Chhattisgarh’s inconvenient truths
Convenient truths usually make the cut in conflict areas such as the Maoist zones of resource-rich Chhattisgarh, specifically its southern districts. Here, those who seek to tell truths that inconveniently vary with what the state and its representatives have in mind come in for stick. As in many conflict zones, this attitude seeks to make virtual combatants out of non-combatants: certainly citizens caught in the crossfire between the state and Maoist rebels; and, increasingly, the media.
This has, in a matter of months, led to the imprisoning of three local journalists. Earlier this year, a correspondent of the news portal Scroll.in, who wrote of sexual abuse by security forces in conflict zones and alleged torture of journalists by local police, was harassed into leaving Jagdalpur, headquarters of southern Chhattisgarh district. Also this year, a team of lawyers representing tribal folk against police atrocities were compelled to leave Jagdalpur. Besides the state, fingers point to a vigilante group often at the forefront of such dangerous antics, the Samajik Ekta Manch. Several observers liken it to Salwa Judum, birthed by sponsorship of the state government in 2005 as an anti-Maoist hammer.
Media persons who have interviewed its members marvel at how the local police, which answers to the inspector general of police of the Bastar Range, S.R.P. Kalluri, the region’s top cop, are slow to acknowledge complaints against the Manch. Some journalists have written about how Kalluri has questioned their sense of nationalism.
Disturbed, a fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India met Chhattisgarh’s chief minister Raman Singh in March to protest the victimization of journalists. Singh was all unctuous charm. To quote the team’s report, Singh said that he was “concerned” and that his government “is in favour of free and fair media”. When the team specifically flagged the “attitude” of Kalluri “towards the press”, Singh instructed officials present at the meeting that “the behaviour of one officer should not take away all the credits of the good job the government is doing in the Maoist area”.
Though it was a public put-down of Kalluri, and clearly an attempt by Singh to distance himself from an officer whom he has repeatedly promoted since 2006 to tackle with a free hand the Maoist rebellion, it didn’t cut ice with the visitors. The Editors Guild team firmly reported that “there is pressure from the state administration, especially the police, on journalists to write what they want or not to publish reports that the administration sees as hostile”. (See Gagging the media in Chhattisgarh , 12 February 2016.)
There is rebel hostility as well, as it happens. This is a peculiar situation, and similar to many conflict zones—Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Jharkhand and Bihar, to name a few.
For instance, Maoists dislike criticism of their ‘kangaroo’ courts that dispense death by hacking with choppers, and beatings. They get defensive when media quizzes about methods to garner revenue, including a percentage of local contracts—hardly different from the method of the crooked politician or administrator they battle to replace. During attacks, Maoist savagery matches and, sometimes, exceeds that of government forces. They have even killed a journalist in Chhattisgarh.
But according to the law of the land, Maoists are lawless—free radicals, if you will. They preach and die by their credo of a “new democracy” that seeks to replace India’s current democracy of wonders and warts. What of state-mandated protectors? Those who swear by the constitution to uphold law, democracy, and freedoms? In Chhattisgarh, exigencies of war and business imperatives have for long turned the rule of law on its battered head (See Chhattisgarh: Men, methods, madness , 1 April 2016 and Why businesses love Chhattisgarh , 8 April 2016).
The Editors Guild team was also assured that media persons were not under surveillance and their communications not intercepted. I find that hard to believe.
Not too long ago in Delhi, I received a late-night call from a friend. A senior official in the home ministry had phoned my friend, who in turn phoned me and asked me to change all my passwords.
“Huh? “ I replied. “All?”
“All,” he echoed. He then went on to recite the passwords to my mail and several other accounts. “They’ll be shared with Raipur”—Chhattisgarh’s capital—“latest by noon tomorrow”.
Another friend warns me with the jocular code: Your phone is not being tapped.
I’ve learned to live an open-source life, as it were. But for my colleagues in Chhattisgarh, most avenues are closed.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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