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The Truth Behind ‘Maoist Killings’ In Bastar That Media Doesn’t Tell You

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By Nandini Sundar:

As with roads, trees, schools and electoral booths – all of which have become sites of conflict – the war ranges back and forth across the terrain of media coverage: more news, less news, propaganda. The ‘truth’, whatever it is, is an object of war.

The police often inflate figures of Naxalite losses, or try to pass off killings of villagers as Naxalites to reduce the morale of the rebels. For instance, in May 2006, the CRPF commander leading the operation clearly told the ICI that only one woman Naxalite had been killed; the rest had fled. We saw the body they brought to Dornapal camp. But the IG’s press release claimed that three Naxalites (one woman and two men) had been killed, and the Naxalites had dragged the other two bodies away. Surrender figures are similarly inflated as part of a psychological war to bring down Maoist morale. Even though the local media know that the spate of surrenders from 2014 onwards is coerced, they are obliged to carry the police press releases faithfully. The national media have been more openly sceptical on the surrenders issue, but to little effect.

Between 2012 and 2015, there have been brief flares of media interest whenever the Maoists have mounted a major operation – like the kidnapping of the Collector of Sukma, Alex Menon, in 2012 or the killing of Mahendra Karma and other Congress leaders in  2013 – but these have soon died out. There appears to be a general acceptance that this will be a long-drawn-out war, with ‘collateral damage’ among civilians. Among concerned citizens too, there is a dulling of senses, with repeated exposure to horrors. Even front-page news of rapes by the security forces appears to make no difference to the government. The media ownership scene also changed by 2014, with takeovers by corporate houses close to the new BJP government.

In the Iraq war, between 2003 and 2007, the US media coverage of bad news declined as its novelty value wore off and particular attacks or casualties were reported as discrete, unconnected events. The US administration’s claim to be succeeding, or at least the idea that there was light at the end of the tunnel, received far greater prominence.

Any attempt to suggest that the policy was not working was met with stern warnings of the dangers if the US did not stay the course. Thus an ‘accountability gap’ came into existence. A similar accountability gap is visible when it comes to the Maoist conflict. Th e media rarely questions the government on its overall policy, even when home ministers like P. Chidambaram and Rajnath Singh announce every four years that the Maoists will be finished in the ‘next two or three years’. They even report, without seeing any contradictions, these comments regarding an imminent finish together with scare scenarios like thgenerat relayed by G.K. Pillai, a former home secretary, who talked of the prospect of a Maoist takeover of India by 2050.

Unlike the US war on Iraq, here those killed on either side are citizens of India, for whose security the government is responsible. However, the targeted killings or rapes of ordinary adivasis by the security forces, if exposed, are rarely, if ever, attended by direct calls upon the home minister to condemn or compensate for each such incident. This is quite different from the manner in which television anchors make human rights activists answerable for every action of the Maoists. This easily summons to mind Herman and Chomsky’s distinction between ‘worthy and unworthy victims’ as part of what they call the media ‘propaganda model’. While news coverage of the worthy is replete with detail, evokes indignation and shock, and invites a follow-up, unworthy victims get limited news space and are referred to in generic terms; there is also little attempt to fix responsibility or trace culpability to the top echelons of the establishment.

In 2016, with several journalists arrested, and attacks on middle class activists, media interest in Bastar has revived again, especially among young reporters. The proliferation of Internet-based media sites like The Wire and Scroll has certainly helped to ensure that some human rights violations are covered, as has the growth of social media. On the other hand, the BJP, the RSS and the security establishment have been equally, if not more, successful in mobilizing both the mainstream as well as social media for counter-insurgency, including to malign anyone critical of the government.

Since 2014 I have been on a Bastar Whatsapp group run jointly by police and journalists. Whenever the police post photos of bullet-riddled bloody bodies of alleged Maoists allegedly killed in an ‘encounter’, some journalists punch victory signs. In 2016, these same journalists faithfully reproduced in their newspapers and channels what they knew was a police-fabricated complaint, ostensibly from villages in Darbha block, claiming that a group of researchers of which I was a part had threatened the villagers with Maoist retaliation if they supported the police. This was nationally relayed by the rabidly rightwing Zee channel, owned by Subhash Chandra, an MP backed by the BJP.

Note: Excerpted with permission from Juggernaut Books from “The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar” by Nandini Sundar. Available in bookstores and on the Juggernaut app.

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Image source: Hindustan Times/Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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