Stop The War On Adivasis: In Bastar And Beyond
In her recent visit to Delhi, after the heinous acid attack that left her wounded, Adivasi leader Soni Sori has said that her face today is the face of the struggle in Bastar. It is no secret that the Bastar Division, one of the most militarised areas in the country, is in a state of war and Adivasis, along with their ways of life and anyone who comes to their aid, are under siege. The Indian state has for long been committed to handing over the rich resources of this region to the machinations of corporate greed, while stripping the Adivasis of their rights to jal-jangal-zameen as well as severely damaging the ecology of the region. The state-corporate nexus, aided with a new fervour by the communal fascist government at the centre, seeks to crush all dissent and intimidate/eliminate all witnesses to the daily escalating brutality on the tribals. The Maoists are perhaps only an excuse in this larger process of violent disenfranchisement and greedy accumulation.
The targeted witnesses in the last three or four months, especially, have included Adivasi leaders, journalists, researchers, activists, lawyers and others. The Indian state is increasingly and deliberately trying to create a situation of absolute terror in large tracts of Central India, especially Bastar, Kanker, Sukma, Dantewada, Narayanpur and surrounding districts. Intimidation, both at micro and macro-levels, has reached such proportions that it may be fatal not simply to resist state brutality but even to report or actively witness it. A series of incidents since the autumn of 2015 have marked this escalating violence, which might amount to a clean-up operation – much like the erstwhile Operation Green Hunt – except that in this case a ‘hunt’ has not been officially pronounced. And this might, in fact, make the present offensive a far more insidiously sinister one than its predecessors.
It seems important to recognise both the continuities and differences of the present moment from the past. None of the modalities of violent suppression of the rights to life and dignity of the Adivasis are new, yet they have been scaled up with an alarming kind of brutal desperation. To mention a few of these relentlessly horrifying events: in February this year, the news surfaced that the Chhattisgarh government had cancelled tribal rights over certain forest lands. One report read: “Forest rights of tribals over their traditional lands in Ghatbarra village of Surguja district have been taken away by the Chhattisgarh government to facilitate coal mining of Prasa East and Kete Besan coal block. The block has been allocated to Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) and Adani Minerals Private Limited […] It is the first such order to come to light in India, where community rights of tribals have been cancelled after being granted through the process laid down in the FRA (Forest Rights Act).” Another news report in April read: “In Chhattisgarh, the official junking of the [FRA] law is more candid. In Kanker district’s Rowghat area, the administration, in response to an RTI request, has stated that there is “a bar” on recognising FRA claims or granting such titles in 12 Adivasi villages, since a rail line for a proposed iron ore mine is planned in their area!”
Sexual violence and cold-blooded encounter killings by paramilitary forces, a fairly routine affair in these areas, have also seen alarming escalation. The state of banalised sexual violence reached an unprecedented low when on the 13th of January 2016 women in the Pedras village of the Sukma district were forced by patrolling troopers to submit to a reported “Naxalite test”. A report by WSS on the incidents said that breasts were squeezed and nipples pinched, with the assumption that if they were not lactating mothers, they would be Naxalites. In between 11th and 14th January 2016, the village of Bellam Lendra (Nendra) in the Bijapur District was held captive by the paramilitary – in the name of a “combing operation” – to became a site of loot and plunder, sexual violence, gang rapes and physical assault of over 15 women. People were thrown out of their homes as troops assumed control over property and belongings. The women were threatened, beaten, raped and terrorized. Similar incidents of mass sexual violence have been happening in a chilling pattern. In October 2015, the paramilitary wreaked similar havoc – raping women and looting homes – in Pedagellur, Chinagellur, Burgicheru, Gundam and Pegdapalli. A 14-year-old girl and a pregnant woman were gang-raped. Many women reported being stripped, beaten on their thighs and buttocks, their lower clothing lifted up and being threatened with further sexual violence. The attacks on Adivasi leader Soni Sori (who was earlier falsely charged, raped and tortured in custody) have been relentlessly brutal. Soon after the recent chemical attack on her face, Sori’s sister and her sister’s husband were picked up by the police and withheld in an undisclosed location. Her nephew, the fearless young journalist and filmmaker Lingaram Kodopi, has been facing constant harassment from the Bastar police who have been threatening to frame him in ridiculously false and grave criminal charges, until he declared that he would commit suicide unless the atmosphere of terror in the region was ended.
Since October 2015, journalists, lawyers and activists have been hounded out of the area or continuously intimidated, where even the landlords and domestic workers of targeted activists/journalists have not been spared. In February, lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (founded in 2013, to provide legal aid to activists and ordinary citizens being persecuted by the state) were forced out of Jagdalpur as a result of pressure from the “Samajik Ekta Manch”, a local vigilante group that maintains close links with the police. Journalists Alok Putul and Malini Subramaniam were harassed in the same way, while journalists Deepak Jaiswal, Prabhat Singh, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag were outright arrested. Bela Bhatia, researcher and activist living in Bastar, was harassed, maligned and intimidated to leave the state, when she came up with a strong public statement that reiterated her intention not to leave Bastar under any circumstances. In the midst of all this, around the 17th of March, Dr. Saibal Jana, chief physician of the Shaheed Hospital at Dalli Rajhara, Chhattisgarh, was arrested on a twenty four year old case.
The use of vigilante organisations in order to aid the police in waging war against the Adivasis has been a tactic since the time of the notorious Salwa Judum, yet the current offensive seems a concerted and ruthless effort by many such organisations (including the “Samajik Ekta Manch” and the “Naxal Peedit Sangharsh Samiti”, consisting mostly of ex-Salwa Judum members) along with the police and the paramilitary. There is a lot that does not percolate outside the Bastar Division due to the apathy of the mainstream media (as well as the systematic terrorisation of local journalists): especially news about everyday brutalities, forced and staged surrenders of “ex-Naxalites”, regular cold-blooded encounter killings, ransacking of villages, terrorizing of gram sabhas, as well as quotidian sexual violence and torture. A systematic destruction of all the rights and dignity of Adivasis is under way and this will mean a complete destruction of the ecology of the region as well in the long run. It seems as if the state is willing to decimate Adivasi life itself from its roots, so that corporate profiteering and greed may hold sway. We must resist for our collective good and stand in solidarity with the Adivasis under brutal attack, in this state of undeclared Emergency.
People’s struggle for jal-jangal-zameen, rights and dignity long live!