Chhattisgarh: Guns, Gags and Lies
Posted by Ka Frank on February 8, 2010
This two-part series appeared in Express Buzz on February 7-8, 2010
No access to judiciary or media
Operation Green Hunt, launched last November, was supposed to provide security from the Maoists, but security for whom? It is unlikely to be the tribals who live in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. They have suffered the attentions of the authorities for years. Equally, they also have to deal with the Maoists on their ground.
At the same time, there’s no one to listen to them. They don’t have access to the judiciary or the press. If they complain, they risk harassment and torture. If they persist, they might simply disappear. For mainstream India it’s as if they don’t exist. The following stories illustrate their plight.
On March 18, 2008, security forces killed 14 Maoists of a dalam (armed squad) near Dareli, Bijapur district. They claimed no casualties in the alleged shootout while the Maoists said they were poisoned after police came to know of a meeting place. The incident was widely reported, yet what was neither reported nor investigated was the retaliatory killing of at least five villagers deemed ‘informants’ by the Maoists.
Rava Oonga (30), Badse Masa (50), Kovasi Hidme (35), Madkam Durva (70) and Madkam Idma (21) were returning to their villages in Bijapur district from Hyderabad after an election rally for the CPI (ML) New Democracy. They were axed to death in front of other villagers by a mixed squad of sangam and dalam members as suspected informants. One villager was from Pallagudem, two from Jeerlaguda and two from Dareli. Their previous visit to Hyderabad seemed suspicious to the Maoists who organised a Jan Adalat or People’s court to condemn them to death. When their relatives and neighbours were asked about the identities of the assailants and the Maoists who were present during the killing, they replied: “Agar hum aapko bol denge, phir woh log humko bhi marne aajayenge. (If we tell you who killed them, they will come to kill us also.)”
A majority of the villagers no longer live at home. Afraid of being detained as suspected Maoists they left without lodging an FIR against the Maoists. Initially, they moved to Andhra Pradesh where forest officials broke down their shacks. But it doesn’t stop at the Maoists or forest officials. Men from Salwa Judum raided the neighbouring village of Thadmetla and one man Sodhi Nando (30) was burnt to death in his house. That makes another threat to their lives.
Similarly, as previously reported by Express, security forces raided the village of Tatemargu in Konta block on November 10. Seven villagers were allegedly killed (four from Tatemargu, two from Doghpar, one from Pallodi). More than 60 buildings were burnt down in Tatemargu and 30 in Pallodi village.
There were allegations of rape yet no woman was willing to come forward then. Recently, at least three women from Tatemargu claim to have been raped on the day of the raid, allegedly by members of the security forces. One of the men apparently spoke ‘Koya’ — the tribal dialect. She has not lodged a complaint at Kistaram police station for fear of being apprehended as a Maoist. Nor does she have access to a lawyer.
Previous complaints of rape from Samsetti, Bandarpadar and Arlampalli were investigated but it led to nothing more than the harassment of victims. None of the accused, Special Police Officers or members of Salwa Judum, have ever been arrested despite warrants issued by the courts. The few people who find the courage to file a complaint face another danger. Even before the cases of rape are tried as criminal cases, both witnesses and victims of violence perpetrated by the state have a tendency to disappear.
Katam Suresh (20 months) and his father Katam Dulaiah (20 years) of the village of Gompad are still missing. Suresh lost three fingers when Gompad was attacked on October 1 last year. Nine villagers were killed, including his mother, aunt, and maternal grandparents. He was last seen on January 14 at Konta police station with his father.
Rava Jimey (17) and Madkam Sana (22) from Boorgam village were travelling to Kuakonda in Dantewada on January 25. They disappeared between Konta police station and Dornapal police station. Their relatives have had no word of them since. Tribals from Chhattisgarh often travel incognito from Andhra Pradesh to south Bastar, claiming to be from other villages and districts. Many of them travel around 70 km through the jungle to Andhra Pradesh for the regular saptaah — market day. Their markets are often out of bounds, as they fear the security forces may arrest them for questioning.
It’s an upside down world from where they are standing. Their voices remain unheard and they are unseen in a world where protectors are predators, and where justice is a fix for anyone who can afford it.
Guns, gags and lies in a war that no one sees
Aaj kal bandook se zaada khatra laptop mein hai. (In today’s world, the laptop is a lot more dangerous than the gun),” the thaanedaar of Dornapal camp in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district says, checking my bags on one of my visits to the war zone. He knows the war against the Maoists is not being fought by guns alone. The greatest weapon, which both sides utilise well, is silence and misinformation. And what if there’s no information or just selected bits released now and then?
Maybe that explains how a virtual civil war in the heart of the country got so little coverage for more than four years. Salwa Judum started around 2005. More than 640 villages (official figures) were forcibly emptied out. There were numerous encounters, and an infant was shot dead by the CRPF in the village of Cherpal. People were arbitrarily arrested and left in jail without lawyers. All this produced little ferment. But when the police camp of Ranibodli was attacked and 55 policemen were killed, that was widely reported. As was the attack on the Salwa Judum camp of Errabore, by the Maoists.
Maoist atrocities hit the wire services with no trouble at all, and like a phantom their presence was acknowledged, yet they could be mostly ignored as a threat. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have called the Maoists, ‘the single biggest internal security challenge’ in 2006, but apart from that, what did he say in three years until Operation Green Hunt?
In January 2009 when I went to Bijapur, people said: “When there’s an attack in your village (Mumbai) it’s international news, but there’s an attack here every day, yet no one reports anything.”
Barring occasional visits from the international press and a few mainstream publications, the issue only got mainstream attention after Operation Green Hunt was surreptitiously declared by the Home Ministry, and then condemned as a media creation. By November, the local administration was informing local reporters and social workers to cease working in the jungles as Operation Green Hunt was taking place.
Police officials told a press conference in Jagdalpur during the commencement of Green Hunt that if anyone was shot in the crossfire, they shouldn’t be held accountable. Many reporters were personally threatened or ‘requested’ to keep out of the jungle.
“People come to us with problems, and yet we’re not allowed to talk to them,” said N R K Pillai, a veteran journalist of Chattisgarh’s Working Journalists Union. “It is our job to verify, yet who goes in here? The police are telling our journalists that you get your story from the IB, you get your story from the police station, why do you want to go inside the jungle?”
Over the last four years, many independent witnesses and reporters who reported state atrocities or Salwa Judum crimes were beaten, harassed and some even imprisoned. With Green Hunt the environment is far worse as independent fact-finding teams are often stopped, sent back, or in the case of Narayanpatna and Lalgarh, attacked. Activists are treated to orchestrated Salwa Judum protest rallies and national reporters are prevented from living in the only hotels in Dantewada and risk the life of every local source and contact by simply talking to them.
Money of course, makes silence easier. I was with a reporter from a Hindi daily, printed out of Raipur, whom I accompanied to the Essar complex at Kirandool, to collect his two cheques of Rs 5,000 as advertising revenue. Rural reporters need to collect their own advertisements to earn a living and therefore will not risk their lives for a story where there is no money. In return, he had to omit all mention of Essar Steel in his reports. So when an estimated two lakh villagers hit the streets of Dantewada in 2007, screaming “Essar Essar hai hai.” or “Mahendra Karma chor hai,” he didn’t write a word.
Reporters on the Andhra Pradesh-Chhattisgarh border have a different way of working. They say the camp officers at Dornapal, Errabore and Konta have been instructed not to allow any reporters from Andhra Pradesh into Chhattisgarh.
They never travel through Dornapal, Errabore or Konta — they go straight through the jungle. And interestingly, there hasn’t been a single incident of violence around the Chhattisgarh-Andhra border even as the violence has got worse further north — out of reach of the free, independent, local press.