A GROUP of around 30 men barged into the home of activist and researcher Bela Bhatia in Bastar Monday, asked her to leave the region within 24 hours and threatened to burn down the house she rents. They also allegedly forced Bhatia and her landlady to sign an undertaking that she would vacate the house within a day.
The incident comes two days after Bhatia visited the villages of Pedagellur and Bellam Nendra in Bijapur with a National Human Rights Commission team that recorded statements of women who had allegedly been the victims of rape, physical and sexual assault by security personnel between October 2015 and January 2016.
Two weeks ago, the NHRC had issued an interim order stating that 16 women were victims of such acts, after taking suo motu cognizance of a report in The Indian Express. In November 2015, Bhatia was one of the activists who had entered villages deep inside Bijapur, facilitated the registration of FIRs and brought the alleged incidents to public attention.
Bhatia lives in Parpa village on the outskirts of Jagdalpur, the Bastar district headquarters. Chhattisgarh Police said the men were residents of Pandripani in Parpa who were holding a “virodh pradarshan” and had dispersed once personnel arrived. They added that a 15-member police team has been deployed for Bhatia’s security.
“A group of around 30 men arrived on motorcycles and a white SUV in the morning. They said I would have to leave the house immediately or they would burn the place. They were threatening the landlady, too, that she must see to it that I move out immediately.
My landlord and his sons had been called to the police station several times last week on different pretexts, and they had already communicated to me that I must leave. There has been a conscious attempt to manufacture discord between me and the residents of the village,” Bhatia told The Indian Express.
Bhatia’s partner, economist Jean Dreze, told The Indian Express that another group had similarly arrived at her home after 1 am on Saturday night. “They shouted at her to leave the house, but the door was locked and they couldn’t gain entry. On Monday, they were much more hostile, and threatened to burn the house. Under duress, she had to sign a piece of paper, along with her landlady, that she would leave in a day. They were earlier asking her to leave instantly, but after police arrived, a day’s time was given. She does not want to leave Bastar, but she will have to leave her current place of residence,” he said.
Bastar District Magistrate Amit Kataria said he received a call from Bhatia that her home had been surrounded, and “immediately sent a police force”. “There were villagers at the spot. We are not sure at this point about the presence of outsiders. The villagers wanted her to leave and said she was creating problems. There are two or three points in a written application, but these are of a frivolous kind. We have assured her full security and cooperation, and will not let anything untoward happen,” he said.
This is not the first time that Bhatia has had to face intimidation in the village. In March 2016, the Samajik Ekta Manch had called Bhatia a “Maoist” and asked her to leave the village. The Manch was later disbanded following charges that they were being aided by police in harassing activists.
Last February, lawyers of the Jagdalpur Aid Group, who provided legal aid to victims of the alleged rape, sexual assault and physical assault in Bijapur, had said that a similar incident forced them to leave Bastar. The home of journalist Malini Subramaniam was also stoned, with slogans shouted outside her house, forcing her to leave.
Over the past three years, senior police officers in Bastar, including IGP SRP Kalluri, have issued statements calling researchers, journalists, and fact-finding teams “saphedposh Naxali”(white-collar Naxals), often with members of organisations such as Samajik Ekta Manch by their side, with claims that “their days in Bastar are numbered”. Since the start of the year, senior police officers in Bastar have said that their Mission 2017 was “mission white collar — to rid Bastar of them”.
Last November, Chhattisgarh Police had registered an FIR, on charges of the murder of a tribal man against professors Nandini Sundar, Archana Vijay and other members of a fact-finding team that had visited the region in May. At the time, the NHRC had said that this gave credence to the belief that this was “part of state police vendetta against lawyers, journalists and human rights activists who have been critical of fake encounters, mass rapes, arson by security forces”.
In October, days after a CBI report held security personnel responsible for arson related to the alleged burning of homes, constables had burnt effigies of activists, included those of Bhatia. The NHRC said that it had taken suo motu cognizance of this as well, considering these as “unprecedented acts of hostility and indiscipline”.
Monday’s incident triggered an outcry, with the Opposition Congress hitting out at the “intimidatory tactics” and saying it was “entirely unacceptable”.
T S Singhdeo, Leader of Opposition in the Chhattisgarh assembly, said, “This is symptomatic of what is happening in Bastar, that anybody with a contrary opinion is hounded. This is not even a question of breaking a law, just a contrary voice. When something like this happens, it is the beginning of the end of democracy.”