There is another side to the Sukma killings

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Media Practice | 05/05/2017
Without explaining the context, reports on the killing of CRPF jawans in Bastar make little sense except as easy hate-mongering.

Jyoti  Punwani


``In our villages we come,

we will go with our axes,

big feet police, we will jump in Delhi,

with bows and arrows, we will jump in Delhi,

with these arrows, we will kill the police,

loot the government,

we will snatch weapons and bring them."


This is an Adivasi song from Bastar quoted by freelance journalist Javed Iqbal, writing for the Sunday Guardian on June 15, 2013. Three weeks earlier, Maoists had killed Congress leader Mahendra Karma, founder of the anti-Maoist vigilante movement Salwa Judum. Karma and 27 of his Congress colleagues were killed after addressing an election rally in Sukma, the site of the latest killing of 25 CRPF jawans. The headlines at the time described how Karma was stabbed 78 times and how his killers danced round his body.

In an article titled `Death is Bastar’s Muse’, Iqbal, who has regularly reported from Bastar on the Adivasi-State conflict there, wrote: ``Karma was stabbed 78 times. In 2006, in Matwada village of Bijapur, SPOs smashed stones into the eye sockets of three Adivasi men. In 2004, Oonga Madkam of Kottacheru village, a friend of many of the leaders of the yet to be formed Salwa Judum, was shot dead on the road between Konta and Cherla, and the Maoists smashed his head, already void of life, with a small boulder. In 2012, the CRPF would be accused of setting Pudiyam Mada's genitals on fire in the Sukma police station.’’

These juxtapositions of violence made by Iqbal were not a justification of Karma’s killing, but were necessary to put his killing in perspective. The Salwa Judum founded by Karma, and now sought to be revived by his son, was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011 after Justices B. Sudershan Reddy and S.S. Nijjar concluded, on the basis of evidence presented to them, that the situation in Bastar reminded them of Joseph Conrad’s novel `The Heart of Darkness’, which was about the European-dominated ivory trade in the Congo between 1890 and 1910. The novel’s protagonist dies with the words: ``The horror, the horror!”

The judges feared that the Chhattisgarh government’s Salwa Judum would force them to exclaim the same. Iqbal admitted in his article that the song didn’t make for pleasant listening. Yet, he felt it had to be presented to the readers, to explain the state of affairs in Bastar.

The graphic scenes of grief and mourning depicted on our TV screens in the days following the killing of CRPF jawans on April 24 also had to be presented. The recounting of every jawan’s story in the papers was necessary too: the father who would have retired in a few weeks; the husband who was already ill but had been refused leave… this was classic human interest reporting. 

"But where was the perspective in all this? Sukma is not some undiscovered remote area making news for the first time."

But where was the perspective in all this? Sukma is not some undiscovered remote area making news for the first time. It has been the site of major killings of CRPF jawans by Maoists since 2010, when 75 CRPF jawans were killed. It was also home to the largest Salwa Judum camps, just as it was the arena where the UPA government’s Operation Greenhunt played out starting from late 2009. It was Sukma’s Collector who was abducted by the Maoists in 2012, with one demand being an end to Greenhunt.

Sukma is infamous for other reasons too. Probably because it was home to the Salwa Judum, Sukma has a history of driving out outsiders who have tried to investigate the brutal goings on which are routine there. Be it social activists Swami Agnivesh or Medha Patkar, anthropologist Nandini Sundar or historian Ramchandra Guha – every one of them has been threatened, if not attacked by police and vigilantes. Gandhian Himanshu Kumar who set up an ashram near Sukma had to flee overnight in 2009 after his ashram was razed as a result of his efforts to get justice for Adivasis.

But it’s been rare for TV viewers or readers of the English press to get a glimpse of the grief and mourning that has become the lot of Sukma’s Adivasis since 2005 when the Salwa Judum was started. Given the number of officially reported rapes, mutilations, killings and the forcible displacement, sometimes by burning, of more than 400 villages, Bastar should have been a hotspot for reporters.

Far from being punished, these rape accused got government jobs as Special Police Officers and constables, and their statues were put up by the police. At least half as much attention should have been paid to the Adivasis whose daughters were raped and sons killed by security forces, as was paid to the families of the CRPF jawans this time.

"It’s been rare for TV viewers or readers of the English press to get a glimpse of the grief and mourning that has become the lot of Sukma’s Adivasis"

But Bastar never became such a hotspot. The remoteness of the jungles and the class and social profile of the victims are two reasons that come to mind immediately. Do most national English newspapers have correspondents there?  A few names remain in the mind for their steady reporting from the area when Salwa Judum and Operation Greenhunt were at their peak: Aman Sethi and Suvojit Bagchi of The Hindu; Supriya Sharma of The Times of India; Tusha Mittal of Tehelka. Freelancers Javed Iqbal, and Freny Manecksha on their own decided to risk travelling all the way to the jungles to report from what they knew would be hostile and even dangerous terrain. Chitrangada Choudhury says she could travel to Bastar as a Hindustan Times staffer between 2006-2009 thanks to a couple of sensitive editors, but has done freelance reporting from there since.

Today, things are not much different. Freelancers Choudhury and Freny Manecksha continue to report on Bastar. The Hindu continues to have a reporter stationed in the region - Pawan Dahat whose reports, sometimes as brief as three paragraphs, invariably quote both sides, the Adivasi and the police and sometimes the Maoists too. (The Hindu carried the Maoists’ statement on the recent CRPF killings in full.) This time, he was the only one to report on the fears of the villagers near the spot of the jawans’ killings.

A welcome addition is the Indian Express’ Ashutosh Bhardwaj. The most perceptive and sensitive piece on the latest killings was Bhardwaj’s `Staring down the barrel in Sukma’ (April 28)

As far as TV channels go, only NDTV has been sending reporters to the site, and not just when security forces are killed.  But remoteness and the social profile of the population cannot explain the lack of coverage of a conflict that is as important as the Kashmir conflict. But Kashmir is an international issue, so whether the State likes it or not, it’s going to be in the news. Not so Bastar, where the State definitely wants a news blackout - until security forces get killed and spokespersons of the State can demand harsher measures knowing most editors and anchors will support them.

An analysis in The Hoot  June 8, 2013 by Aritra Bhattacharya, of the way the media reported the Mahendra Karma killing, found that most anchors and editors were rooting for the Maoists to be crushed. At that time too, Bhardwaj’s reports were cited as having stood out.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that media coverage of the latest killings of CRPF jawans ran the familiar course, except that this time, on some news channels, human right activists and JNU student leaders were also the target. Except for an opinion piece by Harinder Baweja in the Hindustan Times on April 28 , and Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s piece mentioned above, there was little to explain the repeated targeting of the CRPF in Sukma. The CPI’s Manish Kunjam has for years headed the Adivasi Mahasabha in Sukma. He could have been at least interviewed on the phone, especially since Mahendra Karma’s son was interviewed by more than one paper.

NDTV did call two intellectuals known to oppose the State’s policy on dealing with Maoists: E. M. Rammohan, former DG, BSF and author of `Maoist Insurgency and India's Internal Security’, and Professor Nandini Sundar of Delhi University whose focus of study has been Bastar’s Adivasis and who is the first petitioner in the Supreme Court case against Salwa Judum. But both emerged as lone voices in two panels dominated by BJP and security spokesmen. In one of the panels, the anchor kept wanting a ``free hand’’ for the forces, as if they have been acting under restraint until now!

"In one of the panels, the anchor kept wanting a `free hand' for the forces, as if they have been acting under restraint until now!"

If in 2013, the multiple stabbing of Mahendra Karma’s body made headlines, this time, the media reported that the jawans’ private parts had been mutilated. An official denial ensued, with an official explaining on TV that sometimes shrapnel piercing the body may give an impression of a cut having been executed. But the damage was done.

That report apparently emerged from the rescue team that reached the site, and in the Hindustan Times, both the DIG of Dantewada as well as a senior COBRA (a CRPF special battalion) official were quoted on it. The HT report claimed to have a picture of a jawan whose private parts had been mutilated. One suspects the official denial was promptly issued because the truth would have been out once the bodies reached home.

This time the media’s stand is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, over the last one year, there has been more reporting from Bastar, especially on the second round of evictions of ``trouble makers’’ that took place last year. Secondly, journalists in Bastar have themselves been protesting against police harassment. Two of them - Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag - were arrested and imprisoned under the draconian Chhattisgarh Public Security act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for ``supporting Maoists’’. 

To be fair to the media, it must be pointed out that Bastar is the most militarised region in the country today. It is not easy for any journalist to report from there. In a region where judges attend meetings called by the police (as recounted to this reporter by Sukma’s former Chief Judicial Magistrate Prabhakar Gwal, who was dismissed last year), reporters are small fry. To add to this, most local newspaper proprietors support the police.

Despite all this, a few local journalists have tried to report, at risk to their lives. Santosh Yadav, who was recently released from jail, even helped in the legal defence of innocent Adivasis – and paid for it. Since 2011, four journalists have been killed, at least one of them, Sai Reddy, by Maoists.

But would the police intimidate reporters of national media houses? If that were so, how would the reporters of The Hindu, Indian Express, and The Times of India mentioned above, have managed to file regular reports which were by no means pro-police? So, is it that reporters are unwilling to be posted there, or is it editors who don’t care to post them in Bastar? Or is it the proprietors who don’t want impartial coverage of a region where big business is waiting to make a killing, once the Maoists are decimated by the security forces?

Interestingly, apart from Bhardwaj and Dahat, some of the most detailed reports to emerge from Bastar of late have been from non-journalists. Malini Subramaniam, a social researcher who has worked with UNICEF and Oxfam in the region,  and Nandini Sundar, who has been writing regularly on Bastar for  news websites and The Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ scholar Bela Bhatia wrote a long report for Outlook.

But these writers are vulnerable in a way reporters from national newspapers may not be. Subramaniam was forced to leave by vigilante groups last year. The police have filed a case of murder against Sundar and Bhatia has faced threats.

The Maoist statement on the killing of 24 CRPF jawans said: “These attacks should be seen as retaliation against the sexual atrocities that are being committed by the security forces against the tribal women and girls in the conflict zone.’’

Journalists need not agree with this defence, but it is their job to contextualise the attacks. Incidentally, these incidents of sexual violence have been reported both on NDTV and in the mainstream English press. 


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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