"Ve darte hain
Kis cheez se darte hain ve
Gola-barud/ police-fauj ke bawajood
Ve darte hain ki
Ek din nihathe aur garib log
Unse darna band kar denge..."
(They are afraid
with all their riches/weapons/ army and police
They fear the day
when the poor and the unarmed
will stop being afraid of them.)
The essence of this poem by the famous Hindi poet Gorakh Pandey finds resonance in the forests of Chhattisgarh's Bastar. One cannot help asking whether this Naxal hotbed is still a part of the country or not?
On Friday, two young writers must have asked themselves the same question. The duo was arrested by the Bastar police and kept in custody for hours.
The writers tried to reason out with the cops that they were writing a book on the persecution faced by the Adivasis. "Better write some comedy play. Don't waste your ink by writing on Bastar," they were curtly told by the policemen.
Ramnik Singh from Mumbai and Shivam Sharma from Mumbai wanted to meet a woman called Nirmala, lodged in Jagdalpur jail since 2007. They reached the jail at around 9 am on Friday. The jail authorities told them that registration is necessary for meeting an inmate. The writers furnished their ID proofs and registered themselves.
The jail superintendent Amit Shandilya then gave them permission to meet Nirmala. However, both Ramnik and Shivam were arrested at around 12 noon from the jail premises. Before they could understand anything, they were whisked away to the Kotwali police station.
Ramnik and Shivam kept asking why they were arrested. All they got as an answer was a lecture on how Maoism had pushed Bastar into dangerous terrains. The police personnel told the writers that Nirmala was a hardcore Maoist with there were 150 cases pending against her.
They also admitted that 30 additional cases were slapped against her and blamed the judicial process for her acquittal in almost all of them.
"While there are still a few cases pending against Nirmala, a Maoist is still a Maoist," the writers were reportedly told.
Ramnik and Shivam wanted to know why they cannot write about Nirmala, especially when the cases against her were being quashed by the court one after another.
One of the cops purportedly explained that the Bastar police had a "nationalistic ideology" and anybody writing about the insurgents was a Maoist in their viewpoint. Furthermore, the writers were accused of being a part of the urban network of the Maoists.
The social network
Meanwhile, the news of the arrests went viral on social media and other platforms. This forced the police to release Ramnik and Shivam, but not without a warning that "even thinking about Bastar was a crime in their eyes, let alone writing about it."
While both the writers were lucky enough to escape the predicament faced by several Adivasis, social activists and journalists, who have remained behind bars for years, in some cases on flimsy grounds, they are still mulling the option of taking legal action against the Bastar police officials.
Alleging that their rights as a citizen has been violated, the writers have stated they were consulting legal experts on the matter.
Arrests not unprecedented
Bastar has been a witness to arbitrary arrests by the police in the past. The anti-Naxal operation is often used as a ruse to muzzle the freedom of expression in the region.
Several journalists like Malini Subramanian, Deepak Jaiswal, Prabhat Singh, Somaru Nag have been at the receiving end of police atrocities. Another scribe, Santosh Yadav, is still behind the bars. The Supreme Court has issued a notice to the state government over his arrest.
The Adivasi activist and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Soni Sori has faced unimaginable torture for raising her voice against fake surrenders and framing of innocent Adivasis. The police went to the extent of stuffing her private parts with stones. Lately, she was attacked with chemicals, allegedly on behalf of the local police.
The Bastar police weren't kind either to Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar and JNU professor Archana Prasad's visit to Bastar. Even the Union Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Prakash Javdekar had shown special interest in their visit.
Soni Sori had recently led a foot march that culminated in Gompad with the hoisting of the tricolour on 15 August. She and her supporters were frisked at the gunpoint in Konta and Murliguda by security forces. Some of the activists were even asked to remove their clothes.
The arrest of the two writers has evoked a sharp response from social activists and human rights groups. Lakhan Singh, the state president of People's Union for Civil Liberties, has accused the state government of handing over the Bastar region to the police. "This is the reason the police is treating the citizens of Bastar in an autocratic way," he alleged.
In the eyes of the police, every Adivasi living in Bastar is a Maoist and writers, social activists and lawyers supporting their cause, are the supporters of Maoism that they also must crackdown upon.