Archive for the ‘Combing Operation’ Category

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C For Cynicism

May 4, 2014

(80 of 138)The polling booth at Mayapur, Palamau District of Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

Constants seldom make election campaigns, and election results seldom challenge them. C for Corruption but then it is C for Caste, Counterinsurgency and Contrator-raj, that are constants in Palamau district of Jharkhand, and then there is C for cynicism: the language, religion, and soul of every voter, whether he believes in Modi or not, in Laloo or not, who knows things will seldom change in the village, no matter who will win the election, where this time an incumbent ex-Maoist is finding his challenge in an ex-cop and an ex-minister.

In Palamau district at Daltonganj, on the 8th of April, a Ram Navmi jhooloos would play a nationalist song calling for Hindu-Muslim-Christian unity, and the chorus would blare in a guttural voice, ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ repeatedly, with the next chorus including ‘Pakistan Murdabad’. The city was planted with red flags, Hanuman jhandas, and in the evening the administration shut off the power across the block to ensure no accidents could take place, such as the one on the 13th of April, 2000, when a flag procession broke off a 11,000 volt cable that would kill over 30 people at Kasab Mohalla at Daltonganj. Ram Navmi flags were even placed on the Ambedkar statue at Barwadih block, a statue built by supporters of the Rashtriya Janta Dal who didn’t find the sense of misplacement in the act. Over two decades ago, in the village of Balatola with a significant population of Brahmins and Rajputs, the caste system was described through cricket: ‘All the upper caste boys would just bat, and all the lower caste boys would only field and bowl.’

Palamau and Garhwa (Constituency Number 13) is meant for the Reserved Category. The sitting Minister of Parliament Kameshwar Baitha was once a part of the Naxalite insurgency, who won the 2009 seat on a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha ticket while serving a jail term. In the previous election he lost to Ghuran Ram of the RJD by a mere 22,327 votes. It is common knowledge that he joined the CPI Maoist (Party Unity) after the Arwal massacre of Jehanabad on the 19th of April, 1986, where 21 members of the leftist Mazdoor Kisan Sangarsh Samiti were killed by the police. But even by asking 267 questions in parliament, his popularity in the region had waned dramatically in the past five years. He was eventually ditched by the JMM and is currently standing with a Trinamool Congress ticket, after failing in his attempts to win the favours of the BJP, who would eventually field ex-Director General of Police, Vishnu Dayal Ram, a 1973 batch IPS officer, who was the Superintendent of Police during the infamous Bhagalpur blinding incident of 1979-1980, where 31 undertrials had acid poured into their eye sockets by the police.

Yet touring the districts of Palamau and Garhwa it is almost unanimously agreed that the battle is between the RJD’s Manoj Bhuyan and BJP’s V.D. Ram for whom the recent Ramnami celebrations on the 8th of April, and the Modi factor is helping to push votes towards him, especially amongst the landed, dominant and forward castes.

Manoj Bhuyan, has a mixed consolidation of Yadav, Bhuyan and Muslim votes.

When Palamau and Garhwa went to the polls on the 10th of April, 2014 in the first phase of elections in Jharkhand, 1,417,375 voters were meant to practice their franchise but a mere 59.3% showed up for polling. The M factor, wasn’t as much as the Maoist boycott as the Mahua factor, that during the last few days of the fruits falling onto the rich earth, adivasi villagers whose sole source of income for months would be Mahua, would only want to vote after they collected their quota of Mahua for the day, but polling ended at 4 in the evening, leaving many out of the process.

At empty polling booths, disgruntled security personnel were annoyed at how villagers would rather pick up mahua than vote, obviously missing out how the world’s largest democracy could be a farce.

‘Ka maloom kisko vote diya (Who knows who I gave my vote to?)’ Said an old man who came alone and walked away with sheer disinterest in the polling booth at Uldanda Panchayat at Palamau district. A young man, ‘a good samaritan’, held his hand to make him vote, and he wasn’t the only one to whom the act of voting is a mere habit, a connection to this invisible ‘sarkar’, and nothing else. Another man with his grandson under a Mahua tree in Chainpur block, would rather ask journalists who he should vote for, and who we think will save the nation. Suryabed Devi from the village of Dorami would find her name would not be on the list, and would visit the polling booth thrice in the day to try and vote for ‘sarkar ke niyaam’ (government schemes). When she was asked by an observer from Delhi if she knew the ‘Jhadoo wala party’, she responded that she knew what a ‘Jhadoo (broom)’ was.

Over 25 kilometres away, a BJP polling agent, sat around a coterie of 20-30 villagers near the empty Mayapur polling station in Chainpur block of Palamau, distributing election papers with their serial numbers, to make it easier for voters to find their names on the roster. On the first question about the ‘samasya (problems)’ of the village, ten people would all start to speak as once, talking about pani (water), bijli (electricity), ration and job card while the polling agent kept quiet. They were a divided bunch with no one clearly espousing support for any party, with some voices invoking the ‘Lantern’ and others ‘Phool’ (lotus), while there was unanimous mistrust towards their incumbent minister Kameshwar Baitha.

‘Aap abhi bharosa kaise rakhege? (How can you trust them now?)I had asked the group.

‘Toh kay karenge! (What do we do?), they said in a chorus. One man exhorts, ‘Vishwas peh jaahte hai mandir ko, mil jata hai tho mil jata hai! (We go to the temple in faith, if we get what we wish for, then we get it.)’

At some point during the cacophony of discussion, and hyperbolic cycnicism, the polling agent, finally called for order to speak, ‘Hamare Narendra Modi ke laksh mein saare vote jara he.(All our votes are going towards Narendra Modi).’He said, the man approaching fifty who spoke with absolute conviction and sombreness, ‘Woh pradhan mantri baneye, aur desh ka udhar karenge. (He’ll become the prime minister and make the country progress)

‘Gaon ke samasye mein badal aayega? (Will the village’s problems get fixed?)’ I asked.

Silence.

Then a cacophony again. Mostly saying no.

‘Koi bhi jeeta aase koi bhi umeed nahi hai. (Whoever wins, we don’t have any hopes like that). Said a younger man, ‘Aapna khandaan hi banate ha (They only help their own families). Garibo kya kar raha hai, kha raha hai, kapda penh raha hai, chhao mein bheta hai, usse koi matlab nahi hai (What the poor are doing, what they’re eating, what clothes they’re wearing, whether they have shade to sit in, none of that matters). Woh jieetne ke baadh woh bus aapna sochtha hai (Once they win, they just think of themselves).’

Another man spoke at the very instance, ‘Koi jeetega, garib ka dekhneka koi nahi hai , agar 100 ghar hai, yaha 50 ghar mein kuch nahi hai, koi card nahi, koi job card nahi. Aur kuch nahi hoga unka! (Whoever wins, nobody is going to look after the poor, if there are 100 houses here, there is nothing in 50 houses, no card, no job card. Nothing will happen for them). ’

The polling agent kept quiet. He didn’t wish to speak anymore.

Speaking to villagers after villagers, there was an obvious sense of abandonment, of the village, of the self, of the community amongst a majority of people who went to the polls. Yet there were some places where the issues were not issues, and the struggles were entirely their own.

Counterinsurgency

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Memorial for the dead at Barhania village  in Latehar District of Jharkhand.

Around 55 kilometers from Palamau, it was in Barhania village in Murvai Panchayat in Latehar district that on the 15th of April, 2009, a day before polling for the Lok Sabha elections that an IED blast on a polling party, would claim the lives of two CRPF personel and one civilian driver Vijay Kumar Prasad. And in an act (that is always disputed by the police), that can only be described as a revenge killing, the angry CRPF survivors marched to the nearest village and arbitrarily killed five people – Supay Bodra (18), Sanjay Bodra (20), Masi Soma Bodra (14), Pitai Munda (32) and Supay Bodra (55), and claimed they killed five Naxalites. The incident on the peak of the elections, led to a frenzy of accusations, anger, and promises, and the fact that the village, has contributed 17 people to the Army or the Border Security Forces or the Jharkhand state police or the CISF, and is then branded a ‘Naxalite village’, did not escape public scrutiny.

Army Jawaan Joel Budra, whose own family members were killed on that day, would eventually leave the Bihar Regiment a few years after the killings, and still remembers the day his own colleagues who saw the news bulletins, started to insinuate that he comes from a village of ‘ugravadis (extremists)’ .

‘Abhi bhi yaad aata hai unka (I still remember them).’ He says about his family members, he himself is almost half his size today, and spends his time working in the fields when there is work.

‘Police se gussa to aata hai, hum bhi police to the, aur mera bhai Martin bhi policewalla hai, lekin usko bhi gussa hai (We do get angry at the police, I was also in the police and my brother Martin is also a policeman, and he gets angry too).’

The site of the attack today is dotted with two memorials, one for the driver killed in the attack set up by the transport association, a statue of stone whose ankles are beaten down and another by the villagers of Barhania with the names of the villagers and details of the incident that clearly indicts the CRPF. Over the past few years the CRPF patrols have constantly erased ‘CRPF’ from the plaque, and the adivasis keep writing it again.

Jawaan Mangram Munda, who is part of the CISF categorically states, that the villagers were innocent and that the massacre wouldn’t have taken place if he was there in the village the day of the attack. He was himself at Chatra at election duty, and is visibly angry with the CRPF who acted rashly but has an entirely different relationship to the state than others in his village, and is openly espousing his support for the AAP in Latehar on the issue of corruption, even though there is no visible sight of the party across the region.

On the day of the killing, every political party from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, to the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, to the Bharatiya Janata Party, to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the CPI(ML)-Liberation, and Communist Party of India, to human rights organizations and the national media would visit the village, whose lack of irrigation facilities had affected migrancy and livelihood as much as the massacre. In 2009, the families of the victims would never go to the polls, and five years later, their voices stand divided, with some still refusing to vote, and some believing they would vote for the Congress’s Dhiraj Prasad Sahu, who had given each of the families Rs.20,000 as compensation, and has promised to re-open collieries, re-open the Chirimiri railway line and to complete the Mandal Dam which will drown countless trees and submerge villages, to the chagrin of other adivasi groups. Their incumbent candidate, Inder Singh Namdhari, who ran as an independent, only visited the village once, and had called for a review into the incident, when the villagers was already cleared by then.

‘I didn’t vote last time,’ Said Gauri Budhra from Barhania, ‘And this time I have to spend my time picking Mahua, and I will probably be too tired to walk 2 kilometres in the sun to vote.’

‘What if there was a complete gaurantee that the water problems in the village would be solved if you voted?’ I asked.

She laughed.

‘I would still not go. Who trusts these people!’

Soni Mundoo, about 50 years of age, sister of Pitai Munda who was killed in the attack felt the same. ‘Why vote after they killed our people?’ While her family voted for the panchayat elections, further questioning led her to say, ‘And I am alone, why should I go? There is so much work.’

Contractor-Raj

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Migrant workers returning from Bangalore an evening before polling day.

During the Mahua season, the Munda, Oraon and Chero adivasis of Palamau-Chatra-Garhwa and Latehar collect as much Mahua as they can for their home, and sell what they can in the market. The markets are run by ‘Mahajans’ with whom there is no bargaining over price. It starts at Rs.30 per kilo, and over the next few weeks as more and more trees grow mahua fruits, the price goes down to Rs.25, to Rs.20. Then, in a few months, the Mahajans will sell the Mahua back to the adivasis at Rs.40 or Rs.50 a kilogram when there is none left in the forest. A system in place for there is no organized effort by the government to build godowns, or to protect adivasi interests.

In every village moving towards the interior, incomplete roads, incomplete government buildings dot the landscape. In every conversation, there was always someone or the other from Daltonganj or Ranchi, from anywhere but here, who built half of a road, or half of a building, or nothing at all. It was in Latehar, where on the 2nd of March, 2011, where the CPI Maoists, in collusion with a contractor had murdered Niyamat Ansari, an activist fighting for proper implementation of MNREGA, who built a pond through a government scheme in the panchayat, who repeatedly invoked the RTI act and the Forest Rights act. The local Maoist commander Sudarshan would accuse him of stealing land, stealing from the poor, ‘child sacrifice’ but would eventually be forced to ‘apologize’ by his leadership.

Another incident where the role of the contractors is pushed to an afterthought took place in Garhwa, when an IED blast on the 21st of January, 2012 had claimed the lives of 13 police personnel, who were accompanying the local Block Development Officer Vasudev Prasad to a protest site at Bargad, where villagers were protesting against how their health center, meant for the village Ghotoni was being built at Bargad by the contractors in collusion with the dominant castes. At the same time, the CPI Maoists had abducted Zilla Parishad member Shushma Mehta of the CPI-ML, her bodygaurds and party member Akhtar Ansari who were also on their way to the protest site, while the police lathi-charged the protestors at Bargad, refused to acknowledge that Sushma Mehta’s team was abducted and would go on to accuse that the attack on their polling party was planned by the CPI-ML. The team would eventually be released by the Maoists and Sushma Mehta herself is now vying for the Palamu-Garhwa Lok Sabha seat.

And the contractors never built the health center meant for Ghotoni.

The BJP campaign itself found its feet in Shyam Narayan Dubey, a contractor who also runs the teachers union through the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Manoj Singh, District President of BJP also a bus contractor with murder cases to his name, Parsuram Ojha, a contractor and social worker, Kiran Singh, another bus contractor, and from Ranchi, Harihar Singh and his brother Pancham Singh, who are into construction. For the RJD there is Girnath Singh who is a ‘zamindar’, Someshwar Sahu who is a bus contractor and Congress worker who is supporting the RJD this time around, and the family of political strongman Bishma Narain Singh, a once governor, minister and MLA, and many more. Ghuran Ram, a candidate from the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, is himself a contractor. This is an endless survey meant to be, on how each contractor and zamindar in every region moves towards some political party or the other, or both, to try and make use of the Minister’s fund.

Today, with the onset of neo-liberalism and the breakdown of unions, contractors in the region have now also found dealing in human beings a profitable business.

The evening before the polls, nine migrant workers from the village of Regeniya in Barwadih block had paid Rs.3000 to a tempo driver to drop them from Ranchi to Daltonganj, as there were no bus services available as they were all taken for election duty. They had just returned from Bangalore, and one of them believed that if you don’t vote, they cut your name out of the voting list. They were ambivalent about their reasons for returning, until the next day they called up to say that they had run away from Bangalore after two of them were almost killed in a construction accident. It was a local contractor from their village Rehnai Singh who had sent them with some money to work, at the JMC projects in Bangalore, where a contractor Munna Khan put them to work along with construction supervisor Rehnai Singh’s son, who had locked them up, abused them, and refused to hear their concerns of safety after the accident.

They escaped clandestinely but were caught on the road by the contractors who threatened them with dire consequences. ‘Hum bezati ka kaam nahi karenge (We won’t do work that dishonours us)’Repeated Prakhar Singh, a Cheroo adivasi, around 21 years of age.

On the day of polling, when one of the migrants said they had voted for the BJP, a group of villagers and activists started to chastise him, asking how they were treated by the locals in Bangalore in where they had gone to work: ‘Aap ne unka hi sarkar ko vote diya, (You’ve voted for the same government)Said Kanhai Singh, an adivasi leader and CPI-ML cadre, ‘Aap Bhajpa ko vote diye hai kyuki aap Hindu hai? (Did you vote for the BJP just because you’re Hindu?)’ He would ask them. ‘Ha, toh Kangi kaun cheeze hai? (Yes, so what is a Kangi?)’ said a worker, to jitters. It seemed nobody forgot that Babulal Marandi of the ‘Kangi’ was once a part of the RSS, but as the conversation grew more and more redundant, one worker expressed that he is ‘un-padh (uneducated)’ and doesn’t know these things.

In the evening, the contractor who ‘sent’ them to Bangalore to work, came to collect his dues. The visibly frightened workers had no choice but to accept that they have to return the debt they owed Rehnai Singh, but refused to file a case for what is legally bonded labour.

Caste

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Ram Navmi Flags on the statue of Dr. Ambedkar in Latehar district of Jharkhand.

Kachanpur village in Chhattarpur block in Palamau district is a village split between Dalits and Jadhavs, has access to a pond, an MNREGA office, with the ‘N’ rubbed out, and villagers who see the sense of humour in ‘marega ka kaam (the work of those who will die). Of 1,100 voters, only 30% would practice their franchise, since most of the village youth are also migrant workers in other cities, who did not return to vote. The villagers also recall with laughter at how the BJP was giving out Rs.4000 to the voters, and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha was first giving out Rs.500 and then was forced to give Rs.4000 due to competition, but eventually their party workers reached a compromise and realized they should both just give Rs.2000. The villagers unanimously voted for the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Rampati Ranjan, but those that belonged to the Paswan caste, had their votes split for the BJP due to Ram Vilas Paswan’s move towards them.

41 year old Raghu Ravidas is a teacher in a local school who has belonged to BAMCEF (All India Backward (S.C., S.T., O.B.C.) And Minorities Communities Employees Federation) for decades now, recalling how it was Baleshwar Bharti, now from the BSP who had worked with them for decades. Today, his school building ran out of funds, since a portion was paid to the contractors, another fee had to be paid to the CPI Maoists and when the anti-Maoist Tritiya Prastuti Committee would arrive to ask for their own ‘cut’ there were no funds left, and the work for the school was forced to shut down.

Raghu Ravidas, remembers the conflicts in his village over caste, and how his people were humiliated at a Jadhav wedding by being asked to clean their own plates. A matter that was settled when they threatened wholesale boycott and when the then Maoist Communist Centre had a meeting with the Jadhavs. He even cites the humiliation of a government teacher Alok Deo Ram, a Dalit who was forced out of the school at Nodiya Bazaar after the other teachers who belonged to forward castes couldn’t deal with their own resentment. ‘Chapal ka mala pina diya tha unko, (They made him wear a garland of slippers)’ Said Raghu Ravidas, who along with BAMCEF were on the forefront of the protest, with hunger strikes, marches and protests outside government offices. This followed another incident in nearby Tilliyadi in 2003, where the members of a Teli Caste refused to send their children to a school for the cook belonged to a lower caste. While the BDO had ensured a case was filed, the woman in question left her position due to further harassment.

‘At that time, Ghuran Ram, from the RJD, and a man from our own caste,’ Said Raghu Ravidas, ‘said that the other teachers who humiliated Alok shouldn’t be arrested.’ None of those who were part of the government machinery, who won the seats that come under a reserved category, had come to the protest and the struggle that was held by the BAMCEF. Further irritation was reserved for MLA Sudha Choudhary of the JDU, who herself from the Pasi caste had a ‘mixed marriage’, whose response to protests was also lukewarm.

When I had asked Raghu if the constituency being in the reserved category had done anything to annihilate ‘jaat-vaad (casteism), his response was an astounding no, since no party in power was a part of any of the grassroots work that was being done. It became obvious that caste plays a role in where the votes can go, but in a constituency that comes under a reserved category, the annihilation of caste is not a candidate’s primary concern.

Rajkumar Pichuliya, a man who has been to BSP rallies in Lucknow, but missed out on Mayawati in Ranchi (due to the Maoist strike) would pick up a piece of cow dung and say, ‘Jab tak log ise bhagwaan maan te hai, jab tak yeh desh meh koi development nahi hoga. (Till people think this is God, there will be no development in this country)’

It was more than evident that the BSP had given them a sense of self-respect that no party had done, an identity, and a voice, and it was clearly elucidated with how a tone of 30-40 women sitting in a mini-panchayat would change, as they talk with rigour, laughter and pride when there is any conversation about Behenji.

The opposite sense was with the Ansari Muslims of Chegona in Palamu Constituency, who had unanimously voted for the RJD since 2002 after the Loto massacre in their Panchayat where 12 people were killed, some say the perpetrators were the RSS, while others say the MCC, and some say by the Maoist-faction People’s Liberation Front of India. Both Rabri Devi and Laloo Prasad Yadav had visited the Panchayat (of Chegone, Loto, Arar and Khodi) on the day of the attack itself, and the memory and gratitude of a people who’ve never been organized, has turned votes to an afterthought.

They come under the Khodi Panchayat which is predominately Yadav, who were happy to tell the Ansari villagers of Chegona, ‘Hamare dono haath mein ladoo hai, RJD bhi Yadav ka party hai, aur BJP bhi Hindu ka party hai. (We have sweets [ladoos] in both hands, RJD is the party of the Yadavs, and the BJP the party for Hindus)’.Their own ‘Mukhiya’ would be a BJP party worker and a contrator, Ranjit Kumar Jaiswal. ‘Usne kya vikas kiya? (What progress did he bring us?)’ Asked a middle aged man in the mini-panchayat, ‘Usne hamara saab chawal bhej diya! Bahut vikas kiya! (He sold all our rice. So much progress!)’he said to laughing old women and young boys.

While they say there is no fear of Modi coming to power, to them and their village, there is a fear for over 40% of their young sons and brothers work as migrant workers in cities across the country.

The RJD to them, had not done anything to them, but they voted for them.

C for conclusion

There are political parties you vote for, and/or political beings you become.

Election Result

On the 16th of May, 2014, the results showed that at Palamau Lok Sabha Constituency, the BJP’s V.D. Ram won with 476,513 votes, followed by Manoj Bhuyan of RJD, with 212,571 votes, to JVM’s Ghuran Ram with 156,832 votes and Kamleshwar Baitha on a TMC ticket with 37,043 votes. BSP’s Rampati Ranjan had got 20,481 votes.

At the Chatra Lok Sabha Constituency, under which there is Latehar district, the BJP’s S.N. Singh won with 295,862 votes, followed by Dhiraj Prasad Sahu with 117,836 votes, followed by Nilam Devi of JVM with 104,176 votes.

Then there was  AJSU Party with 35,674, Samajwadi Party with 29,754, Communist Party of India with 21,261, Aam Aadmi Party with 17,980, Bahujan Samaj Party 14,929, Rashtriya Deshaj Party with 10,771,  Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)  with 8341, and All India Trinamool Congress with 7841.

Photography Post-Script

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The line at Mayapur polling station in Chainpur block of Palamau District at Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

(115 of 138)Security at the polling station at Checha Panchayat at Latehar District on polling day on the 10th of April, 2014

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Polling station at Gore Panchayat, closer to the town of Daltonganj at Palamau District on the 10th of April, 2014.

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Memorial for Vijay Kumar Prasad,  the driver killed along with two CRPF personnel in an IED blast on the 15th of April, 2009.

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Inside the polling booth at Uldanda Panchayat at Palamau district of Jharkhand on the 10th of April, 2014.

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The MNREGA office at Kachanpur village at Palamau district of Jharkhand.

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Abandoned government offices for the Mandal dam at Latehar district of Jharkhand.

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Scene from outside the polling center at Daltonganj, Palamau, at the end of polling.

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At the polling station at Dorami Panchayat at Latehar district on the 10th of April, 2014

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The New Songs Of The Murder Manual

June 17, 2013

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This article appears in the Sunday Guardian on the 16th of June, 2013

“Jump over Dilli, we jungle people

Even if you dont know how to sing.

Boys (chorus) : We don’t know how to sing!

Girls (chorus): How do you not know how to sing? Jump over Dilli jungle people!

in our villages we come,

we will go with our axes,

big feet police, we will jump in delhi,

with bows and arrows, we will jump in delhi,

with these arrows, we will kill the police,

loot the government,

we will snatch weapons and bring them.’

These are words from a Gondi song sung in Bastar by the adivasis in the interior forests. To some it would seem a seditious aspiration, a decades-old Naxalite lyricism mutating Muria songs, or a desire with twisted explicable joys, yet there are reasons why these songs are being sung in the forest. There is a bloodlust, a violence, even the translator of the song, whose village was burnt down by the Salwa Judum and who now lives as an Internally Displaced Person in Andhra Pradesh has a distaste towards its words, its new meanings. Yet to hear it, it is even melodic, haunting, and joyful; and it becomes an incongruous expression of rage, a rage in memory, a rage against the burning and looting, rape and murder by the Salwa Judum; elsewhere they sing, How it was before — in the earlier days/it was beautiful/It was wonderful/now there is so much suffering/the garlic skin police is harassing us.’

There is even a song sung in rememberance of the 2006 killings in Nendra village where at least 10 adivasis were murdered by the Salwa Judum, and their families would testify to the National Human Rights Commission. The killers would never be prosecuted. On the 29th of May, 2013, the Salwa Judum leader from Konta, Soyam Mukka who was implicated in the violence in many villages around Konta, was assassinated by the Maoists, just a few days after the Maoist ambush on the Congress party motorcade that left 29 people dead. Soyam Mukka was a man who had warrants for his arrest for numerous cases, including one where an adivasi woman would be gangraped in the police station, after he had kidnapped her and left her there. The police would declare him an absconder, even when there was explicable proof where he’d be photographed, standing right next to the police during a protest in January of 2010. Now he is another man who escaped the clutches of the law of the nation, but was claimed by the law of the land.

There are no songs sung about justice in Bastar. Those who have been with adivasi villagers marching to the police stations to demand the bodies of their loved ones, would’ve heard the haunting echoed, chorus of the harmonious crying, of hundreds of adivasi men and women. Mahendra Karma is dead. Soyam Mukka is dead. ASP Rajesh Pawar is dead. SPO Ismael Khan is dead. SPO Kartam Surya is dead.

There would even be a song of mourning during the funeral for Mahendra Karma, where elsewhere someone would probably be writing a song to celebrate it. Karma was stabbed 78 times, and in 2006, in Matwada village of Bijapur, SPO’s smashed stones into the eye sockets of three adivasi men. In 2004, Oonga Madkam of Kottacheru village, a friend of many of the leaders of the yet to be formed Salwa Judum, was shot dead on the road between Konta and Cherla, and the Maoists smashed his head, already void of life, with a small boulder. In 2012, the CRPF would be accused of setting Pudiyam Mada’s genitals on fire in the Sukma police station.

We will fight like red ants, jungle people,

for our land, we will jump,

We won’t give our jungle resources,

We won’t give our mountains and shrubs, they are ours,

We will keep our gold,

This is a loot government, we will not give to them.

Chorus: Dilli!

Charu Mazumdar’s murder manual always had it’s songs, and now these adivasi anthems of anger  sung in the jungles of Bastar are one man’s songs of resistance, and to another man it is sedition; and if you don’t know the lyrics, you’d believe they really are serenades to the forest, which they probably are to those who sing them. These are now the songs heard amongst the red ants, the butterflies, the frogs and the birds and they are songs of an anger that is seldom heard by the state, who preferably chooses to not listen – year after year, inquiry after inquiry, even after the Salwa Judum was banned by the Supreme Court, the state of Chhattisgarh invoked the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force Ordinance of 2011, and inducted the SPO’s into the regular police force. More killings and burnings in the villages would follow. On the 17th of May, 2013, in a repeat of last year’s encounter at Sarkeguda that left 22 dead, a police firing in Edesmetta during a seed festival, would claim eight people, including four children and one soldier. The mothers take the bodies to the Gangalur police station and throw stones at them.

Dilli’ – probably sang the stone.

The calls for warmongering continues with the dance of death, the other songs from the newsroom calling for the army which is also militarily idiotic as the essence of all armed conflict, is intelligence gathering, and the state in Chhattisgarh has done everything from torture to fraticide to try and get the adivasis to submit, and provide them with intelligence. A case in point would be a young adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi who is still languishing in prison even after he was forced to be a Special Police officer and was imprisoned in a toilet in the police station for over 40 days. That is how the police of Chhattisgarh acquires intelligence, a misnomer of a word that a hundred years of counterinsurgency across the world can’t find funny. You show them who is boss. We’re worse than the rebels, we’re more militarily equipped, so you better submit to us.

Even the Salwa Judum was an exercise in brutality and a temporary success in intelligence gathering. By forcing people, out of fear, to point out village level Sangam members who were instantly murdered, the Maoist hold in particular villages was weakened. Yet the Maoists rebuild their base and replaced their cadres, and it wasn’t so difficult as the Salwa Judum was involved in rape, murder and arson on a massive scale. And now, the Maoist’s are picking off the leaders of the Salwa Judum like flies.

More militirization is more of the same, and would play into Maoist hands.

Jump over them and kill them

We will jump like tigers in the jungle

Aim like the eye of the cat in the jungle

And the chorus sings: ‘Dilli’. The lietmotif is ‘Dilli’.

The heart of political conscience that could never even point out Bastar on a map, now hears the songs of death as a yearly massacre is committed by either the state or the Maoists. Death is Bastar’s muse. Yet there was another song being sung a few days ago in March of this year, a song seldom heard beyond the forest, when a rally of thousands of adivasis under the banner of Manish Kunjam’s CPI and the Adivasi Mahasabha, marched to demand the Sixth Schedule. They have been demanding it since the early 1990’s, and when the state violates the laws of the Fifth Schedule and the PESA act, the demands for the Sixth Schedule, which is more or less autonomy, are only going to get louder. The adivasis of Bastar are writhing with seething anger, from the decades of exploitation by the non-tribals, the inherent racism in the system, to the Salwa Judum, to the everyday tortures and encounters, to the burnings and killings by the COBRA to the CRPF. It will take the Central  Government an imagination it probably has never used since Independence, to placate such anger. But the question is, does it really want to?

Song – Ee Na Ve

Girls: You all sing along

Boys: We don’t know how to sing

Girls: How do you not know how to sing?

Boys: You are the singers here, you sing

Girls: What’s wrong with your voice? I can’t hear it

Boys – We dont know how to sing

Girls: How do you not know how to sing?

 Boys: I have a cold so my voice isn’t strong enough

 Girls: Adivasi people

 Boys: Sing on

Girls: The people live like this, big foot police

We live off the land, from farming

My people, where have you gone?

We are farmer people

We live of the land, farmer people,

Where will we run away to?

If we have to die, we will die here.

 

The Judum started and its over,

They lost, the people have won,

Everyone had run here and there,

And they all came back

The land, the trees, the mountains,

are ours again,

in our hands again,

the mango trees we planted,

our lake is there,
our land is there,

the house we built with our hands is there.

 

Our fathers and grandfathers in the village,

were caught by the Judum,

the Judum ate our house,

they drank the people’s blood,

they become bigger,

but at some point, they will die,

if they won’t die, so what?

that much will happen, let it be.

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A Short History Of Death And Madness in Bastar

July 8, 2012

A young boy outside Basaguda police station in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh.

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 8th of July, 2012.

The list of villages are endless. Operation Green Hunt was only the second phase, Operation Hakka and Vijay are only new names to an old war. But the names of villages touched by war can sometimes repeat themselves. Gompad, Singaram, Gacchanpalli, Lingagiri, Nendra, Rajpenta, Tatemargu,Tadmetla, Vechapalli, Gaganpalli, Kottacheru, Maraigudem, Pallecharma, Munder, Pollampalli, Kotrapal, Burgil, Bhejji, Goomiyapal, Hiroli, Jangla, Dhampenta, Hariyal Cherli, Karremarka, Mankelli, Sameli, Regadgatta, Pusnar: these are just a few villages where adivasis have been killed in the last 8 years in undivided Bastar district, with testimonies collected by journalists and anthropologists and political activists whose own list was submitted as petitions to the Supreme Court.

Since 2004-2005, the Salwa Judum rallies conducted themselves completely out of sight and out of mind like they did in Basaguda block.

From the testimonies of the villagers themselves, ‘On the 5th of December, 2005, the workforce of Salwa Judum and the CRPF visited Basaguda and stuck posters that said that a Salwa Judum meeting is going to be held at Avapalli on the 1st of January, 2006, and if the villagers do not turn up, they shall be called Naxalites. We attended the meeting on the 1st of January 2006. We were told that, if those who are members of the Sangam (village-level Naxalite groups) do not surrender right away, all of us will be killed. Nine of the villagers who were not members of the Sangam were forcefully made to admit that they were members of the Sangam. After this, we stayed till the meeting ended and came back to our village. After some days, on the 21st of February 2006, the Salwa Judum workforce came to Basaguda and asked us to deliver a speech against the Naxalites, and those who would not, would be deemed as a Naxalite.

Two days later, villagers from (names withheld) were made to carry out a rally at Lingagiri, Korsaguda, Sarkeguda, Mallepalli, Borguda, where many houses were burnt, people were beaten and many women were raped. Out of rage, a few days after the rally, the Naxalites came to Basaguda on the fifth of March, 2006 at 9pm. They attacked the villagers and killed four people. The villagers then went to the police station to file a report, and after the post-mortem of the deceased, they returned back across the river. Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum and CRPF came and beat us, grabbed us from our necks and took us to the camps on the other side of the river, where we were kept for two months, and the mistreatment continued.’

Three years after that, with the help of a Supreme Court order that gave the villagers the right to go back home, did the villagers from Basaguda block return back, to live in a tentative peace that was shattered by the killing of 18 people in Sarkeguda on the 28th of July, this year. In 2010, Basaguda block was hit by a ‘cholera’/dysentry epidemic that claimed more than sixty lives. Those who never went back to their homes in Chhattisgarh still continue to face violence in Andhra. Just recently, on the 2nd of July, another IDP settlement was destroyed by the Forest Department in Khammam.

The state has never shied away from geography of murder: everyone who lives beyond a certain village, further into the forests is a potential Naxalite and can be killed. The mandarins of the mainstream media can call it collateral damage when they’re confronted by overwhelming evidence of an unjustified killing. And at the same time, they’ve never taken themselves into the civil war whose brutality raged for six years in complete silence, until Herr Chidambaram would finally make his exhortations of development, and the Tadmetla massacre of 76 jawaans had journalists in newsrooms wondering where is Dantewada.

‘Did any journalist come to the village the last time it was burnt down? I had asked the villagers of Badepalli of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh.

‘No.’ They said.

‘Did any human rights activists come?’

‘No.’

‘Did any lawyer, or anyone from Manish Kunjam’s party, (Communist Party of India) come?’

‘No.’

‘How many homes were burnt down that time?’

‘All.’ Said the Sarpanch, ‘But this time, only two survived.’

The above conversation took place in the village of Badepalli, in Kuakonda block of Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh in May, 2009, a few days after the village was burnt down by security forces for the second time in five years. The first time was in the summer of 2006 when it didn’t even make a statistic, while violence was perpetrated by both the state and the Maoists on a daily basis. The second time in the summer of 2009.

This too, in an area where the government exempted around 108 villages from the 2010 survey due to inaccessibility of terrain and ‘prevention by the Maoists.’

Its existence, forget its burning, did not exist as a statistic, nor did it exist as an complaint against the police in any charge-sheet, or in any of the petitions that were filed in the Supreme Court.

So how many villages were really burnt down in undivided Bastar district by the Salwa Judum or the security forces when there was a chance that some were never even counted, and many were burnt down more than once? How many people were really killed in those eight years?

What is rarely mentioned in mainstream debates is the extent of violence perpetrated against the local population, starting from the mass forceful displacement by the Salwa Judum where village after village was burnt down, and people were forcefully driven into ‘resettlement camps’. There are thousands of testimonies of the same, that are repeatedly and categorically denied by the state of Chhattisgarh, who once, in a moment of pride a few years ago, mentioned that 644 villages were ‘liberated’ from the Maoists and its inhabitants were now living in the camps supporting the Salwa Judum movement. That is 644 villages, whose villagers were driven away from their homes and taken into camps. Then there were the Matwada Camp killings where three men had their eye sockets smashes by SPOs.

And burnings preceded killings, and killings preceded burnings.

Fifteeen killed in Gaganpalli. Ten killed in Nendra. A man talks about his brother from Kottacheru who was killed by the CRPF. ‘He was shot in the stomach, his shit was all over the place.’

Of course, Salwa Judum backfired, Maoist recruitment rose. Then came Operation Greenhunt.

Nine killed in Gompad. Five killed in Gacchanpalli. Three killed in Pallecharma. Six killed in Goomiyapal. Two killed a few months later in Goomiyapal. One fiteen year old boy killed again a few months later.

Seven killed in Tatemargu. Two killed in Pallodi on the same day. Ask the villagers about what happened five years ago, and again they would talk about the dead and murdered.  Sarkeguda, the epicentre of Chhattisgarh’s newest atrocity of the year, was burnt down in 2005. Their memories don’t fade. Last year when Tademetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram was burnt down, it was not the first time they were attacked. Sodi Nanda s/o Adma  of Tadmetla was killed by the security forces in 2007.  Barse Lakma s/o Bhima of Morpalli was going for ration at Chintalnar market when he was picked up by the security forces two years ago.

From Phulanpad village where Barse Bhima and Manu Yadav were killed last year, around three years ago, Aimla Sukka (20) s/o Chola and Aimla Joga (20) s/o Choma were killed when their village was raided by security forces.

The memory of violence in Chhattisgarh stays in the present tense. But how will the rest of the world beyond Dantewada remember something it never knew? Earlier there was silence, now the Murdochian media calls the dead collateral damage. When will the casualties of war be robbed of their gravestones, those nouns: Maoists, Maoist supporters, SPOs, Salwa Judum leaders, adivasis, CRPF jawaans, when will we start talking about killing itself as the war crime, and not who was killed? This is a war of attrition, a dance of death, a class war to some, yet the greatest inhumanity is to believe this is a war someone will win.

***

Journalist Rito Paul from DNA has also visited the site of the latest killing with Kopa Kunjam, who worked to rehabilitate the villages in Basaguda block but would eventually be arrested for murder of a man who the Maoists had killed and who Kopa had tried to save. Rito’s report and the people’s reaction to meeting Kopa is here

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The Life Of A Witness

June 17, 2012

Photo credit: Tehelka photo

In memoriam: Tehelka photographer Tarun Sehrawat (1989 – 2012)

This piece appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 17th of June 2012. Another piece appears in Tehelka on the 30th of June.

I first met Tarun Sehrawat and the intrepid Tusha Mittal in January of 2010, when we both found ourselves with the duties of trying to investigate why the state of Chhattisgarh had kidnapped Sodi Sambo, a supreme court petitioner, and a woman who was shot in her leg during the combing operation of Gompad that took nine lives. She was there in Jagdalpur hospital, while we were outside the ward trying to get access to her, and Tusha Mittal would harangue every stubborn official with such gusto, that you were certain that war reporting was best left to women. Tarun and myself sat quietly, smiling at each other, joking and taking photographs of one another while Tusha did her job. He was an absolute delight to work with, or in this case, observe work. He had no malice and insecurity that most photographers had for their own. And his innocence was something that you were absolutely glad you could find in a place like Dantewada.

The next time we met, we found ourselves on the way to the village of Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli which was burnt down by the security forces in March of 2011. Tusha and I were this time, at each other’s necks like a bunch of Laurel and Hardy’s on steroids, regarding the best way to deal with the logistics of going into ‘the jungle’. Tarun, as usual would smile to placate our anger against ourselves. We all did do our jobs eventually, and Tarun’s images were an absolute justification of our profession.

Tarun was a witness to our state’s grand security operations in Central India. He has photographs of burnt homes, of widows whose husbands were killed by the security forces, of women raped by security forces, of fragile old men with country rifles who the state refers to the greatest internal security threat, and of Abhuj Marh, his final assignment, where few have ventured. But one of his most heartbreaking images would remain a photograph of a family in Dantewada sifting through their burned rice trying to separate the ash from what they could eat. That’s what he witnessed. That’s what only a few handful of people from the outside world have ventured in to see, some of the bravest and some of the most brilliant journalists and photographers I have had the honour to work with.

Yet it’s death from Dantewada that follows you around, as with each story of encounters, and killings. Just a few months ago, the controversial superintendent of police Rahul Sharma would take his revolver and shoot himself. Assistant Superintendent of Police Rajesh Pawar who I confronted about a fake encounter would be gunned down by the Maoists some years later. And now a tortured adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi would wish to die in jail, as there’s no way he feels he can get justice in this country. Each name jotted down in my collection of notebooks, of those killed, of sons named along with their fathers –Madvi Kesa s/o Bhima, Madkam Deva s/o Bhima, Madkam Admaiah s/o Maasa, and countless others. They add to a list that I don’t know sometimes whether they will have any meaning, when all that tends to happen, is that the war goes on. It’s the ghost of the conscience of the country that’s dead as each time the warmongers ask for helicopters to drop hell from above onto one of the darkest corners of the country.

A cellphone becomes the purveyor of madness and death. ‘There’s been an attack in your favourite village’ an activist once called and told me, and I went into a daze, and hated him – how many favourite villages did I have? Then came the final message about Tarun, ‘Pronounced brain dead.’ And this just a few days after friends would tell me that he was making a full recovery.

We all think we’re invincible. We venture into roads that could be mined with IEDs, as did one explode a day after two of us passed, killing three security personnel. We venture into the haven of the malarial monster, the killer of people that doesn’t discriminate like we do. In Basaguda, I remember the sight of a CRPF jawaan holding the hand and walking with another jawaan, whose body was sapped of energy, whose eyes lost of life, who would say the dreaded word: malaria. It was an absolutely tragic sight of watching these two towering men, pathetically walking down, broken down. A year later in Chintalnaar, a few days after 76 jawaans were killed in an ambush, the jawaans of Chintalnaar would exert, ‘You don’t even have to ask about the mosquitoes. Around 80% of us suffer from malaria at some point or the other’.Mosquitoes have killed one of the Maoist’s most iconic leaders- Anuradha Ghandy. And for the ordinary adivasis, their stories are left to statistics, sometimes to a world beyond statistics.

In Jharkhand, at the Roro mines of Chaibasa, an old adivasi miner left to die of asbestos exposure by the Birlas would talk to me, while three young children, slept behind him. All three had high fever. All three had malaria. In fact, a few months into the job, and it became standard operating procedure to not just document the atrocities committed on a whole people, but to finally ask about illnesses in the village. At one visit to an IDP settlement at Warangal last year, our investigation team very quickly became a medical team, and we had to take on the responsibility of taking people to the nearest clinic.

Some quarters mention how Tehelka should’ve guided Tarun with some precautionary measures but unfortunately those are never enough and some circumstances can’t be helped. Tarun had no option to drink pond water, in a place where water, even after boiling would turn yellow. A few years ago, my adivasi guides and a few other journalists and myself faced a similar problem. And we had to walk over 15 kilometres of hillocks in a summer that can blaze to around 48 degrees, and our water supply ran out. We had to drink from a miasmic river. And we all did and we were lucky.

The more water you carry, the more you’d tire, and the more you’d drink. And you can’t ration what is never enough.

I used to even take anti-malaria pills every week in my first forays into Central India, and ended up in the middle of nowhere with high fever, and find myself in the middle of a busy bus station, alone and wrapped in a shawl, shivering like my bones would be shattering, with my mind drifting away, waiting for a family friend to come and save my life. And I was lucky. Malaria was bombed out of my system. To most people in Central India, there’s little rescue. Where Tarun had gone, no doctors venture. In fact, in some of the areas in Dantewada and Bijapur where Doctors Without Borders did go to work, they were accused by the state of Chhattisgarh of ‘helping the Naxalites’.

The angel of death of Bastar made of iron ore, covered in flags and illusions of greatness, is touching and destroying everything that is beautiful. Tarun had a long way to go. Twenty three, the age of most SPOs and Maoists, is not the age to die.

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‘Even if they don’t let us settle here..’

May 4, 2012

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 4th of May, 2012.

Conflict and displacement in Bastar leads to deprivation and forest loss in neighbouring Khammam.

Around 43 families from the villages of Millampalli, Simalpenta, Raygudem, Darba and Singaram in Dantewada District, lost their makeshift homes for the second time in three months in the Mothe Reserve Forest of Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh on the 26th of March, 2012, when the Forest Department, mandated to protect the forests, would evict them using force.

A large number of families are Internally Displaced Persons who’ve escaped the Salwa Judum-Maoist conflict of Dantewada and have lived in Khammam as informal labour.

Most originated from Millampalli, that was burnt down by the Salwa Judum in 2006 and Maoists have killed at least three people – Sodi Dola, Komaram Muthaiya and Madkam Jogaiya in the past ten years. Another resident of Millampalli, Dusaru Sodi, used to be a member of the Maoist Sangam but would eventually become a Special Police Officer who witnesses from Tadmentla and Morpalli alleged was present during the burnings of the villages or Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram in March of 2011 by security forces. His name again re-appeared in testimonies by victims of rape, submitted to the National Commission of Women and the Supreme Court by Anthropologist Nandini Sundar.

Madvi Samaiya and Madvi Muthaiya from the village of Raygudem were also killed by the Maoists.

In Simalpenta, the Sarpanch’s brother Kurra Anda was killed by the Maoists in 2006.

In Singaram, an alleged encounter that took place on the 9th of January of 2009, where 19 adivasis were killed by security forces as alleged Maoists.

In Khammam, most of the IDPs/migrants have worked as informal labour during the mircchi cutting season, earning around Rs.100 per day and live off their savings in the summer season when there is no work, and little access to water to a majority of the settlements. The Muria from Chhattisgarh, or the Gotti Koya as they are known in Andhra along with Koyas from Chhattisgarh, have been in a struggle to appropriate the Reserve Forest land of Khammam for podu cultivation, often leading the Forest Department to evict them, aware that the entire forest cover is turning into a ‘honeycomb,’ as described by the DFO Shafiullah, who pointed out to satellite imagery of a pockmarked forest in Khammam, in 2010 itself.

The influx of migrants and Displaced persons has even led to conflicts with local adivasi Koya tribes over land and resources, sometimes leading to deadly clashes, such as an incident in Mamallivaye in Aswapuram Mandal where the local Koya burned down the homes of the Gotti Koya, or in Kamantome settlement in 2009 where one man would be killed as a Maoist by the police after an erroneous tip-off from the neighbouring village of migrants who had settled before the civil war.

Recently the Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Forest and Environment, published a controversial report that almost exonerates mining and land acquisition yet claimed that over 367 square kilometres of forest has been lost since 2009, pushing Khammam district to one of the worst affected districts where 182 square kilometres of forest cover have been lost.

In a recorded conversation between an activist and Home Minister P.Chidambaram during the first months of Operation Green Hunt in late 2009, when repeated combing operations in Dantewada/Bijapur led to further influx’s of IDPs into Andhra Pradesh, the activist Himanshu Kumar had urged P.Chidambaram to look into the plight of the IDPs and the migrants yet his claims were refuted by the Home Minister as an exaggeration.

Yet there have been many recent reports of IDPs from the previously independently estimated 203 settlements who have returned back to their villages owing to a decline in the frequency of combing operations and violent actions in their villages in Chhattisgarh and further difficulty to settle in Andhra Pradesh. After the villages of Nendra, Lingagiri and Basaguda block were rehabilitated with the help of NGOs and activists using Supreme Court orders, many others have simply moved back to their villages on their own accord, including those of Kistaram, Uskowaya, Kanaiguda, Mullempanda, Gompad and Gaganpalli, to mention a few. Both Gompad, and Gaganpalli have faced a large number of killings – nine people were killed in Gompad on the 1st of October, 2009 by security forces, and in the village of Gaganpalli, from where one of the leaders of the Salwa Judum originates, ten people were killed in 2006 during the burning of the village by the Salwa Judum.

While the Forest Survey of India Report 2011 has put the blame on leftwing extremists for massive deforestation in Khammam, the villages of Millampalli repeatedly exhorted and listed all the violent actions by the Maoists in their villages in Chhattisgarh. In fact, one of the most educated villagers of the settlement, Komaram Rajesh, is the brother of a Special Police Officer and has repeatedly claimed that the Salwa Judum didn’t oppress his people, often denying that his village was burnt down by the Salwa Judum, when the rest of his neighbours said it was indeed the Salwa Judum.

Beyond conflict with the Forest Department, other tribes, the Salwa Judum and the Maoists, another conflict takes place within settlements themselves where a growing tendency to cut down a large number of the forests for podu cultivation, has brought individuals in conflict with their own villagers who feel there should be more moderate felling of trees. Certain settlments cultivate rice without cutting larger trees while others have destroyed acres of forests.

‘If we cut the entire forest down, where will we live?’ A man from Kamantome once exhorted during a summer season when there was little access to food, or water for the settlement.

Ironically, in Millampalli, one of the men killed by the Maoists, Kumaram Muthaiya, was killed in 2002 because he refused to share his 70 acres of land with other villagers.

A Shrinking Space

Land alienation for the all the adivasi tribes of Khammam isn’t a new phenomena, and was adequately studied by late civil servant J. M. Girglani, who had commented in his report that, ‘The most atrocious violation of the LTR (Land Transfer Regulation) and regulation 1 of 70 is that all the lands in Bhadrachalam Municipal town and the peripheral urbanized and urbanizable area is occupied by non-tribals with commercial buildings, hotels, residential buildings, colleges including an engineering college. The market value of this land on an average is Rs.4,000/- per square yard. This was confirmed to me not only by local enquiry but also by responsible District officers. This would work out to about 5,000 crores worth of land, which should have been the property of the tribals. It is now the property of the non-tribals and is commercially used by them.’

Just two kilometres away from land that was meant to belong to the adivasis, is the latest Koya settlement that was destroyed by the Forest Department.

‘They (the Forest Department) destroyed our homes in January, and in February, and they came in March and even took away all the wood we used to make our homes. Now, we will rebuild our homes and if they come again and destroy them, we will rebuild them again.’ Said Komaram Rajesh of the village of Millampalli.

Villagers alleged that Forest Guards held them down and beat them on the soles of their feet, asking them why they had settled in the forest, and who had pointed them out to this patch of the forest. One man embarassing recollected in humour as his neighbours laughed, that one of the Gaurds threathened him saying, ‘ghaand mein mirrchi ghussa doonga.’

Officials would arrive a day later to convince all the Koyas, to leave the Reserve Forest but the residents protested. When the tractor arrived to carry away all the timber that was being used to make their homes, the adivasis willingly piled the timber onto the seat of the tractor, threathening to burn it down but refrained.

‘Even if they don’t let us settle here, we will manage somehow.’ Continued Komaram Rajesh.

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Death In A Quiet Corner

March 21, 2012

This op-ed appears in abriged form in Daily News & Analysis on the 19th of March, 2012.

‘Torture has long been employed by well-meaning, even reasonable people armed with the sincere belief that they are preserving civilization as they know it. Aristotle favoured the use of torture in extracting evidence, speaking of its absolute credibility, and St.Augustine also defended the practice. Torture was routine in ancient Greece and Rome, and although the methods have changed in the intervening centuries, the goals of the torturer – to gain information, to punish, to force an individual to change his beliefs or loyalties, to intimidate a community – have not changed at all.’ – from Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, The Dynamics of Torture, by John Conroy.

On the 11th of August of 2010, Mandangi Subarao of Kondabaredi village of Rayagada district of Odisha, allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself in the offices of the Anti-Naxalite cells of the police station.

He killed himself in the police station that specializes in tracking down and killing Maoists, in fear of the Maoists, according to the police.

His case was eventually sent to the National Human Rights Commission by the National Campaign For The Prevention Of Torture, who asked the state to submit action taken report by 2 February 2012. The police continue to be on duty. A similar situation had developed in Dantewada when the NHRC took cognizance of the death of Pudiyama Mada after newspaper reports detailed his torture by the Central Reserve Police Force, and his eventual ‘suicide’ in the Sukma police station.

Meanwhile, the medical report on adivasi teacher Soni Sori’s condition that reached the Supreme Court stated that stones were found lodged in her vagina and her rectum while she was in police custody.

The Supreme Court gave the Chhattisgarh government 55 days to respond, and sent her back to the Chhattisgarh jails, and has revealed once again, that the rule of law and the constitution is divorcing itself from the aspirations of citizen of the state, whose fundamental Right To Life has to be protected by the Courts, not something the Court grants her, or the police is allowed to take away the instant they consider her a Maoist sympathizer.

Her hearing was supposed to be held on the 25th of January, 2012, but its turn never came up. Instead, the Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg, who she accused of torturing her, won the President’s Medal for Gallantry on Republic Day, the day the constitution of India came into being. He was awarded for his conduct during an encounter with the Maoists in Mahasumand District in 2010.

To the state machinery: it remains a story of he said, she said, as the allegations of torture in police custody leave no witnesses besides the tortured themselves, but in this case, the accused has a medical report from Kolkatta to say that her body was violated beyond anyone’s imagination, unlike the Mandangi Subarao case, where a man who kills himself in the police station in fear of the Maoists has done so in a district, out of sight and mind, and buried in the quagmire of the hopelessness of raising one’s voice over endemic abuse.

The National Human Rights Commission has gone on record to say that 1574 custodial deaths took place between April 2010 and March 2011. And between 2001 and 2011, there were around 15,231 custodial deaths, according to The Asian Center For Human Rights who had done a similar study on custodial violence in 2008, where they had claimed around 9,000 people were killed in police custody since 2000, at an unchanging average of four per day.

The Police State Against The Woman’s Body

16 year old Meena Khalko was killed in an alleged encounter and accused as a Maoist. Allegations would surface that she was raped and murdered and not killed in crossfire, and the Chhattisgarh Home Minister parroted his police officials who said that she was ‘habitual about sex’ and had links with truck drivers.

Ishrat Jahan who the Special Investigation Team confirms was killed in a fake encounter recently was questioned by our own Home Minister G.K. Pillai who finds that her checking into a hotel room with another man is suspicious.

In none of the 99 cases of rape allegations against Special Police Officers or security personnel in South Bastar did the police file even a single First Information Report even after the Supreme Court ordered them to do so. The National Human Rights Commission Enquiry Team, (comprising of 15 police officials out of 16) only investigated five cases out of 99, where in one instance, they visited the wrong village and construed that the allegations were baseless as they couldn’t find the victims.

In the other village of Potenaar, there were discrepancies in the testimonies of women who were raped three years earlier and there was no FIR filed in the police station. Thus they construed again, that the allegations were baseless, as women traumatized brutally by assault have to apparently remember the intricate details of everything that was done to them and lodge a complaint against the same police that rapes them.

The women of Vakapalli of Andhra Pradesh who were allegedly gangraped by the special anti-Naxalite forces the Greyhounds, are still fighting for justice in a case that was widely highlighted in Andhra Pradesh but the accused policemen continue to be in duty, and the state continues to construe their allegations as nothing but Maoist propaganda.

Even though the women’s statements were recorded both before the police as well as the Magistrate: all of them stated that they bathed after the assault, they did not resist the assault as they were afraid of violence, thus, there was no sign of injuries (besides one woman who had a boot on her face), and thus no physical evidence of rape, and the case would run aground by a system that ignores the Supreme Courts own directives on rape, which mention that inquiries should be done on accusation alone and the burden of proving innocence falls on the accused.

A 12 year old girl who was allegedly raped by the member of the elite anti-Maoist C60 group of Maharashtra, in the village of Paverval on the 4th of March, 2009, the alleged rapist himself, claims with strong conviction, that it’s all Maoist propaganda mischief.

In Narayanpatna block of Orissa, in the village of Taladekapadu, on the 19th of April, 2011, a 14 year old girl was allegedly gang-raped by four security personnel, yet without making her medical report public, the Crime Branch claims the entire allegation is false. The girl’s family belong to the Kondh tribe who have been criminalized in a district that has seen mass arrests, police firings into crowds, mass abductions and tortures, and the burning of villages, and to them, the idea of approaching the judicial system itself is oppressive.

And the cases like hers are those that never receive the kind of attention that the Soni Sodi case has, where a woman stood up for her rights, who approached the media that would listen to her, who repeatedly spoke about the torture faced by her family by both the state and the Maoists, and would yet be condemned by the system, while those who defend human rights watch helplessly.

The State As A Bystander

A woman attacked with acid by a man in the middle of the market while a crowd watches without doing anything can be described akin to Soni Sodi being brutally tortured as the judiciary, the press, the senior police officials, larger civil society and the general public sit quietly.

A group of committed activists, a dissident media and international human rights organizations have been repeatedly bringing her case to the public eye, yet as a matter of fact, have failed to prevent her torture.

Bystanders, and the silent consent of the general public plays its role in perpetrating human rights violations. If a woman is being tortured, first it’s veracity is questioned, then when it is confirmed, she is dehumanised with the tag ‘Naxalite supporter’ so people can continue to be bystanders, and turn the pages over the suffering of a fellow human being. When it comes to rape, a victim is dressed indecently, not that men need to keep their dicks in their pants. When it comes to rape accusations against the police, the very lackadaisical and haphazard manner of the investigation, the complete lack of interest shown in even lodging FIRs, doesn’t entertain any seriousness of the crime and only manifests the complete bias of the police who are convinced that all accusations against their own, is malicious propaganda meant to ‘demoralize’ their ranks.

Bystanders, when there are many of them, will always pass on the responsibility of doing something when there are others in the crowd. Responsibility is diffused. Responsibility is further diffused, when the crowd looks around and notices no one is doing anything. Chief Ministers are quiet. Home Ministers are saying a rape victim was habitual about sex. The Highest Court of the land, sends a woman back to her torturers, to ensure procedure. But when a police official suspected of torture is awarded by the president of the nation, what kind of message does it give to the police?

The police however have been convinced that the Maoists have been using the laws of the land, the courts and Writ Petitio, to hamper their counterinsurgency efforts. And counterinsurgency is completely incompatible with human rights – what are human rights violations to one, are standard operating procedures to those in uniform.

State of Anomie

Psychologist Ervin Staub quotes in The Origins and Prevention of Genocide, Mass Killing, and Other Collective Violence, that ‘Dominant groups usually develop “‘hierarchy legitimizing myths” or legitimizing ideologies that justify subordinating other groups. They often see themselves as superior and deserving of their status due to their race, religion, intelligence, hard work, worldview, or other characteristics. Groups also embrace ideologies of development and visions of economic progress, identifying the victim group as standing in the way.’

And Jon Conroy quotes him extensively in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, The Dynamics of Torture, where Staub studied mass human rights violations in Argentina during the military Junta, where “….over time, ‘the many kinds of victims made it difficult [for the perpetrators] to differentiate between more or less worthy human beings. It became acceptable to torture and murder teenage girls, nuns and pregnant women. Learning by doing stifled the torturer’s feelings of empathy and concern.’ Furthermore, the Argentine torturers could see that their actions were supported by the larger society. Their superior officers signed release forms for kidnappings, relieving the lower orders from responsibility for the acts they carried out. The judiciary commonly accepted the military’s versions of events. The press – threatened by prison terms for demeaning or subverting the military – largely accepted censorship and did not report on disappearances. Doctors were present in interrogation rooms…….The middle class, Staub says, was pleased by the junta’s economic policy and was unmoved by the repression that accompanied it.”

A considerable difference in India would be: the mainstream media censors itself not out of fear but for reasons it knows best.  The middle class, especially, is happier to be engaging with the indigenous adivasis as exhibitions in state-sponsered fairs. Doctors in Chhattisgarh had botched two medical reports on Soni Sodi.

In India, ‘development’, ‘economic progress’, have become the legitimate myths, justifications, war cries; the apathy, for the killing of the illegitimate children of the Republic.

That every day, four people are invisibly tortured to death in police custody reflects upon the society we are becoming, and the apathy that emanates from it, is the gasoline that falls into the tinderbox that is a lawless society holding a gun to its head, a neurotic world of violence where people kill each other for a packet of biscuits, or uncontrolable rage, or where the Border Security Force strips a man and beats him brutally and videographs it, as every institution of authority has broken down, where the new deities of profit, growth, development have destroyed the needs of human touch and conscience: where compassion, empathy, and mercy were quietly executed in some forest declared as a Disturbed Area or a ‘liberated zone.’

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The Ghosts Of Dantewada

March 14, 2012

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 13th of March, 2012.

On the 11th of March, 2012, Superintendent of police of Bilaspur Rahul Sharma took his service revolver and shot himself in the head. Some cite personal problems, others feel he was under severe pressure from his superiors.

I first met him on the 3rd of April, 2009 when Maoists, travelling by motorcycle had gunned down Channu Karma, a relative of Mahendra Karma, in broad daylight, just a few kilometers away from the police station at Dantewada. I had taken the above photograph of the witness of the crime, who sat distraught, holding his head, unable to talk. Rahul Sharma (framed by the window) then the Superintendent of Police of Dantewada, had entered the scene of the crime, and instantly called someone in Raipur, and in a calm demeanor he described the situation and everything that was being done by his deparment to handle just another political assasination in Dantewada. He would later ask me where I had come from, and I replied, I came from Mumbai. I would live in Dantewada for months under his office.

A few days later, on the 12th of April, an encounter had taken me to the village of Goomiyapal, then to Hiroli, then Samalwar, where the police had claimed to kill three Maoists in the forest, yet the dirt-roads leading away from the village of Samalwar were filled with pools of blood.  The villagers too claimed that three people were taken away by the police from Samalwar and that there was no encounter in the forest.

That day I had interviewed Rajesh Pawar, the Assistant Superintendent of Police in the mining town of Kirandul. He had a strange habit of leaving his service revolver on his desk. I would meet him a few more times, once to find access to some prisoners who I knew were being beaten in the other room after an IED blast on a road near Kuakonda that had injured three CRPF personel.  And each time I met him when he was in office, he would leave his 9mm on the desk. When another reporter challenged him about the killings of Hiroli, he responded quickly, ‘Itna easy nahi hai, aadmi ko marna.’ And he handed his service pistol to the reporter, ‘mujhe maro.’

A few months later, he was gunned down by the Maoists on the 23rd of May, 2011 at Gariaband. The Maoists had filled him up with twenty bullets in an ambush that also took nine other lives. The village of Goomiyapal, where a mother and her son were beaten up during 12th of April encounter in the ‘forest’, would see another encounter in December 2009 that claimed six lives, and another in May of 2010, that claimed two lives, and again on the 12th of February, 2012, where a young boy was shot dead.

But Rahul Sharma’s stint as Superintendent of Police at Dantewada was even more controversial with the killing of 19 adivasis in Singaram village, which the police referred to as harcore Maoist cadres, but human rights groups and the media had cited as ordinary villagers, and witnesses claimed that people were lined up and shot. The Singaram matter was taken to the courts by human rights activist Himanshu Kumar, and a few months later, one of the adivasi petitioners who was challenging the version of events of the police, would be killed by the Maoists.

Death, in Dantewada, moves in circles, and only the ghosts know the end of the war.

There was once a casual story about Superintendent of Police Rahul Sharma, who met Arundhati Roy and filmmaker Sanjay Kak when they were in Dantewada. He would tell Ms.Roy that he was an avid reader of her work when he was in JNU, and would say, like a market economist would concur, ‘Peace would come to Dantewada if the adivasis would be taught greed.’

I wish I knew Rahul Sharma a lot better now, and I wish could’ve asked him what he learnt from the Adivasis.

 

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Where Individuality Means Waging War Against The State

September 29, 2011

The Curious Case Of Lingaram Kodopi

Testimonies from the burnings of the villages of Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram were also collected by Lingaram and can be found on youtube here.

This article first appears in abridged form in DNA on the 26th of September, 2011.

I got a call around midnight in the Delhi summer. It was Lingaram, the young Muria adivasi from Sameli village in Dantewada, then studying in Noida’s International Media Institute of India. Linga’s misfortunes never seem to end: first he was accused of helping the Maoists, then tortured in the police station toilet, forced to be a Special Police Officer, then released with the help of a habeas corpus petition. In a few months, he would be dealing with encounter killings in his village that left three dead, to only add to the targetting of his family members by the Chhattisgarh police, and then to be accused in a press conference by Senior Superintendent of Police Kalluri of being a mastermind of an attack on a Congress leader, and that Lingaram would be the sucessor to Maoist leader Azad.

‘Javed bhai,’ He asked me that night in Delhi, ‘do you know where I can get a Che Guevara t-shirt?’

Silence.

‘Linga, you wear that T-shirt in Dantewada, you’d be the first man in jail.’

Lingaram chuckled uncontrollably.

Prankster.

A young man who is repeatedly targetted by the state of Chhattisgarh wants to wear a t-shirt with a face of a revolutionary while he traipses around the forests as a newly-trained video journalist, with the clearest of intentions of trying to help his people.

That alone, is his first crime against the state. Lingaram wants to help the adivasis, his own people, which means, to ensure them a fair stake in their forests, their lands, and their rights, which is completely against the policies of the state of Chhattisgarh. That alone, is a crime. That alone, makes him a Maoist sympathizer.

A simple idea, enshrined in the idea of the dignity of the human being: that he should not be shot, that she should not be raped, that they should not lose their children to war, that they should not lose their forests and their way of life to the profit margins of companies, and the idea of economic growth.

Lingaram was arrested again on the 9th of September, 2011 from his village of Sameli in Dantewada, for allegedly facilitating Essar Steel’s payment of protection money to the Maoists.

He was arrested along with B.K Lala, a contractor.

That Essar Steel pays the Maoists is a fact that was well-known in Dantewada. In 2009, when the Maoists blasted the 267km pipeline that carried iron ore slurry to Vishakapatnam, one local journalist was quick to quip: ‘It’s collection time!’

Essar Steel pays local journalists too to keep their mouths shut. That also everyone knew. Local journalists need to collect their own advertising revenue and they get that from companies.

As for Essar Steel paying the Maoists, this is no new phenomena. Contractors and companies have paid the Maoists in almost all the districts where they have a ‘liberated zone’. You don’t cut a single beedi leaf or mine a single rock of ore without paying the Maoists.

Lingaram, would’ve been one of the rarest breeds of journalists in a district of Muria and Koya adivasis: he would be one who knew Gondi, who spoke the language of the people in the furthest hills, with the quietest whispers.

His story on the Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram burnings is available on youtube, and his story quotes adivasis who want justice, who want ‘karvai’, nor ‘kranti’, they want investigations, not anything else. It is there for everyone to see, called ‘Dantewada burning 1.mov’

Linga knew his district too and what his people would tell you. He would tell you that the development by the Essars and Tatas is not development for his people. He would tell you how even though the National Mineral Development Corporation and the Bailadila mines have been around since the 1960s, it has not brought any upliftment to the hundreds of adivasi villages around it.

But why is he really in jail?

The state of Chhattisgarh has an unwritten set of rules about how an adivasi is meant to behave. You don’t organize, you don’t agitate, you don’t protest human rights violations, you don’t protest against the state, and you certiainly don’t protest against industrial development, which the drafters of the new Land Acquisition bill will tell you in the introduction to the bill, that ‘urbanization is inevitable’….. and these adivasis better understand that.

Lingaram joins all the other adivasis who stood up for their rights and started to ask questions about the kind of development that was thrown onto them without a choice: Manish Kunjam, an ex-MLA was given death threats and has been living on borrowed time, Kartam Joga, Supreme Court petitioner against the Salwa Judum who is in jail on absurd charges, Kopa Kunjam, human rights activist who refused to be bought by the state.

They’re all guilty of trying to help their people.

The Maoists too, claim to help the Adivasis. And while some people would like to ensure that those two things, ‘the Maoists’ and the ‘adivasis’ are the same thing, there’s also another adivasi voice dissenting amidst the dissenters that says, ‘but they kill our own people.’ Lingaram, the so-called Maoist sympathizer, would last call me when he needed help to ensure his uncle could get treatment after the Maoists shot him in his leg.

Linga also had that voice, the voice to profess his complete independence: free of being called something. I still remember the one thing he said with most emphasis, the first time I met him: ‘I just want to be my own person.’

Individuality, according to the state of Chhattisgarh, is also called Waging War Against the State now. Individuality would mean, that a young boy who is being forced by two warring parties to come to their side, doesn’t need to choose his allegiances but can be his own person.

A Brief Note on Kuakonda Block: Lingaram’s Testimony

One day in Kuakonda block: a mother and her child look on as security forces who commandeered their vehicle return to base camp, about thirty minutes after an IED blast that injured three security personnel and led to the arbitrary detention of four adivasis, including a young boy. The incident took place on the 2nd of May, 2009.

Lingaram had given a testimony in the Independent People’s Tribunal in Delhi on the 9th of April, 2010, three days after the Tadmetla killings that left 76 security personnel dead. The entire testimony is here:

“My name is Lingaram, from Sameli,  Dantewada.  I am a driver and my family has a car, in which I can ferry people.  We  have  some land on which we farm.  I am not very literate.

I was watching TV at home, around September last year.  Five  motorcycles came, with 10 people, who were holding AK 47s. They took me to Koukonda. They asked me questions such as “where did you get the bike from?  How do you go about in style?”  My family is fairly comfortably off, but they accused me of being a Naxalite.  They  tortured me and wanted me to become an SPO.

In the meanwile, my family members filed a writ of habeus corpus. I should have been released. But they kept threatening me that I would either be killed by them—in a fake encournter, or by the Naxalites.  Finally, I  agreed to be an Special Police Officer. They took me for the Court hearing and kept me in a fancy hotel—but before the judge, I said that although I have come here of my own will, I now wish to return to my family and village.  So the police had to let me go.

But on the way back, while I was being accompanied by my family and villagers in cars, the security forces stopped us again, and arrested me again and were trying to force me to go back to the police station.  However, I managed to flee, but my brother was taken by them instead.  A few days later, they again came for me. And have been threatening my father also.

I have been living in hiding since. The police are still looking for me.

Who is not grieved by the killings of 76 people? But I feel that even though the stated target of the police is the naxalites, the real target is somewhere else? Why are we (adivasis) being harassed by the police because of what the Naxalites do?  Why can’t we adivasis wear a good watch, drive a car without being picked up by the police?

Our village has 1800 people, the block has 30,000 people.

I fear that because of what has happened recently (the killing of 76 security forces), the entire town of Chintalnar will be razed.  Just because of coming here to testify, God knows what will happen to me.  But I have to die in any case, how long can I live in hiding?

There is news that some mineral has been discovered in the hills close to our village. And I think that is the real reason that the police is there, not because of the Naxalites.

We have a Gram Panchayat but it has no meaning.  It is full of Marwaris and non-tribals.  If we write and send them something, they bury it and make sure that it doesn’t reach any of the authorities.  We have no education, no health, nothing.  Calling us Naxalites is simply an excuse to terrorize us.

We have a school in our village upto the 5th class.  The teachers come for only one day in a month, and collect a full month’s pay. We want real education.

The only time the politicians come is during the elections.  No one comes to our areas except the police force. We complained about the teachers—but to no avail.  We are told that till Maoists are there, we can’t get any relief. When we tell the Maoists we want education, they tell us that they aren’t here for us, adivasis, but for a ‘class war’.

There is no NREGA in our region. We were organized under an organization to collect forest produce, but were told that we are Naxalites. How is it that the Marwaris can come and steal our forest produce and make high profits, but when we, adivasis try to collect it, we are called Naxalites?

We get enough from our land to feed us.  What is development?  NMDC has operated in our area for 52 years but has only caused destruction. Naxalites don’t help us, but they don’t hurt us either.  If having a company nearby could give us development, then considering that Bailadila (NMDC mines) is 20 km from us and has been there before the Naxalites, then we should have had a lot of development. What is the reason that we still have no education and no hospital? Not one hospital in 52 years!  When our Adivasis go to Bailadila for treatment, they humiliate us and don’t admit us to their hospitals.”

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The War Dogma

July 8, 2011

This article appears in the July issue of Agenda/Infochange for the theme on the ‘Limits of Freedom’.

“So what is this in my contract? What does it really mean that I need to fulfil my role as a reporter?” I had asked my editor a week before I headed back to Dantewada, not as a freelancer anymore but as a reporter for The New Indian Express. “That you have to show some level of professionalism,” he replied curtly. “And that means?” I shuddered. The word ‘professionalism’ had strong leanings towards corporatism in my mind. “That you need to just write the truth,” he said. “Marry me,” I said, overjoyed. That’s all I wanted to do.

I left his office, went home, packed, took the first bus to the ‘jungle’, and wrote a story about the aftermath of a combing operation in the village of Gompad. The story would be printed a few days later as the lead story. The photograph showed Katam Suresh, an 18-month-old baby whose fingers had been cut off by members of the security forces. That was my first published story. It was November 15, 2009.

Dantewada 2009 was a very different place from Dantewada 2010. In 2009, Dantewada wasn’t yet the place where 76 jawans were killed, where a civilian bus was hit by an IED, where Arundhati Roy had gone walking with comrades, where the ‘army had to be sent in’, or where the media pundits had anything much to say about the place. In 2009, the emptying of 644 villages, the displacing of an estimated 60,000-200,000 people, the burning, the looting, murdering, raping of adivasis, the fratricidal violence of the Maoists and the Salwa Judum, and the daily anxiety of existing in a civil war for four years wasn’t news. That a young baby had been shot dead by the CRPF in Cherpal wasn’t national news even though the local press picked up the story.

It was January when I first reached Dantewada as a freelancer. Nineteen adivasis had been murdered at Singaram, a fair distance from the forest guest house where I was residing in Bijapur. It was news in the local newspapers, and in Andhra Pradesh’s Telegu media, and in Tehelka. That’s where it ended. Maoism and tribal issues were out of sight and out of mind for the blind and mindless mainstream media. Much later I would learn that a group of anthropologists and human rights workers had gone to Delhi to attend meetings with the editors of numerous media, on the realities of Dantewada and the atrocities of the Salwa Judum. Their response was silence.

I was hoping to take enough pictures to help bring the ‘truth’ to the public consciousness. But before I was allowed into the more sensitive areas of Bastar district, I was warned that I’d need a little ‘get-through-the-checkpoint’ press card. “Many cadres of the Maoist party are illiterate, and they don’t take kindly to strangers. But they have been taught to identify P-R-E-S-S,” said a local journalist. Large areas of the district were out of bounds for the general public and the press. However, in 2009, anyone with a press card could go almost anywhere. The truth was instantly available, provided one was willing to give it time and a good pair of boots.

I spent months in Dantewada running my boots into the ground.

I know there are no universal truths, no feeble ideologies, no nationalist dirges, development gospels, human rights, no individual glories. The one simple basis to hold the entire knife’s edge of ‘stepping into’ a war is a faint humanism that exists when you sit quietly and look at the woman whose face has been slashed with a knife, and wonder why. You end up sympathising with fathers who cut the necks of their adult sons after they’ve had too much to drink. You wonder if that’s the whole story. You know it’s not. You ask why a teacher who asks, ‘Why are you killing innocent people’ is stabbed by the Maoists. You ask why an orphan is now a feared soldier; you ask why his village is now desolate, unlived in and empty. You ask why the Maoists killed a young woman’s father…

The more I delved, the more I realised that nothing is what it seems. The black-and-white binary certainties are like landmines that naïve idealists and careerist apologists for the status-quo tend to tread. What certainties? That the Maoists are bad? Or the state is only driven by corporate interests? Or that the Maoists do good, and the government has never done any good in 60 years? Or that the Salwa Judum are just state-backed vigilantes whose sole purpose is to uproot the tribals from their lands?

To look at Dantewada clearly one has to look through a myriad shattered crystals.

A lot depends on where you stand. Are you standing between a crying mother and the barbed wire across which state officials are conducting an autopsy on her son whom they shot dead? Or across from a young boy whose leg was filled with shrapnel from a Maoist grenade? Or in a police van getting beaten up by the police for reporting on the burning of a village?

You report the details, caring little for abstract politics or the power struggles in the upper echelons of society that are so cut off from the realities of human suffering. Every time a politician opens his mouth, his statements reek of irrelevance when set against the bloodshed. And the war goes on; the unimaginable terror in central India does not fuel anti-war sentiment in anyone but a small minority of citizens. The mainstream media happily propagates war. A mention of the burning of villages to a senior sub-editor of a newspaper is met with citations of the Jnaneswari massacre or the killing of 76 jawans. Do atrocities justify atrocities? Is war the only solution to atrocity? The state and media do not allow you to humanise any aspect of conflict. War is a business, and business is devoid of sentiment. Dead jawans don’t appear on TV to say war is bad, yet we need war to avenge our dead jawans.

While state atrocities are overwhelming, the justifications for Maoist terror appear shallow especially when read in the context of the dynamics of power. Yes there is indeed structural violence, and the breakdown of democratic space contributes to the downward spiral of violence and counter-violence. But power is structural violence too.

The word ‘revolution’ is as casually used and as ambivalent as the term ‘democracy’. We notice quite easily that for millions of Indians neither has ever existed, for the country has never quite rid itself of its colonial past. All this is clearer in central India, and in the actions of the state against islands of popular resistance in places such as Narayanpatna, Lohandiguda, Kalinganagar, Kashipur, Jaitapur, Jagatsinghpur and Sompeta where police firing and arbitrary arrests have been and continue to be perpetrated with impunity.

A journalist has few choices. Write what the state wants you to write and stay alive, especially if you’re a local journalist who lives in the war zone. Write the truth, publish the report and believe that the government and the rest of the country will be sympathetic to the concerns of the people; after all, we are a democratic nation. Dissent, if voiced sharply enough, will draw in opposition parties, generate public debate, and lead to an eventual victory for the people. Or else the journalist believes that if there is no democracy then there is no such thing as journalism. Then the rulebooks become pointless and have to be thrown out.

In 2010, when the central government finally started to pay attention to what the state of Chhattisgarh was doing to its people in Dantewada, it initiated Operation Green Hunt — a consent-seeking name for the actions of the Chhattisgarh state over the past five years. All attempts to bring the truth to the public consciousness, and to the attention of the powers-that-be, culminated in a minister declaring that he’d wipe out the Naxalites and then bring development.

It’s done wonders for my career though. Thank you, Mr Chidambaram. After Operation Green Hunt I became one of the first English daily journalists working in the area.

After months of reporting on atrocity after atrocity committed by both sides, I have found myself witness to one of the greatest crimes in the country. Of course, I had always questioned the myth of conflict journalism — the belief that news of atrocities would lead somebody far away, in a position of power and motivated to stop them, to intervene, to help end the war. That is pure fantasy. The war continues…

After a point it’s not about writing the truth but living with it.

I have been documenting the end of an entire community in the name of profit, development and the big (fake) picture: the so-called greater good of superpower India. Human suffering is all too real and inevitable, but to go through life without realising that much of it is unnecessary is tragic.

The adivasis don’t have to lose their forests, and the soldiers don’t have to die.

As a journalist, you’re supposed to walk away, go home, chew on the fat of life, and call ‘it’ — death, war, destruction and bottles of beer — nothing but a job. That’s very convenient especially if you don’t want to challenge the status-quo. Is that what conflict journalism is supposed to do? Or are those the natural demands of the nature of truth?

Journalism’s only been around for a couple of hundred years or so. Truth and the demand for truth are older. They belong to the first time a caveman wondered why another caveman was stealing his food and calling it ‘development’. As for mainstream corporate journalism, prostitution has been around longer and is a more legitimate profession with more ethical constraints. What may we say of the ethics and norms enforced by the Time magazines of the world, who use the photograph of a girl with a severed nose to propagate a war? Are these the ethics required of journalists working in the ‘developing world’? The same ‘developing world’ that is trying to exist against the very forces whose wars they propagate? The photograph of a defaced Aisha Bibi, unsurprisingly, won the World Press Photo award for Photo of the Year even as photographs of children blown apart by predator drones don’t seem to win awards. An ethic to vie for.

To them, the Third World is a vicarious frenzy, the ultimate downer, humanity’s hellhole. Go to the Congo, go to Rwanda, write about a million rapes, murders, and every detail of bloody mayhem and unimaginable poverty. Fit all this into a narrative that says the Third World can never govern itself without the help of the West, the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, and foreign intervention. They’ve been saying that about the Middle East since the Balfour Declaration. Now, thanks to one street vendor who burnt himself on the streets of Tunisia, they are eating their words.

Our media hasn’t the maturity to think about whether adivasis can govern themselves or not, but they happily follow the inherited ethics of corporate journalism without much ado: neutrality, distance and objectivity. And that is a joke because they’re not neutral, they’re too distant from the ground, and they’re definitely not objective. Nowhere in the press are the causes of the insurgency ever spelled out to the world. Nowhere are the combatants on both sides (by both media) looked at as human beings.

I can’t live with the truth that journalism is a bullshit profession if truth has been transgressed. When war is the message of the messengers, in a world that is already stricken with terror and fear. And we are at love-war with ambivalent language — there are those who call murders encounters, pogroms riots, genocide development, and hatred patriotism; and there are those who call revolution social transformation. Truth is too often packaged as propaganda. One becomes only too aware that reports on atrocities are used by the ‘other’ side to propagate their war, and they call it a people’s war — this is the strangest contradiction of anti-war reporting.

Does a journalist only subsist within words and images? When we need not words but actions to ensure that a spade is called a spade, that a rose is a rose is a rose? In a world where acts of terror are far more vitriolic than words of love, is the message the only purpose of a journalist? To write, to protest, to write and keep writing?

Truth is, I don’t know.

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Dantewada: Days of Rage

April 8, 2011

No, Minister

On the 2nd of April, the chief minister, Raman Singh, the governor Shekar Datt and the DGP Vishwaranjan had visited Tadmetla village which was burned down on the 16th of March, 2011. They did not visit Morpalli village which was burnt down on the 11th of March, and where Madvi Sulla was killed in cold blood and two women were sexually assaulted, or Timmapuram which was burnt down on the 13th of March, where Barse Bhima from Phulanpad was killed with an axe.

‘Six or seven helicopters had flown down,’ Said Madvi Mukka of Tadmetla who met the delegation. Eventually, the security forces started to find whoever they could as many had simply run away on sight of the security forces.

The government also distributed relief to the villagers of Tadmetla, while they had given nothing to the villages of Morpalli and Timmapuram. Yet even the people of Tadmetla aren’t impressed.

‘They gave us 17 quintals of rice,’ Said the former sarpanch Gondse Deva, ‘and that’s not going to last even a week.’

‘Every other house that they burnt down had that much rice.’

There are 185 families in Tadmetla and 207 buildings were burnt down and the government had given 105 sheets of tarpaulin. They had given 200 saris for the women, and nothing for the men. They had also given about 10 quintals of potatoes and 7 quintals of onions, 5.5 quintals of pulses, along with spices.

‘They gave us tea but no sugar.’ Joked a villager.

And it doesn’t end there. The chief minister’s delegation had also distributed volleyballs to the adivasis of Tadmetla, which no one seems to be very thrilled about.

And the villagers of Tadmetla allege, that while the chief minister was taking their testimonies and distributing ration, a group of SPOs who were part of their escort were stealing food at the periphery of the village.

Gondse Deva, the former sarpanch was told by Raman Singh that he’d be made a permanent teacher, while another SPO would threaten him later.

‘They said, they’d re-open the markets, but we told them to shut down the Salwa Judum first.’ Said Bhima Madvi (65), whose home was burnt down, along with all of his grain, his clothes, his vessels and even his patta (deed).

‘Yeh kiska sarkar hai joh ration le ke aata hai?’ aur yeh kiska sarkar hai joh gaon jalata hai?’ (whose government is it that gives us ration and whose is it that burns our villages?) said Madvi Mukka in his broken hindi – Madvi Mukka’s house was burnt down with over 15 quintals of rice. The above question was directed to Raman Singh, chief minister of Chhattisgarh, who apparently had no answer.

Other villagers also brought up the matter of the two men – Madvi Handa s/o Kosa, and Madvi Aita, who were taken away by the police.

‘Handa was sleeping on the cot,’ says his mother Pojje, ‘when the forces came and beat him up and took him away.’

‘They took us all away from our homes, and behind us, some other forces came and burnt our homes down.’

The families of the people who were taken away by the police had eventually gone to the police station to help release their loved ones. ‘It was holi, many of them were drunk,’ Said Hidme, Handa’s wife, ‘And they said they’d release them tomorrow, but the next day they sent them to Dornapal, and then later, to Dantewada jail.’

The chief minister apparently promised that they would be released in a few days. But four days after the visit, none of them have been released.  And the people are not surprised. Pojje’s husband, and Handa’s father Madvi Kosa had been taken away by the forces in similar circumstances five years ago, and had only come back after four years.

Hunger but no starvation

Madkam Nande w/o Bandi or Morpalli gave birth to a baby boy on the 3rd of April in a house without a roof. Her home was burnt down with all of her produce and her husband is in Andhra Pradesh working as a day labourer.

The Chief Minister has denied all allegations that there have been starvation deaths in Tadmetla even though local news reports and those from BBC Hindi had claimed that those reports had come from the village of Morpalli. The chief minister is half-right. There were no starvation deaths due to arson and the widespread burning of a self-sustaining communities food supply. But three people over the age of 65, Nupe Rajalu, Madavi Joga and Madkam Bhime  from the village of Morpalli had died of hunger/starvation/dehydration after they got lost in the jungle trying to escape the approaching security forces.

Their bodies were found on the 14th, 15th and 16th of March by villagers who buried them at the outskirts of the village.

The people of Morpalli have had to share whatever food they had managed to save from the burning of their homes and are aware that their supply might run out.

And this is not even the first time their village was burnt down by the security forces. The security forces had even burnt their village down along with all of their produce in April 2007.

It took them around fifty-sixty days to rebuild their homes.

The Perpetrators

Madkam Nande of Morpalli village with her children before the remnants of her home.

The state of Chhattisgarh has repeatedly told the Supreme Court that the Salwa Judum had been shut down and that they aren’t allowed on combing operations anymore.

Yet Bodke Mara s/o Lacha from the village of Morpalli had only become a SPO two or three months ago. The villagers of Morpalli, alleged that he only became an SPO after the Maoists threatened him with dire consequences.

‘He used to misbehave with girls in our village, and he even stole rice from some adivasis in Lachapur in Andhra,’ Said his ex-neighbours.

He would eventually lead the police to the village of Morpalli where one man would be killed and two women would be raped.

The villagers were also able to identify other SPOs who were leading the attack on their villages, including Madkam Bhima of Junagoda village in Penta Panchayat, who used to be known as Comrade Ramesh when he was with the Maoists. There was also Vanjam Deva from Sirpanguda, near Timmapuram who also used to be a Maoist.

Two more SPOs came from Timmapuram which was burnt down – Madvi Chona s/o Mandgroo and a female SPO Payke Barse who allegedly acted as the guide for the security forces.

The people of Tadmetla also identified the above mentioned SPOs along with the following – Ramlal Barse from Budgill village, Telam Nanda s/o Konda from Lakhapal, Telam Kosab, Aimla Mukesh s/o Deva from Nagaram, Aimla Manu s/o Deva, Karti Singha, Dasaru Sodi from Milampalli, Oyam Kapil from Gaganpalli who used to be a teacher, and Kiche Nanda from Dornapal, Surya from Misma – both who have warrants for their arrests, and have been declared as ‘absconding’, for what is known to be the Samsetti rape case.

A few weeks ago, Surya also allegedly led a group of SPOs who stopped trucks taking relief to the affected villages, even though the relief was sent by the collector of Dantewada.

Post-Script: A Case Against Forgetfulness

One year after 76 security personnel were killed in the Chintalnar area, with allegations of rape being used as a weapon of war soon after by the state, the latest attack on the adivasis of Bastar during a five-day long carnage has led to break the silence on atrocities that have been committed for over six years now, across the undivided Bastar region.

Last year in November, the security forces had burnt down Tatemargu and Pallodi village. Pallodi which was on route to Tadmetla has now rebuilt itself. There was no relief given to the people, there was no suo moto case filed by the National Human Rights Commission and there was no visit by the chief minister. There are at least 644 villages that lie empty and at least 300 of them had been burnt down at least once.

And for three of the villages that were attacked recently, this was not the first time.

Sodi Nanda s/o Adma  of Tadmetla was killed by the security forces in 2007. Two houses were burnt down that day.

Barse Lakma s/o Bhima of Morpalli was going for ration at Chintalnar market when he was picked up by the security forces last year.

Madkam Nanga s/o Aita was going to the sell his produce in Chintalnar when he was also picked up by the police and sent to jail over three years ago. None of them have been released.

From Phulanpad village where Barse Bhima and Manu Yadav were killed in the recent operation, around three years ago, Aimla Sukka (20) s/o Chola and Aimla Joga (20) s/o Choma were killed when their village was raided by security forces.

There are many people from Phulanpad who live in Andhra Pradesh as Internally Displaced Persons, as a part of the estimated 16,000 to 40,000 adivasis who have been completely forgotten by the state of Chhattisgarh.