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Guns, Gags and Lies in a War that No One Sees

Javed Iqbal

Aaj kal bandook se zaada khatra laptop mein hai. (In today's world, the laptop is a lot more dangerous than the gun)," the thaanedaar of Dornapal camp in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district says, checking my bags on one of my visits to the war zone. He knows the war against the Maoists is not being fought by guns alone. The greatest weapon, which both sides utilise well, is silence and misinformation. And what if there's no information or just selected bits released now and then?

Maybe that explains how a virtual civil war in the heart of the country got so little coverage for more than four years. Salwa Judum started around 2005. More than 640 villages (official figures) were forcibly emptied out. There were numerous encounters, and an infant was shot dead by the CRPF in the village of Cherpal. People were arbitrarily arrested and left in jail without lawyers. All this produced little ferment. But when the police camp of Ranibodli was attacked and 55 policemen were killed, that was widely reported. As was the attack on the Salwa Judum camp of Errabore, by the Maoists.

Maoist atrocities hit the wire services with no trouble at all, and like a phantom their presence was acknowledged, yet they could be mostly ignored as a threat. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have called the Maoists, 'the single biggest internal security challenge' in 2006, but apart from that, what did he say in three years until Operation Green Hunt?

In January 2009 when I went to Bijapur, people said: "When there's an attack in your village (Mumbai) it's international news, but there's an attack here every day, yet no one reports anything." Barring occasional visits from the international press and a few mainstream publications, the issue only got mainstream attention after Operation Green Hunt was surreptitiously declared by the Home Ministry, and then condemned as a media creation. By November, the local administration was informing local  reporters and social workers to cease working in the jungles as Operation Green Hunt was taking place.  Police officials told a press conference in Jagdalpur during the commencement of Green Hunt that if anyone was shot in the crossfire, they shouldn't be held  accountable. Many reporters were personally threatened or 'requested' to keep out of the jungle.

"People come to us with problems, and yet we're not allowed to talk to them," said N R K Pillai, a veteran journalist of Chattisgarh's Working Journalists Union. "It is our job to verify, yet who goes in here? The police are telling our journalists that you get your story from the IB, you get your story from the police station, why do you want to go inside the jungle?"

Over the last four years, many independent witnesses and reporters who  reported state atrocities or Salwa Judum crimes were beaten, harassed and some even imprisoned. With Green Hunt the environment is far worse as independent fact-finding teams are often stopped, sent back, or in the case of Narayanpatna and Lalgarh, attacked. Activists are treated to orchestrated Salwa Judum protest rallies and national reporters are prevented from living in the only hotels in Dantewada and risk the life of every local source and contact by simply talking to them.

Money of course, makes silence easier. I was with a reporter from a Hindi daily, printed out of Raipur, whom I accompanied to the Essar complex at Kirandool, to collect his two cheques of Rs 5,000 as advertising revenue. Rural reporters need to collect their own advertisements to earn a living and therefore will not risk their lives for a story where there is no money. In return, he had to omit all mention of Essar Steel in his reports. So when an estimated two lakh villagers hit the streets of Dantewada in 2007, screaming "Essar Essar hai hai." or "Mahendra Karma chor hai," he didn't write a word.

Reporters on the Andhra Pradesh-Chhattisgarh border have a different way of working. They say the camp officers at Dornapal, Errabore and Konta have been instructed not to allow any reporters from Andhra Pradesh into Chhattisgarh.

They never travel through Dornapal, Errabore or Konta - they go straight through the jungle. And interestingly, there hasn't been a single incident of violence around the Chhattisgarh-Andhra border even as the violence has got worse further north - out of reach of the free, independent, local press.

(Express Buzz, 8th February 2010)