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.
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.
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.’