In an appeal to the Chhattisgarh Government to restore ‘Rule of Law’ in Bastar, several prominent members of civil society have voiced their anguish at police inaction against vigilante attacks on lawyers, activists and journalists in the past several months.
Reiterating the right of scholars, researchers, journalists and Human Rights activists to visit Bastar freely and interact with people without harassment by police and vigilante groups, civil society members have demanded an end of state support to vigilante groups that do not respect the law and human rights.
Critical of police inaction despite availability of video footage on the recent attack by a mob on researcher and activist Bela Bhatia, the members in a statement demanded that security forces and state institutions be made to work within the law.
Former Law Commission chairman AP Shah, eminent lawyers Gopal Subramanium, Indira Jaising, Rajeev Dhavan and Yug Mohit Chaudhary, writer Arundhati Roy, historians Ramachandra Guha and Dilip Simeon, actors Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, Consulting Editor of The Times of India Swaminathan S. Aiyar and NDTV Managing Editor Sreenivasan Jain, former Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed and academics Jean Dreze and others are among more than 125 signatories to the ‘Bastar Declaration’.
Bhatia, the statement points out, has been living and working in Bastar peacefully for the past two years. But days after she had assisted a team from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate complaints of sexual violence by security forces, a mob attacked her house, threatened to burn it and ordered her to leave within 24 hours or face the consequences.
The declaration says, “There have been many other recent cases of harassment of people who speak up against human rights violations in the area. To the best of our knowledge, no action has been taken against anyone in any of these cases.”
While these are just a few incidents that came to the notice of the national media because the victims were prominent and able to defend themselves, larger numbers of local people, men and women, have been victims of worse human rights abuses from the police and security forces for several years.
The situation has been made worse by private vigilante groups which have also participated in recent acts of harassment of independent observers. There is evidence of police support for these outfits—first the Salwa Judum (banned by the Supreme Court), then the Samajik Ekta Manch, and more recently the so-called Action Group for National Integration (AGNI), the statement adds.
Video footage of the recent attack on Bela Bhatia was circulated by one AGNI member on social media. Last October, uniformed personnel of the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force burnt the effigies of six human rights activists in public, calling them “anti-national”—but no action was taken against them.