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'I will not leave Bastar': activist Bela Bhatia in an open letter

Bela Bhatia | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:02 IST

The threat

  • Activists and journalists are facing threats in Bastar. Many were driven out
  • Bela Bhatia is a researcher & activist in Bastar. She has refused to leave. Here\'s her open letter

The letter

  • People who speak of Adivasi rights & rule of law are labelled as Maoists
  • Democracy is not just a form of govt. It\'s a value system which needs to be fought for

More in the story

  • How activists & journalists are being hounded in Bastar
  • What are the allegations against the security forces?

Bela Bhatia is an independent researcher, writer, sociologist and social activist. She did her PhD degree from Cambridge University. Bhatia has been working among the Adivasis of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh for many years. She was forced to leave Chhattisgarh soon after members of the Legal Aid group were asked to do the same. A defiant Bela has written a letter to announce that she would not leave Bastar under any circumstances.

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Here's the letter:

If somebody says you are a Naxal, does that make you one? Would you leave your place just because somebody wants you to? This is what has recently happened to me. I would like to shed light on the truth of the matter and share the circumstances surrounding the entire controversy.

The background

I am a sociologist and a social activist working independently. I have worked in rural areas of many states for three decades. I have tried to understand the situation of the deprived sections of these regions, especially Dalits, Adivasis and other backward communities. I have seen the role of the state in their emancipation or the lack of it. I have witnessed from close quarters, the agitations that have emerged from these segments of society. I have been privy to many ups and downs of these people. My experience has taught me many valuable lessons about the reality of our democratic system.

My journey of three decades has also made me realise the challenges confronting all of us. It is our duty to address these challenges if we are really committed to a constitution that guarantees liberty, equality and fraternity to all citizens, a constitution that not only promises dignity of life to all Indians but also suggests a roadmap to achieve this goal.

Adivasis are being caught in the crossfire between the govt and Maoists. Can you imagine their plight?

Bastar has been an important milestone in my life journey. I have visited the region on numerous occasions during the past decade and stayed among the Adivasis.

All of us are aware of the ongoing war between the government and the Maoists in Bastar.

The smell of gunpowder barely reaches cities like Jagdalpur but war is an everyday reality for Adivasis living in the hinterland. You can imagine the plight of people who are caught in the crossfire between Maoists and security forces for a decade.

The study of mass movements is a part of political science as well as sociology. I have earned Ph.D. degree from the Cambridge University on the topic 'Naxalite Movement In Central Bihar.'

I had chosen this topic because I wanted to understand why some citizens of a democratic nation were forced to pick up arms against the state.

But was the government able to address the root causes of this insurrection? Has the state response actually complicated the problem instead of solving it?

Also read: Why is Chhattisgarh govt scared of human rights defenders?

I worked for Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) for some years after completing my Ph.D. This was a great opportunity to study the Telangana Naxal movement and Salwa Judum campaign of Bastar in great detail.

I was also a member of the team of experts constituted by the Planning Commission for 11th five-year plan in the meantime. The team was assigned the task of studying all areas suffering farmer's distress and recommend corrective policies.

Apart from D. Bandyopadhyay, BD Sharma, Dileep Singh Bhuria, S.R. Sankaran, KB Saxena, K. Balagopal, EAS Sarma and Prakash Singh, the current National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval was also part of the team. The report presented by the team unanimously stated that the country can only be secure if the fundamental rights of its citizens are protected.

The government should learn from the history. In 1967, landless laborers and small farmers at the Naxalbari village in Siliguri sub-division of West Bengal had rebelled against the big landlords called Jotedars. Their movement was a result of the centuries of poverty and exploitation. These people had lost all faith in the government. They came to the conclusion that the democratically elected government had betrayed the principle of equality and cared only for the interests of the rich upper caste segments of the society.

The eastern parts of India were reeling under severe famine that year and the lives of common villagers were in danger. This insecurity was one of the main reasons for the birth of Naxalism.

Fighting for what is right

I saw many atrocities on villagers during the Salwa Judum movement. Thousands of houses were torched, hundreds of tribals killed and their wives and daughters were raped. Lakhs of Adivasis were forced to flee their homes during this campaign.

A time came when I felt it necessary to help these people fight for their rights. I had fulfilled the same responsibility as a researcher and a citizen in other parts of the country. I started working with the Adivasis of Bastar with the same purpose. I feel educated citizens have a greater responsibility towards the society.

It is our right to expose the truth, ask some hard questions, mobilise the masses, inspire them to break their silence and protest within the democratic limits. Any healthy democracy must not take away this freedom from its citizens.

In Bastar, people who are asking for implementation of the law are being labelled as Maoists

The same principle mandated the revelation of the truth of gang rapes in two villages of Bijapur in October 2015 and incidents of sexual violence in Sukma district last January. We investigated these allegations with a team of women activists from other states.

The victims were presented before the district collector of Bijapur. The administration was convinced to record their statements and lodge an FIR. The eyewitness accounts suggested that police and paramilitary personnel were involved in the crime. Several independent investigations by social organisations and political parties like Sarva-Adivasi Samaj, Adivasi Mahasabha, and Indian National Congress reached the same conclusion.

National Commission for Women (NCW) and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have also probed these incidents. Few weeks ago, some Members of Parliament had also visited these villages to ascertain the truth. Many journalists have also reported these incidents.

These affected villages come under the Naxal-affected areas. But this does not mean that victims were Maoists. We would all agree that the sanctity of a woman's body cannot be violated in any conflict. Rape and sexual violence are an offense irrespective of who commits it.

There are laws in place to deal with such crimes. The police as well as other security personnel represent citizens in a democracy. It is incumbent upon us to expose their mistakes and seek justice for the victims. It is to serve the purpose of democracy and does not make one a Maoist supporter.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing the same tendency today. I find it strange that people insisting on the implementation of the law are being labelled "Maoists".

I faced the same allegations from Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti in Bijapur when we were filing FIR in the alleged incidents of rape on 20 January. The same accusations were repeated after a week during a rally organised by the same group in Bijapur.

Read more: Sori's nephew fears his next meeting with Chhattisgarh Police will be his last

I spoke to some of the people of this group on 20 January and tried to understand their point of view. They resented that activists like us do nothing for people who suffer Maoist violence.

Jagdalpur-based Samajik Ekta Manch has cited similar reasons to reiterate these accusations against me. It is because of the same allegations that I have been asked to leave Bastar.

An example of a Naxal landmine blast in Sukma district on 17 March was cited to support these charges. The incident took the life of a girl. Nobody can deny that it was a heinous crime. Such organisations are oblivious of the fact that I have raised the issue of Maoist atrocities on several occasions and will continue to do so.

I had come to Bastar to stay. I will try to remain in the district despite everything that has happened. Democracy is not merely a system of governance. It is also a value system. The consideration for the misery of fellow citizens lies at the root of democracy. It requires an open atmosphere where everybody can live without fear. Democracy aims for a society where there is no oppressor and the oppressed. It means a society where everybody has freedom of speech. I hope we will be able to establish such a democracy in Bastar.

Translated by Deepak Sharma

Edited by Aditya Menon

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First published: 24 March 2016, 8:28 IST