On January 23, 2017, a group of approximately 30 unidentified men reportedly stormed into the home of sociologist and activist Bela Bhatia, where they violently threatened her in retaliation for her human rights activism.
Dr. Bhatia is a sociologist and social activist who holds a PhD from Cambridge University and is currently an honorary professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. She has worked extensively on the indigenous Adivasi population of the Bastar district in Chhattisgarh as well as the Maoist (also known as the Naxalite) movement in India. In November 2015 and January 2016, Dr. Bhatia brought attention to incidents of gang rape and sexual assault by security forces conducting anti-Maoist operations, and helped the victims file complaints to the police in Bijapur.
On January 23, 2017, approximately 30 unidentified men reportedly arrived by car and motorcycle at Dr. Bhatia’s home, threatening that they would burn down her house and kill her dog if she did not leave Bastar immediately. They then allegedly barged into her home and threatened Dr. Bhatia’s landlady, and forced the two to sign a declaration stating that Dr. Bhatia would leave the house within 24 hours. Dr. Bhatia has since written a public letter announcing her refusal to leave; she has also accused the police of failing to respond to the incident appropriately.
The incident comes just days after Dr. Bhatia accompanied a National Human Rights Commission team to record the statements of rape and sexual assault survivors who have accused Bastar police personnel of raping 16 Adivasi women in the area. Dr. Bhatia has reportedly faced similar retaliation for her activism in the past. In November 2015, after she helped Adivasi women file complaints against the police for sexual assault, a state-sponsored vigilante group known as Agni accused her of being involved in Maoist activities, reportedly leading her landlord to ask her to vacate her home. And in March 2016, she was reportedly accused of being a “Naxal terrorist” and subjected to death threats during a demonstration.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about targeted harassment and threats made against an academic in apparent retaliation for the non-violent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association, conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such actions not only impact the immediate victim, but undermine academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. State authorities have a responsibility to respond to ensure the security of higher education communities, to investigate such threats, and to hold perpetrators responsible.