The social media’s response to any article on Chhattisgarh’s iron fist-style of governance in the Maoist-affected Bastar region is always boringly similar. There will be a (minority) group supporting and sharing the piece, but a far bigger and vociferous section will not think twice before making unsubstantiated accusations against the author: “Maoist supporter”, “JNU-Left intellectual” or “what about Maoist violence?” I do agree with the last question: Those who condemn State-sponsored violence must also condemn Maoist violence and demand more reportage and discussion on it.
Back to the social media issue, it was no different on Monday when I started tweeting from the launch of Amnesty International’s report ‘Blackout in Bastar, Human Rights Defenders Under Threat’. The accusations came thick and fast. I yawned. I find it tiresome to reply to such tweets, but a thought crossed my mind: What would have happened to me if I had tweeted instead from Chhattisgarh?
A minute later, one of the panelists at the launch of the report, the editor of a Bastar-based newspaper, Bhumkal Samachar, Kamal Shukla, said grimly: “One report can kill us or put us in jail.”
He added: “We are always reminded by the state police that our lives will be in danger if we don’t follow the government narrative. And now we have the vigilante groups backed by the state that just make it difficult for independent journalists to work in Bastar”.
Over the last six months, human rights defenders have faced a relentless crackdown by the police and vigilante groups, leading to a near-total information blackout in the state, said Amnesty International India in the report.
Four journalists — Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal — have been arrested on politically motivated charges since July 2015. Another journalist, Malini Subramaniam, was forced to leave the state in February following attacks on her home and police pressure on her landlord.
Political opponents are not spared either, especially those who have tribal backgrounds because they are thought to have deep links with the Maoists. In February, AAP leader Soni Sori, who contested the 2014 general elections from Bastar, was attacked by unknown assailants.
Then there are the cases of human rights activists such as Bela Bhatia and lawyers Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera. All three were harassed by the state authorities: Bhatia for helping tribal women file FIRs on sexual violence, allegedly committed by police personnel and Khandelwal and Gera for providing legal assistance to prisoners since 2013.
Many of their clients are tribals who are accused of being Maoists. What I find more disconcerting is how, in 2015, the Bastar Bar Association passed a resolution debarring lawyers not enrolled in the State Bar Council from practising in Jagdalpur courts, a move which could have been aimed at Khandelwal and Gera. Interestingly, their research showed that between 2005 and 2013, about 96% of all criminal cases in Dantewada resulted in acquittals. Now what does this say about the police? Of course, acquittals only after many undertrials spent long periods in jail.
In this theatre of the absurd, chief minister Raman Singh’s government has divided the citizens of the state — and of India — in a neat binary, and the message is clear: Either you are with us or against us.