People’s Union for Democratic Rights
Condemn the Intimidation of Bela Bhatia
PUDR strongly condemns the intimidation of activist Bela Bhatia by members of the vigilante group AGNI on 23 January 2017. This intimidation comes just a few days after the NHRC’s visit to Bastar to record the statements of women who have suffered sexual violence at the hands of the security forces and the police in two separate incidents in October 2015 and January 2016 in Peddagelur and Bellamnendra villages. The NHRC recently released a report also accusing the Chhattisgarh police of sexual violence in this area. Bela Bhatia accompanied the NHRC team on its visits.
Bela Bhatia was terrorized by a mob of 30 men outside her home in Parpa village, Jagdalpur. The men threatened to burn the house down if she did not leave Bastar immediately. The mob entered the house and threatened her landlady as well. The mob was extremely belligerent and threatened to break her lock and burn the house. While Bela Bhatia managed to contact the Bastar collector, when the police actually arrived, it shockingly did little to disperse the mob. The men continued to harass Bela and forced her to sign a declaration saying she would leave Bastar in 24 hours. Before this, Bela Bhatia’s landlady and her sons had been called to the police thana on 22nd January and asked to ensure that Bela leaves the house immediately.
Bela Bhatia is a social scientist and has been researching on counter insurgency and sexual violence against adivasi women in Bastar. She has been on the Planning Commission looking at the problems of governance in conflict areas. She has taught in institutions like TISS, Mumbai and CSDS, New Delhi. For exposing the lawlessness in Chhattisgarh and the violations of the rights of the adivasis through her work, she has constantly been harassed by the police and vigilante groups.
On an earlier occasions on 24th October personnel of the Chhattisgarh Auxilliary Police Force had burnt effigies of Bela Bhatia along with Soni Sori, Malini Subramaniam, Nandini Sundar, and Manish Kunjam and had called them ‘anti-national’. This ‘protest’ by the police was in response to the CBI submitting its finding in the Tadmetla massacre of 2011 which held 7 SPO’s and 26 Salwa Judum members guilty of arson and looting in the village. CBI also found evidences of killing, rapes, brutal assault in Tadmetla. In burning effigies, the police had claimed the CBI charges were baseless and that these individuals were responsible for maligning them by spreading false stories about them.
The vigilante group AGNI which harassed Bela Bhatia is an offshoot of Salwa Judum which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2011. However even after its dissolution, the group continued its activities under different names, like the Samajik Ekta Match and now as AGNI. This group was involved in another incident of harassment involving lawyer Shalini Gera who provides legal aid to adivasis in Chhattisgarh. This systematic targetting of activists by the vigilante group could not have been carried out without the help and support of the police, especially the IG, SRP Kalluri who has repeatedly threatened activists working in Chhattisgarh.
Shockingly, text messages sent to IG SRP Kalluri today by individuals concerned about Bela Bhatia’s safety were replied to in a dismissive, mocking, abusive manner. The messages sent by SRP Kalluri threatening violence against and accusing those asking for protection for Bela of being Maoists who would be finished off, offer ample evidence of his contempt for the rule of law and how he sees his authority as being beyond challenge.
His response also reveals a lot about the nexus between police and operations of the vigilante groups like AGNI and how they enjoy complete impunity in violating people’s rights. It should be noted that the NHRC had summoned SRP Kalluri on 16 January, 2017, in connection with the police vendetta against lawyers, activists and journalists who are critical of the increasing police atrocities in Chhattisgarh. SRP Kalluri however, never appeared before the NHRC while under his rule violations of democratic rights continue to increase daily.
The attempt at silencing activists has proliferated in Chhattisgarh. Members of the Telangana Democratic forum were arrested by the police on 25th December 2016, while going for a fact finding in Chhattisgarh in relation to a case of fake encounter, Shalini Gera was harassed by members of the same vigilante group which are targetting Bela Bhatia. PUDR in an open letter to the Chief Justice of India has highlighted the increasing intimidation of activists, lawyers and journalist who are attempting to uncover incidents of murder, sexual violence and torture in Chhattisgarh at great personal risk to themselves.
While reports of atrocities on adivasis are pouring in daily, the new strategy of the Chhattisgarh government is to silence any news by targetting activists, lawyers and journalists. The hounding of Bela Bhatia and the unrelenting attacks on those uncovering stories of violence or attempting to provide any kind of help to adivasis is extremely distressing and points towards the failure of rule of law and justice in the State. PUDR demands
1) The harassment of Bela Bhatia along with the harassment of her landlady and her family should stop immediately. Their safety should be ensured and steps should be taken to make sure Bela Bhatia is not hounded out of her residence.
2) Action be taken against members of the vigilante group AGNI for threatening and harassing Bela Bhatia.
3) The immediate removal of IG SRP Kalluri under whose regime atrocities against adivasis and activists have increased with utter impunity.
4) The harassment of activists, lawyers and journalists in Chhattisgarh should stop immediately.
Cijo Joy and Anushka Singh
24 January 2017