandals, and criminals.
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