Truth has two versions in Bastar

Did villagers seek police help against Maoists or did they visit the police station to secure the release of villagers wrongly accused by police of being Maoists?
ARITRA BHATTACHARYA reports on the propaganda war in Bastar and Santosh Yadav’s arrest

The Maoist memorials at the periphery of the Badrimahu village, near its entrance. Security forces across Bastar routinely demolish these memorials. That these are still standing speaks volumes about their lack of 'domination' in this area.

 

Listen to the villagers of Badrimahu and they say they visited Darbha police station in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh on 29 September to ‘secure the release of five villagers’ who had been picked up by the police on charges of being Maoists over the last three to four months.

Read the newspapers in Jagdalpur, the district headquarters, on 30 September, however, and it seems the entire Badrimahu village turned up at the Darbha police station ‘seeking protection against the Maoists’.  This is one such report.

Newspapers also printed photographs of villagers at the police station with officials. Villagers had reached out to the police, and there, in the photograph, was proof of the villagers’ faith in the otherwise feared and hated police machinery in these parts.

“That’s certainly not how it was,” says Narayan*, one of the residents of Badrimahu. Instead, he says, it was police officials who were trying to reach out to the villagers. “’Don’t run away when you see us...We will not cause you any harm...We will not chase you away either,’ the officials were all telling us during their bhashan (speech),” says the young man who is in his mid-20s.

29 September, for the record, was when the Darbha police station in Bastar was engaging in a civic action programme, as this report in The Hindu pointed out. ‘We never asked police for protection’, villagers told the journalist of that day’s event.

29 September was also, incidentally, the day when journalist Santosh Yadav was forcibly picked by Chhattisgarh police from his house. In more ways than one, Yadav’s story is closely linked with that of Badrimahu and its people.  

Village under siege

From Darbha police station to Badrimahu is an ardous journey through the forest. There’s a narrow motorable road that goes till Kakkalgur, located 5 km off the main road. From there to Badrimahu is a 10 km rocky track. The alternative way through the forest is shorter, at 4-5 km long. “It takes about 40-45 minutes but we hardly go there these days,” says a Kakkalgur resident. “The security forces have been in Badrimahu regularly. If they find us in the forest while on patrols, they threaten us: ‘If you see the people from Badrimahu, tell them we’ll pick all of them up...We’ll teach them a lesson. Don’t maintain any ties with them and don’t even think of visiting the village...Tell them we’ll wipe off their village’.”

Badrimahu is a ‘new’ village. Its first residents moved into the area in the 1980s; the last of the people came in 2000. In all, say villagers, there are 130 households, all tribals from the Gond community. Since the early years, its people have been enterprising: It was here, in 1989, that possibly the only Gondi language school in Bastar began. The school was run by local villagers, some of whom also doubled up as teachers. It was funded and overseen by the Adivasi Harijan Kalyan Samiti.

“A couple of villagers who had studied up till class 8 in formal schools were teaching there. The fact that instruction was in their language and about their surroundings ensured the students were engrossed,” says Arjun Nag, one of the forces behind the Samiti. Two years later, as funds ran out, the school closed down.

It was also in the 1990s that Maoists, ‘dadalog’ in local parlance, started frequenting the village. Like most villages in the forest, there was support for the ‘movement’ in Badrimahu. The harassment started when security forces started visiting the village with regularity.

“This was sometime around 2005,” say residents at the village square. “They first started coming here in 2002-03. But after 2005, they started coming here regularly, each time accompanied by local police. Nowadays, their patrol parties have surrendered Maoists; you can recognise them from their black masks.”

The chorus of voices narrates everyday tales of verbal and physical abuse, detentions for days on end, torture and dire threats. “Patrols have been coming every 2-3 days of late.

They enter our homes, misbehave with our women and throw things around...They break our things, kill poultry animals, take away all our liqour forcibly and make merry. But not before abusing us, beating us to pulp saying ‘you need to learn your lessons’.”

“That’s why we flee into the forest whenever we get news of their arrival. ‘But even then, we are not safe. They are particularly vicious when they find us in the forest,” a villager says, lifting his shirt to expose multiple blood clots on his back from a recent beating in the forest.

Villagers in Kakkalgur, 10 km in the direction of the main road, don’t complain of such severe and daily harassment. Kakkalgur residents, in fact, say the forces don’t enter the village most of the times. Maoists used to frequent Kakkalgur too, they say. “But they stopped after 2009, when the nearby police camp came up,” says a young man. “When the camp came up, we appealed to them not to hold meetings here. They suggested we hold meetings during the day instead of the night, but the villagers didn’t want to take a chance given the proximity of the camp. There were no meetings in the village after that.”

Now meetings do not happen in Badrimahu either, say residents. “But this is the last village the forces visit frequently. Kholeng is another 10 km inside the forest, but they go there rarely, especially during the weekly haat,” says a woman resident.

Badrimahu residents reckon the forces single them out because there’s no one from the village in the police or among the SPOs. This is an observation people in two other similar border villages made to me. Their statements taken together, as such, lay out in explicit terms how security forces are seen as operating in the area by the people. This is also a key factor, among other things, in the illegal detention and arrest of Santosh Yadav.

A messenger, a medium

Given the ‘targeting’, Badrimahu residents have stopped going to the Kholeng weekly market. ‘Security forces have threatened us not to visit the marklet inside’, they say. On the last occasion when they went there, they were beaten up with shepherd’s sticks.

“We go to the Darbha weekly market now,” says a woman who had been listening in to the conversation. The village has seen 10 arrests of ‘Maoists’ over the last year or so; villagers say all of them were civilians.

Santosh Yadav was one of the few local journalists who had visited Badrimahu and knew its people. He was also, crucially, the person who helped the villagers get in touch with Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Jag-LAG. They had heard of these lawyers who offer legal aid to tribals pro bono to relatives in jail.

Yadav had made the connection possible; in effect, he had facilitated a counter to the police story about Badrimahu’s residents. In any case, he had been under tremendous pressure from the police for the last two years. As the HRDA note mentions, ‘he had often been arbitrarily asked to report to police stations; in June 2015, the police took him to Darbha police station and stripped him’.

"On 29 September, according to eyewitnesses at Darbha police station, Yadav had an altercation with none other than IG Kalluri. “You’re just a stringer and stringers are not journalists,” Yadav was reportedly told by the senior official."

The invitation for the 29 September programme reached Badrimahu on 23 September. As villagers were travelling to the weekly market in Darbha in a mini-door truck, a patrol party stopped them near Kakkalgur. “We will release five people from your village whom we had arrested if you come to the police station on 29 September,” they were told.

The matter was discussed at a village meeting, since all the residents had been called. As such, they saw no harm in visiting the police station ‘especially since it involved the release of innocent people’.

A pandal and official paraphernalia greeted them at the police station after the long walk from the village that morning. There were official speeches in which the police asked them not to run away, and assured them that they meant no harm. Each villager was presented with an umbrella, a gamchha (towel), a sari/ lungi; the event, the first of its kind involving Badrimahu was adequately photographed. A vehicle arranged by the police dropped them back to the village, demonstrating amply how much the cops cared.

Before they left, the villagers asked Yadav to talk to the SHO Durgesh Sharma regarding the promised release of five arrested villagers. He was scolded and threatened by the SHO.

Later that same day, Yadav was picked up by the Darbha police from his house forcibly. The next day’s local papers carried news of Badrimahu seeking police protection. The counter narrative had been removed.

*Name changed or withheld to protect identity.

(The author is Principal Correspondent with The Statesman and a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He can be reached at aritra.bhattacharya@gmail.com via e-mail and @b_aritra on Twitter).

 

The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring. Your support is vital for this website. Click here to make a contribution.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More