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.