Healing The Heart Of Darkness


Chhattisgarh state has been a battleground for two conflicting world-views and two models of development that are at loggerheads with each other. Successive governments, representing the interests of global and national capital have been pursuing a policy of emptying tribal villages to hand over the vast forest and mineral resources to private corporations.

The mineral rich Dandakaranya forest spanning over 92,000 sq kilometres spreads across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa and is one of the most militarised zones in India. The CRPT, BSF and local special police forces are waging a war against some of the poorest of poor people of the region. The region is marked as affected by left-wing extremism as for over two decades the Maoists have made the region their base and are supporting the adivasi resistance to corporate take-over.

The region has become notorious for brutal violations of human rights and violence by vigilantes funded and maintained by the state and the corporations.

The vulnerable tribal population is collateral damage in this conflict, which the state prefers to portray as a campaign against left-wing extremism, but the people seeas a campaign to empty their villages.They were already living in conditions of abject poverty, and today their very right to life is under threat.

In the complete absence of a sense of humanity and justice, it is the work of some dedicated members of civil society – lawyers, academicians, journalists, human rights activists, and politicians – that has brought the stories of these people to the outside world. It is the work of these people that has brought the issue back into the framework of Constitutional rights and the rule of law. This is the non-violent way, if only the sworn guardians of the Constitution– the law-makers and the law enforcers – respect the basic Constitutional principles. However, these advocates of the non-violent way are being popularised by the police establishment and the media as “safed poshi Naxalites” or “white collar Naxalites.”

This is the section of India’s middle class, which has not lost its empathy.Despite the grave risk to their own lives, these men and women intervene in such intense conflict situations, pushing all agencies in the conflict to operate within the bounds of Constitutional principles. Who are these people? What contexts shape them into who they are?

Sudha Bharadwaj and Isha Khandelwal are two lawyers who have made it their life’s work to intervene through law in Chhattisgarh to protect the rights of the adivasis and marginalised working people who are caught in the crossfire of brutal confrontation between the state and the Maoists. Both of them were in Hyderabad to attend the 4th National Conference of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) held on 24 and 25 June 2017 when I had the opportunity to speak with them. The following is drawn entirely from what they have shared with me at the interaction.

In her late 50s, Sudha Bharadwaj is a trade unionist, civil rights activist, lawyer, and a singer. None of these fully describe who she is. She is the face of courage, of the struggles of the working people, and the adivasi women in Chhattisgarh. She hails from a background of relative privilege, being the daughter of the eminent economist, and founder of the prestigious Economics Department of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof Krishna Raj.

Sudha graduated with an MSc in Mathematics from Kanpur IIT in 1984. She hails from Karwar, the socialist bastion where leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan worked. She remembers the early influences of political debatesaround her fondly – singing songs like “Surya asthhogaya, gaganmasthhogaya” being one of them, on the streets of Delhi at spontaneous celebrations that erupted after the victory of Vietnamese people in their war against the USA.

IIT Kanpur in those days was considered the epitome of Americanness, being highly competitive. But Sudha fondly remembers Prof AP Shukla, an outstanding teacher of quantum mechanics, a deeply political person, who was imprisoned during the Emergency, as a major influence. It was during her years in IIT Kanpur  (1979-84) that she began to read history, understand and confront problems like caste and labour exploitation following fact-finding visits to places like Unnao where Rally’s factory saw industrial disputes and their brutal suppression.

Going home during holidays, she began to see how Delhi was changing with a lot of construction for Asian Games in 1982 and the large number of migrant labourers everywhere working in barbed-wired concentration camps like bonded labour. Their stark exploitation stood in sharp contrast to the fly-overs and the 5-star hotels that they were helping build.

The disappearance of an Oriya migrant worker after he complained of conditions in the camp in 1983 suddenly brought home to her the need to organise labour. It was a life and death business.

And then in 1984, the year of her graduation, there were Sikh riots in Delhi, and Bhopal gas tragedy later that year that shook up her generation deeply. There were not many NGOs then, she says, and two clear paths were before them–to either pursue a career or to go into social movements.

Around this time, Shankar Guha Niyogi had been arrested under the National Security Act. Niyogi was doing path-breaking work in organising trade unions in Dalli Rajhara area. A campaign began for the release of Niyogi and several student groups including Sudha were a part of the campaign.

After Niyogi’s release he met the students who campaigned in support of his release. Niyogi built a very strong trade union organisation which focused on all aspects of working class lives like education, health, sports – some 17 areas – in addition to working with the industrial and agrarian labour on issues like working hours, minimum wages, compensation for accident victims, through the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha movement that was very active in Dalli Rajhara. It was not trade unionism based on just economism but went far beyond it.

Sudha went to Dalli Rajhara initially to teach children in the schools there, but soon got drawn into the larger trade union movement. The Bhilai Steel Plant area, where a large number of private ancillary industries came up, began to take first steps to organise the labour working in the ancillaries. Then Niyogi and his team moved to Bhilai.The move to Bhilai soon resulted in tragedy.

Sudha explains, “Niyogiji had been organising in the mines since 1977 (in Dalli Rajhara area) and in that long period he had been able to work. In Bhilai it was the private industry. There were really vicious attacks on the movement, and the leaders. Within one year of his entry into the private industrial area, he was assassinated. He was murdered on 28 September, 1991.”

A lot of repression followed. Thousands of workers were thrown out of work. People protested, squatted on rail lines. There was police firing and seventeen people were killed in 1992. Sudha, as an English educated person suddenly had to deal with a lot of legal work. An enquiry on the police firing was going on. CBI’s investigation into Niyogi’s murder was going on. For the first time in Indian history, two industrialists and their henchmen were convicted. But later they were acquitted by the Supreme Court.

Workers from 16 factories, some 4000 of them, were thrown out. All these cases also needed to be handled and it was difficult to find reliable lawyers to represent them. So in 2000 at 40 Sudha studied to qualify as a lawyer and began her legal work.

She discovered early in her practice that the laws that were in favour of the working class are poorly implemented, whether they were labour laws, forest rights laws, or laws for protection against violence. But the status quo law, the special security laws are very strongly implemented. She feels that this problem is going to continue. And whenever people fight in a movement, they need the support of lawyers to defend their rights.

Sudha and her team were also associated with peasant movements and displacement movements. Initially Sudha was representing more labour cases. After winning the regularisation of contract labour case against ACC in 2006, that case came up to the High Court. And here she realised that many flocked to the High Court seeking help, and there was nobody. So they formed a group of lawyers called Janhit, to provide group legal aid.

Sudha says, “If the group is already organised – as a union, as a village community, or even under an NGO or a self-help group –when they fight, it impacts many more people and they get to change something”.Janhit is now fighting some 300 cases, mostly land acquisition, forest rights, anti-mining and environmental cases.

In addition, Janhit is also the legal wing of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, which is a platform for several anti-displacement groups. Sudha is also the General Secretary of People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) of Chhattisgarh. While PUCL has been looking at human trafficking, violence against minorities, violence against dalits, Bastar increasingly has been a focus area with its rampant cases of fake encounters, fake surrenders, and the levels of militarisation.Social activists, people of political parties are being attacked. Increasingly there are cases of persecution of independent journalists, and now lawyers as well, all being called safed poshi Naxals.

Following the creation of Salwa Judum, “strategic hamletting” was done – basically bringing people to the roadside in the belief that guerrilla warfare cannot happen without the support of the local communities –to kill them all. Sudha explains, “By their own admission, the administration says some 644 villages were emptied out. They say that the area had about 3.5 lakh population. Only 50,000 were brought to the camps. Now if say another 50,000 ran away to Andhra Pradesh or Orissa, that makes it one lakh. You still have to account for 2.5 lakh people. So those 2.5 lakh people must have gone deeper into the forest.”

Asked about her family’s feelings about the kind of work she does, Sudha said that her mother passed away in 1992. In 1991, when the new economic reforms were being introduced, the eminent economist would be invited to several meetings by the government for consultation, but often returned disappointed. Sudha reminisces fondly that her mother told her that, “I think you are doing the right thing. May be it’s better to fight from the streets, nobody is listening to us any more”. So Sudha continues to do her work of “Sadakkiladaiaurkagazkiladai” (work on the streets and work on paper) in the badlands of Chhattisgarh.

Isha Khandelwal

Coming into the world inhabited by Sudha, almost twenty years later, Isha Khandelwal is confronting similar issues in equally intense form.

Isha is the second daughter of a retired bank officer from Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh. Her mother was a professor in the government college. She exudes the vibes of a happy, carefree, college student. Growing up in Neemuch with a sheltered background, she confesses with a smile that she barely read anything other than the prescribed text books of CBSE syllabus when she was growing up. Their father encouraged them to watch English news television to learn how to speak English well.

She graduated with a BCA course because she had no interest in Engineering. But while in college her interest in politics began to take shape and in second year of college she suddenly decided that she must study law, more to understand society than to become a lawyer. So she took admission at the Delhi University law programme. That was like homecoming.

She met Shalini Gera who was also studying there and both were keen participants in the Legal Aid Society of the college. For the first time Isha, who hails from Madhya Pradesh, began to know about what was happening in places like Chhattisgarh, because Shalini was involved with Soni Sori’s case. Campaign for the release of Binayak Sen was also going on then. Through Shalini Gera, Isha got introduced to sections of civil society in Delhi, began interacting with human rights lawyers. She suddenly understood that it was to do such work that she wanted to study law. She sees law as a tool to meet ends of justice. If it does not do that, then there is no reason to continue as a lawyer.

Her immediate family, from a conservative Marwadi background, were shocked to hear that she wanted to be a lawyer and that too a human rights lawyer. They thought she was crazy to go to Chhattisgarh to work with the adivasis. Isha explains, “Though ideologically my father is not opposed as he understands that what is happening to the adivasis is wrong. But they are scared. However supportive my father may of the government, he knows the power of the state. He knows the state will go to any extent to eliminate anybody who is challenging it.”

Speaking about the beginnings of Jaglag (Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group), Isha says that since a long time people working in Bastar like Nandini and Sudha felt the need to have a group at Bastar, because during the time of Salwa Judum, everyone left. There was no one reporting about issues and events from the ground there. There were a large and growing number of under trials about whom nothing much was coming out. They felt the need for a group of researchers to look at the issue. They also felt that it must not just be a group to do research but they should be trained lawyers who could also intervene where necessary.Shalini was already working with Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the trade union Sudha was associated with. When Isha visited Chhattisgarh initially, the intention was to work with the trade union activity.

But the discussion around starting a legal aid group was floating around and gradually several of them came on board. Local lawyers also agreed that there was a need. Before 2014 elections when the government was expected to be more responsive and responsible, the group was formed and began filing RTIs and gathering information on the kind of people who were in jail as under-trials, the kind of cases they were booked under and what was happening in their cases. As more and more information became available, the group also began to intervene legally.

Isha with amusement narrates how the inherent sexism in these spaces just assumed that the young women from Jaglag were harmless, and often officers would patronise them. They would be allowed to meet the prisoners, talk to them, the local lawyers group even collaborated with Jaglag in conducting a seminar.But things began to change when the judicial enquiry into the Sarkeguda encounter under Justice VK Agarwal began.

Some seventeen people from Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpenta villages were killed in Bijapur when the villagers were gathered at Sarkeguda to plan for the “BeejPandum” festival, on the intervening night of 28 and 29 June 2012. The security forces, however, claimed that the villagers were killed during an encounter with the Maoists. The villagers deny that there was any encounter there. Jaglag began representing the villagers in this enquiry.

They began to see a clear change on the ground from 2014, compared to the time they began their work in 2012. New Inspector General SRP Kalluri was brought in. In Isha’s words, “With the Congress government in the Centre, they looked for dialogue. They would at least say we want dialogue. But when this new government came in Delhi, a month later Kalluri was brought in. Rajnathji declared in an interview that there is no dialogue going to happen. It was going to be offensive.”

Soon they realised that they were being followed everywhere. Isha says, “Since the new government seemed to be interested in us, we decided to meet the new IG Kalluri and tell him what work we are doing. When we met him, the things he said shocked me… He said, I am known as the most brutal officer in Chhattisgarh. DekhaSurgujameinmainekyakiya? Poorasarkaatdiya. He was so proud of that tag! Dekhiye, … factories thoaanihain.Zaminthokhalikarnihain.Uska solution thosirf military solution hain. He was so blatant about it! We were not expecting him to say all this!”

Continuing to narrate her encounter with Kalluri in disbelief, Isha says, “He said, AapSudhaBharadwajkojante ho? AapNandiniSundarkojaante ho? Thoaap enemy camp mein ho. Theekhai.Aapapnakaamkariye, meinapnakaamkaroonga. That’s how the conversation ended!”

Kalluri began to hold media meets and began calling the Jaglag group Naxalite supporters. He would say, yeh Naxalite supporters hain. Naxaliyon ka case kartehain. Inevitably, as the ground operations began to intensify, the involvement of the Jaglag group also began to deepen.

Soni Sori came out of jail in 2014. She began to follow up and raise a lot of encounter cases. The Jaglag was representing the victims, and MaliniSubramaniam was reporting about the cases. Bela Bhatia was writing about the cases.It was a concerted effort from various angles to bring out the information from the ground.

Isha laughs and says, “They tired to figure out what to do with this bunch of women who seemed to be everywhere. We were bringing out the truth about what was happening.  The information was getting out. The voices were louder.”

So the harassment was intensified. If Soni went to organise a rally as part of her AAP party work, her associates would be arrested or Soni would be harassed. In 2015 when the Darbha incidents of random raids and arrests of people from villages began, Jaglag began to represent some of the cases. That was whenSanthoshYadav, the journalist who was doing some ground reporting, was arrested. Jaglag was representing Santhosh also. The Jagdalpur Bar Association passed a resolution not to allow the Jaglag lawyers to work in Jagdalpur.

Isha says, “Before passing the resolution, the Bar started stopping us, started questioning us … hamare documents check karna, court meinjakehamare beech argument meinrokdena … a lot of that was happening. When I talk about the Bar Association, I am talking about the non-adivasi lawyers. Everybody is from UP, Bihar. They have a huge interest in gaining from this conflict. They are all making money from what’s happening there. There are some sensitive lawyers also. I am not saying that there aren’t. Possible if they are sensitive and want to raise local issues, it’s difficult for them to … they can become easy targets. Jagdalpur Bar is quite vocally supportive of the police. So we knew what was happening to us. Then there was a complaint filed against me and Shalini in a local thana regarding us being suspicious lawyers with fake degrees and all of that!”

Soon after, the sexual harassment cases began to emerge. The WSS fact-finding teams were bringing out many such cases. The media began reporting the cases. From January 2016 onwards, they began threatening Malini. There were protests, burning of effigies in Bijapur of Bela, Soni, and Nandini. Pamphlets threatening death were thrown at Soni’s house. Stones were pelted at Malini’s residence. When a Church was attacked and Jaglag took up their case, the news papers carried stories saying that Jaglag was representing “Naxali Christians”.

Even as the Collector and Commissioner kept reassuring the group and Malini saying who is asking you to leave, Malini’s maid was picked up and harassed, the landlord of the house where Isha and Shalini were staying was picked up at night and told to evict them. His only livelihood was a car he drove, thecar was confiscated and was given back only after the women left Jagdalpur. On the day the Jaglag group left, SoniSori was attacked with a blackening chemical disfiguring her face. Now the entire team is dispersed but still working from different locations.

Being from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh being carved out of the state only in 2000, Isha was not aware of much civil society activity in Bastar. Even now, the political parties are active but civil society involvement is confined to few organisations like DalitAdhikarManch and KoyaBhumkalSamaj.

There are a large number of powerful non-adivasi people who have money, power and influence, who actively go after anyone who raises local adivasi issues. They also constantly hound people like Manish Kunjam and SoniSori, who are locals, with demands to get out of Bastar. An abduction case was booked against Revati Karma of Congress, Mahendra Karma’s wife, when she raised the issue of an encounter.

Isha says, ”The state has become blatant. They have become immune to pressure and to naming and shaming. It does not matter to them what the newspapers are writing.” Meanwhile, large numbers of innocent lives are being targeted and destroyed.

This is a relentless battle for the resources between those who have for centuries protected and nurtured nature, and those who want in the name of development to exploit and destroy the environment and the lives that are dependent on it. I asked both Sudha and Isha what they feel is the way out of this impasse.

Sudha says there is a need to de-escalate violence, create a way for people to come back to their villages and resume their lives in peace. Civil administration must be restored. For a time, a moratorium must be imposed on all mines and plants. The need for militarisation is arising out of the mining projects and the displacement. For instance, in the Rawghat area to open up the Rawghet mines, the government has set up 24 BSF camps.

Sudha pleads, “People should be allowed to stay. Follow the laws like PESA, which your own parliament has passed.Let people give their consent. Let them decide what development they want. Today, everyone is a Maoist for the administration and an enemy.”

She recalls that in the 1980s when Chhattisgarh was still a part of Madhya Pradesh, RamchandraSinghdeo, a minister, prepared a development plan for Bastar. The plan mapped out all the village haats, and all the traditional occupations of the adivasis. The plan recognised that Bastar was rich with minerals but the society was not ready to cope with the changes that their immediate exploitation will bring.

So the plan recommended that the haats and the marketing systems must be strengthened initially. Agriculture and forest-based cottage industries must be started. General and technical education should be encouraged, so that people are able to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by industrialisation.

Sudha says, “That would have been a sensible thing to do. The minerals are not going to run away. What we are seeing is that with the global financial crisis, there is such a rush towards exploitation of mineral resources at the fastest possible rates. We are not ready to wait. People are going to be the casualty. One fears that we may end up this century with adivasi genocide on our hands, with so many people, many unarmed villagers, being killed in fake encounters.”

Speaking with both Sudha and Isha, who are separated in age by about two decades, but continuing with the same struggles in different forms, I was reminded of the profound quotation of the Nobel laureate John Steinbeck in his poignant novel, The Grapes of Wrath:This is the beginning—from “I” to “we”. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know.For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”.

Padmaja Shaw retired as a professor of journalism from Osmania University.

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