Since she moved to Bastar, Chhattisgarh, in 2015, Bela Bhatia has often endured threats and even attacks by state-backed vigilantes, who accuse her of being a “Naxal sympathiser” – even though she has condemned Maoist violence – and seek to hound her out. But her resolve to expose the murder, rape and illegal incarceration of Adivasis by Indian security forces is undented. In her own unassuming way, the researcher, activist, writer and lawyer continues to fight for the rights and dignity of a marginalised people caught in a bloody conflict that rarely attracts national attention.
After a mob attack on her rented home in Jagdalpur in early 2017 drew public outrage, the Chhattisgarh government was forced to provide her new accommodation and police protection. It’s a rundown government apartment in Jagdalpur’s Dandakaranya Colony, guarded round the clock by police personnel and Bhatia’s four pet dogs.
In December, when the Congress ousted the Bharatiya Janata Party from power in Chhattisgarh after 15 years, many expected it to curb police excesses and intimidation of activists and lawyers working among Bastar’s Adivasis. Yet, on Wednesday, Bhatia had to undertake a dharna after jail authorities in Jagdalpur denied her basic information about her clients’ cases.
Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel later expressed regret that Bhatia had to resort to a “satyagraha” and assured social activists and human rights defenders that his government would support them. Bhatia welcomed the “assurance” but hoped that “the government will assess all jails in Bastar, ensuring that the rule of law prevails”.
In an email interview with Scroll.in, Bhatia discussed the human rights situation in Bastar, the work she and other activists do, and the many hurdles she continues to face. Excerpts:
Do you see any changes in Chhattisgarh’s police administration and bureaucracy with the change of government?
It’s still early days since the change of government but no change is discernible on the ground yet. Several cases of serious human rights violations have surfaced recently in Bijapur, some of which occurred after the new government came to power. The people of Bastar have suffered in myriad ways because of counterinsurgency operations over the last 14 years. The Congress, while in Opposition, was party to the shape the counterinsurgency operations took, especially the notorious Salwa Judum campaign. I hope the government will not miss this historic opportunity to correct past wrongs and build a culture of responsibility, accountability and transparency, rather than a culture of impunity which has seeped into the functioning especially of the police and the security forces in Bastar.
Only time will tell whether the new government is serious about respecting human rights. I do hope that it walks the talk.
What happened last week when you had to go on a protest? What problems did you face when you asked the jailer for information? Did you get it eventually?
On the evening of January 9, I went to the Jagdalpur Central Jail to enquire about the next date of hearing of three of my clients. As is the procedure, I submitted a written application along with my identity card. After waiting an hour, the chief warder informed me that the jailer, SL Nayak, had refused to give the information and said I should obtain it from the court.
This had happened before. But I was aware that lawyers are entitled to receive such basic information from the jail as well as the court – and I was in the mood for satyagraha. I informed the chief warder I would not leave without the information and since there was no chair I squatted on the ground. After the timely intervention of some journalists I was provided the information at around 9.15 pm, and I could leave for home.
The next day, the jail superintendent, Amit Shandilya, was quoted in the Patrika newspaper as saying, “Paishi ki suchna gopniye hoti ha, isai kaise kisi ko bhi bata dengay”. Information about a court hearing is supposed to be secret. How can it be passed on to just anybody?
To the Dainik Bhaskar, however, Shandilya candidly admitted, “Suraksha ke chalte unhe jankari jail se nahi uplabd karai gai.” She wasn’t provided the information from the jail due to security reasons.
You mentioned an earlier incident. What had happened?
During a visit to the jail last September, I was told after being made to wait two hours that the information I had sought regarding my client’s case, including the date of the next hearing, could not be given. But the jailer refused to put this in writing. Instead, absurdly, I was told to file a Right to Information application. I did but have still not heard from the Public Information Officer (the time limit for responding is 30 days). In the intervening months, there have been 10 hearings of the case.
I noticed during that visit that some lawyers could walk in without any problem which made me feel I was being accorded “special treatment”.
I returned from the jail having spent over three hours for information that should have taken only a few minutes to give. I was shocked that there was so little respect for a lawyer’s time.
What sort of cases are you currently representing?
Adivasis are routinely picked up by the security forces. The case I had gone to the jail to enquire about involves two young women who were taken away from a weekly bazaar on December 14 by the Basaguda police in Bijapur. They were held with two other girls who were later let off, allegedly in exchange for a bribe of Rs 15,000 each.
Another case that I was involved with was of a minor girl from Sameli village in Dantewada district who was allegedly raped by two members of the security forces on September 14. She had been missing for two days. She did not quite recover afterwards and committed suicide on December 30.
I am also representing a young woman and a man from Nulkatong village in Sukma district who were arrested by the police after a fake encounter (as I found it to be during my investigation) on August 6. They are accused of being members of the Maoists’ Jan militia and the Local Organising Squad, respectively.
Everyone knows you as a scholar. When did you start working as a lawyer in Jagdalpur?
I resigned my job at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, in late 2009 with the intention of working in Bastar. However, I had to defer my plan on account of the volatile situation on the ground.
I was finally able to move to Bastar in January 2015. I would have begun my law practice that year but for the trials the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group was facing by the Bar Association of Bastar, ostensibly for being “outside lawyers”.
I decided to wait until my 1989 registration with the Bar Council of Gujarat had been transferred to the Bar Council of Chhattisgarh, which came through in January 2018. My membership of the Bar Association of Bastar was confirmed a few months later, allowing me to commence practice.
In the mid-1980s, when I was an activist with a trade union of agricultural labourers and marginal farmers in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, we had to deal with cases related to land, wages and other issues concerning the rights of Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised people. It was then that I felt encouraged to study law since I could see that it would help in my work.
As an academic, I had hoped to be affiliated with the Bastar University and engage in part-time teaching. But propaganda by the police and vigilante groups – branding me “Naxalite agent”, “white-collar Naxalite” – coupled with rallies and effigy-burnings in 2016 and an attack on my house in 2017 led to the shutting of many doors, including that of the Bastar University. I met two successive vice chancellors and an acting one. I felt they were courteous but clearly considered me “untouchable”. I have not given up on the classroom, but for now it is only the courtroom.