Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trapped between Naxals and Salva Judum

Trapped between Naxals and Salva Judum

For Kamlesh Paikra, a tribal journalist from Bastar, it is like being between a rock and a hard place. Shivam Vij spoke to him

AP Photo

Reporting the truth about Naxalites had never earned Kamlesh any love from the Naxals: they called him reactionary and asked Naxalite leaders not to speak to him. There were threats against him

On a November day in 2005, headmaster Tarkeshwar Singh was teaching in a school in Cherpal village near Bijapur in Chhattisgarh. A few Salva Judum leaders, accompanied by police, entered the classroom and told him that he was being arrested. He was taken to the Bijapur police station and told that his crime was to have Naxalite literature and red uniforms at his home, besides firing a gun in a public place. He was charged with criminal conspiracy. But a CRPF commander said the recovery of red literature and uniforms is not possible because he (the CRPF personnel) lived with Singh’s younger brother, Kamlesh Paikra. The CRPF commander was transferred to Delhi.

Two local traders then approached Paikra, telling him how his brother could be released. All he had to do was to accede to the demand of Salva Judum leader Budhram Rana that a news report published by him on September 8 in Hindsatt, a local daily, was false. Kamlesh refused. The report had said that in Mankeli and surrounding villages, Salva Judum mobs had destroyed 50 houses of those who had not been attending their meetings. The report had resulted in a visit by a team of the Communist Party of India. Salva Judum members restricted Paikra’s entry into camps of the displaced and prevented him from accompanying a team of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a human rights groups.

Kamlesh Paikra, 29, had been freelancing for local newspapers in Dantewada district, where Bijapur is a small town. He was one of the few adivasi journalists in a district where two-thirds of the population is tribal. Adivasis live by the forest: they collect flowers, tendu leaves, tamarind, saal seeds and bamboo. Then the government mandated that the adivasis could sell some items only to the government, which would then sell them to private buyers.

While the initial rate for tendu leaves was fixed at Rs 10 a bundle, the government was pressured into raising it to Rs 45 a bundle. The demand for raising the prices of tendu leaves and bamboo was just one issue exploited by a new group that began gaining ground in Dantewada. They demanded a separate state, Bastar, and called themselves Naxalvaadi. The Naxalites are now under the banner of the CPI (Maoist) and popularly known as “andar waley”.

The State exploits you, said the Naxalites, and wanted all signs of the State removed from the villages, so as to create their own parallel establishment. Kamlesh Paikra saw his land erupt with violence and reported it. Local villagers would tell him about Naxalite meetings and the decisions taken there, and Naxalite leaders would give him interviews discussing their strategy. The Bijapur sp, DL Manhar, asked him in April 2005 who his sources were.

Can’t reveal, said Paikra. I’ll find out on my own, the sp allegedly replied. After a tape was circulated in which Manhar was allegedly recorded ordering his subordinates to kill journalists, he was transferred, ironically, to the state human rights commission.

The Naxalites had become a law unto themselves, and rebellion from amongst the adivasis was inevitable. In January 2005, some adivasis in Bhairamgarh were found roaming around with bows and arrows, their traditional weapons, and living in a police station. Such instances became more frequent over the next few months, and the official version was that a popular uprising against the Naxals had taken place in Dantewada in June 2005, and that these people called themselves the Salva Judum, ‘Peace Initiative’.

But Paikra said he had never heard the term or news of large-scale mobilisation till September. Rather than a popular uprising, it is, he says, a Chhattisgarh government initiative. The inability to check Naxalism now had a simple solution: pitting adivasi against adivasi.

Reporting the truth about Naxalites had never earned Paikra any love from them: they called him reactionary and asked Naxalite leaders not to speak to him. There were threats against him. Fearing for his life, he shifted to Bijapur from his village in Cherpal. Things began to look up for him: he was granted a licence to run a pds shop. But Paikra also continued his journalism. When he saw Salva Judum take to violence against those who wouldn’t join them, it was for him as newsworthy as the Naxalites taking to violence against those who wouldn’t join their ranks. His Hindsatt report embarrassed Salva Judum leaders and police. The arrest of Kamlesh’s brother was only the beginning of his nightmare.

After back-breaking efforts to get Tarkeshwar Singh out on bail materialised 15 days later, Kamlesh found his pds licence cancelled without reason and Hindsatt disowning him as their reporter. “My only fault,” he says, “is that I thought of the well-being of the people I lived amidst, the land my father tilled on.”

This was just a year after the Naxalites had forced him to shift out to Bijapur. “Encounter hone wala hain, bhaag ja,” a well-wisher informed him in the middle of a December night. Kamlesh hid himself in friends’ houses for some days and shifted to Dantewada city along with his parents, his pregnant wife, two sisters and two brothers. But Tarkeshwar, the eldest sibling, is still in Bijapur, suspended from his teaching job but attached to a government education office at a lesser salary. In Dantewada, Kamlesh was unemployed. “I would have died of hunger had I not been helped by some good folks in Delhi,” he says.

His requests to the state human rights commission, Governor Lt Gen KM Seth and Chief Minister Raman Singh have not elicited any reply. Even as opposition to the Salva Judum has grown, the state government continues to support the militia, who have the status of special police officers. Kamlesh says Dantewada alone has camps with around 50,000 Salva Judum members. All their needs are met by the government. “Those who couldn’t afford a bicycle now maintain motorcycles. Where’s the money coming from?” And that’s part of the reason why, he says, the Salva Judum is not going to be shut down.

Not that it has proved to be of any use against the Naxals, he says. Naxal activities have only grown, deriving greater legitimacy from the existence of Salva Judum. Anyone who goes back to his village from the Salva Judum camp never returns. As the killings continue, Dantewada saw a 50,000-strong rally on November 14 demanding an end to Salva Judum. “The so-called anti-Naxal Salva Judum has become a tool for vested business and political interests,” he says. “In any case Salva Judum could have been successful only if it had come from the people rather than the State.”

The Salva Judum has disrupted life in Dantewada. Villagers are angry that the turmoil has even stopped the celebration of local festivals such as Padum and Nawa Khani, which revolve around forests and agriculture. All the fight has been over water and land, and Kamlesh doesn’t see how it can be resolved by putting adivasis in militia camps. And the land they leave behind is taken over by the Naxals.

It seems unlikely to Paikra that the Chhattisgarh government is going to admit that Salva Judum was a mistake and withdraw it, for even the opposition supports Salva Judum. Kamlesh fears the violence is going to get worse, and it’s already a civil war. As for himself, he doesn’t know where he will go or how he will feed his family, if he lives at all. Thanks to news about him being put out by the Chhattisgarh Net website, international press freedom groups have joined the Chhattisgarh Shramjivi Patrakar Sangh in demanding that the Chhattisgarh government provide him security so that he can return to Bijapur and live a normal life. “Even if I can’t get back to journalism or have my pds shop restored, I can always take to farming. That is what my father did for 30 years,” says the 29-year-old graduate in political science, sociology and Hindi.


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