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'37 yrs in India and I've never faced public hostility, until now'

Jean Dreze | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:04 IST

I was surprised to hear yesterday that some people had come to my partner Bela's house near Jagdalpur and instigated her neighbours against her. They took out a procession in the neighbourhood, shouting slogans like "Bela Bhatia murdabad" and "Bela Bhatia Bastar chodo". They also distributed a leaflet accusing both of us of being Naxalites who are trying to "tear the country apart" - nothing less. Some of them advised Bela's landlady to evict her. Fortunately, Bela's landlady and neighbours are very fond of her and they did not lose their nerve.

Anyone who thinks that Bela and I are Naxalites is seriously out of touch with reality. Bela has already refuted these charges and clarified the nature of her work in Bastar in a statement published in the local media (and also in Catchnews). My own views and activities are an open book. Had the agitators bothered to find out about them, they would have thought twice about levelling these charges.

I am a development economist associated with Ranchi University and the Delhi School of Economics. I live in Ranchi, but I come to Bastar from time to time to spend time with Bela. Most of my work is concerned with hunger, poverty, education, health and other aspects of social policy. I am a close colleague of Amartya Sen, Angus Deaton, Nicholas Stern and other economists who should be sent to jail if I am a Naxalite, according to the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.

Anyone who has seen my writings would know that I do not support armed struggle, though I do support resistance to all injustice through democratic means. I have been a peace activist ever since I read about the horrors of war as a child. I do not support Naxalite violence any more than I support state violence. My own friend Niyamat Ansari, a courageous man who fought against corruption in Jharkhand, was brutally killed by a Maoist squad a few years ago.

According to the leaflet mentioned earlier, I am a "foreign agent" (videshi dalal). In fact, I am an Indian citizen and I have spent more time in India than many of those who were distributing this leaflet yesterday. I love this country, where I have friends from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In thirty-seven years of living in India, I have not faced hostility even once - until yesterday.

The charges of Naxalism are just a pretext. The real reason for Bela's harassment is that, a few weeks ago, she helped some tribal women in Bijapur District to lodge a complaint of rape and sexual violence against members of the security forces. Ever since, she has been hounded by police-sponsored groups such as Samajik Ekta Manch. The people of Bastar, for their part, have welcomed Bela everywhere she went and supported her good work.

Yesterday's demonstration was an act of criminal intimidation. It is also highly unethical. Accusing someone of being a Naxalite, in a place like Bastar, amounts to putting her life in danger. Anyone who considers Naxalites as fair game could act on this and try to harm Bela. I trust that the good people of Bastar will help to protect her.

Jean Dreze

Jagdalpur, 27 March 2016

First published: 28 March 2016, 12:04 IST