“This kind of terror, we have not seen before”: An Interview With the Lawyers Evicted From Bastar in Chhattisgarh

Along with many journalists and activists, the lawyers Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera were also forced to leave Bastar. Gera and Khandelwal moved to the state in 2013 to set up the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a non-profit that provided free legal services to the adivasis in the area. HT / Ramesh Pathania
09 March, 2016

Over the past few months, news coming out of Chattisgarh has been grim. Amid long-standing allegations of violence perpetrated by the state police, which include sexual assaults and extrajudicial encounters of locals, many journalists, lawyers, and activists have been forcefully evicted out of Bastar. The police crackdown on locals has escalated. In February, the home of Malini Subramaniam, a contributor to the web publication Scroll.in, was attacked by members of a vigilante organisation suspected of being backed by the police. Later in the month, the tribal activist Soni Sori was attacked; unidentified men threw grease on her face, causing chemical burns.

On 7 March, Krishn Kaushik, a staff writer at The Caravan, and Atul Dev, a reporter at Vantage, The Caravan, met with Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera who were also forced to leave Bastar. Gera and Khandelwal moved to the state in 2013 to set up the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a non-profit that provided free legal services to the adivasis in the area. The lawyers spoke to The Caravan about the administrative decisions that may have led to the current situation, and how the forced evictions are diminishing the meagre support available to the marginalised locals.

The Caravan: What is happening in Bastar right now?

Shalini Gera: In the last three or four months, we have witnessed wanton, large scale violence by the security forces in the villages—something of the scale that we haven’t witnessed in over two years that we have spent there. Violent incidents were still not unheard of then, but this is something entirely different. In two different districts, there have been three cases since October 2015 of mass sexual violence. To someone who has seen things on the ground, it now seems to be their strategy. Sexual violence is being used as a weapon for war, and victimised women are being seen as an enemy of the state. What we are hearing now from the villagers is that people are being picked up in buses and taken. This scale of terror is completely new. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that villages, at this point, are on fire.

Isha Khandelwal: There has been an increase in what the police call “surrenders” in the past 18 months, but there has been a clear change of effect in the last four months.

SG: We believe that the recent streak of evictions—of journalists, lawyers and documenters—is part of this new design. It seems that there is going to be an increase in human rights violations—signs of it are already visible—and they want to make sure that there are no witnesses left. They don’t want any news to come out; they don’t want fact-finding teams going there to document what they are calling a “clearing operation.” In the first 22 days of November alone, there were 18 encounters. Now, the number is 56. These are large numbers. We are talking about 56 deaths that nobody has been able to go and investigate except for the one in Mardum that Soni Sori brought to light. That was the point when all this hell broke loose.

TC: Has anyone from the administration said why the “clearing operation” is happening?

SG: When SRP Kalluri had come in as the inspector general, we presented our credentials to him in the first month itself—since we were going to be working in the area, we wanted to be upfront about it, and go meet him. That was in July 2014. He said that he had recently met with a secretary from the ministry of steel, and that they are planning on setting up an Ultra Mega Steel Plant, or UMSP. He said that this are is really well positioned for industrial development—we have the ore nearby, we have a rail connection, water supply and so on. And he said that the only reason we haven’t been able to develop magnificent industries here is because of this trifling problem of the Naxalites. He told us that he was appointed to clear up this area so we can have another Bhilai or Raipur in Chattisgarh. Since then, he has repeated this on several occasions.

TC: Have there been any indications that Kalluri’s actions have the sanction of the state?

SG: He has certain kind of immunity, and we don’t know where it is coming from. He also said when we met him—and I don’t know if we are to believe it, as it could have been self-aggrandisement—that he had been appointed by “Modiji himself.” That was what he told us.

Either way, ever since the new IG has come, there is increasing pressure on the villagers. In the last four months, we are hearing stories of troops going into the villages. They are breaking homes, they take food stock they can use and destroy the rest. They are also killing the cattle now.

IK: They take everything useable: cooking oil, salt, grains—whatever people have in their homes—breaking or destroying everything else. They take clothes as well, and tear the ones they can’t take. The message is this: it is not just about our greed. We will not let you guys survive here. You are going to be punished for being here.

SG: All this is happening from village to village—areas that they have demarcated as enemy territory. So people living in those villages are also enemies—not citizens. This kind of terror, we have not seen before. All this started from October. Maybe it has something to do with Ajit Doval’s visit which may have resulted into a new strategy for countering Naxalism in the area.

IK: We have been told this in as many words by different people in the administration. They said that Ajit Doval came, and there has been a change in strategy about how to deal with the situation. They have decided that they want to clear this area of all Naxalites in this year without any distractions.

TC: In a recent article, Nandini Sundar said that the District Reserve Groups are the return of the Salwa Judum.

SG: We are seeing that the DRGs are being increasingly used in police operations. Earlier, most of the men in the force were Hindi speakers, but now the people who are coming speak Gondi. Some of them have also been recognised as surrendered militants.

IK: The people they are recruiting now are local youth. Many of them are from the same area, and DRGs were being kept on the front when these operations happened—that’s how people recognised them. So only the names of these locals come up when victims are later asked about it. Nobody is able to recognise the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] or state police personnel.

SG: Just like they used victims of the Naxal violence in the Salwa Judum, here they are using surrendered Naxalites—or what they call surrendered Naxalites. It also has the same strategy of pitting locals against locals. There are police camps coming up at every four or five kilometres. Entire villages are now living under their watch.

IK: As I understood from one of the cases that we had taken up, it is DRGs that are being used for jobs such as defusing a live bomb—something they have not even been trained for. I was shocked when someone from the police told this to the court.

TC: What were the kind of cases were you working on? Now that you have been evicted, what is going to happen to them?

IK: There are some local lawyers who are still there who have been kind enough to take over our cases. Some of the cases were very political—there was one about threats issued to two local journalists for their stories. We are still Soni Sori’s lawyer in the Essar case [In 2012, Soni Sori was charged with extortion and unlawful activities for allegedly accepting money from the multinational corporation Essar, in return from protecting the company’s operations in the state from the Maoist groups. Sori has denied the charges, and claims that she was framed by the police], there are some mining related cases. But apart from these big ones, there were also cases where random villagers had been picked up by the police.

SG: They pick people up from wherever they want. There are no procedures involved. Someone taking a shower in some pond, people hanging around a school, people who don’t know the N of Naxalism or the M of Maoism, people who had been picked up simply because the police needs to show that they are working. We also had some of these cases. We are also worried about the lawyers who are still fighting the cases, but these people have been doing that since much before we had gone there.

IK: There were certain questions that we were raising in certain cases, such as those dealing with illegal detention and custodial torture. But it would be difficult for the local lawyers to do that.

SG: If we had stayed away from raising these uncomfortable questions and operated in the manner that local lawyers do there, I do not think we would have been perceived as a threat. But we were filing those petitions. Even outside of the court, we used to show up in the police station if some incident had taken place. We tried to push them to work. But we could do that because we were in a position to do so. If they could force us out, what do you think will they do to the locals who try to bring attention to these things? It is easier for us to pack our bags and go, but these people live there—with their families, their kids. Where can they go?

TC: Is Soni Sori going back to Bastar? Has the administration assured her of security?

IK: Yes, she will be going back, but only after she has fully recovered. They had offered her Y-grade security [a security coverage of 11 people, one the highest grades in the nation], but she has rejected the proposal. She said that it is not just about her. If the security has to be given, it should be given to every local living in Bastar.

This interview has been edited and condensed.