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Truth of Bastar will finally be told

A fallout of the offensive against Maoists: remote lands will open up. Neelesh Misra reports.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2009 00:39 IST
Neelesh Misra

In a moment of rare frankness, a senior Indian Administrative Service official said the unspeakable about a poster of Naxalites in the northern Garhchiroli region, making 40 demands from the government.

“Would you believe it? I agreed with 39 out of the 40,” he said. “I just disagreed with one: armed rebellion.”

For the first time, spearheaded by Home Minister P. Chidambaram, the government seems to be recalibrating its thinking on those lines on the 42-year-old Naxalite insurgency, as it prepares a joint national push — thousands of new troops being dispatched to states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, among the worst affected by rebel violence.

It seems ready to deal with the truth.

The effect could be a bit like what happened in the Andaman and Nicobar islands following the disastrous 2004 Asian tsunami. Faraway lands, where there was no accountability for government officials, were suddenly swarming with journalists, aid groups and officials, bringing in an unprecedented level of national attention and scrutiny.

“I am so glad that finally journalists from Delhi are coming to Bastar,” said Suresh Mahapatra, editor of the Dantewada-based newspaper Bastar Impact. “For a quarter century, after the start of the Naxalite movement here, it has been totally ignored. Now the issues here, and the truth, will be portrayed in a correct way.”

That could be a battle as difficult in this mineral-rich heart of India as the campaign against Naxalites raging in an impossible terrain, in impossible conditions. Because the first casualty in insurgency land was the death of a sense of proportion.

Here is the truth of Bastar: this is not Kashmir. Indeed, paramilitary soldiers and policemen have carried out excesses, and Maoists have regularly done grisly killings. But Chhattisgarh is not a human rights gutter, unlike the blood soaked prism many often view it through. That is not the most important issue in this conflict.

The real human rights violations in this remote region are crushing poverty, the impossible geography, and an oppressive lack of governance – all of which have contributed to the spiralling of the rebel movement.

And the police are not operating in some la-la-land.

“A few days ago I went to a police station called Jagarguda, 40 km as the crow flies. But there is no road, I walked 59 km over two days to reach there from the nearest roadhead,” said Amaresh Mishra, superintendent of police in the rebel hub of Dantewada.

When police have to ferry rations to the Jagarguda police station once every three months, it involves the movement of a 1,000-member caravan that involves a security detail, a tractor full of sand, another with crushed stones, bomb disposal experts, sniffer dogs, cooks. Ambushes are common. Land mines are found frequently — mostly more than 100 km in weight, which no land mine-protected vehicle can survive.

“That’s how we deliver food to our men in Jagarguda,” Mishra said.

On March 14, 2007, Naxalites raided a police camp at Ranibodli village and killed and mutilated 55 policemen in retaliation against the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum movement.

“It was a three-column news item in newspapers, and a ticker ran at the bottom of the TV screen for a few hours,” a senior police officer said in Raipur, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is not a part of India Shining. A person dying in Bombay in an accident gets more publicity.”

Even former Home Minister Shivraj Patil continued to dismiss as only a police problem in certain police station areas of the country.

The government shrugged off the collapse of governance, the year-after-year non-use of development funds. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s stinging reports on insurgency-affected states were ignored by the legislature. Authorities rejected any human rights violations at all by security forces, though several had indeed taken place, according to the National Human Rights Commission.

“Last year, one day at 4 a.m., CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) ordered everyone out and to one side. Then something happened, and there was shooting. A woman and a small child died,” said Nakka Bhima, a 60-year-old labourer in Cherpal village.

“Once they took away a boy called Punen Ram, he was made to wear a green dress like Naxalites, and they were about to kill him. Somehow they backed off.”

Then, there are the activists, who slam the security forces but look the other way when Maoist rebels indulge in widespread violence — they hack the heads of police and civilians, shoot people in the head in execution-style point-blank killings and hack and mutilate bodies.

“The Naxalites cut the heads of eight people right before my eyes — I was hiding there, there in that small ditch,” farmer Kannam S Raj, 45, said, pointing towards a clearing in the rural hub of Gangalur in the southern Bijapur district. “They killed one here. They hacked two people here. They killed two here.”

Then Raj turns to his friend and whispers about the reporter: “He is a big officer from Delhi. They have started coming to Bastar now.”