The unabashed silencing of social activists and scholars in Chhattisgarh continues as reports emerged on Monday morning that Bela Bhatia, a research scholar who has been in the in the crosshairs of the Chhattisgarh administration for helping Adivasis register cases against police excesses, was threatened to leave her house or face the prospect of it being burned to the ground.
“I have been attacked by a mob of 30 or so men who came in a white bolero-type vehicle and mobikes. This was the beginning. Later it became big and ugly,” Ms Bhatia said.
“They threatened their way inside the house. They said I would have to leave the house immediately or they would burn the place. Somehow I persuaded them to allow me to change and that I would leave the house right then. I managed to call the collector and alert him to what was happening. I locked the house and came out. They had got the landlady to come out and were threatening her that she must see to it that I move out immediately. I kept reassuring them that I would asap. That my landlord and his sons had been called to the thana yesterday. And that they have already communicated to me that I must leave. They were very belligerent and kept threatening to break the lock and burn. The sarpanch had come by then and was watching. After about half hour police arrived from Parpa than a including the thanedar. The belligerence of the mob continued.”
Renowned economist and Ms Bhatia’s partner, Jean Dreze, said that the attack on her happened just days after she assisted a team from NHRC investigate complaints of rapes by the security forces in Bijapur district.
“Just a couple of days after she helped a team of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate complaints of rapes by the security forces near Bijapur (South Chhattisgarh), Bela Bhatia was told by a mob of goons to leave her house in Parpa village outside Jagdalpur or face the consequences.
Already two days ago, goons had come to her house in the middle of the night and told her to leave. There have been earlier threats of this sort also, and her landlord has been under constant pressure to evict her.
This morning (23 January), about 30 goons came to Bela’s house in Parpa and gave her 24 hours to leave. They came in a Bolero-type vehicle (CG173056) and several motorbikes. They were very threatening. They told Bela to leave immediately. They threatened to burn the house, kill her dog, etc., and also threatened the landlady. After some time they barged into the house, in a very threatening manner. Somehow Bela managed to call the local thana. The police came but did not do much to restrain the goons, except when they tried to move again into the house. Bela agreed (in writing) to leave and pleaded for time – a few days. They refused and wanted her to leave immediately. Eventually they agreed to give her 24 hours to leave.”
This method of intimidation follows a pattern wherein vigilante mobs, which have been alleged by social activists and lawyers to be the unconstitutional fronts of Chhattisgarh police, attack journalists, lawyers and social activists critical of the State’s approach in the war against Naxals by threatening them with dire consequences if they choose to continue to assist tribals in the region.
In February last year, members of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group and Scroll journalist Malini Subramaniam were similarly evicted from Bastar after members of the Samajik Ekta Manch, another vigilante front of the police, accused them of providing “legal aid to Naxalites” and forced them to move out of the region.
The Chhattisgarh police and S.R.P. Kalluri, Bastar range’s notorious inspector general of police, are currently the subject of an ongoing investigation by the NHRC. The human rights body observed that there were en masse complaints of rapes against members of the security forces and that human rights defenders, journalists, academics, social activists and lawyers working in Bastar were being framed “in mala fide manner by police to settle scores.” It summoned Mr Kalluri “to explain the allegations of hostility and abuse of power against human rights defenders” but Mr Kalluri chose to abstain citing health reasons, as he has also done in the past.