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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 6, January 30, 2010

In the Land of Gandhi....

Monday 8 February 2010, by Preeti Chauhan

(This article was sent on January 4, 2010. We are publishing it in view of the validity of its essential contents. —Editor)

Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian working amongst the adivasis of Dantewada is sitting on an indefinite fast since December 26, 2009. He had planned a padayatra beginning December 14, 2009, followed by a satyagraha, finally culminating in a jan sunwai (public hearing). He was denied permission to do the padayatra and hold satyagraha in Dantewada for the SP of Dantewada felt the place was too sensitive for such calls. Himanshuji’s Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) had been working in the area on issues of health, education, sanitation, water conservation since 1992.

Earlier, in May 2009, the VCA premises were demolished in the most high-handed manner. In November, VCA activists were instructed not to visit the villages in Dantewada. A group of women from across the country, travelling to participate in the proposed padayatra and satyagraha, were stopped in Raipur, humiliated and finally not allowed to reach Dantewada. On December 10, 2009, as if to mock at the International Human Rights Day and human rights workers, one of its main activists, Kopa Kunjam, was picked up along with a lawyer Alban Toppo. Alban was let off after some beating but Kopa was slammed with murder charges and languishes in jail facing torture our police has so well mastered! Another of the VCA’s activists, Sukhnath, has also been falsely implicated and booked under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Moreover, the VCA has been asked to vacate the rented accommodation from which it was functioning as the landlord is under pressure by the administration to do so. The VCA’s work has thus been literally brought to a halt by the administration. Yesterday, a tribal girl, Shambho, who has a bullet injury in her leg and was coming to Delhi for treatment, was detained at the Kanker Police Station. Her medical condition is precarious and she needs proper medical care as she has steel rods placed in her leg that require antiseptic treatment everyday. She was shot at by the SPOs, police and other security forces on October 1, 2009 in her village Gompad when they allegedly went there for combing operations during Operation Greenhunt. The VCA helped her get treatment in Delhi and she was at the VCA since her return from Delhi.

It is not too difficult to see why the VCA has been targeted. It has been at the forefront in raising and documenting the atrocities on innocent adivasis by the Salwa Judum, CRPF and police combine on the pretext of fighting Naxals in Dantewada. The VCA has consistently exposed the lies of the government, for example, on the Singaram ‘encounter’ in which 19 tribals were killed on January 8 last year. One of the women killed in that encounter was declared a Naxal commander by the police. The VCA filed an RTI and the same woman was there in the voters’ list of Singaram village which was revised just three days before the so-called ‘encounter’. The VCA raised a simple point: if she was a Naxal commander she must have been declared an absconder and hence should not have been listed in the voters’ list. And it filed a petition in the Bilaspur High Court along with the family members of the victims.

Since last year the VCA had been trying to rehabilitate displaced people in their villages which is nothing but the implementation of the Supreme Court order asking the government to do so but the Chhattisgarh Government has completely neglected the order. This kind of repression is being conducted on the VCA despite the fact that the NHRC report, although highly callous about the rampage led by Salwa Judum, has accepted that many innocent villagers have been falsely killed and the incidents should be probed and the accused brought to justice. Is this the way the biggest democracy in the world should function, ruthlessly suppressing the voices of truth and justice? Are we becoming a police state with police trailing every movement of people in the region? Even two Professors of Delhi University, who were there for their research purposes, were not spared. Why?

Four of the adivasi girls from Samsetti village, Sukma block of Dantewada, who were raped by the Special Police Officers (SPO) two years ago, were again picked up by the same SPOs when their cases were to come up for hearing in the courts. They were beaten, illegally kept at the police station for five days, their thumb imprints taken on a blank sheet to say that Himanshuji had pressurised them to level false charges of rape. The girls and their village were threatened with dire consequences if they dare pursue the case. As a result the women refuse to come out and talk to people who want them to tell the truth of police atrocities. These are as much cases of unauthorised, unabashed use of power as one has witnessed in the case of the molestation of Ruchika Gihrotra. That it took 19 long years for the case to reach a shameful conclusion of six months of imprisonment was testimony to the systematic denial of justice. The way the DGP used his position of power to delay, threaten the witnesses, the victim’s family is now well known. Similar unlawful things are happening with these four tribal girls but one hardly even knows about their existence. One can easily imagine what kind of procedures, rule of law will be followed in a remote village of Dantewada when, despite sustained attempts and media outcry, justice continues to elude Ruchika’s family.

Our Home Minister P. Chidambaram has been ‘very unhappy’and rightly so with the way charges have been framed, trial conducted and punishment of the accused in Ruchika Gihrotra’s case. One also hopes that he will pay some heed to the gross atrocities being silently perpetrated on the adivasis of this country. He must not be unaware of many such incidents regularly taking place in Dantewada since the inception of Salwa Judum and now in other official strategies to fight Naxalism. The Home Minster had agreed to come for the proposed Jan Sunwai on January 7 but such repression has followed since then as described above that it is highly unlikely that people will be able to come out with their grievances. There is complete silence on Himanshuji’s fast though it’s entering its eleventh day, as if all is well in our democracy, as if the issues he is raising are of no use! The Home Minister needs to break the deafening silence and answer these questions: are the tribal people of Dantewada not citizens of this country? Are they not supposed to have a say in the development of this country? Why are they expected to keep quiet as their resources, livelihood and lives are snatched away for the benefit of a few?

The way the armed SPOs, Salwa Judum have come to work with complete impunity in the name of fighting Naxalism, despite regular complaints and documentation against them, is really bad omen for our country as a democracy cannot allow such bypassing of procedures laid down by law, curtailment of space for dissent to such an extent as one witnesses in Dantewada today. We need to ask ourselves: is this the only way to fight the Naxalites?

There cannot be a bigger irony and shame that in the land of Gandhi, even the tools used so much by the Father of Nation in our independence struggle such as padayatra and satyagraha are not permitted to highlight the injustices being perpetrated by our own government against our own people!

The author is a Ph.D student, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

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