Assault on a yatra

Print edition : July 01, 2005

ON June 4, armed policemen lathi-charged a group of activists, professors and students who were attempting to hold a peaceful public meeting at Balrampur in Sarguja district of Chhattisgarh. The meeting was organised under the aegis of the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra, which has been travelling across the country since May 13 to spread awareness about the right to work and garner support for the Employment Guarantee Act (EGA). The bus yatra has covered Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Meetings are organised by local organisations or they happen impromptu as activists address people on the roadside, at highway dhabas or in the market place.

At Balrampur, the meeting was organised by the district coordinators of the Communist Party of India. The policemen, apparently hunting for Naxalites, ordered the crowd to disperse. But when they refused to leave, the policemen turned aggressive; they beat up the local people and the activists and even pointed their guns at the crowd. According to Reetika Khera, a student at the Delhi School of Economics and an eyewitness to the assault, Prof. Jean Drze, economist and member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) of the United Progressive Alliance government, was beaten the most. "He was making a phone call across the road and rushed to the place on hearing the noise and screams. But as soon as he arrived, he was surrounded by four men and beaten with lathis," she said. Khera herself was among the several yatris who were injured.

The next day, the activists went to the Ambikapur police station to file a First Information Report. Later, after several attempts they met Inspector-General of Police A.N. Upadhyay. Said Khera: "While the IG accepted that this was a "very unfortunate incident", he did not give us any assurance that action would be taken against those responsible for it. The Superintendent of Police (Balrampur) B.P. Kalluri, was also present. He denied that any lathi-charge had taken place. He also stated that for the police, `every outsider is a suspected Naxalite, until proved otherwise'."

A group of activists, led by Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, met the Union Home Secretary, Vinod K. Duggal, in New Delhi and was promised a probe. However, the Chief Secretary's Office in Raipur denied any knowledge of a probe. The Chhattisgarh Police admitted on June 6 that the assault was a case of "mistaken identity". They claimed that the activists had been asking for support "in a style similar to that of Maoist rebels". Jean Dreze said at a press conference later: "When the target is a peaceful meeting of common villagers, who have neither political connections nor any recourse to media attention, there are no apologies, no probes, and no making amends."

The assault at Balrampur is a reflection of what happens in the districts in the `Naxal belt' in the State. Local people in districts such as Sarguja complain of harassment by the authorities in the name of "fighting guerrillas".

Annie Zaidi

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