CHHATISGARH: “Democracy is being choked to death in Chhattisgarh” warned Advocate K. Savithri, a member of the Telengana Democratic Forum and wife of Advocate Balla Ravindranath, one of the seven members of a fact-finding team on their way to Bastar who were picked up on Christmas Day by the Chhattisgarh police.

Ravindranath, the secretary of the Telengana chapter of the Forum for Release of Political Prisoners, and his colleagues have been charged under the infamous Chhattisgarh Public Security Act and are being held without bail in Sukma jail.

Speaking at a press conference organised by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) and Citizens for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh, Advocate Savithri gave a chilling account of the condition of her husband and his colleagues in the jail, where they have been beaten, threatened with torture and forced to sign “confessions” admitting to carrying demonetised currency for the Maoists.

(Photograph: Press conference by activists, advocates)

She described the proceedings in the special Naxal Court in Dantewada, where Telugu literary magazines and textbooks seized from the arrested men were presented as “Maoist literature” and where the judge denied bail on the grounds that the team had entered Chhattisgarh without permission.

Savithru spoke of busloads of women and children being presented in court and sent straight into jail without a hearing or any legal representation. Prisoners are brought into court not just handcuffed but chained hand and foot.

Adv Savithri charged Bastar IG SRP Kalluri with justifying the cold-blooded killing of ordinary citizens by branding them as Naxals. “The definition of Naxalite is simply anyone who questions the state” she said. She described how even the local judiciary accepted the police claim that anyone who wanted to enter Bastar for whatever reason needed police permission.

Others on the panel - Professor Nandini Sundar, Advocate Shalini Gera, Advocate Vrinda Grover, researcher and journalist Vineet Tewari and WSS activist Rinchin – described the reign of terror prevailing in Bastar, where human rights defenders have been targeted by the Bastar police and police-sponsored vigilante goons with threats, false cases, intimidation and physical violence.

While welcoming the NHRC order of January 7 confirming that 16 Adivasi women are prima facie victims of rape, sexual assault and physical assault perpetrated by the State police, and holding the Government of Chhattisgarh “vicariously liable” for gross violations of human rights in the state, all the speakers pointed out that reports of fake encounters, coerced surrenders, mass rapes and sexual assaults continue to come in. Sexual violence is being systematically used as a weapon of war.

Nandini Sundar, the lead petitioner in the Salwa Judum case, decribed the attacks against activists as reprisals for their temerity in challenging the police version of atrocities such as the Tadmetla case where the police unleashed a spree of rape and violence on unarmed villagers while burning down three entire villages. She said that the State Government had repeatedly violated the orders of the Supreme Court and the NHRC, and was providing a cover of impunity to IG Kalluri for his illegal and unjustified actions.

While IG Kalluri was proudly claiming to have killed 134 Naxalites during his “Mission 2016”, many of these encounters have been shown up as cold-blooded killings.

Advocate Shalini Gera spoke of one case where a nine year old child was shot and then described as a “dreaded Naxalite”. She described how she and her colleagues who were in Bastar to follow up an a court order for exhumation and a second post-mortem for a young boykilled in a false encounter were threatened by the SDM.

Like the Telegana team, Shalini Gera has also been charged with exchanging demonetised notes for the Maoists.

Activist Vineet Tewari described the poverty and destitution he has seen in Bastar vllages, and the situation of Adivasis who are terrorised by the police. He said that everyone in Bastar is living in fear of police bullets.

Rinchin gave an account of the courage and determination of Adivasi women survivors of sexual violence who have come forward to lodge FIRs, walking for hours to reach the police station, being turned away but coming back again and again until their testimonies were recorded. She said that despite being hindered and hounded at every step, the complainants are determined to fight until they get justice and the offenders are punished. She called on the NHRC to ensure criminal prosecution for the violators, and for the principle of command responsibility to be applied.

IG Kalluri has now announced ‘Mission 2017’ - a war against “safedposh Naxali” (white-collar Naxals) whom he has described as more dangerous than Naxals themselves.

Lawyer and activist Vrinda Grover described the actions of IG Kalluri and his violent vigilante gangs as an open violation of democratic rights guaranteed by the Constitution including the right to free movement, the right to legal representation and equal treatment before the law, the right to dissent and above all, the right to life.

“Why should anyone need permission to enter Chhattisgarh - has Chhattisgarh seceded from the Union of India?” was her question. She said that although the NHRC has ordered the recording of statements of other rape survivors, it is not clear how this will happen in the prevailing atmosphere in the state where even statutory authorities and those who assist them can be threatened and intimidated. How will affected villagers speak out, file complaints, or get legal representation?

Speakers urged the media to break the silence surrounding the situation in Bastar, and join activists in calling for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in Bastar.

(Cover Photograph: Inspector General of Police SRP Kalluri credited with unleashing terror against civil rights activists, lawyers and journalists)