A Short History of Death and Madness in Bastar

by Javed Iqbal

A young boy outside Basaguda police station in Bijapur district of Chattisgarh. Photo by Javed Iqbal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No.’ They said.

‘Did any human rights activists come?’

‘No.’

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

‘No.’

‘How many homes were burnt down that time?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

And burnings preceded killings, and killings preceded burnings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

The author is a 27 year old freelance journalist, who has worked as an investigative reporter for The New Indian Express from November 2009 to April 2011. This article has been reprinted from his blog ‘moon chasing‘. This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 8th of July, 2012.

Related posts – 

x. PUCL – Fact-finding report on the Salwa Judum, Dantewara District – November to December 2005. 

x. Where Individuality Means Waging War Against the State by Javed Iqbal 

x. ‘Even if they don’t let us settle here…’ by Javed Iqbal

x. The Last of the Asbestos Miners of Roro by Javed Iqbal

x. The War Dogma by Javed Iqbal

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

by Javed Iqbal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Shrinking Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

The author is a 27 year old freelance journalist, who has worked as an investigative reporter for The New Indian Express from November 2009 to April 2011. This article has been reprinted from his blog ‘moon chasing, which appeared in Daily News & Analysis on May 4, 2012 as ‘The unending struggle of Bastar adivasis.’

Other posts by Javed Iqbal:

+ Last of the Asbestos Miners of Roro. Jan 23. 2012.

+ The War Dogma. Oct 19. 2011.

+ Where Individuality Means Waging War Against the State. Oct 11. 2011.

The War Dogma

by Javed Iqbal

photobyjavediqbal

“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.

The author is a 27 year old freelance journalist, who has worked as an investigative reporter for The New Indian Express from November 2009 to April 2011. This article has been reprinted from his blog ‘moon chasing‘. This article appears in the July issue of Agenda/Infochange for the theme on the ‘Limits of Freedom’.

Related articles:


Where Individuality Means Waging War Against The State

by Javed Iqbal

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.

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 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.”

**

The author is a 27 year old freelance journalist, who has worked as an investigative reporter for The New Indian Express from November 2009 to April 2011. This article has been reprinted from his blog ‘moon chasing‘. Anabridged version of this article was printed in DNA on 26 September 2011.

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