It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Delhi has turned into a battlefront for the right to dissent and freedom of expression. The last time we witnessed an uprising of such proportions, a 23-year-old student had been raped and murdered on the cold night of December 16, 2012. The outrage, over slogans in a university, is divided this time. But the issues raised are no less important — Do we still respect the freedom to question the government, and will those who stand up for others’ rights be protected?
About 1,500 km away from Delhi, in Bastar, these questions are being raised even more starkly. State repression has steadily turned from slow burn to full explosion.
For activists and journalists based here, routine questioning by the police is an expected hazard, but now arrest is also a real threat.
Local journalist Santosh Yadav has been in detention for nearly five months on trumped-up charges. Even before he was arrested in September 2015, he was frequently harassed by the police (and on one occasion, even stripped and beaten) for reporting on the plight of adivasis in the region.
(Thousands of adivasis, accused of being Naxalites, languish in overcrowded jails in Chhattisgarh. As per data compiled by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, the occupancy rate in jails in the state is 253 per cent, compared to the national average occupancy rate of 114 per cent. In Kanker, it is over 428 per cent.)
Mr Yadav’s lawyer Isha Khandelwal has been providing free legal assistance to adivasis for years now as part of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), with her colleague Shalini Gera. Last week, the lawyers were asked to leave their home by their landlord after he was suddenly called in for police questioning. An eviction notice was similarly served on Malini Subramaniam, who was until recently one of the few national media journalists living in Bastar and reporting on human rights violations.
These activists and journalists have all supported each other. Ms Khandelwal was Ms Subramaniam’s lawyer in her complaint against members of the Samajik Ekta Manch, an anti-Maoist group with links to the police, who publicly declared her a Naxal supporter. Ms Subramaniam had also reported on the arrest of
Mr Yadav under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Both JagLAG lawyers and Ms Subramaniam have been driven out of Bastar now, and Yadav is still in jail.
Soni Sori, the adivasi activist who was raped in custody, and detained for several years, has also come under attack. The assailants who threw a black substance on her on the night of February 20, warned her that they would come after her daughter if she continues to raise her voice against a senior police official in Bastar. Ms Sori had been helping the family of Hadma Kashyap, an alleged “Maoist” whose family claims he was killed in a fake encounter on February 3, to lodge a formal complaint against the same police official.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the hounding out of lawyers and journalists from Bastar, and the attack on Ms Sori, comes on the heels of a series of reports of violence by forces. As the journalist Bela Bhatia has reported, there have been three incidents of adivasi women reporting gangrapes and violence by security forces since November. The police have initially refused to register FIRs in all these cases, and relented only following pressure.
The Chhattisgarh police, seldom shy of dubbing journalists as Maoist supporters, have been quick to also use the “anti-nationalism” narr-ative. Last week, a BBC Hindi journalist in Bastar left an assignment after receiving threats. The IG of Bastar, told the journalist: “There is no point wasting my time with journalists like you. The nationalist media supports me.”
In Bastar, as in Delhi, being branded an “anti-national” now seems to have acquired new meaning. Once you are declared “anti-national”, you no longer enjoy fundamental rights. You can no longer criticise the government, and you are no longer entitled to protection against violence, or justice for abuses. In both Bastar and Delhi, as in the medieval witch hunts of Europe, the fires have been lit, and the mobs are standing ready....