In Chhattisgarh’s Shyamgiri region, adivasis are currently fighting a battle for their identity and rights. On the occasion of Adivasi Adhikar Diwas (Tribal Rights Day) on September 13, at least 2000 protesting tribals were halted and many of them were beaten up by security forces. Several tribals also were taken in custody with no information provided to their families, members of the community said.
The families of those taken away by the security forces are currently staging a sit-in protest in the area where protesters were earlier stopped. The locals say that the forces took away the tribal people on account of them having alleged Naxal links. Many fear that those arrested may be killed in a fake encounter or they might languish in jail for a long time. It is not clear how many people have been detained but sources say the number could be more than hundred.
Speaking to NewsClick, politician and activist Chotu Bhai Vasava slammed the Bhupesh Baghel-led government for the incident. He said, "See the real face of Congress government in Shyamgiri. The police have beaten up the tribals who were taking out a rally to demand constitutional rights. It is also reported that some of these tribals, including rural youth and young women, were taken into custody by the forces and labelled as Maoists.”
The area has been sensitive over a long period of time with conflict between the security forces and the tribals amid reports of police brutality.
Expressing fear for the lives of those picked up by the security forces, Vasava said, “Any of them can be killed in a fake encounter and anyone can be implicated in any case. Remember, in the case of Jhiram Valley, more than a hundred tribals have been made pawns so far. Similarly, in the case of Bhima Mandavi, more than 50 tribals have been trapped."
He added, "We do not know what the update on the matter is; we only know for a fact that the police have taken several into custody."
Noted adivasi activist Soni Sori told NewsClick, “The police camps are leading to more militarisation of the region, which essentially means a brutal crackdown on tribals.” She added, “The villagers want schools, hospitals, and the continuation of their way of life instead of heavy militarisation.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a local said, "Previously, adivasis have been killed in fake encounters. Recently, the tribals were taking out a procession for their constitutional rights; thousands of people were brought in by the state government to stall this procession. There were tribals with families, who were beaten up; even the children were thrashed."
The tribals in the area say that they feel the Congress government has failed them. Vasava added, "the Congress is going down the path of the BJP with shutting down of schools and colleges while focusing on temples, whereas the adivasi population here does not want the imposition of Hinduism."
Activist Soni Sori was also present at the protest site. Challenging the authorities, she said, "We have been watching what you [government] are doing and this is not acceptable to us. We will continue our protest until those who have been taken away by you are released."
Prior to the 2018 Assembly elections in the state, one of the major poll planks for the Congress party was to give assurances to the tribal population in the state that the repression of their voices will end.
Congress had promised to leave the Nishtar community, also known as Naj, in peace after many from the tribe had been jailed in the name of Naxalism for three years. The Naj community had gathered on September 13 to remind the government of the same promise.
An activist from the region said, "The tribal people think that there is a government for the poor in the state and we will be heard, but the government has come down to oppressing the tribals instead of listening to them. The demands on which the tribals were agitating yesterday were for saving the Constitution, following the law and the Fifth Schedule, and repealing the imposition of UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) on tribals.” The activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, asked, “We wanted to demand the release of tribal detainees accused of being Naxalites and living for more than three years in jail. What were the illegitimate demands among these? To what extent is it right to kill unarmed tribals?”