Monday, 30th October 2017

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Blind spot

The darkness deepens in Bastar

By Politics and play- Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 20.02.16
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I write this on Tuesday, the 16th of February, a day when every English newspaper in Bangalore had a front-page story on the attack on journalists in a Delhi court. The previous night, the so-called 'national' channels could discuss nothing else. The attack was deplorable; but why is it that media discussion is so dominated by what happens in Delhi?

Recently, in the town of Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh, a mob surrounded the house of Malini Subramaniam, a reporter for the website, Scroll.in. They shouted slogans denouncing her and asking her to leave the region. Later that same night, the goons returned, threw stones and damaged her car. The next day, when the journalist went to lodge a first information report, the police refused to file the FIR.

The attack on Subramaniam was the latest in a series of assaults on journalists in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh state. These attacks are the handiwork of mobs tacitly supported by the administration, and, at other times, executed by the State itself. In July 2015, a reporter named Somaru Nag was arrested. Then, in September, another Hindi journalist, Santosh Yadav, was also put behind bars. One of these journalists was charged with rioting and attempted murder, the other with being a Maoist sympathizer. Their real 'crime', however, may have been their straightforward reporting on the harsh social and political realities of Bastar, such as the usurpation of tribal land by mining companies, sexual attacks on women by security forces, and the like.

While not a native of the region, Malini Subramaniam has been living in Chhattisgarh for some two decades now. She first worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and is now an independent journalist. Her field reports (see http:// scroll.in/authors/ 1202) have dispassionately documented the deteriorating social situation in Bastar. In May 2015, she wrote about how three minor girls, out grazing the family buffaloes, were abducted by the police, beaten up, and then sent to a remand home. In July, she wrote about how the State had closed down some three thousand government schools, making education even more out of reach for tribals already disadvantaged and discriminated against. In November, she reported on the alleged rape of tribal women by Chhattisgarh's police force, whose predatory instincts are captured in this chilling excerpt from a fact-finding report: "Women were chased out of their homes which were then occupied by the forces for their stay. In some cases, the policemen removed their clothing and invited the women to come and sleep with them if they wanted to sleep in their own homes, as the village men had run away into the jungle." Most recently, in the last week of January 2016, Subramaniam filed a report on human trafficking, with tribal girls still in their early teens being shipped by contractors to work in construction sites in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

It is for reports such as these that Malini Subramaniam has been hounded by the State, and by thugs associated with the ruling party. As have other brave journalists in the region. And, yet, no 'national' TV channel has ever had a prime-time debate on attacks on journalists in Bastar. No 'national' newspaper has thought it worthy of front-page coverage either. This despite the fact that the suppression of the press is but one manifestation of the arbitrary and excessive use of State power in Chhattisgarh. Bastar, in particular, has witnessed hundreds of violent incidents in the past decade-and-a-half. Many of these have been executed by the Maoists active in the region; many others by a state government that honours the Constitution more often in the breach.

Ten years ago, I visited Bastar as part of an Independent Citizens' Initiative to see at first-hand the escalating civil war there. The state government had promoted a vigilante group named Salwa Judum, whose cadre competed energetically - perhaps one should say savagely - with the Maoists in attacking adivasis who did not take their side. The State had, meanwhile, recruited thousands of young, often under-age, and always untrained tribal youths as 'special police officers'. These vigilantes, we found, had been instrumental in the burning of homes and villages, in setting families and clans against one another, in killing men and raping women. Meanwhile, the paramilitary forces had occupied schools and hospitals, using them as armed bases from which they occasionally ventured out to torment the tribals in the villages around.

The Maoists responded by escalating the violence on their side. This war in the heart of India had led to hundreds of deaths and the displacement of well over fifty thousand people from their homes. An atmosphere of fear and terror pervaded the district. I wrote about my visit to Bastar in a four-part series in this newspaper (see The Telegraph, 26, 27, 28 and 29 June 2006). It remains, ten years later, the most chastening and troubling experience of my life.

In 2007, led by the fine and fearless anthropologist, Nandini Sundar, a group of us filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court and asked for restitutive action for the victims of the conflict in Bastar. The hearings proceeded slowly (the delays caused by the state and Central governments dodging, deferring and dissembling), and it was four years before a judgment was reached. Based on the evidence presented before them, Justices B. Sudershan Reddy and S.S. Nijjar concluded that the abuses of human rights by the state government in Chhattisgarh manifested 'the darkness, represented by inhumanity and evil, to which individual human beings are capable of descending, when supreme and unaccounted force is vested, rationalized by a warped world view that parades itself as pragmatic and inevitable....' The loot of tribal resources and the destruction of tribal lifestyles by companies, policemen and politicians were directly compared to 'the imperialist-capitalist expansionary policy of European powers' in 19th century Africa.

The judgment came down hard on the arming by the State of untrained youngsters to combat the Maoist insurgency. The Constitution mandated elected governments to develop 'appropriate capacity in ensuring security for its citizens through well trained formal police and security forces that are capable of working within the constitutional framework'. Instead, the Chhattisgarh government had pursued 'policies whereby guns are distributed amongst barely literate youth amongst the poor to control the disaffection in such segments of the population'. This, said the Justices, was 'tantamount to sowing of suicide pills that could divide and destroy society.'

In its order, the Supreme Court asked for the immediate disbandment of vigilante groups, the disarming of SPOs, and a thorough investigation of the incidents of violence. The Justices also asked the State to adopt a policy to combat Maoism that was strictly 'within the borders of constitutional permissibility'. First, it should undertake 'all those necessary socially, economically and politically remedial policies that lessen social disaffection giving rise to such extremist violence'. Second, it should develop 'well trained, and professional law enforcement capacities and forces that function within the limits of constitutional action.'

Sadly, in areas as remote (in all senses) from Delhi as Bastar, the Supreme Court's writ does not run. It may issue orders, but the state government can and does defy them. In this case, the illegality of the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Chhattisgarh has been actively aided by the United Progressive Alliance government, headed by the Congress, that was in power between 2004 and 2014. The Salwa Judum itself was started by a Congress leader, Mahendra Karma, whose misdeeds (not to say crimes) were supported by his presumed political opponent, Chief Minister Raman Singh of the BJP. As Union Home minister, P. Chidambaram excused and even encouraged vigilante violence despite all the evidence scholars presented to him and notwithstanding the strictures of the Supreme Court itself.

In 2011, Raman Singh's government passed the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Police Force Act. SPOs were now renamed sahayak aarakshaks, or assistant constables. Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum itself has been revived and rebranded under other names, such as Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, Samajik Ekta Manch and Nagrik Ekta Manch. The leaders of these samitis and manches are the same men who once led the Judum, and who specialize in harassment, extortion, sexual abuse, and, on occasion, murder.

Bastar was dark enough in 2006, when I visited there, and in 2011, when the Supreme Court passed its judgment. It is, tragically, even darker now. This is how an article by Nandini Sundar, published in The Wire earlier this month, began: 'The forests of Bastar are teeming with people while the villages are deserted. The Maoists walk the forests, keeping watch on the security forces, who have now taken to camping in the jungles, ostensibly to keep watch on the Maoists. The villagers themselves spend sleepless nights wondering which direction the forces will take and who they will attack next. Across Bijapur, Sukma and Narayanpur, people have taken to sleeping in the jungle at night or migrating en masse to Telangana to escape dawn raids and the mass round-ups. It is freezing in the open; no one can light fires for fear of being found, and the few blankets they possess are really no protection. Most cover themselves only with a thin cotton lungi. If they don't die in an "encounter", many will surely fall ill with the cold.'

As readers of this column will know, I detest the Maoists and their cult of violence. They have no loyalty to the Indian Constitution. On the other hand, the ministers, legislators and officers of the Chhattisgarh government have sworn to uphold the Constitution in letter and in spirit. Their manifest illegalities, the brutalities they have condoned and promoted, constitute a dark chapter in the history of Indian democracy. That the 'national' media have so largely ignored the continuing tragedy in Bastar does not bring much credit to Indian democracy either.

ramachandraguha@yahoo.in