India

Why a top Indian activist is facing threats to her life

Bela Bhatia
Image caption Ms Bhatia has worked with Dalits and tribespeople for over 30 years

A leading Indian activist has been facing threats to her life in the Maoist-affected central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The BBC Hindi's Vineet Khare profiles Bela Bhatia, the latest in a series of activists, lawyers and journalists who have come under pressure to leave the state.

The mobile phone signal in Parpa village in the tribal Bastar region of Chhattisgarh state is usually poor.

So, on the morning of 23 January, Bela Bhatia moved to the veranda of her modest home in the hope of getting better connectivity to make a call.

The sounds of an approaching jeep and bikes screeching to a stop drew her attention. It was a group of nearly 30 men.

Ms Bhatia's pet dog, Samari, barked her displeasure when two men disembarked and headed to a nearby water hand pump.

"She will not do anything," Ms Bhatia said of Samari, trying to calm fears, if any.

"We will do it. We will cut you up," one of the men replied matter-of-factly.

"He was drunk. His friends were looking around, as if expecting more to join in," Ms Bhatia told me over the phone, hours after the incident.

The men then pushed their way into the 53-year-old researcher and activist's house and threatened to burn it down unless she left Bastar in the next 24 hours.

A night before the attack, some men had arrived at her home and banged on the front door.

Ms Bhatia and her landlord opened it and saw two men, their faces covered. No street lights meant it was dark outside.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Villagers are often caught in the crossfire between Maoist rebels and security forces in Chhattisgarh

"One of the men shouted at my landlord to come outside. He refused and shut the door."

The men lurked outside for an hour before leaving, Ms Bhatia recounts.

"We had gathered in a room and just sat through those tense moments. It was a relief to see them leave eventually."

Ms Bhatia, a doctorate from Cambridge University and a rights campaigner for Dalits and tribespeople for over 30 years, has faced intimidation since she moved to Bastar two years ago.

'Maoist pimp'

She has been threatened over the phone, called a "Maoist pimp" and had pamphlets distributed against her, but she says that up until now, the intimidation has never been so real and close.

Maoist-affected Bastar is is the epicentre of a long-drawn armed conflict between Maoists and government security forces, and is one of the most fortified areas in India.

Armed rebels claim they are fighting for the rights of the poor who have been neglected by successive governments for decades. Authorities reject these claims, saying "an ideology based on violence and annihilation is doomed to fail in a democracy".

But India's methods in countering the Maoists have been causing concerns.

Activists and rights groups have accused the government of supporting militias - that indulge in grave rights violations - to undercut the support rebels enjoy among the tribespeople.

Image caption Ms Bhatia wrote to state chief minister Raman Singh asking for action against people who were intimidating her

Allegations of rape and sexual assault in 2015-16 in the Bijapur and Sukma districts of Bastar have also drawn charges that security men had been using rape as an "instrument of terror".

India's top human rights body in January said, it had "found 16 women, prime facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by the state police personnel in Chhattisgarh even as it awaits the recorded statements of about 20 other victims". The police have denied the charges.

Authorities and sections of Indian media have called for strict action against the Maoists who have killed scores of security men, political workers and senior leaders.

And activists like Ms Bhatia - who accuse the state of transgressions and call for investigations into alleged staged killings by the forces- have been accused of providing "intellectual cover to Maoists" and not mentioning abuse by Maoists.

'biased'

A senior official recently called her a "white collar Maoist".

"She is biased. She doesn't talk about Maoist violence," said Anand Mohan Mishra, a lawyer who used to lead a group opposed to Ms Bhatia.

"We are with whoever acts against the Maoists," he said on charges of state backing, and denied any role in violence.

Ms Bhatia denies the charges against her.

"I have written extensively on Maoist violence. Victims of Maoist violence are highlighted and compensated but state violence victims are not. I am limited by resources," she says.

But she admits the latest threat against her is worrying.

Image caption Ms Bhatia was living in this house in Bastar when she was threatened

"No one has been arrested yet, and that's worrying," she told me in Delhi where she addressed gatherings and invited people to come to Bastar.

"People have chanted slogans calling for my death - an incitement in an extremely volatile region. I am aware of the dangers that exist."

Ms Bhatia has now been provided security by the state.

"The local authorities appear to be unhappy with Ms Bhatia since she helped some tribal women register a case against security men for alleged sexual violence in 2016, says Chhattisgarh based journalist Alok Putul, who reports for BBC Hindi, and has himself received threats for his work.

Last year, Ms Bhatia wrote an open letter titled "I will not leave Bastar".

"In a conflict zone, we need to ensure that all acts by state agencies should be within the law," she wrote.

"I had come to Bastar to stay with the idea of live and work here and despite the difficulties so far, I shall continue to do so."