In December 2018, the Congress toppled the 15-year regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Chhattisgarh, winning 68 of the 90 seats in the assembly. In Bastar, the Adivasi-dominated region in the south of the state, it won 11 of the 12 seats.
What swayed the vote in favour of the Congress in Bastar was not just the economic promise of an increase in the purchase price of paddy and tendu leaves. Equally important was the promise of dignity and justice.
Accusing the BJP government of targeting innocent Adivasis in the name of fighting Maoists, the Congress said it would review police cases against them. This raised the hopes of the beleaguered families of Adivasis languishing in jails, as well as the wider community living in constant fear of the police. In addition, the Congress’s promise of restoring the rights of Adivasis to their land and forests created a groundswell of support for the party.
But ten months after they voted for the Congress, many Adivasis in Bastar are feeling disappointed. Last week, nearly 6,000 people gathered in Dantewada to protest against a series of alleged fake encounters by the police. Instead of allowing the participants to peacefully protest, the police arrested Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, on the grounds that she did not have permission to organise the demonstration. Sori, who had faced a slew of police cases under the the previous BJP government, was released on bail the same day. But the episode sparked fears that despite the change in government, there was no space for dialogue and dissent in Bastar.
Strikingly, the arrest took place a day after Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel embarked on a week-long Gandhi padyatra ostensibly “to introduce a new generation to the ideas of Gandhi”. One of those ideas was the right to peaceful protest.
To be fair, the Congress government has delivered on some of its electoral promises in Bastar region: it returned 4,200 acres of land that the previous government had controversially acquired for a steel plant in Lohandiguda through alleged coercion; it reopened thousands of forest rights applications that had been rejected; and it raised the price of tendu leaves to Rs 4,000 per sack. For this, the party was rewarded by voters in the recently held bye-election in Dantewada, the only seat in Bastar region it had failed to win in 2018.
But the electoral victory must not be used to gloss over growing concerns over continuing police excesses in Bastar. In March, the government set up a committee to review police cases against Adivasis in the region but the initiative has failed to make much progress. While the chief minister had said the government would be open to a peaceful resolution of the Maoist conflict through dialogue, it is yet to present a roadmap for it. In the meantime, more police cases have piled up against Adivasis, often on the basis of weak evidence.
A controversial mining project
One of the most glaring examples of police violence has unfolded in villages that have been opposing a proposed mining project involving the Adani Group. The project had received clearances under the previous government allegedly through manufactured consent at a fake gram sabha. When Adivasi residents of the villages near the proposed mine staged a protest in June, Chief Minister Baghel promised to investigate the allegations. But even while the government inquiry was underway, villagers allege the police began to target them through a series of encounters, arrests and surrenders. On its part, the police claims it was acting against Maoists.
It was to draw attention to this troubling pattern that Soni Sori had called for the protest in Dantewada, which the police thwarted last week. On Wednesday, the protest was finally allowed to be held and the government sent two of its ministers to reassure the Adivasis that their concerns will be heard. This is a welcome step, but in the face of continuing police excesses, it might not be enough to restore the goodwill that Adivasis had reposed in the Congress.
By allowing the police to use the Maoist conflict as a shield for human rights violations, the Congress runs the risk of confirming the worst suspicions of the Adivasis that no matter which party is in power, the government cares more for their land and resources than for them.