Wednesday, June 7, 2006

A tale of two cameras

A tale of two cameras
A tale of two cameras
Wednesday, June 07, 2006 22:50 IST

Two years ago, during the Lok Sabha elections, I happened to visit the
village in Bastar where I had done fieldwork 12 years ago. My
intention was to catch up with all the changes that come over a
village with time. I was alarmed, however, by something I had not seen
in the area before?the frequent drone of helicopters, and a visible
paramilitary presence.

There were four of us, including an independent film-maker and a
Gondi-speaking guide, who decided to investigate the impact of the
Maoist election call. Apart from a couple of roadside polling agents
and some BJP and Congress flags, there was nothing to suggest it was
election day. As we turned off the main road in Dantewada, even the
party flags disappeared. Of the three notified booths we passed, not
one was open.

By late afternoon we reached a village school. The slogans scrawled in
English read: "Boycott elections. Voting gets you nowhere." As we
stood there photographing the empty 'booth', youthful Maoists
surrounded us. They told us to wait till the headman gave us
permission to film. He never arrived and the youths grew increasingly
threatening. Finally we were told to leave our camera behind for the
squad to decide.

We decided it was pointless reporting the incident to the police.
Surprisingly, a month or so later, the filmmaker got his camera back
with an offer of money in case it was spoilt and a letter of apology
from a Maoist spokesperson. The delay, the letter said, was because of
the difficult conditions under which the Maoists operated.

Two years later, I was back in Dantewada, on an independent citizens'
initiative to document the government-sponsored 'Salwa Judum'
campaign. The Salwa Judum, as one leader told us, involves civilians
and security forces jointly going to villages and "explaining" to its
inhabitants why they must join the anti-Naxalite movement.

As a young activist separately admitted, "explaining" involved burning
houses or entire villages, looting grain and slaughtering livestock,
rounding up people and bringing them into 'camps', basically strategic
hamlets. Either you're with us or against us, they say. According to
government figures, 644 out of 1,153 villages or nearly 56 per cent
were involved in the Salwa Judum.

In the camps, villagers are the rank and file. The leaders are often
non-tribal thekedars, surrounded by gun-toting, lathi-carrying special
police officers. Since the camps hardly provide subsistence and the
Salwa Judum gives licence to loot, displaced villagers have been
criminalised by desperation. When they go back to their villages, they
run the risk of retaliatory attacks by Maoists.

I spoke to several widows whose husbands had been brutally killed by
Maoist co-villagers. They were sad, hopeless, defeated, holding on to
their passbooks without knowing how much compensation they had or what
they could do with it. They wanted neither the Naxalites nor the Salwa
Judum, they wanted peace and they wanted to go home.

We tried to cross the Indrawati one morning to visit villages on 'the
other side'. Our efforts to find a boatman met with obdurate refusal
and deep suspicion. That night, we were stopped outside Bhairamgarh
thana by a Salwa Judum mob demanding to know why we had been trying to
cross the river to the 'Maoist' side.

Our bags were searched and the driver's green pants became a 'Naxalite
uniform'. A team member, the eminent historian Ramachandra Guha, was
branded a Naxalite and a 'witness' appeared who claimed to have seen
him at a Maoist meeting the week before.

The thanedar was drunk and Salwa Judum activists were in complete
control. No one wanted to read our letter of authorisation from the
Home Secretary. Even the SP's call on our behalf was reluctantly
taken. Finally, somehow, the local Salwa Judum leader let us go. But
not before demanding my camera. Scared for our lives, we handed it
over and fled.

The Dantewada Collector refused to intercede and claimed that the
phone lines were down. But half-an-hour later when we met him, he knew
all about our 'Naxalite connections'. A week later, the Collector
still claimed the phone lines were down.

I'm not sure I'll ever try and take photographs in Bastar again. But
it is odd that of the two times my camera was seized, it is the
Maoists and not the civil administration who behaved the way a
responsible government would.