Bela Bhatia

I was born to middle-class parents from undivided Punjab in Begusarai. My father was an engineer in the Indian Oil Corporation and my mother, a teacher. While we lived in a cosmopolitan environment in a township, I believe it was in those childhood years, that poverty made a deep impression on me. I recall vividly the number of very poor people who used to come begging. Now, I know, that those years must be after the 1967 famine that afflicted Bihar, as it did much of east-India. In June 1975, when we left Bihar for Gujarat, where my father was transferred to, I recall the frequent mention of violent instances, of dead bodies found near railway tracks, for example, that I understood later to be related to Emergency-related violence. My first twelve years of life in Bihar left a lasting impression and served as my first lesson in Indian democracy.

Baroda, where we shifted to, and where I completed my schooling and graduation, introduced me to questions related to development. I could make an early comparison between poverty levels and development in the two states and see that Baroda was doing much better but that pockets of acute poverty with associated problems persisted. I got to see this from close quarters when with the aim of economic self-reliance while at college (my father having retired), I worked part-time for a year in an Indian Council of Medical Research initiated longitudinal study that sought to monitor the health situation of children in a slum.

Rural India remained enigmatic until my post-graduation in Bombay (1983-85). Introduction to rural and tribal India as well as to movements for change were the hallmarks of learning from the two years. After this began a journey in which ‘knowledge’ and ‘action’ have been constant companions. Symbolically, the first organisation I became part of was called Setu: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, an NGO based in Ahmedabad. For the following five years, I was part of Setu and Shramjivi Samaj, a trade union of landless agricultural labourers and marginal farmers in Bhiloda taluka of Sabarkantha district in north Gujarat. During this period, I also completed a Bachelor of Laws degree (LL.B, 1989).

After this, I was involved in peace and human rights work in Iraq and Palestine. I was a founding member of the Gulf Peace Team, an international peace initiative that aimed to give voice to those who were against the war and favoured peaceful ways of conflict resolution. The GPT set up a peace camp on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia; individuals from 20 countries participated, including 12 Indians. The camp was in place for over a month, during which time the war broke out and we were eventually evacuated. Subsequently, we formed the Gulf Relief Team and were amongst the first to take food and medical supplies into Iraq in open resistance to the sanctions that continued, believing the sanctions to be a form of war. Subsequently, I was also involved in researching the impact of the war and sanctions on the women of Iraq. With two researchers from Jordan, we interviewed 80 women in different regions of Iraq and wrote the report: ‘Unheard voices: Iraqi women on war and sanctions.’ This was the first report of its kind to report on the situation from the perspective of women.

Our involvement in Iraq led us to better understand the politics in the region. With the aim of speaking out against the occupation of Palestine, we organised a peace walk from Jericho to Jerusalem in April 1991. However, we were arrested in Jericho and kept in police custody for a few hours. Realising the importance of the presence of an international team like ours, we decided to organize a larger action the following year that marked the 25th anniversary of the occupation. I went six months in advance to prepare for it. This peace initiative included a six-day walk through Israel and occupied Palestinian territories. Around 250 persons from many countries participated of which more than a hundred courted arrest when we were stopped at the Green Line. We were kept in various prisons for five days and ordered to leave Israel shortly. Of the articles I wrote during this period, an interview with Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi in Gaza gained importance when Dr. Shafi was chosen to head the Palestinian delegation to the historic Madrid peace conference in end-October 1991.

A good part of 1993 was spent in the Narmada valley where I worked as an independent researcher documenting forced evictions and other transgressions of human rights of tribal villagers by the Gujarat government. A report was submitted to the Gujarat High Court as part of an ongoing Public Interest Litigation. The judgment was in our favour but we have witnessed the open defiance, with impunity, of the Gujarat government that has continued to displace people with little respect for existing laws.

In 1994, I was awarded a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at University of Cambridge (my thesis was on ‘The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar’). After completion, I worked at the the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi) until 2009, when I quit full-time paid academics. I was an Honorary Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for a few years prior to January 2015 when I moved to Bastar in south Chhattisgarh where I now live and work on an independent basis.

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