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Bastar. An abstract name of some strange place where there is Naxalism. And therefore a place to be avoided, to be dreaded and mostly ignored. Not a land of a people who love, have children, earn livelihoods, make houses, sing, dance and celebrate. Not a land of everyday interpersonal conflicts, a tiff with a neighbour, a fight with the spouse. Not a land where children play, tease and bruise their knees. Not a land where people can dream of a future.

Just some dark hinterland, a version of Western World’s Africa right here in India.

I bring Bastar to light. Here.

Bastar is a district in Chhattisgarh. The total area is 4029.98 sq kms. It has a population of 1,411,614 humans (as per Census 2011). 70% of this population are Adivasis belonging to multiple tribes. Chhattisgarh has the 4th largest forest land in India with 44.21% of land cover. Many sections of Bastar are poorly developed with no pucca roads and few medical facilities. Traditionally, Adivasis have depended on forest products for their livelihood. In more recent times, agriculture is a mainstay for many.

There are four main issues that should concern us as regards Bastar: 1) Adivasi rights; 2) Rights of the forests; 3) The future of Bastar; and 4) Who speaks for whom?

Adivasi Rights

Way before Naxalism became active, Adivasis often found themselves on the wrong side of forest officers. These officers had been using their authority to make life difficult for Adivasis to continue with their livelihoods. There was intimidation, rampant corruption and frequent sexual abuse.

After the spread of Naxalism and the subsequent attempts of the State to crush their rise, the many failed strategies like Salwa Judum, the everyday Adivasi has become tainted as either a possible Naxalite or a police sympathizer. S/he is born into this taint, unable to make a choice to be apolitical or non-ideological. Nor even to question State or Naxalism. With state control over media and public opinion outside of Bastar, there is a lurking assumption that every Adivasi is indeed a potential Naxalite. Erased by birth, erased by residence.

What has, therefore, followed is dehumanization of Adivasis by clumping them under a label and reducing them to an object that needs to be controlled. And mansplainers are extremely good in explaining in their daddy-voices on how one can’t trust the locals, how Naxalism has infiltrated the community and that therefore State violence is the only way out.

But Adivasis are citizens of India. They are given the same constitutional rights as all of us. They are protected by the Constitution. And no matter what we opiniate, there cannot be a localised need-based convenient interpretation or occasional reference to law. It basically means they are afforded the same freedoms that we have taken for granted — like right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to constitutional remedies, right to life. They are afforded the same human rights guaranteed by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.

And yet time and again, irrespective of Government, it has been trampled in Bastar. For e.g. when Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher spoke up in support of her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, a fearless talented journalist, she was arrested.  Cases were filed against her that led to arrest, torture and brutal sexual abuse. If it were not for the activists who followed up and publicized the gross human rights violation, we would have never heard of Soni Sori.  The courts have now cleared her of all the cases. She, in turn, has become a go-to-person who gives courage to women who have been exploited and sexually abused to speak up.

The question before us is why was she tortured? Even if for a moment we assumed she was a Naxalite, does that warrant sexual abuse and torture? Why were the Constitutional rights so openly flouted and yet key officers were not called to question?

Not only Soni Sori, but hundreds of other Adivasis have been wrongfully confined, false cases heaped on them and reports of torture have emerged from more than one place.

More recently, Bela Bhatia wrote about rampant rape of Adivasi women and random detention and assault of men in The Pegdapalli Files. This report is worth your time. For her efforts to expose the human rights violation, Bela Bhatia has been threatened and slandered.

Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) that worked for the legal rights of Adivasis have been evicted. Journalists who reported on Constitutional violation of Adivasis rights to life, dignity and property have been silenced – either by intimidation or arrest. As the India Today long story “Life in the Red” shows, journalists are reporting under the shadow of fear.

In absence of activists and journalists, we will never hear the other side of the story, the one beyond what the State machinery wants us to know.

Soni Sori campaign
Soni Sori campaign

Rights of the Forests

Chhattisgarh boasts of some of the densest forest cover in India. It is also rich in minerals, rich in natural resources. But that forest cover is quickly being depleted. Between 2011 and 2013, there is reduction of 19 sq kms (1 sq km= 100 football fields) of forest area in Bastar district alone.

Whereas Forests cannot speak for themselves, we the Citizens should ask why the forests are being cut down indiscriminately. One of the major reasons is mining. The area is rich in minerals, coal and other natural resources. A second reason is movement of Adivasis in giving up traditional forest-dependent livelihoods in favour of clearing land for agriculture which is facilitated by the State. The third reason that is cited is to evict Naxalites from these forests.

Forests hold rich biodiversity. Forests protect landscape from erosion, from multiple natural disasters, and provide oxygen to the world. How is it that under our watch the forests are being cut down and there is not more than a whisper of dissent? Except that of locals and human rights groups like Amnesty India.

Who gains by cutting the forests? The locals or big mining corporations and their corrupt nexus with politicians?

Future of Bastar

Like it or not, Naxalism arose as a counter to the atrocities committed by rich landlords. If you read Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita, you will know several stories of the horrifying crimes committed by the land-owning upper caste groups on landless. A systematic way in which groups of people were kept illiterate, under-developed, in poverty and complete dependence on the land-owning groups.

Like it or not, Naxalism empowered the marginalized, as Bela Bhatia said and I paraphrase, to name the crimes as injustice rather than fate. It is a different thing that Naxalism quickly veered into violence that consumed the very people they were fighting for. It pushed the locals into a state where they could no longer make choices, but remain in that uncertain diplomatic silence on issues.

So if we assume Mission 2016 will succeed and Naxalism will end, the question before is who will benefit from it? Will Adivasis regain rights over the land and rights to dignity? Will they have a voice in their own development and all issues that pertain to their district, to their community? Will they now begin to receive fair and just trials or will they be massacred as possible Naxalites? Will they be empowered to document injustice and successful get constitutionally-guaranteed remedies?

Or will it pave the path for multinational and big mining groups to set up shops, to make rich richer.

This is the question that we should ask. For Bastar deserves (as every land does) a prosperous, healthy and peaceful future. And the constitution guarantees that India is a democracy -- of the people, for the people, by the people. And Bastar is not an abstract name of a land, it is the breath of a people.

Who Speaks for Whom?

Why do activists speak? Is it because they have no other work to do? Are they mere noise makers disturbing the monolithic State narrative of what is happening on ground—the hurrays for the many surrenders of Maoists, the encounters that are supposed to have killed “dreaded” Naxalites, and the legitimacy of Mission 2016. Minus of course the erring journalists, the outspoken researchers, lawyers and activists. The manufacture of a public opinion -- that if you want to end Naxalism, it is given that there will be collaterals of a legitimate war, a.k.a ‘some’ Adivasis will die.

Democracy requires and is maintained by dissent. In a democracy, there can never be a single narrative. There are multiple truths jostling with each other for significance. A process that forces us to not move into easy judgments, but glimpse and empathise with the complex human lives caught in a complex web of power struggles.

And why should it concern those outside Bastar, in other words ‘us’? Don’t we all have own problems in life, our everyday struggles to make ends meet or aspirations to meet a dream? Don’t we have own interpersonal and organization conflicts to deal with?

Why should we? Because as Rahul Pandita had said in a tweet  in context of journalists and so have others, Chhattisgarh is a lab for brutal policies. You succeed in Chhattisgarh, you develop a formula, you set a precedent and then you can implement it in other parts of the country.

Then we must bring down this laboratory and return Bastar to the protection of our Constitution. Now. We have to ensure the protection, freedom of expression and dissent for local activists like Soni Sori and the many outspoken journalists of Bastar so that they, in turn, may stand up for their community.

There are three ways to support people of Bastar:

  1. Search for news on Bastar and please make yourself aware. Share news, talk about it, write about it.
  2. Follow human rights groups like Amnesty India or National Human Rights Commission and support them as needed.
  3. As a citizen, participate in the #OneMillionPostCardCampaign and send an e-card to Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Dr. Raman Singh asking him to bring CBI and Supreme Court to investigate matters that concern people of Bastar and Soni Sori. Let your voice be heard. http://goo.gl/forms/rvTT6CyHbI

Thank you for taking time to read this post fully. Bastar does need you!

Some information is referenced from Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita.

Featured image by Pankaj Oudhia

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It had rung fifty kinds of alarms in my head when I first read the story without even knowing what would follow that Tarun Sehrawat drank what was clearly bad water straight without boiling or disinfecting it in any way.

I have certainly done my share of putting my mouth directly to a stream and drinking in the apline meadows of the Himalaya - like my horses, but I have also boiled water that was supposed to be for drinking in other places. It is about knowing enough to make an educated guess. To a large extent, it is also about developing immunity. I dare say the direct drinking from streams may not be as safe for me now. The story made me think that they were lucky to get away with it - little knowing that they didn't get away with it.

There is no doubt that the issues raised by Tehelka are very important. The general condition of water and sanitation and health facilities in the red corridor (and non red corridor) leave much to be desired. There is a desperate need for medications, clean water and more. This is a known problem for India, and the conditions of Tarun Sehrawat's death made it even more starkly visible.

However, the issues raised by journalists like Rahul Pandita or Aditya Raj Kaul among others are important. And reading Rahul Pandita's account in particular made me realize that his knowledge, if available to others can save lives. Conflict journalism is a drastically different environment for the newcomer with unknown pitfalls that can be avoided if pointed out.

I am not a journalist, but I have done a heck of a lot of traveling in the wilderness and one basic rule is keeping an eye open for what is safe. If people from a village are desperate for medicines, that is a fairly huge clue to not take risks with infection, because where locals cannot cope with local infections, an outsider is guaranteed to be hit worse - and it can be avoided. But I learned that. I certainly didn't think to look for such clues when I began.

I am astonished that the journalists were not vaccinated, or on anti-malarials, did not carry enough water purification resources, did not bail out on running out of water, did not take basic precautions with contaminated water, did not have effective shelter from the elements or mosquitoes, did not begin preventative measures on return, did not take initial illness seriously, initial doctors failed to raise the alarm... it is a chain of failures. Not only did no one think to stress safety, but no one connected the dots when BOTH reporters fell ill after a trip into a high risk area. It is less about negligence and more about the total absence of a protocol that factors in the risks. And they may be well publicized, but they are not alone, as Rahul Pandita showed.

It is important that there are basic guidelines - maybe as a part of journalism training, or a freely available "handbook" for people to refer - it is a project worth taking up.

There is a certain thing about beginners in high adventure pursuits - which I suppose conflict journalism definitely is. They thirst for challenge. This is natural and creates some amount of inclination for recklessness by creating a desire to take on problems that can be avoided. Many find that sense of achievement in wearing a thin shirt at high altitude and low temps. It takes a dialogue to cut through the excitement of an early challenge to help people see that the more problems they can avoid, the more meaningful adventures they will end up negotiating.

The initial "rough and ready" maturing into a pride in a calibrated response to the challenge was a deliberate promotion of safety standards by senior climbers guiding us. The de-haloing of recklessness is something I remember still. "No Vidyut, a good climber isn't one with scarred forearms and scraped knees, but one with no marks on them at all, because he climbs well" From being rough and tough, to understanding the insignificance of man in the environment and developing accurate estimates of vulnerability and capacity. From trying to conquer the environment to navigating it with grace, strength and humility.

Lost track of how much information came up over the years. I have no clue how many people contributed to me being alive and well today. From safety and first-aid lectures by doctor-climbers to technical safety and rescue workshops, general grapevine on new cautions learned from recent accidents... something I would have thought impossible in our unorganized sport. Yet, seniors simply started doing it, and it happened. It allowed us to expand horizons faster and in turn pass on the culture to those who followed.

There are many random factors of risk and is more a problem of lack of method than deliberate neglect. So many factors need the creation of a culture of safety. They are not one time instructions. To me, this indicates a clear need for safety norms to be established and made available as a resource.