The stage is being set for history of an extremely infamous variety to be repeated in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Almost 50 years after the Indira Gandhi government's strafing and bombing of Aizwal in Mizoram (then Assam) from March 5 to 13, 1966 with the help of Indian Air Force (IAF) planes, the Modi government is preparing to use the IAF once again to launch aerial attacks on its own citizens. The Chhattisgarh police has announced that it, along with the IAF, has recently "conducted successful exercises" in preparation for the launch of what are being called "retaliation attacks from air", as part of anti-Maoist operations in the area. Given that air strikes, by their very nature, are indiscriminately destructive, this latest policy decision of the central and state governments is indicative of the brutal lengths to which they are ready to go for crushing the Maoist movement in the area and clear the ground for the entry of corporate capital. An already bloody conflict is poised to get bloodier. Ample indication of this was on display in the casual cruelty with which the "successful" exercises themselves were conducted.
"On October 13, three IAF helicopters flew over a specified area of Bijapur [district in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh] and practised strafing. Senior officers of the IAF and anti-Naxal operations of the state police participated in the exercise." This shockingly bland statement came from RK Vij, Chhattisgarh's additional director general of police, anti-Naxal operations seven days after the operation. There had been no previous announcement that such an exercise was to be conducted, nor had there been any warning issued to the local tribal population to evacuate or avoid the area to be strafed. Collateral damage to a few Indian citizens during the strafing is perhaps small change for a government that has obviously made cold-blooded calculations of deaths in hundreds and even thousands which aerial attacks anywhere in the world has always resulted in.
According to the Oxford dictionary, strafing, which Vij has said was practicsed on October 13, means attacking repeatedly with bombs or machine gun fire from low-flying aircrafts. Bombing of its own territory and people is something rarely done by modern day states who claim to have democratic credentials. Even if it is done, it is denied. In the case of Aizwal, Indira Gandhi had claimed that the IAF was only used to drop men and supplies. It was only in the 1980s that the fact of air strikes was officially accepted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have abandoned such niceties. The careless manner in which the air attack plans have been announced and the implementation commenced resemble the act and intent of a monarch trying to brazen things out. The etymological origin of the word strafing is in the German strafe, meaning punish. It well represents what Modi wants to do to his subjects.
State fearful of democratic dissent
Behind the calculated hauteur however, there is also the realisation that today's world also has a fair number of dissenters, who may not willingly fall in line. There are a handful of journalists who remain dedicated to the values of their profession and insist on reporting the truth. There are the human rights-walas who take chapter three of the Constitution somewhat seriously and try their utmost to squeeze out some democratic space within the otherwise repressive set-up. There are even some rare lawyers that struggle to get rolling the rusted wheels of a cynical judiciary. All such elements would have substantial opposition to aerial attacks and could set up real obstacles to their implementation by the government. Most fearful would be their ability to take the truth of the conflict zone to the outside world.
In anticipation therefore, there has been, over the past few months, a concerted effort by the police and allied agencies to evict or incapacitate anyone who may question them and thus sanitise the areas in and around the places earmarked for aerial attacks. Journalists have been targeted, particularly those with a record of truthfully reporting on the ground situation without acquiescing to administration demands to publish only the versions given by the police.
On July 16, 2015, Somaru Nag, an adivasi journalist with the Rajasthan Patrika was detained and tortured, and shown to be arrested only after three days of illegal custody. Santosh Yadav, a freelance journalist filing news reports with several Hindi newspapers, including Dainik Navbharat and Dainik Chhattisgarh was the next to land behind bars. He had, over the last one year, been often harassed by the police and was once even stripped and threatened with torture in June 2015. Since he refused to back down despite the warnings, he was on 29 September, 2015 taken away on the pretext of the IGP wanting to meet him and was then implicated in an encounter case in August 2015. Amnesty International India, which has called for a stop to this intimidation of journalists, was told by Yadav's lawyer that the charges against him were fabricated and that "Santosh Yadav has been a contact person for national and international journalists and was crucial in getting media attention to the plight of adivasis in the conflict-torn region. He has also been instrumental in helping adivasis get legal aid." It is, therefore, quite understandable that the administration would want such a person out of the way before the aerial attacks start.
Meanwhile, the lawyers who are defending Nag and Yadav are themselves under attack. They belong to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), which came into existence in July 2013 as the result of brainstorming of human rights activists, academics and lawyers in New Delhi and Chhattisgarh who wanted to provide legal help to the people of Bastar. As soon as they started proving effective in providing legal aid to the locals and started producing studies of the large numbers rotting in jails without any evidence against them, they proved a threat to both the police, as well as the lawyers who had for many years profited from the misery of falsely implicated prisoners. In April 2015, the IG (Bastar) SRP Kalluri issued an open threat that he would act against NGOs helping the Maoists - meaning the legal help JagLAG was rendering to tribals implicated in Maoist-linked cases. Now both the police and the Bastar Bar Association have combined to try and ensure that "outside" lawyers (the JagLAG lawyers are registered in New Delhi) are prevented from practising in the local courts. In the case of JagLAG too, their ability to tell the world outside Bastar about the rampant human right violations there makes the administration uncomfortable and it would definitely like to see them evicted before the air strikes commence.
As the government makes its plans and prepares for an all-out war not everyone is keeping silent. Democratic rights organisations like PUDR and PUCL and some senior lawyers have come out in JagLAG's support. The journalists of Chhattisgarh have formed a Sanyukta Patrakar Sangharsh Samiti and held protests in the capital Raipur against the police action on the journalists. They have directly accused Kalluri of preparing for genocide in the region. The Delhi Union of Journalists too has come out in support of journalists being victimised in conflict areas. The latest to condemn the arrest of journalists is the state Congress chief who has decried the reign of "administrative terror".
Meanwhile, the Union minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, has sinisterly stated that, while he cannot disclose the nitty-gritty of the IAF's planned operations in Bastar, they will be "decisive" and "effective". Obviously the government plans are much more drastic than what has so far come out in the public domain. Will civil society institutions prove robust enough to stand up against and halt the state's declaration of air war on its people?