Bent backs glisten in the noonday sun, with nothing but a sari wrapped around their waist and over their breasts to shield them from its blazing heat. The women are out, collecting firewood, tending to the fields, or doing the weekly marketing at the local haat (market) that sells everything from fresh vegetables to petrol in bottles- all that can be purchased either for cash or in exchange for grain that they bring from their fields. They spot us, stop and pose for the camera and smile widely. Through the lens though, their faces, each etched with lines of fear, pain and sorrow, belie a different, heartbreakingly bitter truth.
Elsewhere in the country, in the mountains of Kashmir or the rainforests of the North East where the army or paramilitary forces are fighting insurgency or secessionism, the narrative of national security overrides every ideology or political ambition. There is a ready argument for the use of force, one the rest of us in our in our air-conditioned urban comfort zones and consumption-driven lives swallow all too easily. But this is the heart of darkness. Where the “master” wants to tame and civilize those who live in and off the forests and rivers in Chhattisgarh’s bountiful Bastar region. The tribals of India’s heartland – the Gonds, the Dhurvas, the Marias and many others who have lived here for centuries and maintained their cultural and linguistic traditions are caught in the middle of a violent insurgency being fought in their name.
Bastar is possibly one of the most beautiful parts of the country, blessed in every way by nature. Its forests are lush, its rivers don’t run dry, and its lands are fertile. Beneath the earth, its mineral richness has enticed present day prospectors – big industrialists, steel magnates and public sector undertakings. That richness, many argue, is the underlying reason for the violence. As armed Naxals (Maoists) carry on an insurgency against the state in the name of tribal rights to land and tradition, the state has responded with equal force.
The two sides have been locked in a brutal conflict that escalated in 2005 after the creation of the Salwa Judum- a state sponsored anti-Naxal movement- that drove tribals out of their homes in an attempt to clear the jungles of Maoists. (The Judum was disbanded after a Supreme Court order in 2011 declared it unconstitutional). The Maoists in turn unleashed their wrath on the people, holding Jan Adalats and killing those they accused of being “government sympathizers” in kangaroo courts and targeting mainstream politicians, paramilitary and police forces with impunity.
Without emotion, as though she were talking about the weather, Manju (name changed) tells us how she and six other women in her village (Kunna in Bastar’s Sukma district) were subjected to “inspection” by a police party that came through their hamlet chasing a group of Naxals. Fearing harassment, torture, arrest or death, each time forces approach, boys and men flee into the forests, leaving women to face the brunt of the search. While they all pointedly say they were not raped, their stories of physical abuse are horrific.
Manju tells us how she pleaded with forces not to touch her as she was nursing a baby. But that didn’t stop them from squeezing and milking her breasts. Apparently, the locally deployed forces believe that those who are married and have children don’t become “Naxals” and over the last year, activists say checking to see if women are lactating by squeezing their breasts has virtually become standard operating procedure. While the senior-most police officials in Chhattisgarh outrightly reject this idea, in private, police sources in the state capital of Raipur confirm their concern over the search tactics used by their men on the ground, and worry about the tacit approval they claim is given by the Inspector General of Police in the Bastar region.
Kunna is one of the more accessible villages. To meet Manju, we had to drive along the highway through the Kanger National Park to Sukma district, switch vehicles to something sturdier (jeeps are used for public transport in the interiors), and drive for fifteen kilometres through a small patch of forest and paddy fields. But deeper inside Bastar, the horrific accounts of Kunna pale in comparison to stories of rape and plunder.
Activists and lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag) who have been harassed in the district courts, chased out of the region’s main town, and forced to relocate to Bilaspur are fighting cases for 13 women in the Bijapur district who have accused security forces of gang-rape and mass sexual violence in separate incidents in November 2015 and January 2016. In all these cases, FIRs have been lodged after delays and resistance and only with the help of activists, many of them women who are also now under threat. In fact, the harassment is so blatant that when one of the lawyers stopped to meet us, we were chased out of a public park at 6 am. With the lawyer were two girls from Bijapur who have filed a case of a fake encounter against the Bijapur police. They had received a court order for police protection, and the lawyer was making the journey with them to ensure the Superintendent of Police in Bijapur received the order.
In another instance, an 18-year-old boy who was out on bail for a petty crime he committed when he was a minor and was appearing in court on schedule every month was killed by the police on charges of being a Naxal. His sister and his niece (one is married but doesn’t have children, the other girl is single) have been taken away to what’s called the “Livelihood” college after the police claimed they “surrendered”. They want to go back to their families and their fields, but are being ‘trained’ in a skill against their wishes. They tell us if they try to leave the campus, the police will simply bring them back by force.
These few incidents we came across in one short week point to the most depraved, unconscionable rights violations being committed in the name of national security against the poorest, voiceless and most vulnerable of our citizens. On the one hand, armed dadas, as the Maoists are called, terrorize villagers into giving them food and shelter as they pass through in the dead of night. On the other, security forces terrorize them for being Naxal sympathisers.
From the ground, the columns of newspaper space and endless minutes of television in our living rooms are utterly insufficient in their attempts to explain what is going on in India’s tribal heartland. As spectacular as Bastar’s beauty, as distant, unimaginable and uncomfortable its reality. The people of Bastar are not demanding independence from India. It is up to the rest of us, empowered and aware, to point to the differences between the insurgency here and the secessionist movements in Kashmir and the North East, and to question and seek accountability from the state and indeed ourselves for allowing the level of tragedy and deprivation that unfolds every day in Bastar to continue.
– Maya Mirchandani is Senior Editor, Foreign Affairs – NDTV
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.