By Surabhi Singh:
With the announcement of Salwa Judum-2 preparing to launch itself with slain Congress leader Mahendra Karma’s son Chhavindra Karma at the helm of affairs, the political storm brewing in my state, is all set to intensify with cataclysmic velocity. The spate of arrests, surrenders, encounters and murders have all been part of my journey as a journalist in Chhattisgarh, where not a day goes by when the violence reeking of injustice across the forests and hills, does not make its mark on newsprint. In the face of extreme farmer suicides, authoritative hegemony perpetrating inhuman atrocities on tribal rights, and increasing rural migration, the denial of Marxism propagated violent struggle within the state has been a long standing route to power in the state.
Back home, we prepare for the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by stuffing our jungles with an unprecedented swarm of security personnel. The arrest of tribal girls, boys, men, and women continues. The arrests, their advertisements, the corroborated statements, the farmer suicides, suicides of CRPF jawans, the missing land pattas and (trafficked) human beings, the destroyed crops, the dried up wells and ponds, the missing funds, wages, vacant school buildings, Lok Suraaj Abhiyaan are all gawking with authority at us.
For the mainstream media, it has become a double edged sword. The news, as it reaches our desks is almost always loaded with state authoritarian culpability. The stories are reeking of government heroics, their almost unbelievable humanitarian charity, the announcements of the pro stimulus projects, inauguration of schemes, buildings, roads, schools and the unbelievable amount of money allocated for these is almost cathartic in its approach. The entire state machinery is riding high on the streamlined, articulately quoted headlines that come to our doorsteps each morning. So, categorically, there are no farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh, and hardly a few cases of human trafficking. Surrendered Naxals claim rape and voyeurism by their senior cadres, schools and colleges have good results, land pattas and MNREGA wages are paid on time, and tribals are exploited by Maoists.
So what happens when these carefully articulated facts and headlines are challenged by some shocking revelations from other sources, profoundly banking on the first-hand accounts of victims who have been subjected to inhuman atrocities perpetrated by the forces? Where does that leave a journalist with a conscience? Do we get the leverage to express our doubts, without justifiably putting our own legitimacy at risk? How does an ethical journalist keep her job, without crossing over the lines of dictations?
As a media person who has seen a terrifying war building up in the neighbouring district of Bastar for the last decade or so, it has become extremely difficult to stay neutral or simply present the facts as they happen. The truth is, almost every news of arrest, surrender, and encounter killing that reach our desks, is misinterpreted, quoted and unquoted through a volley of legal and political colours. The recent case of the arrest of three minor tribal girls and later their overnight incarceration in Kukanar Thana, followed by them being sent to Rajnandgaon, has resurrected the poignant question of whether the media has a role to play in establishing social order, or whether we are simply observers and chroniclers of a skewed history.
After it was apparent that the Sukma Police had flouted the essential Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, by detaining minors, I contacted Additional Superintendent of Police Santosh Singh. His remarks were, “The girls were picked up from Kormigondi forests where a Naxal police encounter has just ended. And the girls had been preparing food for the Naxals for three days. The girls have confessed to their crimes. Every Naxal is a simple villager after he hides his weapons.”
According to Isha Khandelwal of Legal Aid Group Jagdalpur, “After the family members of the girls tried to meet them outside the Kukanar thana for one whole night, they were denied the rights. They were also beaten black and blue by the personnel, causing grievous injuries to unarmed women.” ASP Santosh Singh added, “It’s a common practice that Naxals send women to gherao (surround) thanas after the arrest of their aides.” In other words, beating women and children is fully justified since they were “sent by Naxals.”
Isha Khandelwal is helping the parents file their bail petitions. Even as this piece comes out, five more tribals have been similarly arrested in Dantewada and booked under Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapons), 149 (unlawful assembly), 323 (wrongful restraint) and 435 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to cause damage) of the IPC and Sections 25 and 27 of the Arms Act. Almost always these Sections are same as if universally drafted for all tribals found wandering or running from the forces in the jungles, the very jungles that are their homes, workplaces, their only abode.
The story runs, the statements reach. There is no weighing scale, no measure of right or wrong. In the midst of these ethical misgivings and official statements, journalists like me, stare at a future hounded with moral dilemma which scathingly reminds us each time, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu.
The question is, do we have the leverage to make the choice?