Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and top officials on Wednesday met activist Bela Bhatia and assured her of safety, two days after a group of men threatened to burn down her house if she did not leave Bastar. Officials said that Bhatia handed over a letter to Singh during their meeting in Jagdalpur, saying that she was “striving peacefully” to live in Bastar as a rights activist and independent researcher. She added that several attempts had been made to intimidate her. Bhatia cited similar incidents involving journalists and fact finding teams and asked Singh to ensure police and state institutions uphold the law. She sought “unrestricted access without interference to independent observers and others who may be residing or visiting Bastar in their professional capacity”. She added that no “state support or sponsorship to private groups that attempt to intimidate or interfere with such visitors or residents” should be given.
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Earlier, Principal Secretary (Home) B V R Subrahmanyam, Special Director General D M Awasthi along with Bastar Superintendent of Police and members of the district administration met Bhatia in Parpa village. Awasthi told The Indian Express that the meeting was to ensure that Bhatia was assured of her safety. “We asked her to continue doing her work without any fear. The SP has also been directed to ensure that nothing like this happens again,’’ he said. “Anybody who works within the ambit of the law and the Constitution should not have to face any harassment and their protection is definitely the responsibility of the state.’’
Bhatia, who met the officials along with her partner and noted economist Jean Dreze, said that she told the officials that there must be a difference drawn between democratic, lawful acts of dissent and underground, armed cadre. “It is anyone’s right to work within the law and the Constitution and work on people’s issues. They said that I should continue to work in Bastar and that safety and security was their prime concern.’’
The meetings came a day after messages from activists from across the country to Bastar police officers seeking assurances on Bhatia’s safety were replied to in an “intimidatory, threatening, and abusive” manner. These replies have been made public. They include replies from phone numbers of Inspector General (IG) of Police (Bastar) S R P Kalluri, with messages like “f u”, “stop bitching” and “Maoists and their dogs will be thrown out of Bastar”. Bhatia said that she raised the issue of the messages. These messages included threats to stone “Maoists and their supporters like you”, and threats to “chappal you”, to various people asking the state to abstain from “backing attackers”.
“I raised the point of the messages and conveyed that this was symptomatic of the hostility that is faced. We do not expect such language in normal conversations, let alone from senior officers of the government,” said Bhatia. Over the past few years the IG has issued statements calling all researchers, fact finding teams and journalists who question police narratives “white collar Naxals”. He has threatened to remove them from Bastar. In 2016, Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and journalist Malini Subramaniam had to leave Bastar following alleged harassment from the police and groups associated with them.