Archive for the ‘Freedom Of The Press’ Category

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In Chhattisgarh, The Only Criminal Is Law

December 26, 2010

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 27th of December, 2010.

In the middle of the above photograph, is the Salwa Judum leader Soyam Mukka, a part of a state-sponsered mob, protesting against Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey and a contingent of human rights activists and social workers, in January 2010.

Soyam Mukka is a few feet away from the police and would be, for the duration of the protest on that faithful day in January. It is also a fact that there is a warrant for his arrest, for the kidnapping of a young tribal woman, who’d be eventually gangraped by Special Police Officers in the Konta police station in 2008.

In the above photographs by a local reporter (look at the extreme right and left), one can see the police of Chhattisgarh trying its utmost best to uphold the law.

Soyam Mukka has never been arrested as per 25th of December 2010.

Previously, they hadn’t even accepted the FIR of the girl who was raped. And when the girl was taken to the JMFC Court in Konta, by human rights activists, the police did their best to loiter around the area to harass the girl. Their crowning achievement was the harassment of her family. But the police could not uphold the law. It was difficult for them to fight the Maoists when they’re too busy trying to save their own skins from what is just ‘collateral’ or the ‘spoils of war’.

So they changed their tactics. We should uphold the Law (by making it ours, to do whatever we please), by harassing, beating up, arresting, and chasing away all of these pesky humanrightwallas, who talk about constitutional rights. Nobody has time to go and intimidate witnesses and victims of police atrocities all the time, and we all know that it’s the Maoists who’re using ‘human rights’ as a strategy.  So bugger with human rights.

We need to shoot the messenger, these people calling for the Law. Chase them away like common criminals, and everyone else is scot free.

Now that the good doctor and human rights activist Binayak Sen is sentenced to life for Section 124A Sedition, there is human rights activist, Kopa Kunjam who has been in jail for over a year now for the murder of a man who every witness has so far claimed – he had tried to save.  Then there are CPI cadres, many of whom are elected representatives – Lala Kunjam, Sukul Prasad Nag, Sudru Ram Kunjam, Bhima Kunjam and Kartam Joga, who’re all in jail.

Kartam Joga was even one of the first petitioners in the Supreme Court regarding the illegal killings of the Salwa Judum. Unlike the police, he believed in upholding the law. He believed in the courts.

And while the CPI had called for a rally on the 25th of November to protest against the police and the administration, on the night of 24th of November, numerous reports surfaced about the police beating up CPI protestors around Katekkalyan, Pondum and Jhirum villages on Dantewada road. The CPI even demanded that the Home Ministry should take action against the SSP Kalluri, who they claim is responsible for the attack on their party.

And on the 8th of December, 2010, the CPI along with other organizations under the banner of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, was part of a rally of over 10,000 people who submitted a petition of one lakh people to the Chhattisgarh State Assembly asking for better implementation of PESA, Forest Rights Act, the end of fake environment hearings, harassment of activists and displacement from land.

Almost everyone in Chhattisgarh seems to want the Law.

Yet let’s not forget the journalists. When the news about the burning of villages, fake encounters, rapes and illegal detentions started to get out, the state forgot that they need to chase the journalists away as well.

Just recently, the new Avatar of the Salwa Judum, the Maa Danteswari Adivasi Swabhimani Manch had made a statement calling for the deaths of three local journalists in the undivided Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

Anil Mishra, the previous district head of New Delhi-based Hindi-Daily Nai Duniya, NRK Pillai, the vice president of the Working Journalists Union, and Yashwant Yadav of Deshbandu were mentioned in the press release that states, ‘journalists and NGOs who are befriending the Naxals, be it Himanshu Kumar or Arundhati, or even for that matter NRK Pillai, Anil Yadav or Yashwant Mishra, all of you will face consequences. Leaders of CPI, BJP or Congress, in jail or outside – who have been on your side will not be make any difference. Under the garb of human right activists you should know that you cannot last too long. If you do not leave Bastar you will die like a dog.’

This is not the first time the state apparatus or the state-backed counter insurgent group has attacked journalists in Bastar. Over the last four years, full timers and part-timers, Kamlesh Paikra, Maqbool of Sahara Samay, Afzal Khan, and this author have faced the lathis of the police or the Salwa Judum.

NRK Pillai had long made a statement to the journalists in Delhi about the persecution of the press in Dantewada. Yet there was nothing but silence from Delhi. Journalists were soft targets.

In October, 2009, right at the onset of major operations that would then be known-as Operation Green Hunt, the police had ‘requested’ all the local journalists not to go and work in the jungles. And almost no one did. When there were others who accompanied national and international journalists into the field, they were warned, ‘tere koh yah rahna hai, yeh log nikal jayenge.’ (you live here, these people (outsiders) will go away.)

Anil Mishra lost his job at Nai Duniya because he accompanied international and national journalists into the area. And he moved out of Dantewada. And there is no doubt that the recent Maa Danteshwari press release was a reaction to his recent visit to the Jagargonda area of Dantewada.

And the first report of the Maa Danteshwari death threat had come out on citizen’s news portal CGNet Swara. The young adivasi journalist Mangal Kunjam only had to call the CGNet Swara number (080) 4113 7280, to record his report that would be scrutinized by moderaters. Yet a few days after the recording was made available to the world, he would be called to Kirandul police station where he was dutifully threatened.

But why target the poor Binayak Sen? To silence dissent? To act as a deterrence, that no human rights group work in Dantewada? They had arrested him in 2007 and that didn’t deter anyone. There were hundreds of human rights workers and journalists who had visited Dantewada after 2007. There have been fewer visits in the last one year by any outsiders but a brave few who travel incognito, as the state has now attempted to destroy the contact base of the journalists and human rights workers.

Binayak Sen was definitely condemned for political reasons. No sensible court would sentence a man to life in prison, when the evidence the prosecutors present to court, are ‘links to ISI’, which they didn’t bother to realize, was the Indian Social Institute, a Delhi-based advocacy organization.

It seems that the police are using the same strategy that the Maoists use with human rights and the courts. The police often claim all the petitions filed against them in the Supreme Court or the High Court, are strategic tactics by the Maoists to use human rights organizations to keep the police busy dealing with Supreme Court queries of missing petitioners and witnesses, which in their unimaginative self-delusions, can be equated to, keeping the civil rights organizations, and journalists busy with Binayak Sen and not the ground realities of Dantewada and Chhattisgarh.

But for the adivasi in Dantewada facing brutal repression and for Binayak Sen, the Law had been abandoned a long time ago.

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Land Nor Freedom

August 23, 2010

Nahi denge zameen!’ (we won’t give our land) – said one villager of Lohandiguda, as over 150 villagers – Sarpanches and ward members with their families, stood up, and walked out of the meeting with government officials on the 12th of May of this year. In 2005, the villagers in Lohandiguda didn’t even know their land was up for acquisition by Tata Steel – they learnt about it after they read the newspapers.

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 22nd of August, 2010.

Villagers from Lohandiguda walk out of a meeting held with government officials on the 12th of May, 2010.

It is a known fact that the Adivasis have existed long before there was any idea of India. And there are estimates that there has been more displacement by development projects in India than by the Partition, and a majority of the displaced have been Adivasis.

It’s therefore not surprising that the Maoists don’t believe that India has attained independence. In a school in the liberated-zones of Dantewada, a lone poster of Chandrashekar Azad remains, there’s no sign of Gandhi or Nehru. In the Red Corridor, the Maoist squads go to schools in the middle of their Independence Day celebrations, remove the tricolour, holster up a black flag, distribute sweets or biscuits to the children and leave.

63 years after independence, the history of the tribals in Independent India has been wrought by promises never kept.

In 1955, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had addressed an All India Conference of Tribes in Jagdalpur, Bastar District of Chhattisgarh (Then Madhya Pradesh) and had said: ‘Wherever you live, you should live in your own way. This is what I want you to decide yourselves. How would you like to live? Your old customs and habits are good. We want that they should survive but at the same time we want that you should be educated and should do your part in the welfare of the country.’

Today, Rights guaranteed to the tribals by the constitution, embodied in the PESA are floundered routinely all across the Fifth Schedule areas. The PESA enables the adivasis to govern themselves through Gram Sabhas, and the state has no right to acquire lands, nor dish out mining leases without the permission of the Gram Sabhas. Yet the State of Chhattisgarh, is using a ‘Colonial-era law’, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, to acquire lands.

‘They asked us to hold a Gram Sabhas and there was police everywhere.’ Said one of the village-leaders of Sirisguda, in a meeting with the Express a few days ago, ‘And yet we said no to Tata!’

Nevertheless, the next day, all the local newspapers were reporting that the villagers of Lohandiguda had accepted Tata’s plan for acquisition. This pattern would repeat itself regularly throughout the years. A public hearing would be held, the villagers would say no, and the local press would print their assent.

‘We always say no! And you write yes!’ they screamed at the press at Lohandiguda.

Today, the discrepancies in numerous Gram Sabha resolutions and public hearings held in Chhattisgarh rarely find any report in the Chhattisgarh press, nor the national press, but only in a citizen-run initiative called CGNet Swara.

CGnet Swara is an innovative audio-based news service. One simply has to call 08041137280 from their mobile phones, and can either press 1 to record news, or 2 to listen to the news. After some cross-checking, the moderators release the recordings, which include reports on public rallies, discrepancies in the PDS, water issues, medical issues, arrests of activists, fake encounters, child labour issues, anti-liquor campaign issues, and every issue governing adivasi and village life.

Yet they have been particularly useful in bypassing a compromised local press and giving grass-root reports about public hearings. For instance, a public hearing held on the 5th of May, this year in Dantewada district, regarding the NMDC in Kirandul, was considered fraudulent as many of the villages who’d be directly affected by the project weren’t even present during the hearing.

‘The public hearing was held 50 kilometres away from the affected villages, and the people at the hearing were contractors and other lackeys of the NMDC.’ Said a news report from CGNet Swara, in Hindi.

Similarly, another public hearing was held in Raigarh district in Chhattisgarh on the 3rd of July organized by Hind Multiservices for a 15,000 TPA Ferro Alloy Plant, where the affected villagers weren’t even informed of the hearing.

‘Only 32 people showed up, mostly activists, and it is safe to say, there are no affected villagers here because they were not informed. This whole hearing was a farce.’ Said another news report from CGnet Swara.

Each report from CGnet Swara explicitly begins to highlight the muted voice of the adivasis in their own fate, whether it is the public hearing or the Gram Sabha. And this brings us to an interesting Censored Chapter.

The Censored Chapter

A recent study by the Institute of Rural Management, commissioned by the Panchayat Raj Ministry, on the functioning of Panchayat Raj highlighted the violations in the Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) act, or PESA. To quote:

‘The central Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has till date not been amended to bring it in line with the provisions of PESA and to recognize the Gram Sabha, while a newer bill meant to replace it is yet to be tabled in parliament. At the moment, this colonial-era law is being widely misused on the ground to forcibly acquire individual and community land for private industry.’

‘In several cases, the practice of the state government is to sign high profile MOUs with corporate houses (Government of Jharkhand 2008 and IANS, 2010), and then proceed to deploy the Acquisition Act to ostensibly acquire the land for the state industrial corporation. This body then simply leases the land to the private corporation – a complete travesty of the term ‘acquisition for a public purpose’, as sanctioned by the act.’

‘In some cases, administrations run through the motions of a PESA consultation, but in no instance has the opposition expressed by tribal communities to acquisition of their land resulted in a plan for industry being halted, suggesting the disempowerment of the Gram Sabha.’

There was no surprise that the chapter, aptly titled, ‘PESA, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India’s Tribal Districts’ was entirely taken out of the final report released by the government, for it is a damning indictment of the state’s pro-industrial policies. The report even goes on to mention, that the growing strength of the Maoist movement in central India is inextricably linked to the government’s ‘exclusionary’ policies:

‘Some analysts read the resurgence and spread of left-wing extremism as a phenomenon of tribal self-assertion. They point to the co-incidence in the rise of economic reforms and the deepening of the Maoist movement in India’s polity, the latter being a retort to the exclusionary nature of these policies. According to one senior politician, ‘If the state is neglectful and oppressive, as it  has been, it provides the water in which the guerilla fish swim.’ Another senior politician seconded, ‘PESA has not yet been honestly implemented in a single district yet. If it is, we will solve the Naxal problem.’

Lohandiguda also finds mention in the censored chapter of the PESA report.

‘Resident Mahangu Madiya has Rs 55 lakh in his account, but does not even own a mobile phone. He has no use for most such material possessions. Or even this significant sum of money, which he has not touched since it landed in a bank account this January as ‘compensation’ given by the state, in return for acquiring his 35-acre farm for a proposed steel plant. “I am concerned with farming. My land is important to me. What will I do with this money?” asked the middle-aged farmer’.

Eventually, resistance to the land grab began to accentuate. The Communist Party of India had no influence in Lohandiguda before Tata showed up. They only found footing as they’re openly anti-displacement and anti-corporate land grab.  Both the BJP and Congress have supported Tata’s project, but today only CPI party workers, or those explicitly anti-displacement work in Lohandiguda.

‘I remember telling people, that we need to protest first, we need to organize ourselves first, and then only will people come and support us.’ Said Advocate Girju Kashyap, who at some point, was also detained by the police and prevented to appear in court.

Most of his clients are villagers from Lohandiguda with cases slapped against them.

Yet even the CPI has not been able to hold off Tata’s project, and there is a severe sense of frustration with the villagers of Lohandiguda.

The Meeting

Lohandiguda is far from the theatre of war at first sight. Yet there’s a permeable tension that everything shall burn. On the 11th of May, the Naib Tehsildar of Lohandiguda PR Marghya had began a ‘bhoomi puja’ (inauguration ceremony) near the proposed project site for Tata’s steel plant, at Dhuragaon village. A few villagers of Lohandiguda would then beat him up, mistakenly believing, he was commencing with Tata’s project on their land.

The next day the administration decided to talk to ward members and Sarpanches of all the villages of Lohandiguda.

They had asked them to come at three in the afternoon.

On that afternoon, the villagers at Tarkeguda weren’t interesting in attending the meeting. They were busy with a family dispute. A forty-year old lady was being screamed at by her husband and her 20 year old son, as some twenty other villagers sat around them.

Hidmo Ram Mandavi, one of the leaders of Tarkaguda, was almost dismissive of the meeting with the government.

Meanwhile, the story of the family dispute would come to light. The Mother-Wife had apparently gotten drunk and slept with a man half her age.

At some point, her son charged at her in a fit of rage. His mother would scream back at him, asserting her rights. Eventually, she would leave with her young toy boy. Her family screaming at her to never come back.

That’s two more tribals out of Lohandiguda.

Yet eventually the meeting (that the villagers of Tarkeguda didn’t care for) commenced at five in the evening. The Superintendent of Police, the Collectorate and members of the local press arrived to meet villagers who had been waiting for two hours.

Machinegunned policemen spread across the area, surrounding the villagers.

The meeting commenced as the Upper-Collector Fulsingh Netaam stands up and speaks politely to the villagers. He started by speaking about everything the administration has done for the people and how much more they will be doing. The reaction is lukewarm. No one is interested.

‘We will give you land for land,’ he finally said.

‘Where is that land?’ Asked one villager loudly, ‘Show us the land.’

‘It’s there. Don’t worry.’

The meeting only lasted some two minutes after that. One man screams ‘nahi denge zameen’ (we won’t give our land) and the villagers got up raising their fists, screaming at the Collector, the Superintendent of Police and every other official.  An old lady with a baby tied to her chest, stood before all the officials, screamed vociferously, gestured violently and then only walked away.

The police videographed every loud protestor, every violent gesture, and eventually they all drove away.

Meanwhile, the local administration claims that out of the 1707 affected families, 1163 families have already accepted compensation. When asked about alternative land, the Upper-Collector responded, ‘we are ready to give land, but they don’t come to us.’

Many villagers still allege deceit and corruption, and the intimidation and arrests of village leaders who opposed Tata, some of whom were all forced to sign blank sheets of paper.

The most effective tactic employed was however, distrust – turning family members against family members, villagers against villagers.

‘Whoever took Tata’s money should be thrown out of the villages.’ Said an elder from Sirisguda.

Yet many people in Lohandiguda, have refused to withdraw the money that was put into their bank accounts. And no one knows who withdrew their money, and who didn’t. Everyone suspects the other village of accepting compensation, and the other home of taking money.

‘Some people went and took Tata’s money, and spent it, and now they’re back.’ Said the village elder, ‘It’s because of them, things are like this. Some people had to get greedy.’

Photography Post-Script

The meeting on the 12th of May, 2010.



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Dear Chhattisgarh Police, Are You Mad?

July 16, 2010

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 19th of July, 2010

The above photograph is of a bus that was hit by a Maoist IED in 2006. There were only civilians on the bus, no soldiers, and this mangled bus, was the first sign of war I had come across when I had taken the long road from Avapalli to Basaguda on a tractor a long time ago. It told me a lot about the Maoists.

A few months later, a colleague of mine had called me up on the 17th of May, 2010, about the IED blast near Sukma, Dantewada District, targeting a civilian bus, that eventually killed 31 people, ‘The Maoists are targeting civilian buses now?’ She had asked.

‘They’ve always done that, I’m not surprised.’

They’ve always killed civilians with impunity and they’ve also burnt down trains, hacked people to death, and executed unarmed soldiers. And it’s not so hard to have a critical view of the Maoists if you’ve spent enough time in the jungle. Your biases are based on facts.

And I’ve been going in and out for two years now, into ‘Maoist liberated zones’ finding quiet voices of dissent. Villagers who I’d speak to quietly, within their homes, who tell me about how the Maoists beat them, or how they need to keep secrets from them. But for a moment, let’s forget about violence. Let’s agree with Arundhati Roy for a moment – we don’t need a violence-based analysis of the Maoists – as it is, there is no freedom to think, to even express a view contrary to the official party line, in their ‘liberated zones’.  Is that freedom? Or is that tyranny? Aren’t the Maoist-Big Brothers watching you, making sure you don’t commit a thoughtcrime?

And of course, I have even documented atrocities committed by the Maoists on the adivasis themselves.

And a few days ago, to my surprise, the Chhattisgarh police branded me a Maoist agent. And I’m not the only one who receives this ‘honour’ from the police.

When another reporter from a reputed English Daily who works in Chhattisgarh, had called up the then DIG Kalluri about the Tadmetla encounter that left 76 security personnel dead, he was promptly abused.

‘You! You must be celebrating!’ He had screamed at the reporter.

A few days ago, when the same reporter had called up the now Senior Superintendent of Police Kallluri, he abused him again calling him a ‘Naxalite reporter.’

A High Court lawyer from Mumbai was in Dantewada a few days ago and had gone to the police station to speak to the police and understand the ground realities of Dantewada. SSP Kalluri accused him of being a Naxalite informer, and had him locked up in the police station. He was eventually let off the same evening, visibly shaken, after some frantic phone calls.

The very fact that the Chhattisgarh police would rather target civil society activists, opposition party workers and journalists than investigate the Maoists, is explicit proof of their incompetence. A kind of fascinating wife-beating syndrome, where they can’t get the Maoists, so the insecure, frustrated police will go after soft targets like journalists, activists and opposition party members.

They arrested CPI party workers for the attack on Audesh Singh Gautams home, and adivasi CPI leader Manish Kunjam confirmed the same. He, himself, has no police security. It was withdrawn by the police months ago even though there have been numerous threats to his life. He has been openly critical of the Salwa Judum that roams around Bastar, armed to its teeth, and has spoken up against corporate land grab, supporting and helping to organize the anti-displacement movements across Bastar.

Now, according to the police press release that implicated Lingaram Kodopi, Nandini Sundar, Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy, I’ve been mentioned as someone who had gone with the Maoists, ‘videographing’ their failed assassination attempt on Audesh Singh Gautam.

Forget that they police don’t know the difference between a ‘photographer’ and a ‘videographer’. Forget that the police don’t know that at 1:00am there’s no light, and videography and photography is useless. And I believe the Maoists have infra-red cameras? Why? Because they’re ‘infra-red’?

Forget that the police allege that I have ‘videographed’ an incident where the Maoists had also injured a child. Why would I then take this photograph and write this article about a young boy whose ‘… right kneecap is filled with shrapnel, and his right shin bone is broken. There are large fragments of steel in his right ankle and a bullet in his left shin.’?

Forget that they accused Lingaram Kodopi of being the mastermind of the attack. Why? Because Lingaram is also from Kuakonda block where the attack took place? Hadn’t the police forced Lingaram to be a SPO a few months ago? And that he’s going to replace Azad now? Lingaram must’ve truly made an impression on the Politburo.

But yes, now the problem arises when a particular police contact of mine calls me up and asks me about my whereabouts on the night of the attack.

‘Why are you asking me these stupid questions? You know the accusations are bullshit.’ I had replied.

‘No, I want to know where you were, so when we’re interrogating you and pulling out your fingernails, we know what you’d say.’ He said sarcastically.

‘Very funny.’

Immediately I became conscious about my fingernails and realized they needed cutting. I’ve also become aware that the Chhattisgarh police, in their long years of dealing with the Maoist movement, have become their own worst enemy.

And if we need to deal with the Maoist insurgency, we need to deal with the police.

Post Script:

Dear, Chhattisgarh police, in response to your accusations about me being a Maoist Agent, I’d like to tell you about something called a ‘conscience’. It’s quite a fragile thing, it’s not an absolute. It doesn’t really control the world nor win anyone any fame or success. In my young naive head, it has no politics, it has no religion, but it says one small thing – that in no way, will I be responsible for the harm of any human being. Everytime I leave for the warzone, I’ve had all but one futile prayer:

a prayer before leaving

I pray that nothing I do makes anything any worse,

I pray that nothing I do makes

life miserable for anyone I leave behind

I pray that I know what the hell I’m doing,

and I pray that I don’t lose my soul.’

And you, the police, think I will accompany the Maoists while they shoot dead sleeping men and fill a child’s leg full of shrapnel? And I will be videographing it? Do you really think so?

That crazy silly little thing called conscience is really that crazy and silly that it ceased to exist? Of course, I’m not stupid enough to believe that what I write, document, or photograph, isn’t being used in a propaganda war by others. And I know, at times, I am being used to document your atrocities on the adivasis by people who don’t believe in human rights themselves.

But do you remember these words – ‘does keeping quiet make anything any better? If I don’t report a single killing, does it cease to exist? If I don’t take pictures of a burnt village, does it cease to exist? If I don’t report a disappeared 12 year old girl, does she cease to exist?’

I wrote that to you the last time you had attacked me for documenting your crimes.

And of course, you wish to use me too in your mad war. You call me up and ask me what Ramanna looks like. Why do you think I was left perturbed? As it is, I have never met him, and had no idea of what he looks like. And you ask me to manipulate another colleague of mine to gather information for you, so you can kill him? Why would I do that? Even though this man is a Maoist and is responsible for the deaths of countless CRPF jawaans, I would in no point feel comfortable about his death because of some stupid information about how tall he is, or how big his nose is. To me, that’s as bad as pulling the trigger myself. And I’d rather go to hell than compromise my conscience. And thanks to you and your kind, I probably will find it on earth.

If I ever had a chance to even sit down with Ramanna with a revolver to point to his head, or a pen, I’d pick the pen and I’d do what I do. Which is write. Which is to speak up. Which is to appeal to them. Which is to tell them that killing CRPF Jawaans isn’t going to make the world a better place.

They probably won’t listen to me. But they don’t listen to you either. You can kill all of them. History will not change anything. You will find a thousand more Ramannas.

We’re cogs in a machine, you do your job, and I’ll do mine, and if you think you’re going to tell me how to do mine(by intimidating me), I’ll return the courtesy. Although, I don’t think the words ‘human rights’, or ‘the constitution’ or the ‘rule of law’ are ever going to frighten you. I have two better ones, ‘police reform.’

Coming soon.

Yours truly,

Javed Iqbal