Saturday, July 28, 2007

BREAKING NEWS NOBODY BREAKS: IT'S STATE TERROR ON PEOPLE Why does the media refuse to report this from Chhattisgarh? Tehelka

It is predictable but shocking that ‘security analysts’ would respond to the July 9 encounter between police and Maoists in the Elampalli-Regadgatta forests with calls for more force, more troops and more deaths all around. Independent analyses of security, on the other hand, require one to ask: whose security, at what cost, and by what means.

We can no longer blithely assume that the security of the state automatically translates into the security of its people; and certainly it does not seem that way to 15-year-old Jaya (all names changed) who had to leave her village midway through her tenth class board exams this year because of the Salwa Judum. Having heard that the Salwa Judum and police were three km away in the neighbouring village, burning houses and raping women – there was only time to climb into a tractor with the rest of her family and flee. Jaya now lives in a bare hut somewhere in Andhra Pradesh, two km away from the nearest water source. She wants to study further, but how can she? There are no Hindi schools where she is, and she has to work if she wants to eat. That more forces will be posted to Dantewada is hardly likely to make Shanti, the young mother of a two–year-old, feel more secure – not after the Salwa Judum and police invaded her village, raped her, cut off her hair and dressed her in a uniform to make her look like a captured Naxalite. Shanti was ill which is why she was in the village– everyone else had run away. In village after village, it is the people who cannot run who are worst hit – the old, the infirm, the nursing women...

We are repeatedly told that the Salwa Judum is a peace movement to counter the Naxalites – but even a very brief visit this summer, resulted in dozens of accounts of villagers killed by the Salwa Judum, all of whom had nothing to do with Naxal violence. The actual numbers are likely to be over a thousand. It is inconceivable that both the state and central governments do not know this. If on the other hand, they see it merely as ‘collateral damage’, let them have the courage to openly declare that they do not believe in the Indian Constitution, which guarantees every citizen the Right to Life.

On the bus to Dantewada, a co-passenger who had been in the police briefly, told me that he left because his life had been miserable. “The force looks attractive from the outside, but it’s not what you think it is. There are constant encounters. In three months last summer we shot 60-70 people on patrol in Bijapur.” “Were all these Naxalites”, I asked? “Of course not”, he said. “None of them were Naxalites. Sometimes an SPO would point out someone and tell us to shoot, sometimes we shot simply because the villager was running away and refused to stop when we called out.” “Did you record these deaths somewhere”, I asked. Now it was his turn to be shocked: “Our jobs would be in trouble if we did. We left the bodies in the jungles. We recorded it as an encounter only if someone was actually wearing a uniform or carrying a weapon.” Perhaps this is what explains an internal Chhattisgarh police report which lists 325 encounters in 2006, 250 Naxalites killed but only 69 bodies recovered. According to the Home Minister of Chhattisgarh, between 2005-2007, only 119 Naxalites were killed. Something doesn’t add up, and there are no prizes for guessing who’s been left out of the count.

What is particularly remarkable in this entire episode is the degree to which the media has cooperated with the government in blanking out the scale of state terror in Chhattisgarh. What the newspapers report is only a total count of deaths and violent attacks, mostly by the Maoists and some killings by the police or paramilitaries of Maoist guerrillas, creating the impression of endless one-sided violence and just desserts. The hundreds of murders of civilians perpetrated by the security forces and Salwa Judum vigilantes do not figure at all. Some of this might be explained by the threats issued by Salwa Judum activists and the paramilitaries to independent observers and journalists, including physical attacks on local journalists, (most recently Salwa Judum activists at Errabor camp attacked the IG Bastar and a Sahara Samay reporter after the July 9 incident). Or it may be due to the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005, under which anyone can be arrested for pointing to state violations. A large part, however, is due to the role of the police as the primary definers of crime news. Villagers cowering in forests do not lodge FIRs against the police, leave alone issue press releases.  The one-sided coverage inevitably sets up a structure of emotion where the gruesome Maoist attacks on SPOs and camps exercise a strong hold on popular imagination, without a parallel revulsion being created towards state violence. Media ‘codes’ operate in other ways too: when 60,000 people rallied under the aegis of the Adivasi Mahasabha in Dantewada, walking 200 km and several days in November 2006, and some 40,000 did it again in June 2007, each time demanding an end to Salwa Judum and dialogue with the Naxalites, it did not make national news. The problem is that they did it peacefully and stories coming out of Naxalite areas must have blood and gore.

The Maoists have said they will engage in dialogue and ceasefire, but the government must take the first step. The government says it is willing to talk (or at least some people in the government sometimes say this) if the Maoists give up violence. This government’s claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence would be far more convincing if the government did not itself support certain kinds of private violence, arming renegade militants (like the Tigers and Cobras in Andhra Pradesh) to kill human rights activists or giving minors license to kill and burn in the name of Salwa Judum. No doubt, one day, there will be peace and perhaps even ‘security’ – but it is not clear to me whom among the indigenous inhabitants will be left to enjoy it.