There was News of this Big Encounter

It’s not that this is very important. Or that I want to cover just this story. But it’s your job as a journalist to cover the stories of the place you’re in. There was Maoism, so I wrote about Maoism. I also wrote about government corruption. If there’s corruption, you wrote about corruption. If there’s conflict you wrote about conflict.

When I was young, there were no jobs—none. Not a single one. One day I got called at home by the editor of a local newspaper. He said, “Anil, what are you doing these days? I’m not hearing good things.” I said, “I’m doing nothing.” So he said, “You come meet with me.” I met him, and he said, “You become a reporter, you can start work here tomorrow.” Turns out that some people told him that I write well, that I was very educated, unemployed and busy getting ruined.

I asked him how much will I get paid. He said, “You come, I’ll pay you 2,000 rupees. Then later we’ll see.” I had no work and a scooter. So, I thought, at least I can pay for the scooter petrol. So I went.

Initially I started as the junior but, by the end of the week, I was in charge. The other, older journalists realised they weren’t better than me. They can’t work faster than me. They can’t design as well as me. And they didn’t have as many stories as I did. They didn’t have as many contacts and they couldn’t do as good interviews.

Overall though, there is no good journalism here. The basic salary has no meaning. And yet people make a ton of money. How? People make money through ads. Ads in the sense that, whilst there are no factories or shops to advertise here, all ads are political, for different events or visits, that sort of thing. That is “stories” that flatter politicians, local or otherwise.

As I say, there is no good journalism here: journalism isn’t fair. I never wanted to be a journalist. This is a rotten job.

But there is plenty of scope for news in Chattisgarh. In Bastar, there’s a lot of news. And just as much in Raipur. There’s Naxalim. There are tribals. There’s a lot of culture. Dussehra. Lots of strange crimes. Murders over five or two rupees. Seriously! This happens. Because, well, the tribals drink a lot, and these kinds of crimes happen only after drinking. That’s a big problem. And, because it’s a tribal area, there’s no direct access to the government anywhere. And, that equals corruption. Everyone is corrupt. There’s no virtue, no ethics. Whoever makes more money, gets more respect. If a man doesn’t have money, he’s a fucker. If he has money, he has respect. Put all this together, and you have a lot of news. Wherever there’s a lot of corruption, there’s no shortage of news, that’s for sure.

Big money and big cars

Even the average Bastar person doesn’t know. Ordinary civilian don’t know. Even the journalists don’t know what’s going on, because they print the police’s version of the story. They aren’t going into the jungle to find out what is really going on. What the tribals who are supporting the Naxals are thinking, no one knows that.

When I go to the village and stay overnight, the villagers tell me, “Don’t worry, just sleep here.” There are people keeping watch all around. Why do they have guards keeping watch? For the police force. Because the police is their enemy. If the force comes in, they’ll be killed. So they don’t even sleep in their own houses. They go and sleep in the forests. They’ve picked out caves where they can sleep. They come back in the mornings. Because at night the force might come, burn down the village, rape women and kill everyone. That’s what they think. But no one is interested in finding out what they are thinking.

At the end of the day, it’s their land, it’s their forests, they are the locals, aborigines, but no one is thinking about them. Everyone is thinking that these policemen, who’ve come from outside, the policemen who make big money, the reporters who are corrupt, and who are also making big money and driving big cars, people are thinking these guys are honest, and the aboriginals, the guerrillas are all criminals. This is the problem.

The thinking now is that every tribal in the forest is a guerrilla, when the guerrillas kill the tribals too. Nobody knows this issue. Nobody. Reporters don’t know this, editors don’t know this. And if I say these things in my office, I’ll be labelled a liar and everyone will turn against me. They’ll call me a Maoist.

People think that the guerrillas are bloodthirsty. Your average person doesn’t know the difference between a Maoist guerrilla and a terrorist. To them, a guerrilla is a terrorist. People don’t understand them – and they are corrupt, too. They take bribes. They’re involved in extortion. They’re doing the same things. Now there’s so much dirt in their movement, that there are bound to be problems there too.

There was a lot of social injustice here. And the Maoist movement that arose in Bengal, then spread into Warangal, into Telengana and then here. This was a good place for those guys to hide out. They came here and gave voice to the injustices that were happening in these forgotten areas. You see, the tribals are good at revolting: they fought against the British and now they are fighting against the government, against corporates. It’s the same issues: land and freedom.

By coming here, they acted as a galvanising force. They’ve created a local militia who’re fighting against the state and the police.

Where’s the war?

There is no war. It’s an underreported socio-economic injustice.

I remember at the height of the Salwa Judum [government anti-insurgency campaign that created a militia consisting of surrendered or captured guerrillas, known as Special Police Officers] taking some foreign journalists to the big Salwa Judum camp in Bhairavgarh. And they’d also burned down homes in villages around Bhairavgarh. There was a group of us: an American, a girl from Switzerland, one from China and a photographer who had a big bag with some 50 lenses he carried around with him all the time.

On our way back, we stopped for tea at a roadside stall and whilst we were standing there a boy came over and called us into this big high school playground. And there, just sitting there, was the Police Superintendent with some other officials. Now, we had permission to be there but, nonetheless, they started giving us a hard time, asking for the foreigners' passports, etc. This created quite a stir and when we got back into town we were called to see the District Collector [Senior District Magistrate]. They started asking him, “Is this a war? Do you know about Geneva Convention?” The Police Superintendent was there too. He was so scared, he was sweating.

We were there for more than an hour and, all the while, the photographer kept taking pictures. Sometimes from the table, sometimes lying down on the ground. They were scared. The officers ask me to ask them to let them off the hook. I told the foreign journalists: “You know you guys have to leave, I have to live here.” So that was a lot of fun. The District Collector said, “No it’s not a war.” He didn’t say that this was a civil war because then they’d start grilling him further about the Geneva Convention.

Bring me a girl, cut a chicken

See the tribals here, they are aboriginals: people of the land. They are given no provision, no help; the government even closed the schools. What the world outside is like, what do they know? They belong to the jungle. The fact that they live in the jungle, every man here takes advantage of that.

For instance, the officials used to go into the villages and demand alcohol. They’d get drunk and act crazy. They’d say, “Ok, who wants what done? Bring your papers, I’ll sign them.” Once he signed, he’d say, “bring me a girl, cut a chicken.” He’d do everything, and then fall asleep there. Before that, he’d tell them where he needed to go next, then he’d fall asleep. Then four villagers would carry him on the bed and drop him off at the next village. This is how it was.

The tribals consider the jungle their own and they can cut as much wood as they want. When they would do this, the forest department would sue them. The constitution is meant to enshrine their rights to this land but, nonetheless, they would sue them. Poor people, with little of anything except the land and what grows there.

You put all this together and you get a lot of anger and resentment. So when the Maoists came, they exploited that. They attacked the forest department guys first. They burnt offices. If labourers didn’t get paid, they made sure those payments were made. So because of this, the Adivasis started listening to the Maoists. They called them the “Gufa Police” [Cave Police], because they lived in caves.

This is the story that cost me my job

Soni Sori has become an icon. But there were people who’ve faced worse and no one knows their names. There are thousands of women who’re behind bars.

Rape is incredibly common. There’s no count of how many women have been raped. We did a rape story a while back. Ten girls had been raped and we managed to track down three or four of them, hiding out in the jungle. They were scared to return home, in fear that the police would return and rape them again in their village.

This is the story that cost me my job. I filed the story and it didn’t run.

It happens like this. The government send in forces to the remote areas to clear the areas of Maoists. These guys are young, poor in education, poor in training, poor in their pocket and damn scared. Panic is never far away. They open fire indiscriminately, drink, and when they do actually raid a village they rape the women they find there.

When you mention the police in these villages, the villagers will leave and go into the forest to hide. All over south Bastar. All the villages in the area. If they find someone, they’ll either rape or murder them. Then they’ll be caught, and they’ll say the Maoists fired on them, but they weren’t able to catch one.

Sometimes they’ll find a body, dress it in a uniform if they have to, and say, “This is a big Maoist guy, there’s a 10,000 Rupees reward on him/her,” and it’ll make big front page story. “Brave policemen caught a dangerous Naxal woman.”

A lawyer recently told me the story of a young boy – 14 or 15 years old – who was arrested for an incident that happened the year before when five policeman died. He was arrested as a 30-year-old man. When you arrest a juvenile you can’t send him to jail but they sent him to jail because they said he was a 30-year-old. He doesn’t look older than 15-16 or 18, but still, he can’t look 30. His father’s name was something else on the charges sheet, his age was something else and one wonders – how do you know it’s this guy? These names are so common. There are more than ten people with the same name in a village. So how do you even know, considering this guy doesn’t look 30?

It is just fear and intimidation. To the system, all tribals are guerillas. Whilst bail is compulsory in juvenile cases, it took them three months to decide. They rejected the request, stating that they think his area is highly sensitive and Maoist prone. So it is better for him if he stays in jail and he studies as it’s more secure and that’s why his bail should not be granted. Can you believe it? Why not put all the kids in this area in jail because they will get better education in jail? Why is it his fucking problem if the government doesn’t provide education in his village? That is not his problem: it is your problem.

Nothing more than a power game among big powerful people

What’s development? Say they build a road. Who is that road for? It’s good for us. We use the roads. But if Raipur is getting new roads, if new buildings are built, it doesn’t really help the people we’re talking about. Because they don’t want roads. They want ownership over the land and the forests. They want ownership over the water.

They don’t want government interference. That’s what they want. A while back, the government closed down 3,000 schools, which had been started after the Right to Education Act. There was a school in every village. The government closed these schools. Because they feel these schools are useless. Development has to include progress in health, education, in the provision of utilities – water and electricity – but that’s not happening.

The development that is happening is based on contracts and profit. Infrastructure to suit the companies that want to exploit the land; and to maintain a system of corruption and patronage. If they spend 5 crore on building roads, then they can get 2 crore for themselves. That’s the kind of development that’s happening here.

It’s like this. People think that if there is industrialisation, there will be jobs, and they will have work. In reality, the people who need jobs, don’t get them.

There there are lots of coal mines stretching across the land of the Adivasis. I can see that the companies for whom those lands have been taken aren’t giving jobs to the tribals. The jobs are going to people from outside, to the daily wage labourers who are travelling in from other states. These are the ones who can afford to get jobs, to pay the bribes required to get the job in the first place.

People are protesting, people are going on hunger strikes because they aren’t getting jobs. This notion that if there are factories then people will get jobs, is not true. The government continues to say, “We’ll open a mine here so people will get work.

They have no interest in using the land in a way that really benefits local people. They won’t do that. They will dig up a mountain and destroy the forests because industrialists will give them big commissions to do so. This is nothing more than a power game among big powerful people.

Whilst this is an old issue, it is getting worse. More rampant. In Odisha there is a reservoir that was build in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The land was taken from the aboriginals, and it now powers five hydro electric plants. And the aboriginals, they lost everything: lost their land, their water and they have no electricity.

Now they want to create a steel corridor. This means vacating more tribal people and the current government thinks we can thrash people, suppress them, kill them, whatever it takes to get the land vacated. So they’ve sent a new police commander for this, and no matter what we publish about him, nothing will happen to him. He’s killing people everywhere. He’s just labeling people as Maoists and killing them. Killing them or locking them up. Whoever he finds, any tribal from any place, just kill them. So the situation has become more severe since the new government came to power. It hasn’t ended: it has escalated.

Things are not always what they seem

Once the police claimed there was an encounter and a Maoist was killed. In Bhansi they had a dead body of the man lying on the ground outside the police station. They said there was firing and he was shot. He had a bullet in his chest. But the man was in uniform, and there were no bullet marks in the uniform. Only in his chest. So this is wrong. They killed him and then put the uniform on him.

Another time, there was news of this big encounter. We jumped on our motorbikes and went to the police station. I knew everyone there and they all knew me, as I was there almost every day. That day we passed a big police lorry and many other police vehicles. And when we arrived, they acted like they had never seen me before. They just yelled for us to get out of there. At that moment, the vehicles we had passed earlier arrived at the station and passed through the gates.

We went and sat down at a tea stall nearby. We sat there, drinking tea. After 10-15 minutes a soldier came to call us back to the station. They’d put a big table out in the compound. There were chairs all around. There were dry fruits, bananas, coffee, tea. It was as though they were having a press conference. We sat down and they started telling us about a Maoist camp, where they had captured this big Maoist. After telling us this, we asked to meet him. They said: “Why would you want to meet him? There’s no point in meeting him." But we insisted. When we wouldn’t back down, they kept us occupied there for 15-20 minutes, then they said, “Ok, you can meet him.”

This guy was drunk, he was about 50-55 years old, and he was in worse condition than your average daily labourer. He was an old man and in bad shape. He wore a uniform, but the shirt wasn’t of his size, his hat didn’t fit him, and his trousers were too big. Why would a person wear trousers that are two metres longer than his legs? This was complete nonsense! One look at his uniform and you could tell they’d just put it on him. These are the encounters that happen here. There are many incidents like this. I won’t be able to tell you them all in a day.

The independence is a lie

It’s very difficult to end this. As long as there is social injustice, this will go on. The tribes in Bastar have a history of revolt. They fought against the British and they are fighting still. So this won’t end. Even if the Maoists are weakened for a while, they will eventually stand up again and fight. Even if the Maoists go away, there’s been so much training of people, the fight will continue in one way or another.

What the Maoists think about the government is true. Because the government is corrupt. It’s like they say: “This independence is a lie.” The common man can’t go up to the police. The liberty we should have, we don’t have, nowhere in India. Our democracy isn’t functioning. It’s a system that continues to benefit only the rich and the powerful.

So what they think is right. But what they say about being able to fight the government is also a lie. They can’t fight or, at least, they can’t win.

In a way, they’ve created a militia and they too are involved in extortion. They’re doing their own business. Then the public thinks the Maoists are terrorists and that’s not true. Because they’re not terrorists. If you go to them, they won’t kill you. If you’re in trouble, they will even help you. So, what the people think isn’t right.

Now the Maoists also think that, a city dweller who comes here and meets them will tell the police who they are. That’s wrong too. It’s not necessarily the case that if someone meets the police it is because they are going to tell something against you. There is paranoia, on both sides, that’s the problem.

The Maoists won’t tell you and the police always lie

Even if you cover this honestly, there are so many things you don’t know. The Maoists won’t tell you about them and the police always lie. The villagers are too scared to tell you anything. So, how well can you really cover this?

Once, the police had caught this so-called Maoist. Say they caught him on a Sunday. These aren’t exact dates. The story came to us that they’d captured him on the second and kept him in some police station. On the sixth, we learned that he had died in some other police station many miles away. So we went to investigate. They’re supposed to take him to court within 24 hours. So we asked the police why, if they had arrested him on the second, why, if they had arrested him on the second, hadn’t they taken him to the court by the sixth? They claimed he had escaped and had been recaptured. We probed further, asking them how had he managed to get so far? How did he manage to break his handcuffs and slip away in the night? They had no answers. They were lying the whole way through. They just murdered him, brutally.

You have to end up speculating. If the Maoist were surrounded from this end, then the police must have fired from this direction; and, if the cross firing happened here, then the bullets must have gone this way.

No one is going to tell you the reality, the truth. You have to make your own guess.

Text based upon an interview conducted by Poulomi Basu with journalist Anil Mishra.