For the night, the forest nearest to town
Bastar has contrary reasons to suspect the outsider
- Published 5.02.17
DARKNESS IS beginning to fall; I am in search of a hotel room in Jagdalpur. Two hotels have turned me away. They don't give out rooms to single women. The third offers me a room, but with a rider. I am not to tell anyone that I am a journalist.
Why not? Journalists and professors come from Delhi and write "nasty things" about Bastar, is the reply. "We have been asked by the police not to entertain such people."
There is no room - but there is growing disdain - for journalists, political and social activists, lawyers and academics among sections of the townspeople. Activist Bela Bhatia witnessed that recently, when a group of people threatened her and her landlady, and asked her to leave her ghar and gaon without delay. She had accompanied a human rights team to meet women who had alleged being sexually abused by the police. Delhi academics Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad have seen this, too. They were booked last year on charges of murdering a tribal.
The threats are real, but the police shrug them off. The Jagdalpur superintendent of police, R.N. Dash, is convinced that local people have their own reasons for wanting to keep journalists and others out.
"Because people from Delhi write bad things about Bastar, nobody wants their daughters to get married to local men. People living outside Bastar think that their daughters will not be safe here," he says. "Those who refused you a room are most likely fathers who'd failed to get brides for their sons, all because of wrong reporting. It's very natural for them to be angry at outsiders."
But it's not just the outsider who fears the police in Bastar. As I travel into the interiors of Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma, villagers complain about being threatened and intimidated by the police. Not surprisingly, they first treat me with suspicion, not convinced that I am a journalist. I may well be a police agent, they say.
"People have come to us posing as journalists and related our complaints about police torture back to the police. Then the police came and beat us up," says a young Dantewada villager.
Once they are convinced that you are indeed a journalist, the villagers open up - their hearts and their doors. In a quiet village, I am offered a room by a teacher's wife because the nearest town with a hotel is miles and hours away. She gives me dinner - a small helping of daal and chawal.
In Bijapur, a young man offers to take me to a village in the forests - to meet victims of police torture - on a motorcycle. My taxi driver, Chander, takes the wheel as the villager and I squeeze in behind him. He skillfully manoeuvres the bike through long stretches of pebbled road, dirt tracks, fields and underbrush. It even splutters its way through a small stream. And then, after a series of sharp twists and turns, Chander suddenly loses control of the machine. All three of us, along with the bike, plunge into a rice field. Chander, also a local, is more amused than hurt. "Take a picture, Madam, capture the moment," he tells me in Hindi. "We will remember that we'd had a fall."
Pictures and selfies taken, we get back onto the bike and the mud track. We are deep in the jungles now. The sound of the wind, the swish of the leaves and the chatter of the birds travel with us. Finally, we reach our destination after an hour.
For the people of Bastar, travelling for hours to cover short distances is nothing new. They are used to walking for miles when they have to catch a bus.
When we return to the highway on our way back, evening is just about to set in. A few villagers are waiting at fancy bus stops that flaunt stainless steel seats and huge photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Raman Singh. The wait is often a long one, for buses are rare on this route.
As the sun begins to set, I spot a dark-skinned woman, small and barefoot, carrying wood on her head. Soon I can't see her anymore - she has vanished into the dark.
Like most people in Bastar, she is now invisible.