“Physical beating is a very common thing.” Social activist and researcher Bela Bhatia’s face was pinched with pain as she spoke about the violence that is a reality in the lives of people in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. She spoke about how people can readily show you their bruises as though there’s nothing unusual about being so brutally beaten and about adivasi farmers who were beaten to death by security forces. These are stories that seem far removed from our world, but in Chhattisgarh, they’re the norm.
Bhatia has worked with the tribal, Dalit and other backward communities for the past three decades. She has been working in Chhattisgarh since 2006 and has been living there since 2015. Recently, Bhatia has been in the news because she was threatened by the recently-disbanded Samajik Ekta Manch and its women’s wing. Last month, a rally was taken out in the hamlet that Bhatia lives in, demanding that she leave Bastar. There have also been demands for her to be charged under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. Bhatia believes she’s been targeted because she helped a number of tribal women register FIRs against security forces for gang rape.
While in Delhi for a press meet organised by Amnesty International India, Bhatia was part of the panel that released a 24-page report titled Blackout in Bastar. The report outlines how journalists, activists and lawyers are being stifled in Bastar. It also urges the government to ensure “effective investigation” into these attacks and demands that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act be repealed. At the conference, Bhatia spoke about the increase in fake encounters and “forced surrenders” in Bastar in the past two years. She drew attention to the “acute militarization of the state [Chhattisgarh]” and the high level of impunity that the security forces enjoy. Other speakers who shared their experiences were Isha Khandelwal from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and Kamal Shukla, editor of the Bastar-based newspaper Bhumkal Samachaar.
Speaking to Newslaundry just a few hours before she would return to Bastar, Bhatia spoke candidly about the tensions present in the place she now calls home and the daily lives of the locals of Bastar caught in the crossfire between the security forces and the insurgents.