Bastar Solidarity Network hosts event condemning Blackout on Bastar
Kolkata, 21st May — On Saturday, ‘Blackout on Bastar : A war without witnesses’, a public discussion, was held at the Bharat Sabha Hall where people had gathered to talk about and find solutions to the “successive waves of state-directed onslaught” in and around Bastar, Chhattisgarh, that has targeted adivasi lives and livelihood, and has particularly become worse in the past few months.
Besides the raping of adivasi women by security forces, and the jailing and killing of adivasis alleged to be Naxals, the Bastar police along with groups such as Adivasi Ekta Manch (the militant wing of the Samajik Ekta Manch, alleged to be an offshoot of the dreaded Salwa Judum — a militia active in suppressing adivasi and Maoist insurgency till it disbanded in 2011 at the orders of the Supreme Court) have threatened and intimidated activists, researchers and journalists in the area. In March, 2016, two journalists were arrested by the police for publishing reports that didn’t toe the state agenda, following which an association of journalists in Bastar boycotted publishing any story related to Maoists or police, till they are promised safety and the right to report objectively.
The event at Kolkata was organized by the Bastar Solidarity Network – Kolkata Chapter ,a forum comprising of students and activists formed in March around the time of the attack on Soni Sori. They had organized their first public meeting on March 26th, where activist Binayak Sen had spoken.
The speakers for Saturday’s public meet were Kamal Shukla (a journalist from Chhattisgarh), Vira Sathidar (Dalit cultural activist), Sharmishtha Chowdhury (activist and representative of the WSS fact-finding team working in Chhattisgarh), and Umar Khalid (PhD Scholar from JNU, activist of Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organisation, currently working on tribal history).
CHAOS OUTSIDE THE VENUE
Expectedly, a few Hindutva groups had gathered outside Bharat Sabha Hall around 4 PM, an hour before the event was about to begin, and began protesting against Khalid’s presence, and if and when possible, tried intimidating anybody who looked like an university or college student, asking them to go back home. Umar Khalid, who became a household name throughout college campuses because of his involvement in the JNU sedition controversy is now on bail and clearly evoked great passions in the saffron-clad cadres as they went about shouting, “We’ll send this Pakistanis back home, these sons of pigs!”
The groups identified were BJP Yuva Morcha and Hindu Samhati. Hindu Samhati president Tapan Ghosh gave a speech outside the hall, condemning the public meeting and Umar Khalid’s presence, whom he called a “terrorist” and an “anti-national”.
Riddhi Roy, a Kolkata student, later in the day, claimed in a Facebook post that she and her friend were chased by “goons” down an entire block and the police were in no mood to help. She also claimed that a lady activist at the spot assaulted a female student and ridiculed her “for being androgynous in appearance”.
While there was pandemonium out in the streets, the event inside Bharat Sabha Hall went on smoothly. Sananda Dasgupta, a member of Bastar Solidarity Network – Kolkata Chapter said that the police were completely cooperative and they had no problems conducting the event. That said, out on the streets, the police weren’t going out of their way to curtail the mass protests though they did arrest a few Hindu Samhati members.
Till 5:15 PM (the event began at 5 PM), a lot of students and Bastar sympathizers were stranded outside Bharat Sabha Hall unable to go in. The police were closely guarding the hall entrance and being hostile to anybody trying to enter, possibly out of fear of further violence. By 5:30 PM, the saffron crowd had disappeared and everyone who wanted to attend the event got inside the hall.
THE PUBLIC DISCUSSION
Inside Bharat Sabha Hall, a crowd of around 150 people, comprising students, activists, journalists and Bastar sympathizers had gathered. Chhattisgarh journalist Kamal Shukla was the first to go on stage.
Shukla condemned the organized attack on tribals under the support of Bastar Inspector General SRP Kalluri.
He said, “1.5 lakh adivasis have been displaced. 10,000 have been killed. The adivasis have been dehumanized and run roughshod over by the state machinery. Don’t they have rights?”
He cited the example of tribal activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori, who was attacked by “unknown assailants” in February, for fighting for adivasi rights under police threat for the last three years. He said the government are scared of people like Sori and sociologist Nandini Sundar, who has been part of a fact finding team in the Bastar region. Shukla said that the state government is inviting multinationals to come to the area and loot its natural resources from under the feet of the adivasis and since the fact finding team is trying to expose it, cases are being made against them. He then went on to narrate an incident where he was brought to the police station and asked to stay out of Bastar for three years and threatened that if he wouldn’t, they’d use a barrage of “evidence” against him (the police officer apparently showed him a big file) that’d prove that he is an internal security threat. The officer then showed Shukla a video of him entering Maoist camps. Shukla asked the officer to do whatever he wanted to do with the video and left.
The next speaker was Vira Sathidar, Dalit cultural activist and lead actor of the 2014 movie Court, which was India’s official submission at the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film.
Sathidar recalled Sanjay Khobragade, a Dalit who was set on fire in 2014 ,again by “unknown assailants, following which the police arrested six accused. But after two days, the police released them and arrested his wife instead for being involved in the attack.
“In the social rung, the adivasis are even below the dalits. We need to fight for these people as citizens of the country, not just an activist. But the government says that doing so is unconstitutional and it will make you an antinational. Will the government shoot those who try to realize the preamble of our constitution which says that our country is secular and socialist? The state signs MoUs with multinationals whose only agenda is profit, and then they are called patriots and deshbhakts. They claim to love their country and we don’t? Then, it appears that constitution is not socialist or secular. It is for the capitalists. Those who have the duty to make it secular are busy making it a Hindurashtra.”
Sathidar condemned the Chhattisgarh state machinery for trying to silence the fourth estate — the media — for trying to make the government accountable for its crimes. He cited the example of Bela Bhatia, an activist in Bastar, who is being branded a “Naxal”, for trying to file FIRs for the rape victims of security forces.
Sathidar went on to attack the mindlessness of the Sanghis who were protesting outside the hall. He said that they can’t think for themselves and “have no brains”.”The State is not content with a decent man going home and praying to his Hindu gods. They are so insecure that they have to prop up model Hindu citizens, who are actually goons, who scare others to become model citizens and propagate Hindutva.”
Sathidar urged students and activists in the city and all over India to let go of fear and speak out for the rights of the dalits, adivasis and the subjugated.An environment of fear has been established and to get bogged down by it is to become “psychologically sick”. He asked the people to become bhaymukt and to imagine how scared the adivasis are, if they themselves are so scared, so far away from Bastar.
Sathidar then disapproved of the way the government misappropriated B.R Ambedkar, stating that Ambedkar would never approve of BJP’s plan for making “panchtirthas”. He pointed out the irony of the fact that the contractors and engineers behind the Ambedkar memorial, worth 400 crore of public money, belong to the RSS. He said that only when people understand the real Ambedkar, can they stand up to what is happening in Bastar.
Sathidar also questioned the workings of the media. He recalled the time RSS downloaded an eight month old picture of him and Umar Khalid and passed it to the media, trying to portray Khalid as a Maoist. He asked the journalists in the room to go and cover the “adivasis” and take their pictures, instead of covering the “goons” outside.
“Adivasis are the ones protecting our land, rives, trees, our natural resources. They are not the ones encroaching on it illegally. Then, why do they have to pay the price for ensuring that we live comfortably? That is because the real loot lies beneath the ground they live on. We are going to have another three years of this government and it is going to get worse. At such, we might as well jump full-fledged into the fight. Only then, can we realize the vision of Ambedkar, Periyar, Ashfaqulla and Bhagat Singh.”
On the same note, Shukla added that there are at least fifty un-surveyed areas inside Chhattisgarh that don’t even figure on the Indian map. So, when the government sends armed forces there, “woh kya bandookwalon ko apney manengey?”
Dalit activist Manoranjan Byapari who worked closely with Shankar Guha Niyogi (founder of Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha), asked Shukla what movements lost by being icon-centric.Shukla responded by saying that people’s movements cannot be centered around an individual and that ideas need to spread. Shukla added that it is not true that people’s movements are dying as he knows that the number of Maoists are increasingly daily at Raipur, Chhattisgarh, contrary to official reports that Maoists are surrendering, that get planted in mainstream media.
The next speaker on the dais was Umar Khalid, and expectedly, he got the loudest cheers of the evening. He condemned Zee News for consistently maligning the students and activists’ image on national television and called the company “Chee News” which drew hoots and laughter from the audience. In a recent Facebook post, he expressed his resentment against the media house. Khalid added that the attack on students in college and university campuses is a larger attack on the freedom of the country’s people.
Khalid mentioned that in 2010, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that “Naxalism is the single biggest threat to internal security” because Naxals were fighting against corporate encroachment in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Around that time, the Chhattisgarh government had signed around 300 MoUs with various multinationals but the projects were stalled. So, the only way to materialize those projects was to get rid of the adivasis and thus Salwa Judum and Operation Greenhunt was born, and when these did not work, the military-industrial complex got rid of the UPA government and brought Narendra Modi. Consequently, hundreds of projects got cleared overnight. In March, union minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change announced that since the new government came into place, BJP has cleared 900 projects worth investment of 6.4 lakh crore.
Khalid explained how the country is being driven towards becoming a military state. In the midst of a global economic crisis, the Modi government, according to Khalid, has failed to deliver jobs but has increased 49% FDI in defence sector — as a result, one wouldn’t find jobs anywhere except the military and the police. Khalid held the government responsible for the death of Indian soldiers, like LN Hanamanthappa, at the Indo-Pak border because the area is getting more and more militarized over the years.
He also condemned the Modi government’s development model which is based on profit but is not pro-people. This model does not acknowledge the existence of adivasis and anyone else who don’t fit in the vision of the corporate Hindutva agenda, and at such, this “development” is not a solution, but a problem.
Khalid added that Rohit Vemula’s suicide was murder and that he was not killed because he was a Dalit, but he was an educated Dalit speaking against Muzaffarnagar, Bastar and Manipur. He spoke against the privatization and Brahmanisation of education institutions and that the police state apparatus uses scare tactics against students and anybody else who tries to speak against this mechanism. He ended his speech by saying that he and his kind have a relationship of struggle and humanity with Kashmir, Manipur, Bastar and Vemula and that unless there is equality on a social and economic level, equality in politics is of no use, and until we get that, we won’t get the India of Ambedkar’s dreams.
Around this time, reports came in that the police outside had asked the organizers to get Khalid out of the building as soon as possible for fear of violence. Sharmishtha Chowdhury, activist and representative of the Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) fact-finding team working in Chhattisgarh took the mic and passionately spoke against the police saying, “We don’t need the police. We can take care of Umar ourselves!”
She then went on to narrate her experiences as a researcher and activist in remote regions of Chhattisgarh where there are no roads, electricity, proper sanitation, among other basic amenities. She said that the Tendu leaves that the adivasis cultivate barely support them financially and chili farming in Andhra Pradesh is a nightmare to deal with. She ended the speech by urging students and activists to come together and visit such places and get their stories out in the open.
The meeting ended shortly after. No violent or untoward incident occurred when Khalid was leaving. But reportedly, the car he was leaving in, was chased by a motorbike for some distance, till the biker thought otherwise and left.