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Continuing Conflict

An Open Letter to the Chief Justice of India

Honourbale Sir,
We wish to draw your attention to the recent incident of physical attack on AAP leader, Soni Sori by unidentified men near Geedam town on the night of 20th February 2016. The attackers threw some black substance on her face which caused immediate burns and pain. Consequently, she has had to be hospitalised. This attack comes close on the heels of the eviction drives against lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag) and journalist Malini Subramanium. All three have been given notice to find alternate accommodation. There is also news of a similar eviction drive against Bela Bhatia, an independent scholar and activist.

It is obvious that these attacks are part of a wider campaign launched by the police along with state sponsored vigilante groups such as the Samajik Ekta Manch and Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti. Undoubtedly, such harassment is not new and these incidents fall in line within the longer history of intimidation that have been carried out against inconvenient individuals who have spoken against the state. Soni Sori has personally experienced this brutal history, and the honourable apex court had intervened in her matter and granted her permanent bail in February 2014. Like in the past, the present attacks are part and parcel of the state's strategy of silencing dissent, particularly since there is an accelerated offensive in South Bastar. In the last six months the war strategies have escalated and even the air force has been roped in for 'strafing' a technique of aerial bombing over a specified area in Bijapur on 13th October 2015. As area domination exercises, the security forces have raided villages and arrested people. The coming months have been dubbed as "Mission 2016" and intensified operations are expected in Bijapur, Sukhma and Darbha districts. Already the statistics are staggering as the police has reported 23 encounter deaths and 50 arrests for the month of January alone.

The fallout of this "mission" is not easy to assess as the affected villages are remote and the residents are brutalized and intimidated. A WSS (Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression) team which visited Bastar in November 2015, highlighted repeated acts of gang rapes, looting and other acts of physical violence in five villages in Bijapur district between 19th and 24th October 2015. A recent team of WSS and CDRO (Coordination of Democratic Rights Organization) members have documented similar incidence of sexual violence and physical attacks in Sukma and Bijapur districts and instances of fake encounter and shooting of minors in Bijapur district, between 11th and 16th January 2016. Most importantly, anyone questioning the war or investigating the atrocities committed by men in uniform is being silenced. It is a manifestation of our times that while the adivasis residing in the shadow of security camps have been attacked, plundered, thrown behind bars and left to fend for themselves, those who question and counter, are harassed and silenced. The administration has adopted the time-tested method of labelling critics as maoist sympathizers in a bid to intimidate them. 'Lists' have been created and watches and vigils have been mounted. The recent eviction drives and physical attacks fit in with this larger design aimed against all human rights defenders who have assisted victims and families in filing complaints.

For almost a year, the pressure has been mounted on these activists to desist them from questioning the state. In April 2015, when the present IG Bastar Range, SRP Kalluri, held a press conference he warned that certain 'NGOs' and individuals were aiding Maoists in the name of helping adivasis. On 1st August 2015, he issued an excommunication call against AAP leader, Soni Sori and activist Linga Kodopi after they had done a detailed fact-finding into a fake encounter in Nahadi village in Dantewada district on 29lh July 2015. He particularly blamed Soni Sori for the murder of a local trader in Geedam town on 1st August as he alleged that she was passing on the names of traders to the Maoists who were behind the attack. The defamation campaign gathered force when two journalists, Someru Nag and Santosh Yadav, were arrested for aiding Maoists. The flagrant disregard for the rule of law is evident from the fact that Nag an adivasi journalist, was kept in illegal detention for three days before being shown as arrested in July 2015 and Yadav was harassed and even stripped and threatened with torture, well before he was arrested in September 2015. In tandem, the JagLag lawyers were victimized by the bar association of Bastar district which illegally tried to prevent local lawyers from assisting them on the pretext that they were not registered with the local Bar Council. The brazenness with which they attempted to pass this illegal resolution speaks volumes about the situation in South Chhatisgarh where most lawyers have closed ranks with the administration.

While the present context is a worrying one, we believe that it is a logical consequence of the undeclared war which the state has been waging for over a decade. In this context, we would like to reiterate our reasons for seeking your immediate intervention.

1.   As a war-zone, South Chhattisgarh has witnessed innumerable cases of state excesses and the administration has taken all steps to prevent journalists from investigating and writing about them. Towards this end, Mr SRP Kalluri has played significant roles as SP and SSP Dantewada, from 2009 to 2014 and as IG Bastar Range from 2014 onwards. In 2010, when three journalists were publicly named and threatened in a pamphlet issued by an organization, Danteshwari Adivasi Swabhiman Manch, Mr Kalluri defended the warning and stated that the organization had been formed by the police for the benefit of adivasis. On account of vigilantism and police harassment, two of the three journalists were forced to relocate. Hence, the present harassment of Malini Subramanium is not new; it is part of the process that began half a decade ago when a woman video journalist was evicted from her residence in 2011 for documenting how villagers were seeking compensation for development work in Rajnandgaon district.

2.   Lawyers have been prime targets for defending adivasi rights, not only in Bastar but also elsewhere, especially Surguja. In March 2008, advocate Satyendra Chaubey of Ambikapur was arrested from his residence as the police alleged that he was a Maoist supporter and had taken up the case of a Maoist undertrial. Equally, lawyers who choose to defend adivasi villagers against state atrocities are harassed. Advocates Amarnath Pandey and DP Yadav of Surguja were foiled with a false case when they represented a victim of custodial rape in 2007. Since Mr Pandey had also filed a petition against the fake encounter of Narayan Khairwar who had been dressed in uniform and shot dead by police in 2006, he was targeted by SRP Kalluri, the then SP of Balrampur, the respondent in the above cases. Also, since the unofficial Operation Green Hunt is as much about hunting of resources as about finishing the Maoists, lawyers like Girju Kashyap, have been harassed for defending the rights of adivasis against corporate greed in Lohandiguda. Similarly. JagLag lawyers have been accused of aiding Maoists when they took up the case of Bhima Madkam, an adivasi villager who had been shot at by the security forces while protesting against the arrests of fellow villagers on 17th April 2015. Thus, the present eviction attacks are part of a larger history of hostilities against lawyers who are also human rights defenders.

3.   In this all-out offensive against the adivasi population which includes children and elderly persons, women have been particularly singled out and sexually targeted. Given their poverty and lack of resources, adivasi women of Bastar have little conlrol over their destinies. Most of their menfolk have been killed, arrested or forced to become fugitives in a bid to escape state terror. Along with having to build their precarious lives, these women have been left to fight repeated sexual attacks perpetrated on them by men in uniform. Justice eludes them entirely as sexual offences have been institutionalized and routinized. Impunity is structured at all levels as sexual offences are never acknowledged and perpetrators are never punished. Accusing a man in uniform of sexual offence is not easy and till now only one FIR has been filed in Bijapur PS, on 1st November 2015, under S.376(2)(c) of the amended IPC (punishment for rape by personnel belonging to the armed forces in their deployed areas), for the 2015 October gang-rapes in Bijapur district. In such a context where assaults on women abound, the present orchestrated attacks point to the state's desperation in silencing women activists who have challenged the manufactured lies and untruths.

4.   Greater force has been used in evicting and intimidating activists who are either local or who have worked among the adivasis for a long time. The present attack on Soni Sori recalls the eviction of Himanshu Kumar from Dantewada in 2010. A Gandhian who had worked extensively among the adivasis for long years, Kumar earned the ire of the state and of the Salwa Judum after he filed 522 complaints on behalf of villagers (between 2005 and 2009). First, his ashram was razed to rubble in May 2009 and he was told that he had illegally occupied government land. No records were ever proffered to prove this illegality. Next Kumar rented a house but his landlord, a government employee, was threatened. Despite this, Kumar continued to raise his voice against Operation Green Hunt. Soon, his aides Kopa Kunjam and Sukhnath Oyami were arrested in December 2009 and compelled to leave. Finally, his planned Padyatra was cancelled and Kumar found himself on the run, particularly since he had petitioned the apex court against the excesses committed by the security forces and Judum members, in October 2009. Kumar was forced to flee Dantewada once and for all. Since nothing has deterred the state from committing these excesses, the technicians of war have had the time to master the strategies of harassment, intimidation and eviction.

For over a decade, the state has held that unless the Maoists abjure violence, it will continue to unleash its violence. This monopoly over violence is gilt edged and guilt free as it is accompanied with rewards and promotions and unattended with any punishments. Since this war has never been acknowledged, the gamut of illegalities committed by the custodians of law and order has rarely been prosecuted. It is in this context that the activism of lawyers, journalists, social and political activists located in the war-zone becomes important as they not only provide the much needed support to victims of war, but also create the democratic space for debating and discussing the validity of this war. They remain our channels of information as their documentation, litigation and social activism provide the bulwark for the democracy that has been eroded and corroded by the war. If the state officials and their collaborative forces choose to harass and evict them, then the price of this war will be much greater. It will cost us our democracy.

We urge you to take exemplary steps to ensure safety of lawyers, journalists and activists in these lawless times where the state has failed the adivasis entirely. But for the exemplary work done by these activists, the adivasis would have little hope in claiming their right to legal redress.

Deepika Tandon
Moushumi Basu
Secretaries, PUDR

23rd February 2016

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 44, May 8 - 14, 2016