Archive for the ‘Freedom Of The Press’ Category

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On the killing of Sai Reddy: Murder and Maoist Rationalisations

January 9, 2014

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Sai Reddy’s mother walking through the remnants of their home in April 2009.

This story appears on The Hoot on the 29th of December, 2013

The murder of the man who kept quiet, for reasons best known to him, reasons we could guess;  killed for reasons that are not justifiable in accordance to any decent human law.

The second killing of a journalist this year by the Maoists in Bastar is further revealing a pattern in arrogance, hypocrisy, and a roaring of silence over endless streams of noise. One doesn’t need to be a state apologist to find something extremely perturbing about just another murder of an unarmed man. Nor does one need to be a Gandhian, nor a revolutionary, nor an armchair intellectual acrobat drowning in the anxieties of growing fascism. A man was killed again, an oft-repeated sad truth of Bastar, and there must be a further engagement with the idea of killing informants: which the Maoists use as their own justification of murder, as the state would do with ‘national security,’ or ‘development’.

‘National security’ is ‘informant’ and ‘informant’ is ‘national security’. Rationalizations of murder is murder itself. We’re stuck in a time-warp of redundant language, and I often wonder how many times must the same thing be repeated until it is truth, as an edge of an axe, or a meaningless epitaph for a life that disappears to the sound of nothing.

It has become superfluous that every justification of murder and atrocity by the Maoists only seem to be in relation to state atrocities: ‘We’re sorry we burnt a train, but your government burns more trains,’ ‘We apologize for killing bystanders, but Mahendra Karma was a monster ’, ‘We don’t really apologize for killing a Salwa Judum foot soldier, but the Salwa Judum has burnt, looted, murdered and raped countless adivasis since 2004.’ Somehow it seems impossible for any introspection when one lives in relation to the violence of the ‘other.’

Sai Reddy, 51 year old journalist of Hindi-daily Deshbandu, was killed on his way from the Basaguda market on the 5th of December, 2013. A note by the South Regional Committee of the CPI (Maoist) claimed him to be an informer, a ‘reactionary journalist’, a murderer, a recruiter. But truth to the matter, he was no Mahendra Karma, nor was he a Brahmeshwar Singh of the Ranvir Sena who stood by his politics of bludgeoning to death countless Dalits who stood up for their rights in Bihar, whether it was in Bathani Tola or Laxmanpur-Bathe. Mahendra Karma was killed in retaliation to his politics and his identity, his opportunism, his own people, those ‘other’ adivasis, a contractor class, a class who has suffered the Maoists, which he held on, till his dying breath; as was Brahmeshwar Singh, executed on the street by two riding pillion on a motorcycle, the unofficial murderous prophet for the the landlord Bhumihars. Sai Reddy was a quiet man, who kept himself out of controversy, and often avoided meeting outsiders, and if he did he wouldn’t say what was already known. He faced the wrath of both a state that had charged and arrested him with the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act in 2008, and whose house in the town of Basaguda was burnt down in Basaguda in 2006. It was a block which was emptied and burnt down, in response to a Salwa Judum rally that led to killings and rapes in the nearby interior villages, that further led to an enraged adivasi population and Maoists to attack the block headquarters of Basaguda, which was mostly populated by non-adivasis and big farmers, leading to the death of four people.

It would be in 2009, that this block was rehabilitated after Supreme Court orders, and in June 28th of 2012, another massacre by the security forces was perpetrated in the village of Sarkeguda, a walk way from Basaguda. In 2009, I would watch Sai Reddy’s mother walk through the remnants of their broken down home, while others started to rebuild their lives, pledging that they would rather die at the hands of the state or the Maoists, then to leave again. But Reddy’s family knew that he wasn’t safe to live so far across the Talperu river, the unofficial line of control, lands that the CRPF would refer to Pakistan, where on some nights in a long past ago, abuses were hurled across the waters by passing Maoist cadres and the CRPF watchtowers: ‘Madharchod police’ vs. ‘Madharchod maovadi.’

That was 2009. Sai Reddy lived and worked with an axe over his head. What justifies a hit list, how does one get themselves off it once they are on? If Reddy felt the only way he could live in a world  on a hitlist, was to deny the Maoists an agenda, then is it not understandable if he even was an informant, or anti-Maoist? It doesn’t even matter. For Reddy had just recently begun to start talking about rebuilding his home at Basaguda, and a marked man doesn’t travel cognito through a war zone.

The press release would go on to accuse Sai Reddy of recruiting Special Police Officers, of arson, murder and of creating a spy network. If that was true, then Sai Reddy was the bravest journalist in the subcontinent, for unlike the people who actually recruited, murdered and created spy networks, who roam around with large entourages of armed men in Boleros and Sumos, Sai Reddy would walk alone, work alone, move alone. More so, did any of Reddy’s actions lead to the killing of innocent adivasis in Bijapur? Did the party ever try to engage with Reddy? If it did, why is it not mentioned in the Maoist communiqués justifying his murder?

Furthermore, is there any evidence to support that he was a threat? Every local journalist is usually an anti-Maoist reporter, because they live in the other side of the Stockholm Syndrome, in areas under control by the police, under their watchful eyes. What reports or information did Sai write or report that led to his murder, when everyone has to lie or keep quiet out of fear? Did his reports about local health and corruption bother the Maoists? His reports about the development of daily needs, were reactionary? If Sai Reddy was another journalist who wrote about the cosy and invisible relationship the Maoists held with contractors, does it justify death? Was Sai Reddy also being blackmailed out of a contract he held? Was it just another renegade local group who killed Sai Reddy for profit?

The Maoists are probably not going to stop killing people they deem informants, but they should try and be a little more intelligent or imaginative about bumping off journalists: ‘Javed Iqbal, was killed by our Dalam because he was a dolt, and we wanted to save the Chhattisgarh police the trouble.’ But the killing of Reddy is filled with nothing but lies and deadly clichés that relegate human beings to statistics, and outrage to a deafening disgust.

And after the murder of a journalist, it makes no sense to hear this from their statement trying to justify his death: “It is not a policy of the party to assassinate journalists who would write against us. We do not encourage any policy to jeopardize the independence of the media … rather we strongly support freedom of speech and the right to write.”

What’s the point of freedom of speech if you don’t respect the right to life?

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This Participatory Democracy Shall Not Be Televised

February 4, 2013

On the 1st of January, 2013, over 10,000 marched, blocked roads, with 10 days of a sit-in and a parsimonious media coverage yet as the protests grew, as delegations politely marched into offices, the government promised to act, initially without offering anything in writing. The protestors would leave at the end after ten days at Azad Maidan with token promises from the government, and a muted disappointment with the movement, placated with a vow to intensify the struggle in a way the media and the state will not be able to ignore: to occupy the Mantralaya

This longform piece appears in Fountain Ink Magazine in the February issue of 2013, here.

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In 2004-2005, the Maharashtra government had demolished over 80,000 homes. On the 1st of January, the legacy of that demolition drive had decided to march to the Mantralaya to demand a right to housing under the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana.

Over the last nine years, the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan that was born in the slum of Mandala, in Govandi, had also taken up the issues of working class and middle class slums and their battle against controversial redevelopment projects. It exposed the Adarsh scam, and recently filed complaints against 15 judges and government officials involved in the Nyasagar Co-operative Housing society, where the office of Vilasrao Deshmukh, would change the reservation status of a plot of land meant for the dishoused, and hand it over to the judges.

Right To Information activists of the movement, have been beaten by criminals and supporters of the builders, had false cases thrown on them (including POTA), and recently in the case of Mohammed Shoukat of Golibar, his fifteen year old son has been missing since August of 2012.

The movement for the right to housing in Mumbai starts when it was still Bombay. While think-tanks like the BMW Guggenheim lab have the David Van Der Leers pouting Thackrey-esque wisdom like ‘City is exploding, we may need to think of limiting people coming to Mumbai from outside’, the fact remains is that the people are already here, and they will still come, a majority have already had homes demolished repeatedly and they rebuild. There are those who have been here even before Mr.David Van Leer, who are being kicked out of their homes and onto the outskirts of the city through a process of gentrification that is more violent, fraudulent and arbitrary than it is mentioned.

The class character of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan itself is an indication that it’s not just migrants who’re facing eviction, social apartheid and the violence of a deep state, yet even working class and middle class Maharashtrians and Kolis, the original inhabitants of Mumbai, the former residing in a village built by the British over 70 years ago, after their lands were expropriated to build this city that the ‘Marathi-manoos’ claim as their own.

A few days ago I met an architect indulging in urban studies with one of the think-tanks that are envisaging a new city, who found himself in Azad Maidan surrounded by people who were fighting the builder lobby and rehabilitation projects, a majority of which have come into being through forgery. ‘I met a man the other day who does work as a forger with the builders.’ He said casually.

‘Can you give me his name?’

Silence.

Ex-information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi’s petition had stated 87 rehabilitation projects across Mumbai where there were accusations against the builder for forgery, grabbing public lands, and listing imaginary individuals to increase the number of free sale flats. These are the same accusations in all the SRA projects whose residents marched to the Mantralaya, from Golibar to Ramnagar.

Mr.Gandhi’s petition was argued in 2008. It led to the Anti-Corruption Bureau to investigate the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, which led to a suspicious burning down of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority office. And finally, it ended up with a High Powered Committee which has mostly been pro-builder, with slum-dwellers having little to no faith in.

A brief history of betrayal

On the 24th of November, 2010, just after Prithviraj Chauhan had gotten into office as the new Chief minister, he was met with a delegation from Golibar’s Ganesh Krupa Society who informed him about the impending demolition drive that was in progress in Golibar, and about all the alleged forgeries and discrepancies in the project, such as the grabbing of land from the Defence Ministry and the Railways.

The CM had passed a verbal stay order and the demolitions stopped.

A few months later in the January of 20th, 2011, demolition drives took place again, with a lathi-charge where the young and the old were detained.

The Chief Minister did not act.

They again took place in May of 2011, when the Minister was in Delhi and unavailable. And was then confronted with a hunger strike by an aging activist Medha Patkar and numerous residents, and the growing angst against his absence and popularity of the movement. The hunger strike lasted 9 days, and had asked not just for investigation into SRA schemes, but that 25 settlements be declared as slums under the Maharashtra Slums Act, 1971, thereby granting them legal status which envisages their right to water, electricity and sanitation, and that plans be made for the implementation of Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, for cheap and affordable housing for the poor.

His Ministry would then form an independent committee to look into the forgeries and discrepancies in 15 re-development projects in Mumbai,  to only withdraw the promise when the matter was taken to the High Court by the builders and their supporters.

A rally of around five thousand and more was taken out in the pouring rain on 28th of June 2011, demanding that the government stick to its promise yet it led to Mr.Chauhan replying to the delegation that met him, that even the builder’s supporters had their rally and if the builder’s had public support than he doesn’t know who to believe.

Unfortunately, recordings by freelance filmmaker’s of the builder’s supporters did not reach the Minister, when the interviewees clearly stated they didn’t know where in Golibar they lived, or that they came from Bharatnagar in Bandra East.

Since then and once again, during another demolition drive in Ambevadi society in Golibar in August of 2012, where the builder and the SRA wished to demolish homes on the premise that the building for the slum dwellers already existed (which only existed on paper), again there was a verbal stay order on the demolition from the Minister’s office. Yet on the 28th of December, 2012, those houses were demolished, preceded by a lathi-charge and an array of cases falling onto residents who merely asked the government to follow its own High Court order that asked for rehabilitation buildings to be built first.

Four days later, on the 1st of January, 2013, they had marched again to the Mantralaya.

A Day in the life of An Organizer

Jameel Akhtar

‘Jameel bhai, jab Ambujwadi mein demolition drive ho raha tha, us time, sadak par 3000 log road par aaye the. Toh abhi rally mein 5,000 kaha se aaye hai?’ I had asked Jameel Akhtar Sheik.

‘Jameel bhai, when there was a demolition in Ambujwadi in May, there were 3000 people on the roads before bulldozers. So how come there are 5000 for the rally today?’

Jameel Akhtar smiles, his neighbours around him laughed. He knew the answer, they knew the answer; they had organized. There was no Medha Patkar in all the gallis, going to every home, it was the local organizers, the Jameel bhais, the Masood bhais, the Rashida behens, the Vijay bhais, the Girija behens, the Jagdish bhais and the 56 society organizers they had created that have worked for years in Ambujwadi, whose grassroot level actions have at times, have most importantly, threatened the power structure of landlordism prevalent in the settlement.

A few months ago, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena workers close to a slum landlord had planted flags over one of the offices of the Ghar Bachao movement in Ambujwadi, and instantaneously, hundreds of people of Ambujwadi surrounded the police station and demanded their removal without incident.

When the local organizers of the Ghar Bachao movement are threatened by any of the slum landlords, who not only demand protection money for the protection of homes against demolition, but make money even after the BMC demolishes homes, the local organizers have galvanized group actions that have seriously threatened their standings in a slum.

Ambujwadi, born post 1995, exists on the fringes of suburban Malad, without electricity, without access to clean water, with a history of petty crime, child trafficking and health problems, where the ‘dadas’ sell shanties to people from anywhere from Rs.40,000 to Rs.3,00,00

With the passing of the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, the parallel government that was born – the slum landlords who built illegal settlements by paying massive amounts of grafts to local political parties, to the police, to the municipality itself, will possibly come to an end.

Jameel Akhtar during a speech in an unorganized but just demolished Prem Nagar in Goregaon, was greeted with massive cheers when he said: ‘‘If the government is going to give land in Powai to the Hiranandanis for 40 rupees per acre, we’re ready to give four hundred rupees.’

One of the most prevailing myths of Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana and of shanties in Mumbai today, is that the residents are getting free housing. Yet in the case of ‘illegal’ shanties, they not only have to pay to acquire a small corner without electricity, water or sanitation, but they’re deprived of security. With Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, they will simply pay the state a stipulated rent amount, thus increasing revenue for the state, and obliterating the parallel government that has existed as the state has abdicated from its responsibility of the Right To Housing.

‘We want housing, that is a fixed house, no one will sell them once they get it,’ Said a speaker at Azad Maidan to massive cheers from the crowd, ‘Those who already have a house, shall not get one.’

Jameel Akhtar Sheikh, 48 years old, a tailor by profession and one of the main organizers in Ambujwadi had on the 28th of May 2011, organized his own slum to thwart a demolition drive by the BMC. Over three thousand people stood before the police who would eventually withdraw, along with a JBC bulldozer retreating to loud cheers. Just two days later Jameel Sheikh would be halfway across town to help thwart a demolition drive in Sion Koliwada which is agitating against Sahana Developers.

This time Jameel Akhtar lies down before the bulldozers, and is promptly arrested and sent to prison along with 25 other women, half from Sion Koliwada and another group from Kanavaram Nagar who had come to support the anti-builder movement of the Kolis in Sion Koliwada.

I managed to interview him when he was out a few weeks later.

‘Police asked me, why do I come to support these Koli people even when they’re not people of my slum.’ He said during a rickshaw ride from Goregaon West, to Ghatkopar where another slum Ramnagar was facing a demolition drive, ‘Mein ne bola, ki jab police ki justice aur court ki justice fail ho gayi, toh janta ko haath uthana padta hai.’

‘I told them, when your justice, and the justice from your courts have failed, then the people have to stand up.’

On the 1st of January, 2013, in the morning of the march, the first call I get is from Jameel Akhtar who tells me that five thousand people have already left Ambujwadi, where they will march to Golibar, and then link up with another group, marching from Mankhurd.

But for five thousand to march from Malad to Golibar, a distance of 20 kilometers is no easy feat. So the organizers instead marched into Malad Railway station and took over two trains to reach Khar east, and marched into Golibar where the residents had prepared breakfast for 4,000 people. It took the residents of Ambujwadi around 20 minutes to simply enter into Golibar’s Ganesh Krupa Society.

Eventually the first group from Golibar and Ambujwadi marched from Khar to try and link up with the second group led by Medha Patkar from Mankhurd towards Mahim.

They would eventually take over Kalanagar road and Shivaji Park road, ‘hum garibo ne road banaya hai, bhetho’ – they would say, as a visibly polite police tried it’s best to not exacerbate a massive crowd of thousands, and organizers made spaces for cars to pass through.

The marchers sang songs and screamed slogans of solidarity, government violence, inequality, and revolution, kept discipline, and moved without incident and reached Mahim Marchi Marh, where the second group eventually caught up with them. They would eventually march to Shivaji Park and spend the night.

By 10:30 on the 2nd of January 2013, they marched from Shivaji Park, via Lalbaug, Byculla and Mohammed Ali road, to eventually be blocked by a contingent of police in front of CST station. They were not allowed to march to the Mantralaya, and were being requested to move into Azad Maidan.

The crowd was restless. They had marched on the 28th-29th of June, 2011, and were pushed into Azad Maidan before. They wanted to march to the Mantralaya this time. They screamed slogans against the police, they made their intentions clear to walk to the Mantralaya, yet the organizers were quick to placate their anger as Medha Patkar would speak to the Chief Minister’s personal assistant via cell phone.

A promise from the Chief Minister’s office to meet a delegation of 20, eventually convinced the marchers to move into Azad Maidan.

Then the government broke its first promise of the year. While a delegation of 20 started to move towards Sehadri, the Chief Minister’s guest house, they were told that the Minister will only meet six representatives. The delegation refused and just moved back into Azad Maidan.

A visibly angry Jameel Akhtar took the podium, and throughout his short four minute speech he was being shushed by Medha Patkar to be a little less subtle. Yet he didn’t relent.

‘Forget the delegation,’ He screamed, ‘it’s not just about the 20 people, if the government doesn’t take our demands, it won’t be 20 people, or even 20,000 people, but 50,000 will stand at their gates. Manzoor hai?’

‘Sehadri is not far from us, nor is the Mantralaya.’

‘The people here from their office, the dalaals, the builders people, why don’t you go, go to the guest house and tell them that we, the workers built the guest house, not you, and we will come there as it is ours too.’

‘If they have the guts, tell those builders that those workers who make your homes, should get a house. If they have the guts, tell them that those who stitch your clothes, should get a house. It they have the guts, tell them those who sell vegetables on the street or bring it to your house, should get a house. Those who bring milk to your house, should get a house!’

‘Or leave your chair, and leave your guest house!’

‘We won’t tolerate any insults, we have been marching for two days, not for any political party or any dalaals, but for our rights, our right to a home. And our right to live.’

‘Humare liye, hamare mazdoori ke liye, humme kya milta hai?

‘For us, for our labour, what do we get? We built such high towers, but for our children, for one family, one meal itself is such a struggle.’

‘yeh kursi wallo ko ehlaan karna hoga, sadak banene walle sadak par chalenge, aur building banane walle building mein rahenge,aur  tere baap ki jaagir hindustan nahi hai.’

‘Those in power should understand, those who built the road will walk on the roads, those who built the buildings shall live in the buildings, and this country is not your father’s estate.’

A few hours later, a few speeches later, when other organizers felt that they should stay outside Sehadri and see how many people could fit inside, the government finally agreed to meet 15 representatives. They left in a police van, to the anxieties of other protestors who felt that if the government is going to behave in such a way about a delegation, how will they listen to our demands?

An hour and a half long meeting ensued with Medha Patkar, State Home Minister RR Patil and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan and fifteen representatives from numerous slums from the city. A sympathetic R R Patil and Prithviraj Chauhan admitted to most of the demands and stated that they have their own problems with the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme. When bringing up the issue of lack of land in the city, they were confronted by plans prepared by the delegation that ‘30,000 acres of land above ceiling must and can be recovered from – 138 entities- 17,000 acres and also 13000 acres from a few hundred others. Land given on long term lease at 1 Rs/ sq feet etc should be recovered. All this should be re-allotted to the cooperatives of poor and middle class. Hiranandani’s land allotted at 40 Rs/acre needs to be recovered.’

Yet with nothing in writing, the protestors came back to Azad Maidan and decided to stay until the Minister’s office committed itself on paper.

Jameel Akhtar then found his three children and his wife, and slept in the open air of Azad Maidan.

10 Days of A Protest

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‘Who bought that poster of Gandhi in the rally?’

‘We should’ve had Bhagat Singh.’

‘Why is Ambedkar’s poster smaller than Gandhi’s?’

–          Said the younger organizers of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement

There is a strange element of radicalism present in the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Movement which quietly grumbles under its breath when Anna Hazare is on the podium. ‘You know what was the first question he asked, when he was told about the andolan?’ Said an organizer, ‘How many people are there?’

‘Not what is the issue, not what we’re fighting for, but how many people are there?’

There is a stranger element when invited India Against Corruption activists who’ve never been present during a demolition drive give speeches that get a lukewarm response and are followed with a Gaddar song that takes apart everyone from Advani, to Modi, to Sonia Gandhi, and speaks of years of loot and the suffering of the poor, which has the crowd of mostly daily wage labourers, highly amused.

Anna Hazare had come, with an army of pressmen and presswomen following him, taking up massive amounts of space in front of the once empty podium. During the press conference there was not a single question about the Slum Rehabilitation Scams or the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, the interviewers merely asked about the Delhi Gang rape, the Maharashtra irrigation scam and his own anti-corruption movement. Mr. Hazare had to plead, ‘Basti ke baare mein mujhe poocho.’ (ask me about the slums)

Yet as he left, the media left. The first two days of the protest had a few articles in mainstream English newspapers while some of the regional newspapers carried front page stories. The next eight days and the final agreement with the government wasn’t present in any of the English press. There wasn’t a single cameraman present when MLA Abu Azmi arrived at Azad Maidan where a mass of his betrayed constituency were protesting for the past week, and what ensued over the next two hours was a tragicomedy of epic democratic proportions.

The matter of Ganpath Patil Nagar, a slum on the fringes of Dahisar on mangrove land had been taken up by the movement, when residents had come to Azad Maidan bearing the fears of an impending demolition drive on the 10th of January, 2013. The demolition drives took place and over 200 homes were demolished even when representatives of the slum and the movement met officials to try and garner an agreement, with residents asking for a proper survey of the slum and that homes that existed before 2005 not be demolished. The demolition drive did not discriminate and a few mainstream newspapers ran frontpage articles, mostly praising the administration for their action.

Sarcasm and Democracy

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Abu Azmi, of Samajwadi Party swept the elections in 2008 after Raj Thackeray had declared war on the migrants from north India. Ward M, or Chembur East, a ghetto with one of the worst development indicators in the world, with a child mortality rate of 66 per 1000 births and a life expectancy of 46, voted en masse for him. Ward M, where once in 2004, 80,000 homes were demolished and there was not a single political party for them.

Yet over the years, the Samajwadi Party had become a parallel government due to the responsibilities the state had abdicated from: the right to water, the right to life and housing.

While India voted for water as a human right in the United Nations, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation denies water to every slum that came into existence after 1995. Abu Azmi’s people were quick to begin providing water, charging residents who would stand in line all day, to around Rs.20 for three cans water, amounting to six liters.

A water mafia was born.

At the protest, he was greeted by an effigy that stated ‘Aamdaar lapata hai’, which was politely moved to the back when he showed up. A nervous Abu Azmi sat on the podium surrounded by his constituency, and would listen to residents of Ward M, list all the crimes of his party and his people, at times the speakers, assertively grabbing their attention, ‘Abhi aap dhyaan se sooniye.’  (listen carefully now)

The Samajwadi Party, was accused of everything from running the water mafia, to absence during demolition drives, to corporators who kick people out of offices, abusing residents by saying, ‘tum kaun ho mangne walle, tum kaun ho poochne walle?’(who are you to ask me these things?)

“We go into their offices and say, ‘our slums have been demolished.’”

‘And your people say it’s not been declared as a slum.’ Says Ram Bharadwaj of Mandala, ‘And when today, we had a meeting with the BMC, they agreed that any slum on government land should be declared as a slum and deserves electricity and water.’

‘The government makes development plans, and in the development plans our slums don’t exist. They’re little green spaces, empty plots. Because they just want to sell them to the builders.’ Continued Ram.

“‘What is this Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana? What is the point of all this? I will handle it,’ they tell us,” Say Umar Muhammed of Mandala, ‘Yet when this scheme is there in other cities around the country, why is it not there in Mumbai?’

Abu Azmi sat for over an hour, around the residents of Mandala, while Medha Patkar and other representatives were in a meeting with the BMC. He was nervous, fidgety, taking notes, constantly being reminded by speakers that they don’t care about identity politics, with speakers constantly screaming a slogan: ‘Hindu-Muslim, sab bhai-behen hai.’

‘When you speak, we don’t want you to talk about politics,’ Said Sumit Wajale, ‘We want you to talk about our development.’

Imtiaz from Antop Hill, an RTI activist on whom a POTA case was once put, was quick to remind him that he should’ve been present when his constituency started to march itself, and yet he only showed up eight days after they began to march. And he was followed by Sumit Wajale who got the crowd riled up to entrap Abu Azmi to sit down and stay on the dharna until the demands of his constituency was met. ‘Should he be sitting here?’ he asked a crowd that laughed into raptures.

When he finally was given the microphone to speak, he spent the first five minutes making excuses on why he wasn’t present for the past eight days, and managed to placate the crowd by praising Medha Patkar. He put the blame entirely on the administration, the ‘haramkhors’ as he said, who wouldn’t act unless there’s a cut in it for them somewhere. The government is a mess and only an ‘andolan’ like this would fix it. He promised again to support all the demands of the people and praising the collective power of thousands sitting in at Azad Maidan. He would begin to speak about the few times when he did act for the people, apparently bringing up the demolition of Mandala in the parliament, and ‘paani ka koshish humne kiya’ by bringing many water tankers into the area, and that he did try to stop the water mafia, but instead the police started arresting people who were buying water. Yet the highlight of his speech that did not miss many of the protesters was the fact that he couldn’t even say Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, stammering, calling it, ‘Rajoov….Rajoov…. jo… ya… Awas Yojana hai us ke liye mein khada hu.’

‘if I fail to support the people, you can give me a garland of flowers.’ He said to cheers from the crowd.

Abu Azmi left after two hours at Azad Maidan, with a promise to create a committee in every slum that belongs to his constituency, and a promise to lead a delegation to the Mantralaya the next day with both the issues of SRA and Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana.

‘How much he lied,’ Said a few residents of Ambujwadi and Mandala.

Post-Script: An End To The Protest

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Amina bi, 85 years old from Ambujwadi stayed at Azad Maidan for the entirety of the ten days of the sit-in. She sat in the front, covered herself in a blanket at night, screaming slogans, raising her fists, and laughing during the day’s proceedings.

Many other protestors would go home and return by the afternoon and evening, but there were thousands like Amina Bi, who lived in Azad Maidan, who were fed by the collective kitchens that were started by the slums themselves.

After the end of the protest was announced she quietly walked onto the podium to meet Medha Patkar but she had already left. When Medha Patkar returned she saw that she was busy, and said, ‘Chodd do, badme milenge.’ With muted disappointment

‘Andolan toh karna padta hai,’ she said as she quietly moved back to her space to prepare to go back to Ambujwadi, hoping that this time, after nine years, the movement did bring them some relief.

For 10 days, the protesters tried to bring a government official to meet them at Azad Maidan, and threatened them again and again with a march to the Mantrayala. Each time that action was postponed as different offices of the administration, either the BMC commissioner, the State Human Rights Commission, or the Water Department, had offered the delegation time to meet. Every office of the government besides the Chief Minister’s office was forthcoming.

On the 10th day, a secret plan was made to send small groups of residents from all the slums to the Mantralaya. Groups of ten and twenty slowly started to leave Azad Maidan and quietly took a bus or a taxi towards the Mantralaya. Within an hour there were almost five hundred people who had taken over the parking lot of the Mantralaya at Jeevan Bheema Marg, with four police vans and a contingent of police negotiating with them.

The police who were surprisingly polite, requested the organizers to send groups of ten and twenty from the same slum up to the offices of the Mantralaya to deliver their applications for the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana, and others from the SRA projects to deliver their complaint letters to RR Patil, the State Home Minister and to the Chief Minister.

Lines outside all of their offices were nothing but the protestors from Azad Maidan.

‘Police bahu izat dikharahi hai,’ Said Noorjahan of Malvani in Malad.

At the end, hundreds of protestors had managed to deliver the applications to the Mantralaya without any incident. They returned with a letter that promised the pilot project for Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana in Mandala, and the news that the protests shall end for the moment, but that if the government betrays them again, then they will march again.

‘This is not a good end,’ Said Krishna Nair of Golibar, who walked away from the podium feeling that they could’ve really stayed on for a few more days and got a concrete decision on the SRA scams as well.

Yet he was satisfied when others promised him that they will march again.

Post-Post- Script

_DSC1547Eight days after the end of the agitation, on January 18, as the government started making preliminary inquiries into the SRA projects, private security personnel allegedly hired by a builder entered Ambevadi society of Golibar and started an argument with the residents which led to a violent confrontation; two women had to be hospitalised after the clashes. The residents managed to capture one of the henchmen and locked him up for the police to come and take his testimony. The police, however, threatened to charge the residents with kidnapping, which led to further altercations between the residents and the police.

It was then that Krishna Nair reached Budh Vihar and managed to negotiate a compromise between the police and the residents. He took the “henchman” to the hospital and managed to get his testimony collected by the police.
A few hours later he was furious,“Yeh saale haraami police log mere par rioting ka case daalne wale hain. (These corrupt bastards are going to book me in a case of rioting).”

Next day the private security firm entered Ambevadi again, with police protection, and this time pointed out resident Pradeep More, who was later arrested by the police. The residents resorted to a relay hunger strike after there was no response from the government to their complaints against the private security firm and the police. There had been zero media reaction to these events at the time of going to press.

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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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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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Murder At Pachuwara

January 23, 2012

The murder of activist-nun Sister Valsa John has a lot to say about India’s mining policy

Karu Tudu of Kolajuda village stands over his destroyed paddy field, covered in coal dust. Over 500 trucks carrying 2300 kilograms of coal each, travel pass his fields each day and are forced to dump some of the coal on the roadside by local villagers, who sell it on the black market.

This article appears in two parts in the Sunday Guardian on the 15th of January here and the 22nd of January 2012, here.

Everyday over 500 trucks travel the 35km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur in Jharkhand, carrying over 2300 kilograms of coal each. And everyday, hundreds of local adivasis and landless farmers stop the trucks, and unload a little coal onto the road for themselves to sell in the black market.

In the process, the paddy fields on the periphery of the roads are entirely covered in coal dust.

The police sometimes accompany the trucks carrying the coal and attempt to stop the locals from taking coal, and have often chased them away, beaten them, or arrested them. Yet the practice continues.

‘We make around 150 rupees a day, if a whole family sits to collect coal to sell it.’ Said one of the ‘scavengers’ on the roadside.

‘Why do you do it?’

Two brothers Badan and Darbo Soren who live in the village of Kulkipada have no choice. The coal dust has destroyed their produce, and it renders their crop unsellable.

‘We eat the black rice ourselves. No one will buy it.’ Said Badan, ‘Earlier we used to make some Rs.15,000 or Rs.20,000 per year.’

‘And there is no more mahua seeds, no more mango in the trees.’ Continued his brother.

The rains have failed in the last three years in a district where the rivers run with streaks of black coal. Families make a living out of the coal that travels their road every day, turning the entire stretch of the 35 kilometers into a black field, where children as young as six can be seen working to help their families.

The coal mining company Panem Coal Mines Limited, had also tried to acquire lands to build a railway line from Pachuwara to Pakur, but they faced stiff resistance from farmers like Badan Soren and his brother, who’d lose their farm land to the track.

Instead the dumper trucks travel everyday across a dusty road where both people have lost their lives to hit-and-run accidents, and in anger, the locals burn down the trucks, and an informal industry is born.

How The Free Market Murdered A Nun

Of the thousands of villagers who stop the dumper-trucks and collect coal on the 35 km stretch from Pachwara to Pakur, many are children under the age of ten.

The story of Pachuwara can be told by telling the story of the murder of Sister Valsa, a nun and an activist who fought for the rights of Santhal Adivasis, who would be a part of a compromise that would spell her own demise, when she was brutally axed to death in her adopted home in the village of Pachwara in Pakur district on the 15th of November, 2011.

Within hours of her killing, the mainstream media was quick to report that she was murdered by the Maoists. The Maoists denied it, even as an initial note, claimed to be written by them, condemned the nun and the activist to be working for the coal mining company Panem, and not in the interests of the people.

A few days later the police would arrest seven individuals who were associated to Sister Valsa. Almost all of them were local villagers/contractors who’d get work from Panem. One of the accused, Pycil Hembrom was the son of the president of the Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan that fought against the company and had a long history of working with Sister Valsa. And after the end of the agitation against the company and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the 30th of November 2006, he worked with them as an independent contractor.

Sister Valsa was living as a guest in the house of Pycil Hembrom and had only moved out eight days before her murder. A confrontation had taken place over the money that came from the mining company and Sister Valsa moved into the home of Sonaram Hembrom, who confirmed that Sister Valsa had confronted Pycil and others for embezzling money.

‘The MOU made a lot of promises, but the work only happened on their accord.’ Sonaram Hembrom said, who was present when over forty people had surrounded his house in the dead of night to look for Sister Valsa who was hiding in her room, and would eventually find her and axe her twice near her head and her neck.

‘They saw all that money and they got greedy.’ Said Sonaram’s neighbours, about Pycil and the other accused from Aalubera village adjacent to Pachwara.

‘Sometimes, the money we were supposed to get for one tree used to be Rs.50,000, but Sister would find out that we only got Rs.5,000. When we confronted them about this, they said it was a computer error.’ Continued Sonaram Hembrom. All the documents and registers that detailed all the financial dealings of the Project-Affected-Persons and the PANEM Coal Mining Company that Sister Valsa had kept, were appropriated by the police as evidence and are currently unavailable.

The History of An MOU

D. Marandi, once a farmer, now a miner at Panem Coal Mines Ltd at the rehabilitated site of Naya Kathaldih.

On the 19th of April, 1985, very close to Pachuwara, at Banjhi, and close to the collective memory of the elders of Pachuwara, the police had shot and bayoneted over 15 people including an ex MP Anthony Murmu as they were demanding their rights. Every year they gather in the thousands on the day of the incident to pay homage to their martyrs.

Years later, their rights were again usurped by the Panem Coal Mines Limited, who were given land by the administration, who used an infamous colonial era law, the Land Acquisition Act to acquire all the lands of Pachuwara and the nearby villages for coal mining. This has remained a story repeated across central India’s mining belt that gives birth to numerous protest movements and a direct confrontation with the state’s mining policy that has acquired lands by flouting laws, and violating tribal rights.

Almost all the mineral deposits in Central India are on Fifth Schedule land, which is protected by the constitution and has given local tribes authority over local resources. Yet the arbitrariness of the Land Acquisition Act allows the government to simply hand over lands to private companies, and the locals have always resisted, leading to brutal confrontations with the police and the administration.

But of the 104 MOUs in Jharkhand, Pachuwara is one of two where work has started, as there was a settlement between the villagers and the company, a settlement that many still feel has to be completely understood.

‘Our land cannot be sold, you people with a brave history can and must drive out this company!’ said Binej Hembrom, the parganaith (village headman) to the people of Pachuwara in a meeting long before the agreement, but would eventually be one of the signatories to the MOU along with the company director Bishwanath Dutta.

Today Binej Hembrom is a senile old man, half-deaf, seemingly unaware that his son is in jail for murdering a woman who they once fought the company with, and some say, had won.

‘People in Ranchi, in the social movement’s think we sold out.’ Said Father Tom Karvallo, who along with Sister Valsa John was close to the movement at the time of the signing of the MOU.

‘But there was a lot of repression.’

‘Our people were being divided by the company. There were police cases on Valsa and others like Joseph who’d eventually be killed in an accident. And when we lost in the High Court, we had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge the illegality of the land acquisition as this was a Fifth Schedule area. But the Courts are a gamble, it can really depend on the judge, or the climate of the time. And we were afraid, that if we lost, we’d set a dangerous precedent as there were so many other adivasi movements fighting for their land. And they would’ve all suffered if the Supreme Court had ordered in favour of the company.’

‘So we signed the MOU. And it was a good relief package, that we only got after such a strong struggle.’

The agreement was reached in Delhi on the 30th of November, 2006, after ‘persuasion’ by a section of outsider activists, and one, including Shajimon Joseph, then Resident Editor of The Hindustan Times, who’d eventually be a signatory of the MOU as a witness, who confirms there was police repression in the form of cases on Sister Valsa and other adivasi leaders, but also mentions there was no dissatisfaction during the signing of the MOU.

The Memorandum of Understanding itself was unprecedented. Apart from offering schools, healthcare, employment, rehabilitation sites, there would be a yearly stipend for each acre the company appropriates, and that the work for the construction of rehabilitated sites would be given as per the MOU, to local contractors and Project-Affected-Persons.

The money that came from Panem company for such work, would go to Sister Valsa, who directed the young contractors like Pysil to work in the area.

Five years after the Memorandum of Understanding, the promised hospital is still under construction.

The village of Kathaldih was uprooted, and the company has resettled them in a newer colony called Naya Kathaldih, where farming as all but stopped and most of the young men work as miners in the coal mine, waiting for the company to finish mining their lands, and then return it to them, so they can commence farming again.

Living In Fear

A truck that was allegedly burnt down by the Maoists. Yet there have been many other times, when local villagers burnt down trucks in anger after numerous hit-and run incidents.

Rajan Marandi and Pradhan Murmu were two other contractors arrested for the murder of Sister Valsa who lived in the adjacent village of Aalubera that is soon to lose their land to the company.

Rajan has five cars for himself, while Pradhan has around seven cars and all their cars remain parked in the village in front of their houses. The village is a village in fear, as the police has been searching for others who may have been present when Sister Valsa was attacked. Two boys who refused to give their names say the police has been searching for them, and they are innocent.

They quickly disappear when they’re asked about the relief package.

There are no village elders, and there is no one who is willing to talk about the impending displacement and rehabilitation.

One young woman whose family lost her land years ago to the petrol pump that fills over 500 trucks claims their family doesn’t get the monthly stipend, but refuses to go on record, in fear of antagonizing the powers-to-be.

‘They’re all filling their own pockets,’ she said.

‘Isn’t there anyone who takes up these issues?’

‘There’s no one.’

‘Who speaks up against the company?’

‘No one.’

‘Over here,’ said another young boy Chappu Deheri in Pachwara who was asked the same question, ‘Only Sister Valsa and her samiti used to.’

Aalubera is also the home of Advin Murmu, a 20 year old boy who was arrested for the alleged rape of a young girl who lived in the house of Sonaram Hembrom along with Sister Valsa.

According to her father, Advin Murmu and three other boys had kidnapped the girl on the evening of the 7th of November, and while the three boys had disappeared, Advin kept the girl all night in an empty home at Aalubera.

The girl was only let out in the morning and she had gone to her aunt’s house. The family along with Sister Valsa would take the case to the police on the 9th of November, six days before her murder.

The Superintendent of Police, Mayur Patel claims that there was no rape, and that the girl and the boy knew each other, and the girl’s family is merely protesting the fact that the boy is a Christian and the girl’s family is Sarna.

The family however claims, that Pycil Hembrom and the contractors wanted them to drop the rape case, threatening that they’d lose all their lands and their home if they persist to fight them. The family especially indicted the local sub-inspector of police, Daroga, as someone who wanted to give the family Rs.50,000 to forget the so-called imaginary case.

The Inspector has since been suspended for dereliction of duty after the murder of Sister Valsa.

Advin Murmu has since been arrested and according to the Superintendent of Police, for both incidents. Advin Murmu’s brother, also a contractor, claims his brother is innocent while his bail application was rejected by the Courts.

Photography Post-Script

‘The blackened, unsellable rice of Badan Soren of the village of Kulkipada.

Badan Soren and his house, next to the 35km road where 500 trucks travel everyday carrying 2300 kilograms of coal.

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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.