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You're a Maoist in Bastar if you dare to oppose the State

Parakram Rautela
Parakram RautelaApr 07, 2016 | 15:26

You're a Maoist in Bastar if you dare to oppose the State

I’m still somewhat hazy on how I got there but a few months after the “election that changed India” (pun intended), I found myself in Jagdalpur, the district headquarters of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The official version – what I told people – was that I was going to do freelance reporting from the region for six months. Make sense of the Maoist problem. For, you see, I wanted to spend as much time as I could “on the ground, in the field” rather than stuck in an armchair in front of a computer screen.

More privately, inside the domains of my head, I joked: “Do I have a plan? Yes. Do I have a clue? No.”

Which was about right, for the laughter dried up fairly quickly after I reached Jagdalpur.

The inspector general of police, the top cop in the Bastar range, had called a press conference at his residence to announce the surrender of three alleged Naxalites. Things began peaceably enough.

Police officers sat on chairs on a dais assembled on the lawn of the IG’s residence, the Naxals – one man and two women – stood, and local print and TV journalists sat on chairs on the lawn and listened to the IG as he listed out the reasons, he thought, there had been a sudden and massive spike in the number of Naxal surrenders since the Narendra Modi government had come to power in Delhi and he himself had shuffled into town, and how the security forces had declared an all out war on the Maoists.

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Everybody not singing paeans to the security forces has been harassed. 

After the IG had his say, the floor was opened up to questions and the local journalists dutifully lobbed a few easy questions at the cops. Nobody seemed to be very interested in talking to the alleged Naxals, or asking them why they had surrendered.

I was. So, turning to the man, I introduced myself as a freelance reporter from Delhi and asked him: “Will you please tell us in your own words how long you were with the Maoist movement, what you did for them, and finally, why you left?”

Before he could answer, the IG pounced on me: “How dare you talk to him like that!” he said at the top of his voice. “You come here with your fancy education and think you can talk to a simple tribal man like that. Look at him, he’s trembling.” He then proceeded to tear into me for a good few minutes, the gist of his outburst being that people like me came from “outside” and made things difficult for people like him.

The press conference broke up and no further questions were entertained. Not even later when, over tea and pakoras, I asked the IG what he might have meant when he said he was declaring all out war on the Maoists.

And, for the record, I did not think the alleged Naxal was trembling. I just thought it made common sense to corroborate what the police were claiming with what the (alleged) Naxals themselves thought. Things got even more irksome after the press conference.

A local gentleman walked up to me and said it would be better if I hung around with the local journalists first, getting the lay of the land, before I asked any questions of my own. I said I had but that I would be happy to also talk to him.

What was his phone number? He refused to give it.

What was his name and whom did he work for? He refused to say.

Instead he pointed to my earrings (I wear them) and said that if I wore those, then perhaps I should start wearing a nose ring too. That was about as much as I could take in a day, and I got up from my chair. When he saw that I was a good foot taller than him, he quickly adopted a friendlier tone.

I asked about him later and the local journalists whom I had got in touch with on arriving at Jagdalpur, asking for help, ironically enough, with the lay of the land, assured me that he was neither a journalist nor a cop. And that he was probably a local thug. What such a person was doing at a press conference called by the IG can only be guessed.

But it’s the sort of thing that you get used to. As you do to the fact that if you’re an outsider, you’ll be looked at with suspicion. In other words, you yourself must be a Maoist. Otherwise, why else would you be here? Sometimes that can have hilarious consequences. Like when a German filmmaker went to visit the tribal activist and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Soni Sori, and the local newspapers reported the following morning that foreign Maoists had been to see her.

Less funnily, it has meant that just about everybody not singing paeans to the local police has been harassed or hounded out of Bastar. In just the last few weeks, this has included the women lawyers of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG); sociologist Bela Bhatia who had drawn “outside” attention to cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the security forces; Malini Subramaniam, who had written for the website Scroll; and a local journalist who had done no more than take a potshot at a high-ranking cop on a Whats App group. It is also why Bastar today is being described as a media black hole.

The power of the police tends to get heightened in a conflict zone (which Bastar is). And when they refuse to allow outside attention, things can go horribly wrong. But the police don’t quite see it that way, instead follows a more divisive dictum.

A few weeks after that infamous press conference, I accompanied two of the JagLAG lawyers and an intern working with them to a social event. It was the sort of stilted evening get-together that can be caused by the presence of government officers, and at some point in the evening we found ourselves sitting with the district collector and other officials.

Stiff introductions were made with the district collector going rapidly from disbelief – he couldn’t understand why smart young lawyers would want to start their careers providing legal aid in Bastar – to saying that if providing legal aid was what they were doing, then he knew a lot of people he could send to them for help.

The police officer sitting next to him however was more direct. “Are you with us, or are you against us?” he asked the lawyers.

I felt I had to intervene. The lawyers and the intern were, after all, quite young - 23 to 25-years-old - and I suddenly felt protective of them. I muttered something on the lines of none of us were there to take sides and graciously the officer didn’t push it any further.

Over time, I grew to like that officer (we exchanged numbers that evening; he turned out not to be trigger-happy) but think closely about his words. What he was, in effect, saying – unthinkingly, almost out of the force of habit – was that if you are not with us, then that must mean that you are against us.

That you have to choose. That there is no middle ground.

Unfortunately, however, when you begin to choose, the truth begins to get blurred.

Talking to a senior Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officer, we veered around to discussing Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar’s book on Bastar.

“She’s a Maoist,” he said.

"Why?" I asked.

“It seems like it,” he said. “Because of the way she talks.”

That’s it. No proof required, just the way she talks.

Talking to a senior officer at the police headquarters in Raipur about Soni Sori, I came across the same thing.

“Just because she’s been acquitted in six of the seven cases filed against her, doesn’t mean she’s not guilty of those crimes,” he told me.

When, er, actually that’s exactly what it does.

Last updated: April 14, 2016 | 11:17
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