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In February, 2016, Malini Subramaniam, a contributor to the website scroll.in and Jag-dal, an all-women legal aid group were forced to leave the naxal-hit area in Chhattisgarh. In the past weeks, Hindi language journalists Prabhat Singh and Dipak Jaiswal were arrested. The former had circulated a comment against a senior police official in Chhattisgarh on a WhatsApp group. We witnessed the smearing of Soni Sori’s face with a corrosive material with the object of intimidating her and her peers. And now comes the turn of Bela Bhatia who, in an open letter to the Chhattisgarh state administration, details the way she has been harassed and her determination to stay in Bastar to serve the people.
Who is Bela Bhatia?
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 Cambride. Apart from her academic work what makes her stand out is the way she has been publishing fact-finding reports, being a part of many human rights and civisl rights initiatives all over India. She covered the Narmada Bachao Andolan and Bathani Tola massacare. 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. After completing her PhD she also worked for Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi. As a result she studied the Telangana Naxal movement and Salwa Judum campaign of Bastar from close quarters. Thus, she is one of those researchers who believe that it is not merely sufficient to study a phenomenon but also to contribute meaningfully to solve a problem.
Walking her talk, Bela became a member of a team of experts constituted by the Planning commission for 11th five-year plan. The current National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval was also a part of this team which was assigned the task of studying all areas suffering farmers’ distress in order to recommend corrective measures. The team unanimously reported in its finding that the country can be secure only if the fundamental rights of its citizens are protected.
Why is Bela Bhatia being intimidated?
“If somebody says you are a Naxal, does that make you one? Would you leave your place just because somebody wants you to?” This is the crux of the matter Bela has laid out in her open letter published in Catchnews.
On Saturday evening, a group of around 100 people with men, women and armed policemen in civilian clothes came to a hamlet on the outskirts of Jagdalpur area where Bela currently resides. The crowd interrogated her landlady as to why a “Naxalite terrorist”(aatankwaadi) had been given a room on rent. They told Bhatia’s landlady to “drive her out” (unko bhagaao). She has been labeled as a “Naxal stooge” and a “foreign stooge”, helping her husband to “break India”. It is to be noted that her husband was born in Belgium but later acquired Indian citizenship.
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). Though no arrests have been made so far, the incidents can potentially hurt the interests of Chief Minister, Raman Singh. After all, this is the first time that security personnel have been booked under Criminal Law Amendment Act (2013).
For taking this daring step, Sori and Bhatia faced intimidation from the Samajik Ekta Manch who accused them of being Naxals, and of not raising issues of human rights abuses by Naxals. She had already been ousted from Parpa village when her landlord, a tailor for the CPRF, was boycotted.
Bela has been accused of fabricating the charges since she has been assisting the tribal groups with the legal processes, along with human rights activists. She admits that naxals are targeting innocent civilians which are to be clamped down upon. At the same time, her stand is 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 opines. She alleges that Samajik Ekta Manch wants a naxal-free Bastar but does not question the violence perpetrated on the Adivasis by the state administration.
She claims that she chose to study this topic because she wanted to understand what pushes citizens of a democratic nation to pick up arms against the state. The government has not been able to address the root cause behind the insurgency. Life for Adivasis is a daily struggle for survival in the hinterland where the benefits of democratic government do not percolate. Citing the 1967 rebellion of farmers in Siliguri, West-Bengal, she states that it was a fallout of centuries of poverty and exploitation – severe famine that year was the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. Similarly, if the root cause of trouble for the Adivasis in Naxal-hit areas are not addressed then the problem will only be fuelled further.
The Logical Indian community stands with Bela Bhatia in this hour of crisis. She is an epitome of simplicity and Gandhian principles who truly understands the meaning of democracy. It is undoubtedly correct that the state administration should nab and punish the Maoists who carry out nefarious activities, but to seal the area and intimidate journalists, legal-aid workers and social activists from the area is totally uncalled for. All those who help the innocents cannot be termed as Naxals, especially if there is evidence of what they have stated. Instead, the government would do well to study the report submitted by the committee constituted by the Planning Commission in its 11th five-year plan and execute the recommendations made so as to solve the root cause of all the trouble.
What happens in Bastar remains in Bastar. And anyone who makes any attempt to break this is broken, quite literally. Our collective silence and indifference to the suffering of the tribal population in Bastar is also a reason for what is happening there unchecked today. Here is one way to lend your support and stand in solidarity with the people residing there. Join the #OneMillionPostCardCampaign for #SoniSori #Bastar and send a post card to the chief minister of Chattisgarh.
Got 2 seconds – send an e-card: http://tinyurl.com/OneMillionPostCardForSoni .Got an extra second – share it. Got a few more seconds – encourage your friends to join
It’s just a matter of a few seconds – a few seconds which can save precious lives.