Excerpt: The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country by Ashutosh Bhardwaj
A powerful work of narrative non-fiction that examines the civil war in Bastar, The Death Script combines literary skill with sharp reportage. This excerpt recalls the kidnapping of Alex Paul Menon, the collector of Sukma by Maoists in 2012
It’s my eighth day in Sukma. We arrived here hours after the abduction. From all over the country. From Raipur, and as far as Odisha, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh. Around fifty journalists and camerapersons. There is little lodging space in this pocket-sized town, so we have all ‘adjusted’ in the guesthouse of the Public Works Department and the newly constructed Officers’ Club. A couple of dhabas and a Rajasthani Bhojanalaya are the only eateries. Broadcasting vans of TV channels are anchored at the collector’s residence. Every 10 minutes, reporters regurgitate breaking news before the camera: the collector was spotted near the Andhra Pradesh border; 2,000 Naxals have surrounded the collector; an unmanned aerial vehicle pierced through the impregnable forest and located his coordinates. Some journalists laugh away the screaming news. We are aware of our frauds.
Carved out of Dantewada this January, Sukma is among the most densely forested districts of India. Its Konta tehsil has some of the thickest woods in a single administrative unit in the country. 2,200 square kilometres of Dandakaranya’s wilderness lie here. More than the combined area of Bombay and Delhi. Konta made Dantewada notorious for Naxal violence. The blood of seventy-five Central Reserve Police Force personnel and one Chhattisgarh policeman was shed in Tadmetla in April 2010 – the most devastating Naxal attack in India, the highest casualties in a single day. The attack on the Errabore relief camp, with over two dozen people burnt alive. A passenger bus burnt to ashes in Chingawaram, with nearly 30 lives gone. Salwa Judum flourished in Konta – a constitutional government handed weapons to its citizenry and pushed them into its fight against the Naxals. It displaced residents of the forest and made them the enemy of their kin. The number of deaths per square kilometre is, perhaps, the highest in Konta. Bordering Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, ‘Killing Capital Konta’ now witnesses the abduction of the collector of Sukma.
We, the journalists, are stuck in the forest. A few enthusiasts have traversed Dandakaranya on motorbike. I spent two nights inside, scoured the dense forests. I could not trace the collector, but managed to meet the insurgents who had abducted him. They brandished AK-47s and asked, ‘Did we have any other option?’
The Red soldiers are apathetic about the young and sensitive bureaucrat, Alex Paul Menon, who admires Che Guevara and has The Motorcycle Diaries on his bookshelf. He is also an asthma patient. His wife carries their baby within her. She keeps asking the journalists about her husband.
For many of us, this was our first assignment reporting an abduction. We struggled to stave off a sense of adventure. In the initial days, an unspeakable excitement followed us. It’s the eighth day today. We are now in the grip of ennui. Nothing is moving. The news cycle is repeating itself: talks going on between the government and the Maoist negotiators in Raipur; medicines for the collector sent to the forest; a rally held in Sukma demanding his release.
‘If he is not released soon, let’s go back.’
This is the refrain of a lot of journalists. Many have already been replaced by another reporter sent by their publications. It is not physical fatigue – the mind has been made captive.
That’s the tragedy of reporting. Plough a barren land daily, rewrite the same incident in new words. Invoke the ghosts of dying news to make it alive again for a while, and convert it into a seemingly fresh report. Find your byline with this corpse every morning. The unbearable depreciation of your voice. Have we also been abducted? Kites severed from their threads, suspended in the sky of Sukma.
‘I have seen innumerable dead bodies in the last ten years … charred bodies, limbs amputated, faces distorted … You guys are new, so you attach great significance to a collector’s abduction. Is there any account of the people who have gone missing in the jungle? How would it affect anyone if one more disappears?’ a journalist from Dantewada, Suresh Mahapatra, asks. ‘Earlier, I would rush to the spot. Now the news of an incident reaches me on the phone, and that is enough for me to draw its image.’
The detachment in his voice is scary. Are we sinking into the marshland this jungle has become? Should we run away before the blazing April sun dries up our veins?
The Maoists abducted the collector of the neighbouring Malkangiri district of Odisha last year. They released him after nine days. The ninth day is hours away, but the forest of Sukma offers no hope. There are few homes in the villages of Bastar that have not seen a killing, or a relative joining either the insurgents or the police in the last thirty years. The insurgents have announced that they will treat the collector as a prisoner of war. Forest dwellers are not so privileged. Maoists often kill them after taking them hostage. The Indian state still doesn’t call it a war, but a mere conflict. Let them indulge in the politics of lexicography. It is a war.
Along with the collector, many of us are also waiting for our release from this wilderness, aware of the tormenting possibility that after returning to the comfort of our cities we will quietly bury the memory of these April nights – sunburnt skin, thirst and mosquitoes, anti-landmine vehicles, soldiers armed with mortars and grenade launchers. We will eventually return to the city, but the bullets will continue to find new targets in the jungle of Sukma.
(28 April 2012. Sukma.)