Ignorance is Strength: A Dantewada Story

Stories of reporting the insurgency out of the South Bastar

This story appeared in The New Indian Express on the  7th of  February, 2010

‘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 from Dornapal camp, Dantewada, tells me, checking my bags, on one of my frequent visits into the warzone.

His statement might have been meaningless if it wasn’t taken in context. In fact, he’s quite aware that the war against the Maoists is not being fought by guns alone. The greatest weapon both warring parties utilize very well, is in fact, silence and misinformation.

Earlier, one could ask the national media, how is it that a virtual civil war in the middle of the country goes almost unreported for more than four years. Salwa Judum started around 2005, more than 644 villages (official figures) were emptied, there were regular instances of killings and rapes, and there were regular deliberate attacks on non-combatants consistently throughout 2006. Encounter after encounter was reported. An infant was shot dead by the CRPF in the village of Cherpal. People returning from Salwa Judum meetings on tractors were hit by IEDs. Innumerable villages in the interior-jungles were raided by the Salwa Judum and they all reported arson and looting. People were arbitrarily arrested and left in jail without lawyers and without the awareness of any of their rights. Yet the police camp of Ranibodli was attacked, 55 policemen were slaughtered, and that was widely reported. As was the attack on the Salwa Judum camp of Errabore that was attacked by the Maoists that was widely reported.

Maoist atrocities hit the wire-services with no trouble at all over four years, and like a phantom their presence was acknowledged, yet they could be mostly ignored as a serious theat. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have called the Maoists, ‘the single biggest internal security challenge’ in 2006, but apart for that, what else did he say about them in three years until Operation Green Hunt?

By January 2009 in Bijapur district, people would strangely ask me: ‘When there’s an attack in your village (Mumbai) it’s international news, but when there’s an attack here everyday, no one reports anything.’

Barring occasional visits from the international press and few mainstream publications, the issue only managed to gain mainstream attention once Operation Green Hunt (Tribal Hunt) found itself to be 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 from working in the jungles as Operation Green Hunt was taking place. This however, was a deliberate ploy to prevent journalists from reporting anything that counters the official point of view.

At a Press conference at Jagdalpur during the commencement of Operation Green Hunt, police officials had warned local journalists, saying that if anyone was shot in the crossfire, they wouldn’t be held accountable. Many other reporters were personally threatened or ‘requested’ from working in the jungles.

‘People come to us with their complaints and their problems, and yet we’re not allowed to talk to them.’ Said N R K Pillai, a veteran journalist of Chattisgarh’s Working Journalist Union, ‘it is our job to verify these so-called facts, 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 atrocity or Salwa Judum crimes were often beaten, harassed and some were even imprisoned. Binayak Sen being the most famous example, who was arrested under the draconian Chattisgarh Public Security Act. Operation Green Hunt has now made the environment far worse as independent fact-finding teams are often stopped, sent back, or in the case of Narayanpatna and Lalgarh, they’ve been attacked. Filmmaker Gopal Menon was beaten at Lalgarh and then stopped from entering Dantewada at Konta Police station. 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.

A social worker from Andhra Pradesh, who has been working to offer humanitarian aid to the adivasis who have been escaping the civil war for more than four years, finds himself pondering on the current operation: ‘For years we’ve all be working for the centre to do something about what the state government was doing, and now look what they do.’ His NGO in Andhra Pradesh is now dealing with more Internally Displaced Persons with more stories of burnings and killings and the deliberate ‘sanitation’ of villages. The fact that the State administration and the police has made independent verification extremely difficult has helped to spread an environment of fear and suspicion. No one talks, no one needs to ask questions.

Money of course, makes silence easier. I was with a reporter from a Hindi-daily, printed out of Raipur, who I had accompanied to the Essar complex at Kirandool, to pick up one of his two cheques of Rs.5000 as advertising revenue. Rural reporters need to collect their own advertisements to earn a living and they are obviously not going to risk their lives for a story where there is no money. According to him, he had to leave all mention of Essar Steel out of his reports. So when an estimated two lakh villagers hit the streets of Dantewada in 2007, screaming ‘Essar Essar hai hai.’ or ‘Mahendra Karma Chorr Hai.’ He didn’t write a word.

Yet the reporters on the Andhra Pradesh-Chhattisgarh border have another way to work altogether. According to them, the camp officers at Dornapal, Errabore and Konta have been instructed not to allow any reporters from Andhra Pradesh into Chhattisgarh. They’ve been given open threats considering they always find themselves on the spot, whenever there is news of an attack closer to the Andhra border.

The reporters obviously never travel through the camps of Dornapal, Errabore or Konta – they go straight through the jungles. And interestingly, there hasn’t been a single incident of violence around the Chhattisgarh-Andhra border even as the violence has exacerbated further north – out of reach of the free, independent, local press.

The last attacks around the Andhra border took place in November and every local and national reporter widely covered and documented the incidents.

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