In July 2013, four lawyers—Isha Khandelwal, Parijata Bharadwaj, Rupesh Kumar and Shalini Gera—came to Jagdalpur, the district headquarters of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, and established the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JLAG). JLAG has been doing crucial work in the region by providing legal assistance to prisoners under trial in southern Bastar. Last year, in October, The Bastar Bar Association reportedly passed a resolution at their general body meeting. This resolution prohibited any lawyer from “outside” from practicing in the Jagdalpur courts, effectively barring Gera and Khandelwal, both of whom are registered with the Delhi State Bar Council.
Today, at around 3.30 pm, Khandelwal and Gera sent out a letter in which they detailed the manner in which the police in Bastar has been harassing them. In this statement, Gera and Khandelwal acknowledged that, "things have been rocky for us in Jagdalpur for a while now." Last night, the police in Bastar visited Khandelwal and Gera's landlord, who is a driver by profession. His car was impounded and he was dropped back to his home in the early hours of the morning. At 2 am this morning, the landlord, "badly shaken" according to the letter, informed Khandelwal and Gera that they would have to vacate their house within a week. This news comes amidst an atmosphere in which Gera and Khandelwal recount being told, "don't go to Bijapur, the police will arrest you if you go there again. The letter also describes, "a whole week of public lynching of JLAG as defenders of "bloodthirstly Naxalites" by the Samajik Ekta Manch, a vigilante group formed by the police."
Meanwhile, the police appears to have directed its attention towards Malini Subramaniam, the independent journalist who writes for the news website Scroll.in from Bastar. On 8 February 2016, Subramaniam's house was attacked by an unidentified group of people. Before this, members from the Samajik Ekta Manch had visited Subramaniam's house twice and expressed their distaste for her writing. As Krishn Kaushik, a staff writer with The Caravan, noted yesterday, the Samajik Ekta Manch, which claims to "counter Naxalism in Bastar and support the police in its work," appears to be functioning under the patronage of SRP Kalluri, the inspector general of the Bastar range.
Yesterday, the letter states, Subramiam's young household help was called to the police station and kept there for hours. She was called to the station once again this morning and was still there as of 3.30 pm. Subramaniam's landlord was also summoned to the station this morning. He served Subramaniam with an eviction notice upon his return. Subramaniam's husband, Ashim, who was also called to the station today, had not been allowed to leave as of 3.30 pm this afternoon.
Things are taking an ugly turn in Jagdalpur.
First there were whispered threats, "don't go to Bijapur, the police will arrest you if you go there again." Then, there was a whole week of public lynching of JagLAG as defenders of "bloodthirstly Naxalites" by the Samajik Ekta Manch, a vigilante group formed by the police. At the same time, the local Bar Association again renewed their campaign to stop our practice by harassing the local lawyers standing with us.
Then, late last night, police visited our landlord—who is a driver by profession—and took him away to the police station. He was kept there till wee hours of this morning, and dropped back in a police vehicle; his car having been impounded. Our badly shaken landlord informed us at 2:00 am this morning that he has no option but to ask us to vacate our house and office within a week.
Things have been rocky for us in Jagdalpur for a while now. For a year and a half now, we have been hounded by the local police. From giving thinly veiled threats at press conferences that the police are closely monitoring NGOs providing "legal aid to Naxalites", to informing our clients that the police are about to arrest us for our Naxalite activities, to claiming before visiting journalists and researchers that we are merely a "Naxalite front", various officials of the police have been out to get us.
We have had police diligently investigating "anonymous" complaints that we are "fraudulent" lawyers. For which, we had to make multiple trips to the police station with all our impeccable certificates and sound credentials. Then the local Bar Association, clearly prompted by the police, took out a resolution prohibiting our practice in the local courts. We countered this by challenging this resolution in the State Bar Council and obtaining an interim order allowing our practice. Unable to get at us any other way, now, the police are resorting to pressuring our landlord and his family.
The timing of these events does not escape our notice. This is coming at a time when the whole countryside of Bastar is on fire. Under the guise of anti-Naxal operations, the security forces are indulging in rape, pillage and plunder. With teams of women activists, we have documented at least three cases of mass sexual violence in the past three months itself, where security forces have run amok in the villages, stripping women, playing with their naked bodies and indulging in gangrape, looting their precious food supplies, and destroying their homes and granaries. The number of so-called "encounters" is at an all-time high, people are simply "disappearing" from villages in large numbers, only to show up in the list of "surrendered" or "arrested" Naxalites several days or weeks later. The local police and administration are talking in one voice of "clearing" the area within one year.
In this scenario, all who are challenging the official narrative, are being silenced. Social mobilizations are being orchestrated by the police to provide a cover to their illegal harassment of journalists, lawyers, activists. When mass gangrapes in Bijapur were being uncovered, a group calling itself the "Naxal peedit Sangharsh samiti" under the leadership of the ex-Salwa Judum leader Madhukar Rao, took out noisy belligerent rallies against Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia and "outside NGOs", threatening all of us with physical violence if we entered Bijapur again. When Malini Subramaniam wrote about the fake surrenders of Maoists, or the fake encounters, a motley group led by the nephew of the local MLA, calling themselves the "Samajik Ekta Manch" launched a vilification campaign against her. When we tried to get her complaint of stones thrown into her house registered, the Manch publicly declared us as their next target, for defending "khoonkhar Naxalites" ( खूंखार नक्सली - dreaded naxalites) and going to villages inciting people against the state.(राज्य सत्ता के खिलाफ भड़काते हैं). The local Bar Association also renewed their fatwa against local lawyers working with us.
Unable to stop us from continuing our work here, the police have now resorted to threatening others associated with us. Prachi, the young household help working at Malini's, was summoned to the police station twice yesterday for interrogation, and kept there for hours. Despite the clear letter of the law that women witnesses can only be examined at their place of residence, she was taken away to the police station late at night for questioning, much to the alarm of her family. She has been taken to the police station again this morning and is still there. Malini's landlord,who lives in Raipur, was also summoned to the thana this morning, and by now has also issued an eviction notice to her. Malini's husband, Ashim, who was called inside the thana in the afternoon, is also now being held inside and not being allowed outside.
Our landlord, a person of very modest means, is also a member of the minority community, and vulnerable in this climate of pervasive fear. Our landlord's family have always had the greatest love and concern for us, which we return in equal measure. We understand that they had no choice this time but to ask us to vacate. We also understand that it would be exceedingly difficult to find another rental place in this time of inflamed passions and provoked agitations. We are still trying.
We take solace in the despair apparent in the highest echelons of police, who have had to stoop to such crude levels of indecency to throw us out of Jagdalpur.